Knowing your enemy
Daniela Ginta, MSc
CFS is defined as persistent fatigue lasting for six months or more. Associated symptoms include severe dizziness, brain fog, sore throat, muscle pain, digestive problems, and multiple sensitivities. CFS can be caused by car accidents or viral infections, including infectious mononucleosis, bronchitis, even repeated common colds after which the body fails to thrive.
Following repeated bronchitis in 1999, Lise Wearing experienced extreme tiredness. At first it seemed like a long recovery from her respiratory infection. But when everything from brushing teeth to getting dressed began to seem like climbing a steep mountain, Wearing realized that her condition was more than common fatigue.
Wearing was eventually diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS), a disease that used to be considered “all in the mind,” but today affects almost 343,000 Canadians. According to Statistics Canada, two to four times more women than men are affected.
CFS is defined as persistent fatigue lasting for six months or more. Associated symptoms include severe dizziness, brain fog, sore throat, muscle pain, digestive problems, and multiple sensitivities. Often, CFS symptoms overlap with those of fibromyalgia (FM), another chronic disorder also accompanied by fatigue.
One Disease, Different Patients?
Trying to define CFS is almost as difficult as trying to treat it. According to Dr. Teresa Clark, a physician who works with people with CFS and FM at the Centre for Integrated Healing in Vancouver, no two patients are alike. “Some are born with certain sensitivities,” says Dr. Clark. “Living in toxic environments and dealing with toxic relationships might render these people susceptible to developing CFS at some point in their lives,” she says.
CFS can be caused by car accidents or viral infections, including infectious mononucleosis, bronchitis, even repeated common colds after which the body fails to thrive. Although scientists were initially skeptical about viruses as one of the causes for CFS onset, this theory has now been widely accepted. According to a 2003 study published in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery and Psychiatry, some CFS patients also present enteroviral infection in the muscle, which could partially explain their extreme fatigue. This type of infection is caused by a genus of viruses that typically occur in the gastrointestinal tract, but include the poliovirus and the virus of hepatitis A.
Steps to Healing
Following diagnosis, Wearing was offered vitamin B12 shots, which make some CFS patients feel better. According to several studies, this improvement may be attributed, in part, to vitamin B12’s analgesic properties. This vitamin also seems to improve the capacity for red blood cells to transport oxygen to the tissues.
Nevertheless, Wearing opted for more substantial changes, in order to put her body into a healing mode.
Following supervised fasting and a switch to an organic, whole food diet based mainly on veggies, fruit, and a variety of protein sources, Wearing’s condition improved. “Proteins are needed by CFS patients to support the immune system,” says Dr. Clark. “I usually recommend very few whole grains, since they can cause irritation to CFS sufferers who have digestive problems.”
Wearing’s healing also involved alternative therapies, including acupuncture, chiropractic, massage therapy, Tai Chi, yoga, and therapeutic touch. Wearing felt that changing diet was crucial, but she attributes her successful recovery to combining diet with acceptance, gratitude, and compassion, as well as yoga and gentle exercise.
Dr. Clark says, “Mindset plays an important role in the healing process, but we have to focus on the body first by empowering CFS patients to make changes in their lives, be it nutrition or physical exercise.” Improving emotional health is also an important step, according to Clark, but healing and stress cannot happen together. She says that we have to remember to honour ourselves by resting and by finding time to do activities we enjoy.
Physical exercise and fresh air also played an important role in healing, and Wearing found even a little was better than none. “At first, I was taking a few steps in the backyard, and that felt like I had run a marathon,” Wearing remembers. Gradually, regular exercise paid off, allowing her to participate in the 10-kilometre Sun Run in 2001 and subsequent half-marathon races. Today, Wearing considers herself CFS-free and has an active lifestyle. She is dedicated to helping others defeat CFS as a registered holistic nutritionist and Emotional Freedom Technique practitioner.
What Science Says
After years of not being considered a real disease, CFS now gets more attention.
According to a study published last year in the Journal of Clinical Pathology, CFS could have a genetic component. Several immune and nervous system genes have been found to be more active in people with CFS, while one was less active. Developing a blood test to detect the disease could be a great leap forward in understanding CFS, erasing the opinion that it is a made-up disease or a psychological disorder, although depression and anxiety may occur secondary to CFS.
An article published in Neuroendocrinology Letters (December 2005), compared the omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acid ratios in CFS patients versus healthy individuals, finding them to be lower in the first group. CFS patients also had low levels of zinc and defects in immune cell responses. Earlier studies had shown improvement in CFS patients after supplementation with essential fatty acids.