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  • Ellen Brown L.Ac. DACM

Moving beyond exhaustion – Chinese medicine and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome

Chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) is a complex, debilitating disorder characterized by profound and incapacitating fatigue that does not improve with rest. Between one and four million Americans suffer from this condition, which affects women almost twice as often as men. The impact of this multi-faceted disease is felt throughout the body, including the neurological, immune and muscular systems. Most striking of all, perhaps: there is no known cause, no medical test to identify, and no known medical treatment for CFS.

While we all experience days when we feel weary and overextended – lacking the motivation or energy to carry out our responsibilities – most of us bounce back quickly after a few days of rest and relaxation. CFS, on the other hand, is characterized by a relentless, often overwhelming, fatigue that cuts energy levels in half and can last for several months. . . or several years. Importantly, there is no underlying, medical condition that helps “explain” CFS. And while “chronic fatigue” is fairly descriptive of what to expect from this crippling illness, it doesn’t capture the full extent of the disease. In addition to profound fatigue, other serious symptoms of CFS include:

  • joint pain that moves from one location to another in the body

  • poor concentration

  • memory loss

  • sleep disturbance

  • muscle pain and weakness

  • headaches

  • sore throat

  • night sweats

  • fever and chills

Importantly, the emotional impact of CFS can be as devastating as the physical ramifications, which can include mood swings, anxiety and panic attacks. According to a study published in Family Practice (2012), 36 percent of individuals suffering with CFS were diagnosed as clinically depressed and 22 percent had seriously considered suicide in the past year. In addition, The Lancet (2016) reports that the risk of suicide is increased seven-fold among CFS sufferers versus the suicide rate among the general population. Consequently, it is crucial that any treatment strategy for CFS must include the mind, body and spirit.

Despite the fact that references to chronic, fatigue-like cases can be found in the medical literature dating back to the early 1800’s, very little is known about CFS, including its root cause. While many sufferers report that their chronic fatigue began suddenly with the onset of flu-like symptoms, most researchers believe the disease involves the combination of several factors that often vary from person to person. While no research has been able to identify a single cause of CFS, research indicates that (latent) viral infection, immune system dysfunction, hormonal imbalance, nutritional deficiency or emotional trauma may play a role. More specifically:

Infections: A variety of viruses, including Epstein Barr, herpes and most recently, the retrovirus XMRV, have been linked to CFS.

Genetics: It is believed that inherited risk makes some people more vulnerable to CFS than others.

Neuroendocrinology: The complex interaction between neurotransmitters and hormones may be at the root of CFS.

Trauma: The severe emotional stress related to surviving either a psychically or emotionally traumatic event (which can, in turn, depress the immune system) has been identified as a possible contributing factor.

Chronic Digestive System Imbalance: Poor diet and erratic eating habits leading to food allergies and leaky gut syndrome are consistently seen in many CFS patients.

Environmental Toxins: Exposure to pollutants, heavy metals, industrial chemicals, pesticides and lead poisoning are believed to play a critical role in some cases of CFS.

Because there are no characteristic laboratory abnormalities associated with CFS – and no blood test, brain scan, or lab results will point to CFS – it is a diagnosis that can only be made by exclusion, after all other possible illnesses have been ruled out. Consequently, CFS is often misdiagnosed or overlooked since its symptoms are so similar to many other illnesses. Fatigue, for instance, can be a symptom for hundreds of illnesses. And because CFS symptoms are typically invisible, the disease is often misunderstood – and worse, dismissed. Indeed, a diagnosis of chronic fatigue syndrome is still controversial – many doctors continue to perceive it as psychosomatic or imagined. And because CFS is a syndrome (rather than a single, specific disease), patients are often dealing with multiple, overlapping conditions and co-morbid illnesses simultaneously, including fibromyalgia, depression, TMJ and irritable bowel syndrome.

Conventional treatment protocols for CFS typically include treating the symptoms of the disease rather than the underlying root cause(s). Often, individuals with CFS are prescribed anti-depressants and sleeping pills which help mask their suffering and relieve superficial symptoms, but do little to correct the fundamental condition.

This is in contrast to many holistic healers who recommend multi-pronged treatment strategy that always includes substantial lifestyle and dietary change. According to a study in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine (2014) acupuncture, meditation and vitamin / mineral supplementation all show great promise treating both CFS and fibromyalgia.

Similar to western medicine, traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) also views CFS as a complex, multi-pattern disease. While no two patients are likely to be diagnosed the same way, they would all be viewed as suffering with Xu Lao – vacuity taxation – an umbrella term that includes any pattern of severe vacuity or deficiency that results from the over taxation of one’s vital energy. This highlights that there is reduced energy - referred to as Qi in Chinese medicine - available to maintain normal functioning of the internal organs and ensure the production of vital tissues and substances.

Traditional Chinese medicine relies on a holistic combination of acupuncture points (stimulated with fine, hair-thin needles), herbal medicine, moxibustion and nutritional / lifestyle modification to help increase, as well as smooth out, the flow of vital energy. In addition to treating the root pattern and working to reverse fatigue, TCM can also help relieve many of the confounding symptoms that CFS patients face, including depression, insomnia and anxiety. Such treatments may be the patient’s primary source of health care or used as a compliment to more conventional treatments a patient may be undergoing with their primary care physician.

Observational clinical research reveals consistently positive results for acupuncture and moxibustion to effectively relieve some of CFS more common symptoms, including fatigue, chronic pain, insomnia and depression. Clinical research published in the Chinese Medical Journal (2014) also found acupuncture had an 80 percent-plus effective rate in relieving many of CFS most difficult symptoms, including fatigue, pain, depression, and insomnia. Stimulation of certain acupuncture points has been shown to affect areas of the brain that are known to reduce sensitivity to pain and stress, as well as promote relaxation and relieve insomnia.

If traditional medicine has failed to fully address your CFS, consider Traditional Chinese medicine – an alternative treatment that is safe, natural and effective to help restore the energy, vitality and harmony that CFS has robbed you of.

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