Chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) is a debilitating condition that affects up to 2.5 million Americans. It’s also known as myalgic encephalomyelitis. It can affect people of all ages, but it’s most commonly diagnosed in people who are between the ages of 40 and 60. In addition, women are more frequently affected with CFS than men.
Unfortunately, because the symptoms vary widely and because some health care providers don’t always take the symptoms of CFS seriously, about 90% of people with this condition have never been diagnosed. To further confuse diagnosis, CFS is a syndrome, which means that people who have it may experience a wide variety of symptoms, and typically no two people will experience it in exactly the same way.
The symptoms of CFS include:
- Extreme fatigue that does not get better no matter how much rest or sleep you get
- Fatigue that becomes worse or debilitating after any kind of activity, either physical or mental
- Problems with sleep, and feeling tired even after having slept all night
- Memory or concentration problems
- Muscle and joint pain
- Feeling dizzy, lightheaded, or symptoms that are aggravated on sitting upright or standing up
- Temperature issues, such as chills or night sweats
- Hypersensitivity to certain foods, smells, lights, or loud noise
- A chronic sore throat or tender lymph nodes
Scientists are unclear as to what exactly causes CFS, but they have a number of theories and clues. Many people with this condition say that the onset felt like they had the flu, leading scientists to suspect some kind of viral or bacterial infection. One pathogen that has long been associated with CFS is the Epstein-Barr virus, however not everyone with CFS has the virus, and other infections are also associated with this condition. Researchers also think that the immune system in people with CFS has been damaged somehow by an illness or infection.
In addition, chronic stress or an emotional upset may also be a trigger for CFS, as many people who have this condition say they were under great amounts of stress prior to their diagnosis. Stress affects the HPA axis (hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal) in your brain. This is the system that controls your body’s hormones, including those related to the stress response. Under high levels of chronic stress, your body ramps up some systems that are needed to deal with the stress of the moment and slows down others that aren’t currently needed, most notably immunity, digestion, and your ability to fight inflammation.
The Role of Acupuncture and Chinese Medicine in Treating CFS
While the symptoms of CFS may slowly abate in some patients, it can take years, and the majority of people with this condition may never recover completely. There’s no cure for CFS, so treatment strategies are geared toward managing symptoms and restoring functionality. This is where acupuncture and Chinese medicine can be of value.
The foundation of good health in Chinese medicine is having abundant energy stores, and many treatments are geared toward building up and protecting your energy. Research has found that acupuncture can be effective in reducing fatigue in patients with CFS. Acupuncture is also effective in managing other symptoms associated with this condition such as, pain reduction, decreased inflammation, enhanced immune function, and better sleep. Researchers have also documented that acupuncture is effective for stress relief and mental health symptoms, as it increases the circulation of endorphins, which are neurotransmitters in your brain responsible for feelings of well-being and calm.
Good nutrition supports your energy stores, both in Eastern and Western medicine. However, in Chinese medicine, what foods you need are highly individual. Chinese food therapy is a method of healing, and is based on your unique needs and the specific properties of each food that you eat. Different foods have different effects on your body. For example, scallions are a warm food that are used during the early stages of a cold, and eggs are considered to be especially nourishing to your blood. The goal of Chinese food therapy for patients with CFS is to prescribe easily digestible foods that work to rebuild energy stores.
Chinese herbal medicine may also be a good option for people struggling with CFS. Herbs also have specific properties and effects on your body, but they’re considered to be stronger than foods. There are a number of herbs that may be combined into a formula designed for your specific needs, to help increase your energy, enhance immunity, support sleep, and reduce stress—all of which are goals to help manage the symptoms of CFS.
Chronic fatigue syndrome may feel like a life-changing diagnosis, for a good reason. However, Chinese medicine may be a good choice to help you manage your symptoms, boost your energy, increase your level of functioning, and get your life back on track.
Cindy Chamberlain is an acupuncturist in Overland Park, KS and the founder of Eastern Healing Solutions, LLC. She is licensed in Kansas and Missouri and has been practicing traditional Chinese medicine since 1996.