Everybody experiences fatigue from time to time, whether from poor sleep or a busy day. While inconvenient, this level of fatigue is not life-disrupting and can usually be resolved with a good night’s rest. Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS) is much different. This complex condition is characterized by profound feelings of tiredness that do not improve, regardless of rest, for at least six months. The fatigue is so severe that it gets in the way of daily activities at work and at home, making everyday life difficult.
Experts believe that about 2.5 million Americans are affected by Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. While CFS can affect anyone, it tends to be most common among women between 40 and 50.
In conventional medicine, there is still uncertainty about what exactly causes CFS. Currently, no underlying medical condition has been identified as a cause, though there are some leading theories including psychological stress, viral infection, and inflammation. As a functional medicine practitioner I now know that the majority of these cases can be contributed to Adrenal Fatigue, otherwise known as HPA (hypothalamic pituitary adrenal axis) dysfunction. The good news is that if you work with a practitioner who recognizes this as a possible cause, it is easy to test for and treat.
However, most conventionally trained doctors believe Chronic Fatigue Syndrome is notably difficult to diagnose. Doctors aim to rule out other possible causes of fatigue before diagnosing CFS. When left undiagnosed and untreated, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome leads to decreased stamina and concentration, along with emotional distress and strained relationships.
Keep reading to get the facts on this chronic illness including symptoms, risk factors, and treatment options.
Symptoms: What does Chronic Fatigue Syndrome Feel Like?
The most obvious symptom of this disorder is fatigue – not moderate fatigue, but severe enough to interfere with daily life. For a diagnosis of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, patients must show a significantly reduced capacity to complete normal tasks due to fatigue which is not improved upon by rest. This must last for at least six months.
People with CFS experience extreme tiredness especially after physical or mental activities. This is called post-exertional malaise, and can last more than 24 hours after the activity.
Additional physical symptoms are:
- Muscle pain
- Enlarged or swollen lymph nodes
- Frequent headaches
- Joint pain, but without redness or swelling
Chronic Fatigue Syndrome also typically involves sleep issues, including:
- Chronic insomnia
- Feeling unrested despite sleeping
- Night sweats
Other symptoms may include:
- Poor concentration
- Difficulty remembering things
- Orthostatic intolerance (feeling light-headed, dizzy, or faint when moving from seated to standing positions)
People who suffer from CFS also tend to experience frequent alterations in levels of irritability, mood swings, panic attacks, anxiety, and depression. The emotional and mental side effects of CFS are significant, making integrative mind-body treatment essential.
What Causes Chronic Fatigue Syndrome?
As mentioned, in conventional medicine, there is no known cause of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. As a family doctor I didn’t have much to offer these patients that I commonly saw in my office. Now, as a functional medicine practitioner I always look to the adrenals. It isn’t normal to feel this tired. If you do, there is a reason!
Risk factors for Chronic Fatigue Syndrome are:
- Age. CFS is most frequently diagnosed amongst people in their 40s and 50s.
- Sex. Women are two to four times more likely to experience CFS than men.
- Genes. Chronic Fatigue Syndrome has been seen in members of the same family. Studies done in twins suggest that both genes and environment might play a role in CFS, though more research is needed.
- Stress. Patients with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome often report that it began following a period of extreme emotional or physical stress, such as after surgery. This stress affects the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA axis), which controls our body’s reaction to stress and regulates a lot of body processes such as the immune response, digestion, energy usage, and mood.
- Immune System. Some researchers believe that CFS may be caused by a person’s immune system and the way it responds to stress or infection. CFS does share some features of autoimmune illnesses in which the immune system attacks healthy tissues in one’s own body.
- Gut/nutritional imbalances. A growing body of research suggests that celiac disease, and food sensitivities or food allergies may be a cause of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. In many studies of CFS patients, almost all of them report problems with digestion.
Some of these risk factors, such as age and sex, are unavoidable. But no matter your demographic, you can work to support a healthy immune system, lower your stress levels, and eat a balanced diet. Doing so will help protect you not only from CFS, but numerous other health issues as well.
How To Overcome Chronic Fatigue Syndrome
Most treatments aim at reducing the symptoms, which can vary greatly. I think it is important for individuals to work with a healthcare practitioner to get to the root cause and discern what really works for them -I can help!
Conventional treatments typically include sleeping pills for fatigue and antidepressants to help with mood. However, the prescription route often produces side effects that can be worse than the condition itself. Instead, I recommend identifying the root cause and fixing it. In addition lifestyle changes, nutraceuticals and other natural treatments to reduce symptoms and help heal the mind and body.
The best diet for CFS
One method of treating chronic fatigue syndrome is through diet. Since there appears to be a link between digestive issues and CFS, it is important to eliminate potential food sensitivities, allergens, and intolerances that may be inflaming the body and leading to fatigue. If any nutritional deficiencies are found, dietary changes or supplementation may be recommended by a healthcare professional.
Dietary interventions for treating chronic fatigue include:
- Reduction of refined sugars, carbohydrates, alcohol, caffeine, and saturated fats. Instead, enjoy protein-rich foods, fresh vegetables, whole grains, and legumes. Eating a healthy and well-balanced diet helps improve overall energy levels.
- A candida cleanse diet can be helpful in treating CFS. Research indicates that overgrowth of candida and the bacteria H. Pylori are contributors to chronic fatigue. Working with a healthcare practitioner to rule out any potential bacterial imbalances is recommended.
- Supplementation: There are many vitamins and minerals linked to energy levels that may be helpful in treating CFS. Of course, not all supplements are right for every patient, so be sure to speak with a health practitioner before starting any of the following.
- Vitamin B12 has been shown to improve energy in people who are deficient. It is a critical nutrient that supports the methylation cycle (responsible for immune function, energy production, and mood) and can help stimulate the mood with more energy and better cognitive function.
- Omega-3 fatty acids, such as those found in fish oil, may also help reduce fatigue. Studies have shown that people with CFS have lower levels of omega-3 fatty acids.
- Magnesium has also been shown in studies to be lacking for chronic fatigue sufferers. Patients were found to have low magnesium levels that accounted for a low red blood cell count. After being treated with magnesium supplements, they reported improved energy and more balanced emotions.
Supporting mental health
Along with proper diet, treating the mental aspect of chronic fatigue syndrome is also highly important.
- Relaxation techniques like deep breathing, meditation, and yoga will help you to relax and manage stress. Stress tends to worsen CFS, so adding these into your daily routine is crucial.
- Move your body! Exercise has been shown to help improve fatigue, mental clarity, and depression among CFS patients, but it’s important to listen to your body. Overdoing it can worsen symptoms, so work with your healthcare practitioner to create a program that works for you and start slowly.
- Establish a sleep hygiene routine. This includes going to bed at a consistent time each night and allowing yourself time to physically and emotionally wind down. Turn off all electronics, and ensure your bedroom is a comfortable temperature.
- Talking with a professional therapist or counselor can help individuals to cope with the impacts of their CFS on their daily life and relationships.
Chronic fatigue syndrome can be challenging both physically and mentally. However, there are numerous ways to treat symptoms and improve energy levels. Reducing stress and eating a proper diet are two major ones. Many people also benefit from working closely with a healthcare practitioner. If you are living with CFS, work with a practitioner to help get to the root cause and create a treatment plan that meets your unique needs. The time to revive your energy levels and take charge of your life is now!
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