It's a common scenario: It’s midafternoon and you’re in a slump, with no motivation to press on with your work. At that point—or any point, you feel tired—a good question to ask yourself is: Am I sleepy or fatigued?
We often use those words interchangeably, but physiologically speaking, they describe different conditions. And figuring out which condition is at play is key to choosing the right remedy—and preventing it in the future. This is a big deal because frequently being either sleepy or fatigued can signal that you may be at increased risk for serious health conditions, including stroke,1 heart disease,2 depression,3 obesity,4 diabetes5 and more.
So what’s the difference?
Sleepiness (a.k.a. drowsiness), as the word implies, is a strong desire to fall asleep. Symptoms may include heavy eyelids or head, yawning, slow reaction times, mood swings, and difficulty paying attention. Usually, the longer you’re awake, the stronger the feeling becomes. It often intensifies when you sit down or after you’ve eaten a meal (hence the post-lunch crash). The telltale sign that you’re sleepy versus fatigued is that getting good sleep relieves your symptoms.
Fatigue, on the other hand, lingers even after a nap or a good night of sleep. Signs of fatigue (also called exhaustion or weariness) can include a persistent lack of energy, heavy limbs, headaches, and body aches, brain fog, stress, low motivation, and—ironically—an inability to sleep.
Both sleepiness and fatigue, if experienced frequently, can signal an underlying problem that can lead to bigger, possibly life-threatening, issues down the road. But unless you and your doctor identify which one you’re feeling, it’s hard to land on the right solution.
Fixing your sleepiness
If you’re frequently sleepy, the answer might be as simple as consistently carving out more time to sleep, whether by going to bed earlier or finding a way to nap during the day.
But if your problem is that you’re unable to fall asleep, you wake up frequently or your sleep isn’t restful, you’ll probably need to do a bit of troubleshooting to find a solution. Try one of these simple sleep-enhancing tactics:
- Stick to consistent bedtimes and waking times, even on your days off. If you’re usually not sleepy at bedtime, move your bedtime a little later so that you’re tired when you lie down. It might seem counterintuitive, but it can combat the anxiety of lying in bed awake and lead to more restful sleep.
- Shut electronics off at least an hour before bedtime.
- Establish a calming bedtime routine—say, drink chamomile tea, take a bath and read a chapter of a book—that helps you get sleepy.
- Ensure that your room is dark by using blackout curtains and eliminating other light sources; use earplugs or a white-noise machine to diminish sounds.
- Drink plenty of fluids earlier in the day, so you can minimize them in the hours before bed. And avoid caffeine, especially after noon.
If you’re still not getting quality sleep, you might suffer from a sleep disorder. Schedule an appointment with your doctor for help in diagnosing and fixing the problem. Going undiagnosed puts you at further risk of developing a chronic disease.
Fixing your fatigue
With chronic tiredness that sleep doesn’t relieve, your first step should be a visit to your doctor, because fatigue can likely be an indication of a deeper problem. Common culprits are hormone imbalances (especially thyroid issues); nutrition deficiencies, such as low iron or vitamin B levels; diabetes; chronic stress; and viral illnesses. A doctor can help you identify the problem—as well as a solution.
Whether you’re continually wanting to nod off during the day or frequently exhausted, take steps to identify what type of tired you are and then move forward on a solution. Being proactive now may save you from a host of health problems in the future.
- “Skimping On Sleep May Increase Stroke Risk,” Oruen, accessed November 2020.
- “How Are Heart Failure and Sleep Related?” WebMD, accessed November 2020.
- “Depression and Sleep,” by Rob Newsom, National Sleep Foundation, updated September 2020.
- “Lack of sleep is linked to obesity, new evidence shows,” Science Daily, April 2012.
- “New study helps explain links between sleep loss and diabetes,” University of Chicago Medicine, February 2015.