Chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) is a mystery disease capable of transforming healthy individuals into exhausted shadows of their former selves, with low energy, muddled thinking, and chronic joint and muscle pain, among other symptoms.
For many years, researchers have looked into possible causes for this complex condition—including psychological problems, viruses, an autoimmune reaction, or inflammation of the brain—but they have been unable to identify how CFS begins, why it continues, and what strategies might stop it. Fortunately, that may be changing.
A recent study suggests that CFS may be linked to abnormalities in the intestinal bacteria (microbiota) of people who have the disease. Researchers recruited 48 individuals diagnosed with CFS and compared blood and stool samples from that group with samples from a similar group of 39 healthy individuals, according to a report published June 23, 2016 in the journal Microbiome.
Analysis of bacterial DNA in the stool samples revealed that CFS participants had less bacterial diversity in their gut compared to the control group, a situation that might lead to health problems. Blood samples of the healthy participants were normal. But blood from CFS participants contained inflammatory markers, suggesting that bacteria might be entering the bloodstream because of “leaky gut” caused by intestinal problems and triggering an immune response that causes a number of CFS symptoms.
Possible Chronic Fatigue Syndrome Symptoms
Do you have persistent symptoms that might indicate chronic fatigue syndrome? Take this brief test to find out.
- Have you experienced the sudden unexplained onset of new and unusual fatigue after engaging in ordinary activities?
- Is this fatigue persistent or recurrent and not alleviated by rest?
- Has this fatigue forced you to significantly reduce your daily activity levels at work or school, or in social or personal pursuits?
- Are you experiencing overwhelming fatigue or exhaustion and worsening of symptoms following physical or mental exertion?
- Are you bothered by insomnia, difficulty sleeping, or unrefreshing sleep?
- Have these symptoms lasted for six months or more, and are they accompanied by at least one of the following?
- Impairment of memory, concentration, or thinking
- Problems with balance or dizziness
- Muscle or joint pain without swelling or redness
- Headaches of a new type or severity
- Tender—but not enlarged—lymph nodes in the neck or armpit
- Flu-like symptoms, such as nausea, fever, or sore throat
- Temperature fluctuations with chills or night sweats; low body temperature
“This research represents a new and very promising approach to a disease that has long baffled scientists,” says Maurizio Fava, MD, Executive Vice Chair of the Department of Psychiatry at MGH and Director of the Division of Clinical Research at the MGH Research Institute.
“The findings were so robust that study authors were able to determine whether 83 percent of the participants had CFS or not simply by looking at their gut bacteria,” added Dr. Fava, who is Editor-in-Chief of Mind, Mood, & Memory. “Although these results must be confirmed, they raise the possibility that strategies to normalize gut bacteria through diet or other measures might help relieve symptoms of CFS.”
Ensuring Bacterial Diversity
Taking steps to ensure a healthy diversity of microbiota in your gut is good for your overall health, and may well help symptoms of CFS. The following strategies have been shown to benefit the health and diversity of gut bacteria:
Consuming a Mediterranean-style diet, with plenty of fiber-rich whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables, fish, and healthy fats such as olive and canola oils.
Consuming probiotics, living microorganisms found in supplements or certain foods such as yogurt, sauerkraut, and pickles.
Consuming prebiotics, soluble fibers found in foods such as whole grains, onions, bananas, and garlic that nourish beneficial bacteria.
Exercise. Combining regular workouts with a healthy diet appears to help keep gut bacteria in balance.
Stress reduction through mind/body techniques, such as yoga and meditation, appears to help promote the growth of healthy gut bacteria.
“If you believe you may have CFS (see Possible Chronic Fatigue Syndrome Symptoms, right) it’s important to seek medical help,” advises Dr. Fava. “A thorough medical examination will help rule out other physical conditions that may be causing your symptoms.”
Although there is as yet no cure for CFS, if you do have the disorder, your doctor may be able to help you manage it through lifestyle changes.