Are you sleepy or just tired?

7 mins read
Are you sleepy or just tired?

The irresistible urge to sleep often comes at the most inopportune times: On the way to work, after lunch, during sports.

But sleeping may not be the best remedy for all of these bouts of fatigue. This is because not every experience of fatigue is of the same nature. In some cases you may feel sleepy, while in others you may just be tired.

There are different underlying causes and body symptoms for both conditions. Abhinav Singh, MD, medical director of the Indiana Sleep Center, says it’s important to know the difference between the two because they’re handled in different ways.

“Being sleepy and tired are like hunger and thirst. Can they be close to each other? Of course,” he explains. “But just as hunger is quenched with food and thirst with water, they are quenched in different ways.

Experts say there are specific ways to deal with sleepiness and fatigue, but first you need to know which feeling you are experiencing.

The difference between being tired and being sleepy

Shelby Harris, a clinical psychologist specializing in behavioral sleep medicine, says sleepiness is characterized by lethargy and a strong desire to sleep. Symptoms include heavy eyelids, frequent yawning, sleepiness, blurred vision, incoordination, slow thinking and increased irritability, Harris says. Sleepiness is often caused by sleep deprivation for one reason or another, such as a lack of quality sleep.

On the other hand, Harris says fatigue or exhaustion is “a state of physical or mental exhaustion that comes with a lack of energy”. Fatigue can manifest as feeling heavy and exhausted in your body, but you also feel cognitively drained. Mental and emotional stress can make you tired. Physical exertion, medical conditions like anemia or diabetes, or recovering from an illness like the flu can also make you tired, says Beth Malow, director of the Vanderbilt Sleep Division at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.

The inevitable “cure” for sleepiness is sleep. In contrast, fatigue is not usually relieved by sleep. You may be tired after a hard workout, but if you sit for a few minutes afterward, you won’t fall asleep. “Physically, if you’re in a lot of pain, you’re tired,” says Malow. “When sleep comes, it’s more about your tendency to fall asleep anytime, anywhere.

Singh says it is possible to be both sleepy and tired. If you’re only getting five hours of sleep a night and you’re overextending yourself at work and socially, you may experience an exhausting mix of both feelings. Symptoms can include irritability, difficulty focusing, making mistakes at work and increased hunger. Singh says that if you find yourself canceling plans to rest and watching TV, only to fall asleep on the couch a few minutes later, it’s a sign that you’re both sleepy and tired.

How do you know if you are tired or just sleepy?

To determine whether you are tired or sleepy, you need to look at what makes you want to go to bed. Assess how you sleep when you wake up in the morning, says Singh: Did you get the recommended seven to nine hours of sleep, did you sleep uninterrupted, or did you toss and turn or wake up periodically?

Another way to determine whether you are sleepy is to use the Epworth Sleepiness Scale, Malow says. On this scale, you can rate how likely you are to doze off during activities such as watching television or being a passenger in a car. A score of 10 or higher indicates that you need more or better quality sleep.

Finding the underlying cause of fatigue is more difficult because there are so many factors that contribute to fatigue, from side effects of medication to a day of back-to-back meetings. “I firmly believe that people can feel tired from interacting with other people all day,” says Malow. In these situations, you may be tired but not ready for bed and just want some time alone.

For persistent bouts of fatigue, you may want to consult a health care professional to determine if you have thyroid disease, anemia, hormone imbalances or infections. “Fatigue is more of a medical condition,” says Malow: “Sleepiness is a sleep disorder.

What to do if you feel sleepy?

The simplest solution to sleepiness is to take a nap. “Try to take naps of 5 to 10 minutes if possible to recharge your batteries,” says Malow.

But many programs don’t allow mid-day naps. So Harris recommends physical activity such as stretching, light exercise or walking outdoors to help you wake up.

If there are factors affecting your sleep, for example, if you wake up frequently during the night or if you snore, Malow recommends contacting a sleep specialist who can help diagnose and treat sleep disorders.

What to do if you feel tired?

For irregular bouts of fatigue that are not affected by underlying health problems, Harris recommends taking regular breaks at work, school or between tasks; exposure to natural light (especially in the morning) and staying hydrated.

Try to lighten your mental load when your energy is depleted. “It feels really good to sit down and relax and do something to minimize your energy load,” says Malow. “Try putting your feet up for 30 minutes without interacting with other people.

If none of these options alleviate your fatigue and you suspect a health problem, Singh and Malow recommend seeking the help of a medical professional who can work with you to determine if you need a change in your diet, physical activity level, and so on.

“Everyone experiences fatigue and exhaustion in different ways: Some people may be more irritable and cranky, while others may be more lethargic or forgetful,” Singh says. “Not everyone feels it the same way, and the causes and treatment don’t always work the same.

Source: Vox,


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