Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS) is perhaps one of the most puzzling, misunderstood illnesses of our time. It is hard to diagnose as its symptoms mask those of a myriad of other diseases. Often insensitive people will think that those who suffer from the syndrome are just a little bit “off,” and “it is just in their head…” Sometimes those who have CFS will doubt the reality of the illness themselves. It is a confusing, complex condition. Let’s take a look and see what we can find out about Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. Perhaps we can learn enough to begin to solve the mystery.
What is Chronic Fatigue Syndrome?
Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS) is a progressive debilitating disease that causes extreme fatigue that lasts six months or more. This type of fatigue is often not alleviated by bed rest, and is brought on and/or made worse by any kind of physical or mental exertion. It is definitely different from the common tiredness a person might experience after a long stressful day or a sleepless night. CFS goes by many other names including: chronic fatigue and immune disorder syndrome (CFIDS), Epstein-Barr disease, post-viral fatigue syndrome, myalgic encephalomyelitis, and “yuppie flu.” People with symptoms similar to CFS are sometimes said to have fibromyalgia, and scientists now consider these two conditions to be overlapping.
In the 1980’s, significant outbreaks of CFS were observed, and many of these patients were found to have higher than normal levels of the anti-bodies associated with the Epstein-Barr virus (EBV), which causes mononucleosis. Other viral antibodies have also been discovered in CFS patients, and researchers believe that a combination of viruses may be responsible for the onset of CFS. There is some evidence that when a virus injures the body and compromises the immune system, this may set off a chain reaction whereby dormant viruses may become active. This is thought to cause an over-reaction from the immune system which produces flu-like symptoms, and is a common factor in many CFS subjects.
What Are the Symptoms of CFS?
Chronic fatigue syndrome manifests itself differently in every patient, but there are certain symptoms that seem to be most common. Some of these primary symptoms are as follows:
Fatigue, as the name indicates, is most common. But this fatigue is not resolved by a good night’s rest. This fatigue is very draining and ongoing, and it robs patients of the ability to function normally in their daily lives. Often a person’s stamina will decline, and their level of activity will be forced to drop dramatically as a result.
- Ongoing muscle pain and soreness (myalgia)
- Joint pain (arthralgia). Redness or swelling is usually not present.
- Sore throat
- Tenderness in the lymph nodes
- Increased malaise (fatigue or sickness) after physical or mental exertion
- Difficulties with concentration and memory
- Difficulty sleeping or sleeping excessively
In addition, there are some common secondary symptoms:
- Depression or emotional problems such as mood swings, irritability, anxiety attacks, and panic attacks
- Brain fog (mental fog or confusion)
- Night sweats
- Irritable bowel
- Vision problems, such as super-sensitivity, eye pain, or blurry vision.
- Allergies or unusual sensitivities to foods, odors, chemicals, or noises
- Dizziness or balance problems, especially while standing.
- Lightheadedness or fainting. An interesting study done at Johns Hopkins University found that 22 out of 23 CFS subjects had an abnormality in their ability to regulate blood pressure (neurally mediated hypotension). This resulted in sudden drops in their blood pressure, and caused dizziness and fainting spells. Interestingly enough, when the hypotension was treated and alleviated, many of the subjects experienced improvement in their overall CFS symptoms.
How Do I Know If I Have CFS?
A diagnosis of CFS is hard to pin down. There are no diagnostic lab tests for CFS. The symptoms and degrees thereof vary from patient to patient, and many of the symptoms are associated with other conditions. After years of research and debate on this illness, a standard was agreed upon to determine a positive diagnosis for CFS. To be diagnosed with CFS, a patient must meet both of these criteria:
- Unexplained recurring chronic fatigue that lasts for a minimum of six months. This fatigue must be new and distinct, not the result of ongoing exertion, and mainly not relieved by usual rest. The fatigue must also cause social, educational, occupational, and/or personal activities to be greatly curtailed.
- Four or more of the following symptoms, which must have occurred during the six months of fatigue associated with the diagnosis, and must have not begun before the onset of the fatigue: short-term memory or concentration problems; sore throat; tenderness in lymph nodes; muscle pain; multiple joint pain without swelling or redness; headaches of a new type, pattern, or severity; nonrefreshing sleep; and post-exertional malaise (fatigue or sickness) lasting over 24 hours.
In addition, your health provider should evaluate your symptoms and take your personal medical history into account. There are tests available for conditions with symptoms similar to CFS, and you may choose to have testing done to eliminate these. They include for mononucleosis, Lyme disease, thyroid conditions, diabetes, certain cancers, depression, bipolar disorder, and multiple sclerosis. Often a diagnosis of CHF is reached only through the process of elimination.
What Treatments are Available for CFS?
There is no known cure for CFS, but there are remedies that have proved effective to lessen and improve symptoms. Allopathic doctors have tried nonsteriodal and anti-inflammatory drugs to help with pain and reduce fever. Low dosages of antidepressants have also been used to relieve depression in CFS patients. The results have not been impressive, and as with most pharmaceutical drugs, there are significant side effects. However, there are many natural, herbal, lifestyle, and nutritional approaches that have been tested.
The following supplements have shown some promise in the treatment of CFS:
- Vitamin B12 is necessary in many bodily functions. Lack of it contributes to muscle aches, confusion and memory loss, and numbness in the extremities.
- Magnesium is critical to cellular function in the body, especially regarding energy use and management. It also helps muscles to relax.
- Zinc is a proven immune system booster.
- CoQ10 is an enzyme that also bolsters the immune system. It is also very important to healthy muscle function in the body.
- Iron can improve fatigue and mental clarity by treating anemia. Take only if you have been tested for iron levels and a deficiency has been found.
- Low levels of copper can contribute to inflammation in the body. Be cautious about using copper supplements if you are pregnant.
- Carnitine is an amino acid that helps convert fats into energy.
- DHEA supplementation can increase libido in males and relieve fatigue in females
- 5-HTP has been found effective at stabilizing sleep patterns in some people.
- Astragalus can help to boost energy levels
- Echinacea is a known immune system booster
- Siberian ginseng helps fight stress and is good for the immune system
- Ginkgo biloba can increase blood flow to the brain. Also acts as a blood thinner, so be careful if you have an aggravating condition or are on certain medications.
- LEM, extracted from shiitake mushrooms, has also been shown to have some beneficial affects for CYS sufferers.
Exercise can have a significant effect on CFS patients. This is something that needs to be carefully managed, as over exertion can cause problems. However, avoiding exercise is not a good option either. Stretching exercises are particularly of value to the CFS patient, and may be combined with moderate aerobic exercise. Start slowly, and increase gradually. Listen to your body and don’t overdo it. But don’t be afraid of exercise either! Like most things in life, balance is the key.
Diet is extremely important as well for the CFS patient:
- Drink lots of clean, pure water–8 to 12 glasses per day is recommended. This helps to fight fatigue and tends to flush the body of wastes and impurities, and to keep all our systems working more efficiently.
- Food allergies can be a big problem for folks with CFS. They can cause or aggravate symptoms. Common allergies may include milk, wheat, eggs, chocolate, coffee, or alcohol.
- Eastern medicine has come up with some very interesting conclusions about certain foods that produce energy, and others that are energy depleting. Some energy boosting foods are purported to be: fresh fruits and veggies, whole milk, whole wheat, honey, olive oil, barley, rice, almonds, figs, dates, and yogurt. Energy robbers include: red meat, sugar, coffee, alcohol, aged or fermented foods, mushrooms, and potatoes.
- Good digestion is also important for getting the maximum amount of energy from our food. The following suggestions help us digest better, as well as reduce stress and confusion in our lives, and important aid to CFS patients:
- Eat slowly and chew food thoroughly. My grandmother used to tell us to chew each bite 20 times.
- Eat at established meal times whenever possible. This routine is good for lowering stress too.
- Sit up straight and have good posture.
- Make meal time pleasant and peaceful, without a lot of noise and confusion. (Easy to say if you don’t have a bunch of kiddos running around)
- Whenever possible, don’t eat when you are emotionally upset. If you wait until you feel better, you will digest better, get more energy and nutrients, and enjoy your meal more.
- Don’t gorge yourself. Only eat until you are full. One tip is to eat the best bites first, and then you won’t miss anything if you choose not to finish your portion.
Massage therapy can be very useful to CFSers as well. It can be very relaxing, and helps the muscles and circulatory to operate more efficiently. This can lessen muscle pain and help depression and mood swings. It can also do wonders for our sleep to get a nice rub down before bed.
My heart goes out to those of you who are afflicted with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. We have had to deal with it in our own family. I hope you have learned some things that will help you to feel better and carry on in the struggles of this illness. Be encouraged! There is hope, and you are not alone.