Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS) is a vastly misunderstood illness, yet it affects upwards of 20 million people worldwide. Also referred to as myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME), CFS is a condition that affects the immune and nervous systems. It occurs far more frequently in women than men, and can significantly impact on sufferers’ quality of life.
“Chronic Fatigue Syndrome is characterised by an inability to function due to an extreme energy deficit,” says Dr Zaher Nahle, vice president for research and scientific programmes at the Solve ME/CFS Initiative. “Many sufferers are unable to work or maintain normal relationships, and about 25 percent are house- or bed-ridden by it.” People with CFS suffer a range of symptoms which can make it difficult to perform everyday tasks. Even mundane things such as bathing or dressing can be overwhelming for someone with the disease.
What Causes Chronic Fatigue Syndrome?
The unfortunate issue for CFS sufferers is that no one actually knows for sure what causes the disease. People report the onset of symptoms after a variety of incidences. Some, for example, say it started after they had had a severe cold or flu. Others, after other infections such as stomach bugs. Chronic Fatigue also sometimes develops after contracting the Epstein-Barr virus (which causes mononucleosis or “mono”). Still other sufferers say their symptoms started after undergoing a period a physical trauma, such an accident or major surgery.
The one thing that appears common to all CFS sufferers is that their symptoms started after a specific incident – such as an infection, injury or physical trauma. This makes sense because all those things disrupt the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, which is activated by physical and emotional stress. This kind of disruption has ripple effects throughout the entire body – specifically on the immune and other systems – which then give rise to CFS symptoms.
There is also convincing evidence to show that CFS has genetic links. Researchers at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta gathered vast data about the symptoms and biology of a group of CFS patients. They then handed this information to four teams of scientists with the directive to find anything that might explain the cause of the disease. The results were startling. The study showed that patients with CFS tend to have a characteristic set of changes in 12 genes that help the body respond to stress.
“CFS is a real, bodily dysfunction,” says Ben Goertzel of Biomind, an American biotechnology company that led one of the research groups. “We can clearly see from this batch of results that ‘just tired’ is not what these people are.”
Dr Steven Gunn (MD), chief medical officer at ALTMEDCARE International Clinics in South Africa, and who is also a practicing integrative and functional medicine physician, states that having treated hundreds of patients with CFS he finds that there is a strong link between CFS and fibromyalgia, which is another little understood and debilitating disorder.
In his experience most of the patients have some or many of the following underlying disorders, namely, nutritional and hormonal imbalances underperforming adrenal glands (from excess stress), underperforming thyroid glands (probably due to lack of iodine and building blocks of thyroid gland support), and weak or overactive immune system, inflammation of the blood vessels causing a vasculitis, “brain fog” leading to short term memory impairment, most likely relating to toxicity and inflammation caused by multi internal toxins and free radicals, external environmental toxins, as well as acidity (too acidic diet) and excess sugar, refined, processed foods, chemical additives in our water, food, air, heavy metals contaminants and often compromised or “leaky” “inflamed” guts, especially the stomach and small intestines.
Inflammatory Bowel Disorders (IBD) are on the increase in the general population worldwide. Toxins, foreign proteins, gluten, food additives, bacteria, viruses and parasites are more able to penetrate the lining of the gut stimulating an immune response in the blood leading to excess inflammation, toxicity and free radicals and damage which leads to multiple symptoms like headaches, fatigue, “brain fog”, swollen glands, painful joints, repeated bouts of flu, short-term memory impairment and eventually depression. Chronic candida infection in the gastrointestinal tract with an overgrowth of “bad” bacteria and too little “good” bacteria (probiotics) can aggravate the condition.
Dr Gunn further states that at their clinics they fully understand the complexities and multiple disorders associated with CFS and therefore, they approach the treatment of CFS by addressing each of these multiple causes and abnormalities one by one.
The result is, according to Dr Gunn, “we have a very successful track record of managing CFS by using the step by step integrative medicine treatment approach”.
Other Risk Factors
Over and above these studies, researchers have also identified certain additional risk factors for the disease:
- Age – Chronic Fatigue Syndrome can occur at any age. However, we see it more often in people in their 40s and 50s.
- Gender – Chronic fatigue syndrome occurs almost twice as often in women than in men. This might, however, simply be because women are more likely to see a doctor about their symptoms.
- Stress – An inability to adequately manage stress may contribute to the development of the disease.
Not Just “Yuppie Flu”
Research and increased awareness of the disease is changing the widely held perception that chronic fatigue syndrome is a mental health disorder. It was even dubbed “yuppie flu” when it first grabbed the public’s attention back in the early 90s. People believed CFS sufferers were simply burned out, or that their symptoms were psychosomatic.
Thankfully, people now take the disease a lot more seriously. However, despite extensive research, no one has yet found a definitive cause or identified an effective cure. Treatment for CFS is, therefore, still symptomatic.
How Do I Know If I Have Chronic Fatigue Syndrome?
Many symptoms of CFS are also symptoms of other illnesses, so it is important, either way, to consult a healthcare professional if you have any of the following symptoms:
- Severe and chronic tiredness for longer than six months, and which seems to have no other possible cause.
- Four or more of the following at the same time: a sore throat, memory loss, problems with concentration, tender lymph nodes, muscle or joint pain, unusual headaches or extreme fatigue more than 24 hours after exercise or significant physical activity.
- Feelings of depression due to being unable to perform normally at home and at work.