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Why Do I Always Feel So Lethargic? Expert Reveals Causes And Treatment

Newsweek Wellness & Fitness | Soo Kim | 1/2/2023

Feeling like you're constantly tired and sluggish? A lack of energy is a key symptom of lethargy and you're certainly not alone in the feeling.

Around three out of five Americans say they feel more tired now than ever due to the additional time spent at home during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a survey of 2,000 U.S. adults conducted by OnePoll, as reported in January 2022 by the Safety+Health magazine of the National Safety Council.

Just over half of those surveyed (55 percent) said no amount of rest helps them feel focused, while around the same portion (56 percent) said poor sleep schedules have led to low energy levels, the survey found.

Often referred to as fatigue, being lethargic entails a lack of mental or physical energy and common symptoms include "feeling low energy, tired, sluggish and weak," Dr. Karla Robinson, a licensed, board-certified family physician who is the medical editor at GoodRx, the health care company, told Newsweek.

Dr. Soumi Eachempati, the founder and CEO of CLEARED4, a health verification platform, told Newsweek that lethargy is a medical term for "feeling or appearing to be without a normal level of energy and responsiveness" and it can cause a depressed mood or an inability to concentrate and think.

"Generally, lethargy is not instantly correctable with something simple, like a drink of water, or a sugar bolus, like a piece of candy," said Eachempati.

Causes of Lethargy

Most Common Causes

Below are some common reasons for feeling lethargic, as told to Newsweek by Robinson, Eachempati and Tamara Teragawa, a 500-hour RYT (Registered Yoga Teacher) and instructor for YogaSix.

  • Lack of sleep and other sleep disturbances

  • Poor diet

  • Reaction to stress

  • Having an active viral, bacterial or fungal illness, like the flu, COVID or a stomach virus

  • Heat exhaustion

  • Spending an extensive amount of time in the sun

  • Low blood sugar

  • Dehydration

  • A lack of exercise/physical activity

  • Injury/injuries

  • Strenuous physical activity/overexertion

  • Medications

  • Drug or alcohol use

More Serious, Long-Term Causes

Eachempati said: "Generally, the longer one feels lethargic, the more likely it relates to a chronic condition or illness. The longer one feels lethargic, the more it should be taken seriously."

Some of the more extreme cases of lethargy can be linked to an underlying condition, such as the following, as outlined by Robinson and Eachempati.

  • Cancer

  • Autoimmune disorders

  • Chronic fatigue syndrome

  • Kidney or liver issues

  • Heart or lung conditions

  • Long COVID

  • Hypothyroidism and other thyroid or pituitary disorders

  • Anemia

  • Malnutrition

  • Depression

  • Anxiety

Is Lethargy the Same As Chronic Fatigue?

Lethargy is not the same as myalgic encephalomyelitis or chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS), "which is a serious illness that afflicts people for multiple months," said Eachempati.

However, lethargy is a common symptom of CFS, said Robinson. "The fatigue you experience with CFS is often debilitating and daily tasks become challenging to accomplish, even after taking time to rest."

Those experiencing CFS may also present various other symptoms, such as muscle weakness, headaches, shortness of breath, swollen lymph nodes, and recurring sore throats, the family physician said.

While CFS affects over 2.5 million people, the condition and its causes are not widely understood, Robinson said. Recent theories have linked it to one or a combination of factors including but not limited to past infections, abnormal responses to stress, genetics, and immune system dysfunction.

Eachempati said: "The etiology of ME/CFS is unknown but theorized to be from a number of triggers including viral or stress-induced causes. People with this illness are often debilitated and can be bedridden for weeks to months. The hallmark of this illness is that any exercise can make the disease worse."

How To Feel Less Lethargic

Many cases of lethargy can be alleviated by incorporating a healthier lifestyle and daily routine, including getting enough sleep, staying hydrated as well as following a good diet and consistent exercise regimen, the doctors and Teragawa advised.

The yoga instructor noted: "One of the main ways is to establish a consistent and healthy sleep pattern. Not only is getting enough sleep every night important, but making sure to not oversleep can be helpful as well."

She also advises against drinking highly caffeinated drinks, as well as food and drinks that are high in sugar "to avoid an energy crash," she said.

Eachempati said: "For any cause of lethargy, the best treatment depends on the cause." For example, dehydration or low blood sugar will require hydration or some sugar intake.

However, "any persistent lethargy should be discussed with a physician who may need to provide a full examination and blood work to help find a solution."

Robinson also recommends working with your healthcare provider to "determine why you're feeling fatigued," by reviewing your medical history and running tests, so they can advise on the best treatments or medications.

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