I spent years being utterly exhausted, surviving on caffeine and catnaps. I made a lot of assumptions about why I was tired:

  • I was stressed. Running my own business, going through a divorce, and having medically complex children equals stress. No wonder I'm tired!
  • I was fat. I'm not quite sure why I thought this was a cause for exhaustion, but being overweight seems often to be the stated cause of any health problem.
  • I take an SSRI for depression, which can cause tiredness.

So, I just powered through. No point in complaining about what can't be fixed, right?

Finally, on a routine physical exam, I told my doctor how tired I was. While he agreed that my stress level was high, he wanted to check my fatigue out more thoroughly and sent me to a sleep clinic.

After being wired up and sleeping in a hospital bed for a night, I learned the actual cause of my exhaustion: sleep apnea. Sleep apnea is when you stop breathing for a short period during sleep. Most of us do this--in fact, normal is up to four times per hour. I averaged 23.

So, the pulmonologist prescribed a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine, which you place over your mouth and nose (or sometimes just nose), that blows air into your face all night while you sleep. It's not as annoying as it sounds.

The CPAP machine prevents apneic episodes--or at least reduces them--by keeping air passages open so you don't stop breathing. I'm still averaging around five apneic episodes per hour, but that's a huge decrease over the 23 I had a year ago.

The result? I need a lot less sleep and a lot less caffeine to function. If you're exhausted, here are some things to sleep on.

Being tired isn’t a sign of moral character

You work hard, your business is stressful, and you want to be there for your family, too! Of course you're tired! But being tired doesn't make you better. It can make you far worse. Lack of quality sleep can lead to:

  • Memory problems
  • Weight gain
  • Risk of heart disease
  • Trouble with thinking and concentration

And many other things. Is your business at its best when you have trouble thinking and memory problems? Of course not.

If you're getting enough hours in bed but are still tired, it's time to check with your doctor. If you're not getting enough hours in bed, try increasing that.

Do you have sleep apnea?

A news article can't diagnose your condition, but keep these sleep apnea facts in mind:

  • Overall, 3 to 7 percent of men and 2 to 5 percent of women have sleep apnea
  • That number increases to 17 percent of men and 9 percent of women in the 50- to 70-year-old range
  • Obesity is associated with apnea in 60 percent of cases
  • Eighty-three percent of people with Type 2 diabetes suffer from undiagnosed sleep apnea

The Mayo Clinic says that if you have these symptoms, a visit to your doctor should be in order:

  • Loud snoring
  • Episodes in which you stop breathing during sleep -- which would be reported by another person
  • Gasping for air during sleep
  • Awakening with a dry mouth
  • Morning headache
  • Difficulty staying asleep (insomnia)
  • Excessive daytime sleepiness (hypersomnia)
  • Difficulty paying attention while awake
  • Irritability

Your business needs you

Like many business owners, I'm used to being responsible for everything in my business, so I was determined to solve my own health problems, too. I planned to lose weight and see if I was still tired! Dumb.

What I did instead of powering through was reduce my productivity. Getting treated allowed me to work more and spend more time with my family, and all that time was more productive.

You need to be willing to accept help. When I asked the pulmonologist if my apnea was because of my weight, he shrugged and said it didn't matter: I needed treatment now. Sure, it could get better if I lose weight, but it is foolish to put off medical treatment on the idea that someday, I'll lose weight.

Sleep studies can be costly, but your insurance may cover them. (Mine covered it at 100 percent, but admittedly, I live in Switzerland.) Even if your insurance doesn't cover it, if you can be well rested and have a clearer brain, it will benefit you and your business to spend the money to find out if you have a sleep disorder that modern medicine can treat.

Being well-rested can help you succeed in all areas of your life. Don't let your tiredness stop you.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.

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