Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS)
Very few health conditions are as baffling to practitioners of conventional medicine as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, or CFS. Millions of people all over the world are affected by this complicated disorder. In the US alone, between 2 to 5 million people suffer from CFS, with a large number of them are women.
And the count doesn’t stop here. Because, sadly, the term Chronic Fatigue Syndrome falls short of describing the grave consequences of this complex condition. According to a study, 36% of individuals diagnosed with CFS were clinically depressed and 22% of them had contemplated suicide in the past year. These alarming numbers underline the emotional and mental side effects of CFS.
In spite of a rapid increase in people getting CFS, conventional medicine has not yet found a way to diagnose CFS appropriately or to treat it. Common symptoms of CFS, such as fatigue, depression, irritability, muscle & joint pain, and difficulties in concentration are common to several other disorders, and not CFS alone.
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “the causes of CFS have not been identified, and no specific diagnostic tests are available.” CDC suggests three criteria, which a patient needs to fulfill, to be diagnosed with CFS:
Dr. Paul A. Goldberg calls the conventional way of diagnosing CFS as “garbage can diagnosis.” Because a patient is diagnosed with CFS only after all other possible diagnoses have been discarded.
Similar to other chronic conditions, CFS is a complex condition with multiple causes. A lot of things have to go wrong for the body to show up symptoms of CFS. And this is where a holistic view of human body, such as the one adopted by Functional Medicine, works well. A Functional Medicine approach looks at the human body as a single interconnected entity and not a group of distinct systems as viewed by conventional medicine.
Although we still know little about CFS and its causes, initial findings point towards certain contributing factors to CFS. These include hormonal imbalances, viral infections, a weak immunity, prolonged low blood pressure, and nutritional deficiencies. For anyone who understands functional medicine, these causes aren’t surprising as all chronic diseases have similar underlying causes. An overall imbalance in the human body can trigger a host of problems, which may lead to one or more chronic diseases.
The core of Functional Medicine is to correct the imbalance in the human body as a means to reverse all chronic diseases. Here, I’d like to share some research that backs the effectiveness of this approach.
An article published in Alternative Medicine Review indicates the role of oxidative stress in the development of CFS. Oxidative stress is a process caused by free radicals (unstable molecules which cause damage to cells). Just like the way cut apples turn brown when they are exposed to air, our cells get “rusted” because of oxidative stress. The review also examines the role of food intolerances (allergies and sensitivities) and celiac disease (a serious autoimmune disorder) in the development of CFS. Another review published in Medical Hypotheses examines the role of infectious organisms as the underlying cause of CFS.
To summarize, CFS is caused by imbalances triggered in the body. The cause of these imbalances can be an infection (weak immunity), oxidative stress (nutritional deficiencies) or food intolerances (food allergies). Reversing chronic fatigue naturally involves correction of these imbalances.
The immune system, which is meant to protect the body, can turn against it if it’s overactivated. Food allergies are one of the factors, which can overwhelm the immune system and lead to its overactivation.
Allergic responses can be triggered by several things, such as Casein (the protein in milk), nuts, soy, yeast, certain metals and environmental chemicals. Taking an IgE blood test can help in identifying specific foods that might be causing allergies in your body. Eliminating such foods (or allergens) can help you get rid of symptoms of CFS.
Additionally, balancing the good bacteria in the system can make the digestive system efficient and the immune system stronger. Consuming fermented foods (yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, acidophilus milk, etc.) or probiotic supplements can help in restoring the balance of the immune system by reducing the overgrowth of harmful bacteria. In fact, probiotics are one of the best supplements for chronic fatigue.
One of the causes of CFS is harmful bacteria and fungus, which live in the human body. For example, Candida, a yeast, which is one of the leading causes of fungal infections in the world, can lead to CFS. H. pylori, a harmful bacteria, is another contributing factor to CFS. Removal of Candida from the body and treating H. pylori infections can also remove symptoms of CFS.
Since oxidative stress is a major contributing factor in CFS, dietary antioxidants can help in reducing symptoms of CFS. In patients with CFS, the levels of the B vitamins, particularly B6, are low. Eating foods rich in B vitamins (bananas, wild tuna, salmon, sweet potatoes, turkey, hazelnuts, etc.) can also help in reversing chronic fatigue.
Patients of CFS are also found to be deficient in magnesium and potassium. Consuming foods rich in magnesium can lead to improved energy metabolism, less pain and a more balanced mental state. Foods rich in magnesium include spinach, pumpkin seeds, almonds, black beans, yogurt and kefir, figs, avocados and dark chocolate.
Potassium deficiency can lead to symptoms of CFS such as fatigue, muscle cramps and irritability. Consuming potassium-rich foods, such as coconut water, sweet potatoes, spinach, avocados, white beans, acorn squash, bananas, dried apricots, and mushrooms can be effective in managing symptoms of CFS. While dietary recommendations vary by individuals, it can be safely said that diet and nutrition play a critical role in reversing CFS.
A dysfunction of the immune system has been observed commonly in patients of CFS. Boosting the immune system and correcting these dysfunctions can play an important role in reversing chronic fatigue. Along with warding off infections that might cause CFS, a healthy immune system can also directly contribute to keeping CFS at bay. Immune-boosting foods and supplements can help you keep your immune system healthy and thus should be an important part of your chronic fatigue healing diet.
Give complete rest to your body at least once a week. Here resting doesn’t mean sleeping. The term “rest” is used in a more holistic manner here. A ‘rest day’ should be a day when you don’t worry about any commitments, deadlines or responsibilities. It should be your day off. A day like this not only gives your body a chance to relax and heal, but it also relaxes the mind and helps in stress management.
In a study conducted by the University of Western Australia, exercise therapy was shown to improve physical capacity among patients of CFS. Exercise therapy also helped patients get mental clarity and reduce depression dramatically. Performing aerobic exercises for a period of 5-15 minutes, five days a week should be a good starting point. Perform a warm-up routine before exercise and give enough time to cool down your body after exercising. Try to wind down all muscle groups.
Patients of CFS often find difficulty sleeping. They also suffer from nighttime muscle spasms and often have nightmares. In order to reverse chronic fatigue, you need to set a daily sleep pattern and follow it rigorously. For a good sleep, avoid using devices such as smart phones, tablets and laptops at least one hour before bedtime. Making your bedroom conducive for sleeping can also be useful. This can be achieved by using soft shades of color on walls and sheets and mild lighting. The use of fragrant diffusers with sleep-inducing fragrances like lavender, eucalyptus, valerian, marjoram, jasmine and ylang ylang also helps in sleep. Avoid stimulants such as coffee, tea, alcohol and tobacco before bedtime as they can cause restlessness. A winding down routine prior to sleeping can help in relaxing all muscles of the body, and lead to sound sleep.
Going to a place away from your regular set up can helps in relaxing both mind and body. For patients of chronic fatigue, it is advisable to avoid an activity-filled vacation with a large group. Make the vacation more personal and try to go alone or with someone close to a quiet place with not many tourists.
A positive mental outlook is the most important weapon against any chronic disease. Reversing chronic fatigue naturally is possible, provided you adopt a holistic approach. However, there’s no one-size-fits-all treatment for symptoms of chronic fatigue. CFS is a complex disorder and what works for one person will not work for another. Try out the different ideas listed above, and keep a diligent record of what makes you feel better. Once you’ve identified what works for you, continue with the same strategy.