Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS), a condition of severe, chronic tiredness, is a well-known term in the medical world and affects between one and four million people in the United States. However, since it was coined in 1988, considerable controversy has arisen over the term CFS. Many patients, advocacy groups, and experts believe the name trivializes the condition and leads to a lack of respect for patients within the medical community; some doctors view the illness skeptically and as a psychosomatic condition, and patients find they receive improper — or no — treatment for the illness.
Globally, a number of accepted names for this illness of uncertain cause are used, including Myalgic Encephalopathy (myalgic means muscle aches or pains, encephalomyelitis means inflammation of the brain and spinal cord), Post-Viral Fatigue Syndrome, and Chronic Fatigue Immune Dysfunction Syndrome. In the United States, organizations and doctors recently started calling the illness ME/CFS, for Myalgic Encephalopathy/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. This combined name reflects the standpoint that the illness is indeed physical as opposed to psychological.
In 2014, the US Department of Health and Human Services contracted the Institute of Medicine to review the evidence and create a clinical definition for ME/CFS, one that might also result in a newer name for the disease(s). Using both terms together in the new name is somewhat controversial since ME has an identifiable viral trigger, while CFS may not, and continues to be diagnosed solely by symptoms. Over time the research will reveal more; for now, patients are thankful that the new combined name reflects a medical basis for the illness.
What is ME/CFS?
ME/CFS affects four times as many women as men, occurs most often in people in their 40s and 50s, and does not draw lines around race. It is a debilitating chronic illness characterized by the following symptoms:
- Extreme Fatigue — brought on by low levels of, or no exertion. "Post-Exertional Malaise" is a hallmark.
- Unrefreshing Sleep — disrupted and unrefreshing sleep that increases symptoms of fatigue and pain.
- Cognitive Problems — characterized by brain fog; difficulties with concentration, attention and memory.
- Pain — muscle, joint, and all-body pain; headaches are common.
Many patients also experience visual disturbances, gastrointestinal issues, food and chemical allergies and sensitivities, irritability, chills and night sweats, depression and weight changes. A diagnosis is made after ruling out other illnesses that can cause similar symptoms, such as: fibromyalgia, thyroid problems, anemia, Lyme disease, lupus, MS, hepatitis, sleep disorders, and depression.
The Functional Medicine Approach To ME/CFS
Functional medicine uses an individualized, multi-dimensional approach toward working with the symptoms and possible causes of this debilitating illness. While no known cure for ME/CFS exists, addressing underlying health imbalances through diet and lifestyle changes and customized supplementation and other therapies can relieve symptoms, increase function, and allow the person to engage more fully in daily activities.
The functional medicine practitioner will look at possible underlying roots of an individual's symptoms, such as:
- chronic inflammation
- immune system activation (is a food, infection, or environmental chemical or metal triggering the immune system?)
- impaired functioning in the hormone system
- neurological system dysfunction
- gut inflammation, leaky gut, bacterial infection or other gut dysfunction
- problems with detoxification and methylation
- mitochondrial dysfunction
- poor glutathione activity
- and more
By paying close attention to and working with these possible roots of ME/CFS, the practitioner can help the patient achieve a greater level of relief from debilitating symptoms, and create a lifestyle that supports ongoing health and well-being.