Side Effects of Exhaustion
[Listen to an audio version of this blog here.]
Lately I've been tired. Like, really fucking tired. I've been napping in the afternoons and clocking 8 hour nights. I'm not sure why I'm so tired, but here we are.
Holly Phillips, MD, author of The Exhaustion Breakthrough writes that "fatigue is not necessarily one of the main signs of sleep deprivation. Getting used to it doesn't mean that's all [the sleep] you need. It means you forget what it feels like to have good sleep." Well that doesn't sound good. You might not know how tired you are because you're always tired. Similarly, you might not know how unhealthy you are because you've always felt the way you currently feel, or you might not know how unhappy you area because you've always kind of just been okay.
Anyway, here are a few ways your body might be telling you it needs a break:
1. Your emotions are all over the place.
When people get very hungry, they often refer to themselves as "hangry." You might have the same, highly irritable attitude if you're exhausted. That, or you might find yourself on the brink of tears, overly anxious, or depressed. Sleep deprivation can cause increased impatience because of a part of our brain that deals with instinctive and primal emotions: the limbic system. Within the limbic system is the amygdala, which is responsible for our "fight or flight" response. When we're sleep deprived, the amygdala is on high alert, causing us to feel highly provoked very easily.
2. You're finding it hard to focus or you're extra forgetful.
If you were a dedicated scholar like yours truly, you may have fallen asleep at your desk or stayed up late to cram study for a big test. Staying up late isn't very useful though, because a lack of sleep will negatively impact your ability to retain knowledge. Not only will you likely forget things you would have otherwise remembered, but your wit won't be as sharp, you won't be as creative, you'll be less fun to be around, and you might forget important dates like birthdays or important deadlines or meetings. Many of our memories are transferred from short-to-long-term during sleep, so if you're exhausted, things that should be second nature may be slipping your mind.
3. You're constantly fighting a cold.
Low immunity can cause a host of health problems and one of the best ways to lower your immunity is to neglect bedtime. A weakened immune system will make it harder for your body to fight infections or illnesses. If you've been getting sick often and it's not COVID, you could just be exhausted. Common infections (like yeast infections) can become recurring issues if your immune system is compromised as well.
4. You are either indecisive or impulsive.
Our brains don't work well when we're tired, and you'll probably find it difficult to focus. But other, less obvious signs of sleep deprivation are an inability to make seemingly simple decisions or a reckless level of impulsivity. Sleep deprivation can affect speed and higher-level cognitive processing so managing your time and efficiency could become a lot harder. Conversely, if you find yourself making irrational or impulsive decisions when it's out of character for you to do so, you could simply be exhausted. Exhaustion lowers your inhibitions so you might start doing things like speeding through traffic or making hasty decisions at work.
5. You may be very hungry or lose your appetite altogether
When we're overly tired, our brains don't have the energy to deal with the demands of life. We can mask fatigue with things like sugary foods, alcohol, or caffeine, but we're not solving the problem, we're just covering it up. If you have a bad night of sleep you may find yourself craving rich, high-fat, or high-carbohydrate foods. This is because exhaustion increases cortisol (the stress hormone), which prompts us to find a serotonin hit, which most of us do by eating rich foods. On the other hand, your appetite might disappear altogether. Appetite loss and irritable bowel syndrome have both been linked to fatigue. Your digestive system takes a hit either way.
6. Your skin looks less than stellar
A 2013 study conducted at the University Hospital of Cleveland found a correlation between sleep deprivation and skin aging (wrinkles, dark spots, etc). Your skin may also be extra dry or pale, and you might notice you just look older. "Skin fatigue" is caused by a combination of factors, including lack of sleep, smoking, unhealthy diets, or stress. When under stress, you adrenal glands release cortisol which affects blood flow and damages the collagen in your skin. People with very stressful lives thereby "age" quicker than those who manage their stress well. If you look tired, you probably are.
If you're experiencing any of these symptoms, the best thing you can do is rest. If you're an athlete like me, maybe schedule a few rest days. If you're unduly stressed, try to take a step back from whatever is stressing you out. Sleep is one of our most important bodily functions, linked to positive health outcomes like lower body weight, better heart health, better athletic performance, better cognitive function, and better relationships. If you're having trouble sleeping, you may want to see your doctor.
P.S. To get better rest, try these melatonin gummies (2mg), this affordable white noise machine, these blackout eye masks, or read a soothing bedtime story. For some of the best skin care products on the market, check out Dr. Dennis Gross.