Sometimes getting through a normal day’s work when you’re healthy can be taxing. Struggling through the day when you’re unwell is harder still. Now imagine just trying to get through a few hours without feeling confused, exhausted or in pain. This is only the beginning of trying to understand how it feels to live with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS) or Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (ME) is as it is sometimes referred to.
It doesn’t get any better for someone suffering with CFS. Because there is no definitive test for CFS, a patient goes through a battery of tests to exclude the possibility of any other conditions. At that point, once a diagnosis of CFS is made, there is no cure, only supportive therapies. Physicians have traditionally had difficulty diagnosing the illness. Some physicians doubt there is a biological basis for CFS resulting in the inference to some patients that it must be “all in their mind”. Even in the wake of a recent flurry of research, the causes and effects of CFS are poorly understood.
The good news is that, including the host of supportive therapies your doctor can suggest, there are also natural and alternative therapies that can help a person suffering with CFS manage the condition and ease their day-to-day struggle.
As the name chronic fatigue syndrome suggests, this illness is accompanied by fatigue. However, it’s not the kind of fatigue patients experience after a particularly busy day or week, after a sleepless night or after a stressful event. It’s a severe, incapacitating fatigue that isn’t improved by bed rest and that may be exacerbated by physical or mental activity. It’s an all-encompassing fatigue that results in a dramatic decline in both activity level and stamina.
People with CFS function at a significantly lower level of activity than they were capable of prior to becoming ill. The illness results in a substantial reduction in occupational, personal, social or educational activities.
A CFS diagnosis should be considered in patients who present with six months or more of unexplained fatigue accompanied by other characteristic symptoms. These symptoms include:
- cognitive dysfunction, including impaired memory or concentration
- exhaustion and increased symptoms lasting more than 24 hours following physical or mental exercise
- unrefreshing sleep
- joint pain
- persistent muscle pain
- headaches of a new type or severity
- tender cervical or axillary (arm pit) lymph nodes
- sore throat
OTHER COMMON SYMPTOMS
In addition to the eight primary defining symptoms of CFS, a number of other symptoms have been reported by some CFS patients. The frequency of occurrence of these symptoms varies among patients. These symptoms include:
- irritable bowel, abdominal pain, nausea, diarrhea or bloating
- chills and night sweats
- brain fog
- chest pain
- shortness of breath
- chronic cough
- visual disturbances (blurring, sensitivity to light, eye pain or dry eyes)
- allergies or sensitivities to foods, alcohol, odors, chemicals, medication or noise
- difficulty maintaining upright position
- irregular heartbeat
- balance problems
- psychological problems (depression, irritability, mood swings, anxiety, panic attacks)
- jaw pain
- weight loss or gain1
Once a doctor has put a tick in all, or the majority of, these boxes, you begin a battery of tests to rule out other conditions. Your medical history will be re-examined and you will undergo a full physical examination. Your mental status will be examined, including psychiatric, psychological or neurolgical exams if indicated. Blood tests are ordered and sometimes additional testing is ordered if the need arises. It can be a long, exhausting process for someone who is already exhausted!
Since the 1980’s, investigators have suspected that CFS is an expression of chronic infection or triggered by an acute infection from viruses or conditions such as the Epstein-Barr Virus (human herpes virus), Lyme disease, Candida and a host of others. Other studies suggest that patients with CFS have altered immune function against muscle or the central nervous system. There is also some research that points to a focus on the role of hormones.
Symptoms and severity differ from person to person. Some CFS patients lead fairly active lives but, more so as a rule, CFS sufferers are considerably restricted when it comes to work, school and family involvement. The condition itself can swing between periods of illness and periods of remission making it hard for sufferers and doctors alike to manage. The elation of feeling well again can cause patients to overdo it, generally bringing about a relapse.
On a bright note, there is evidence to suggest that the earlier the diagnosis is made and the earlier symptom management begins, the better the chance of a positive outcome. The message here is not to wait. Talk with your doctor about your symptoms rather than dismissing them as day-to-day stress. Resist the thought that this is just the way your body works and you’ll have to live with it.
A side-note to consider is this – fatigue is very common, CFS is not. In 95% of patients who present with fatigue, another medical or psychiatric illness, usually treatable, is the cause. Common findings include anemia, hypothyroidism, sleep apnea, narcolepsy, medication side effects, unresolved hepatitis B or C, any past or current major depressive disorder or severe obesity.2
If you have been diagnosed with CFS and have identified your major symptoms (as opposed to symptoms that only occur once and a while), you can begin to select therapies to support your overall health and well-being.
NATURAL SUPPORTIVE THERAPIES
Diet plays an important part in staying on top of the symptoms of CFS. Eat a well-balanced diet of 50% raw foods and fresh-squeezed juices. Your diet should consist mostly of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, plus raw nuts, seeds, skinless turkey and some deep-water fish (not shellfish). These quality foods supply nutrients that renew energy and build immunity.
Anecdotal evidence points to good results with acupuncture, an ancient Chinese method for treating pain. The treatment, which involves inserting microthin needles into acupuncture points in the body, can often provide immediate relief. Weekly treatments over a two- to three-month period seem to yield the best results.
Another acupuncture technique, called “cupping”, uses small glass jars to draw additional blood to a particular area and is thought to be helpful for the treatment of muscle tension. People with CFS have also found help in managing their condition with the use of Chinese herbs or the practice of tai chi and qi gong, two systems of movement that help harmonize the body’s energy.
Believe it or not, the humble garlic is a potent immune system stimulant and natural antibiotic. It was used during World War I to prevent gangrene in wounds and infections. Garlic is effective against fungal infections and may destroy certain viruses. Eat it fresh or take it in supplement form – either is quite effective.
CoQ10 is required by every cell in our body and is the key to chemical reactions that produce cellular energy. Just as an automobile engine with poor spark plugs chokes, sputters and dies, without enough CoQ10 (our cellular spark plug) our health can break down, resulting in all kinds of degenerative diseases. Studies show that CoQ10 may be effective for congestive heart failure, high blood pressure, some forms of cancer, and gum disease.
Two of the most common immune suppressors include stress and an incorrect diet; fatigue is a common sign of a weakened immune system. In order to supply your immune system with adequate amounts of nutrients that promote proper immune function, your body has to be able to properly absorb what you eat. One very positive step you can take is to supplement with acidophilus, a “friendly” bacteria which must be present in your colon where the digestion of essential nutrients takes place. Ensuring your bowels move daily is also an important part of colon health.
Active Bifidobacteria cultures (such as B. longum, B. bifidum, B. breve, and B. infantis) are an essential part of the human intestinal microflora in the colon (large intestine). Studies show maintaining a proper balance of bifidobacteria within the colon can help support overall digestive and colon health, reduce putrefactive (foul-smelling and potenitally harmful) substances in the colon, maintain regularity and proper stool consistency, and promote healhty immune function.
Boron is an important mineral that promotes alertness and enhances brain function. If supplementing with boron, do not exceed 3 milligrams daily. If you want to get boron through your diet, you can eat more apples, carrots, grapes, dark green leafy vegetables, raw nuts, pears and whole grains.
Gingko Biloba has been reported to increase the supply of oxygen to the brain and has been shown to slow the early progression of Alzheimer’s. The supplement form is made from an extract of the ornamental tree’s leaves so there are no dietary sources to choose from.
Found in high concentrations in the brain, EFA’s (essential fatty acids) aid in the transmission of nerve impulses and are needed for the normal development and functioning of the brain.
Research shows that EFAs can improve various biochemical and physiological reactions in the body. When present in adequate and balanced amounts EFAs will:
- Improve stamina and endurance
- Decrease recovery time after exercise
- Improve oxygen uptake and utilization
- Optimize glandular function
- Decrease arthritic joint pain and strengthen bones
- Improve circulation and immune function
- Promote sleep and elevate mood
- Heighten reflexes and concentration
Ginseng is used to combat weakness and give extra energy. A good vitamin B complex supplement will give your body the help it needs to maintain energy levels.
Your iron levels may be low and iron is an important mineral where energy is concerned. Talk with your doctor about having your levels checked before beginning any iron supplements.
Vitamin C increases energy levels, aids in the production of anti-stress hormones, and increases the absorption of iron.
Reishi and Shiitake are Japanese mushrooms with health-promoting properties. Shiitake mushrooms can help strengthen the immune system, are high in B vitamins and amino acids and when sundried, are high in vitamin D. Reishi are rated very highly by traditional chinese medical doctors. Maitake is a mushroom that may be helpful for CFS sufferers as it normalizes body functions. It has been known to be better absorbed than other mushrooms. All three types are used to treat fatigue and should be available fresh or in supplement form.
Deep breathing exercises are recommended. People with CFS tend to take shallow breaths which can cause sleeping problems. Taking deep breaths in front of an open window (or even better, outside) before bed can help.
Establishing a bedtime routine is very helpful. For instance, if you would like to be asleep by 11:00pm, begin at 10:00pm by going through the paces of locking the doors, turning out the lights, getting your glass of warm milk or cup of herbal tea and retiring to bed with some light reading and quiet instrumental music. Having a warm bath or shower can help relax you. You might want to consider turning the ringer off on your telephone as well. Avoid the following up to two hours before bedtime:
- Strenuous physical or mental exercise
- Stimulating television or radio programs
- Eating heavy meals
Aromatherapy oils relax body and mind. Popular oils to consider are:
Use a little in your bath water or use some in a foot soak. For bedtime use, spray or dab a little oil (less is more) onto a cotton ball and place it under your pillow or on your bedside table. Creating your own scent combinations from organic plant products and hanging it from your bedpost is also an option.
About 1 in 7 adult Canadians suffers from insomnia. Natural Factors Tranquil Sleep is a safe, fast acting formula containing: the amino acid 5-HTP; the hormone melatonin; and green tea’s stress-reliever, L-theanine. Together these natural compounds exert a powerful synergistic effect to promote restful sleep.
5-HTP can help you get to sleep faster and reduce night-time waking. Melatonin helps initiate sleep, and is used for jet lag and insomnia. L-theanine (patented Suntheanine®), from green tea, is a stress reducer that can enhance the tranquility of sleep. Tranquil Sleep is safe and non-habit forming.
Joint and Muscle Support
Carnitine (considered an amino acid) may be useful in treating CFS. Studies have shown a deficiency of carnitine in people diagnosed with CFS. It’s main function in the body is to help the cells produce energy, especially energy for your muscles. Carnitine can be obtained from food with its main sources being of animal origin, such as meats.
MSM (methylsulfonylmethan – now you see why it’s abreviated!) has remarkable therapeutic properties. MSM helps relieves pain (including muscle pain) and inflammation in addition to promoting gastrointestinal health and immune function. MSM can be obtained through diet from food like fish, meat, plants, fruit and milk, so long as the food is “live” and fresh. Processing destroys MSM in foods. If you take MSM in supplement form, be sure to enhance the MSM with vitamin C supplementation as well.
MSM is a powerful nontoxic therapeutic agent that inhibits pain impulses, lessens inflammation, increases blood supply, reduces muscle spasms and softens scar tissue.
Natural Factors’ superior remedy for painful joints and connective tissue contains a combination of MSM (Methyl-sulfonyl-methane), glucosamine sulfate and chondroitin sulfate. This combination works to maintain the structural integrity of joints and connective tissue while it jump starts the healing process.
We all know by now that certain foods can trigger headaches for certain individuals. The following foods seem to be the leading culprits:
- MSG (monosodium glutamate)
- hot dogs
- luncheon meats
- dairy products
- citric acid
- fermented foods such as cheeses
- vinegar and/or marinated foods
There are supplements which can help with headaches such as:
- bromelain, an enzyme that helps regulate the inflammatory response; found in pineapple
- calcium and magnesium, minerals which help alleviate muscular tension and are natural tranquilizers
- coenzyme Q10, which improves tissue oxygenation
- 5-HTP; studies show excellent results with both tension headaches and migraines
- MSM, which relieves pain
- vitamin E, which improves circulation
Central Nervous System Support
One overall best support for your nervous system are the B vitamins. Taken in a complex, along with potassium and selenium, the B vitamins help maintain the health of the nerves, normal nervous system function, and proper brain function. B vitamins are also involved in energy production and are important for seniors as they are not as well absorbed by the body as we age.
Potassium is essential for proper functioning of the adrenal glands and also regulates the transfer of nutrients through cell membranes; a function which slows with age which can account for some lethargy and weakness.
Exhaustion has been linked with a selenium deficiency.Zinc has a calming effect on the central nervous system. Zinc increases the absorption of vitamin A and a deficiency in either zinc and/or vitamin A can cause fatigue.
From a dietary prospective, include such foods as apricots, asparagus, avocados, bananas, broccoli, blackstrap molasses, brewer’s yeast, brown rice, dried fruits, figs, fish (especially salmon), garlic, green leafy vegetables, legumes, raw nuts and seeds, soy products, whole grains, and yogurt. These foods supply valuable minerals such as calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, and potassium, which are depleted by stress.
Carol Roy is a Natural Health Practitioner who received her diploma from the Alternative Medicine College of Canada in Montreal, Quebec. With 12 years experience in her area of expertise, natural health and wellness, Carol has also trained to become a fully qualified Reiki Master, Quantum Touch Practitioner, and Reflexologist.
The suggestions by Nutter’s Bulk & Natural Foods and the contents of this article
are recommendations only and not a substitute for any medical advice or a
replacement for any prescriptions. Seek medical advice for any health concerns.
Consult your health care provider before using any recommendations herein.
1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Department of Health and Human Services
2. Canadian Medical Association Journal, Sept. 8, 1998; 159(5)
Prescription for Nutritional Healing, Third Edition
Phyllis A. Balch, CNC and James F. Balch, M.D.