If you find that you’re feeling tired all the time and suddenly having little energy for your day to day life, then you may be experiencing symptoms of CFS. Chronic Fatigue Syndrome is the name for a disorder characterized by debilitating fatigue and a variety of associated physical, constitutional and neuropsychological complaints.
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What are the Symptoms of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome?
The main clinical manifestations of CFS include:
- difficulty concentrating, confusion, impaired memory
- sore throat
- tender or swollen lymph nodes
- muscle aches
- joint aches
- psychiatric problems (such as depression)
- abdominal cramps
- weight loss or gain
- rapid pulse
- chest pain
- night sweats
- changes in appetite
All of these symptoms worsen with the slightest bit of exertion.
Diagnosing Chronic Fatigue Syndrome
To be diagnosed, you must experience at least 4 of these symptoms for at least six months or longer, and the causes of these symptoms must remain uncertain according to western medicine diagnostics.
Women are twice as likely as men to be diagnosed with CFS. Most patients with CFS are generally between 25 and 45 years old, although there are some cases noted in childhood and in middle age.
The cause for this syndrome is unclear according to most Western Medical Practitioners, often citing chronic stress, viruses, allergies, and hormonal imbalances as the cause.
How to Treat Chronic Fatigue Syndrome
Western approaches use non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs for headaches, to diffuse pain and for feverish sensations. Antihistamines or decongestants are used for allergic rhinitis and sinusitis and Non-sedating antidepressants for mood and sleep disorders. But these are mostly band-aid solutions to temporarily bring relief (which definitely has its merits!) but are unable to address the root of the syndrome and bring lasting results.
The Traditional Chinese Medicine Approach
The Traditional Chinese Medicine approach looks at Chronic Fatigue Syndrome from a slightly different angle. Instead of diagnosing from the lens of CFS, we look rather at the specific symptoms that the individual is presenting with and customize treatment from there. Each CFS sufferer will have slight variations on what they are experiencing – some having more heaviness and lethargy whereas other have more inflammation or mood symptoms.
When we focus on the symptoms, we are looking for the patterns in the body. When we are able to rebalance and treat from that perspective, symptoms lessen and people feel better. Long-term.
The exciting news for CFS is that Traditional Chinese Medicine including herbs, acupuncture, and lifestyle has been shown to be highly effective in treating Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.
The Shenzhen Hospital of Chinese Medicine researchers found acupuncture and to be a safe and effective treatment for the alleviation of chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS). Results were based on both how the individual felt (subjective documentation) as well as objective measurements, which included measurements of both IgA and IgG blood levels (which are a means of measuring immunoglobulins or antibodies in the blood which is our immune systems way of fighting antigens or foreign bodies).
The results showed a 90% total effective rate and a 50% total recovery rate in using acupuncture for CFS. Thus demonstrating a definite therapeutic effect on CFS and improving the immune system function in CFS patients.
How Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) Works
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There’s a saying in TCM:
“Many diseases, one pattern, one pattern, many diseases”
What this means is that we look for the mix of symptoms that someone is presenting with and then seek to bring balance back to the body (through diet, lifestyle, herbal medicine and acupuncture). When we can remove things that are making things worse (food, patterns of behavior, internal conditions) and use herbs and acupuncture to rebalance, the symptoms lessen and go away.
The key is recognizing and understanding the various symptoms and pattern(s) they belong to and then treating from there. Each person will be slightly unique and it is that modification of how we treat where the power lies. Treat the pattern, not the name of the disease.
So let’s look a bit deeper into Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS).
The number one pattern seen in CFS is something we call Dampness.
Physical manifestations of this pattern include:
- Weak digestion or loose stools
- Lack of thirst though sometimes the mouth feels dry, but without the desire to drink much
- Heavy-headed and extreme lethargy
- Heavy tired limbs
- Foggy headedness
- A sticky taste in their mouth, a feeling of a swollen tongue or may have scalloped edges to the sides of the tongue.
Internal dampness affects the body very similarly to the way external dampness (i.e the weather or a flood) affects the external world. Too much water sitting in the body will cause things to swell and become heavy (think of the difference between picking up a dry towel to a soaked one), it makes things foggy or cloudy making it harder to think, easy to become confused easily and slower to respond. This heaviness lowers spirits and depression sets in.
Damp is the number one thing to treat and is one of the primary things to address first with CFS. The following are key to supporting your body to deal with the dampness.
The second key pattern associated with CFS
As energy is chronically low, addressing this is obviously key. Dampness, similar to the way a ‘wet blanket’ puts out a fire, stifles one’s vital energy. It can also deplete core energy over time. We refer to vital life force or energy as Qi (pronounced chee).
This Qi can get drained from chronic damp accumulated from external sources (think getting stuck in the rain or camping in damp weather and the feeling that gets stuck in your bones), or from a diet that is full of “cold or damp” foods such as frozen or raw foods and lifestyle that depletes energy reserves over time.
Overwork or over thinking and worrying can also deplete this energy. Just think how a non-stop talker can exhaust the room at a dinner party, chronic over thinking and a fretting mind can exhaust the body.
The primary way we rebuild this Qi is through our digestive system and our ability to break down and assimilate food. We refer to this digestive system as the Spleen/Stomach/Pancreas system in TCM.
Keeping this system strong is key. The main dietary and lifestyle components are similar to those for preventing and dealing with dampness and are listed below.
TCM Eating & Habits Plan to Reduce Dampness and build Qi:
Chronic Fatigue Syndrome Diet
Foods to Eat:
- Cook your food avoiding raw or cold foods (it takes the work out of digesting your food and allows you to absorb the maximum amount of nutrients without exhausting your system to break down the food)
- Try to make sure to have adequate protein (30%) and fruits and vegetables (50%) and a diet lower in complex carbohydrates
- Eat foods lower on the glycemic index to help stabilize blood sugar levels
- Include barley or job’s tears in your diet regularly (it helps to rid the body of excess moisture)
- Try starting your day with a barley drink and lemon (soak 1tbsp of barley overnight in water, add lemon and drink liquid – do this 2x day minimum)
- Green tea
- Add Warm foods and spices (if you’re a cold and damp mix) such as dried ginger, fennel, cinnamon, turmeric, pepper, cardamom, mustard or horseradish.
- Dry roasted foods can be helpful
- Herbal teas like hawthorn or fennel are helpful for digestion
Foods to Avoid:
- Dairy products
- Sugar and sweeteners in general (if you need something sweet, opt for natural sweeteners like maple syrup or raw honey which helps to rid the body of excess dampness (in small amounts)
- Avoid raw, cold or frozen foods
- Heavy cream, fried or greasy foods
- Processed foods of all sorts. Basically, if it’s packaged, avoid it.
- Wheat products
- Fermented products if you’re prone to yeast/candida (beer, bread, soy sauce, wine, vinegar, mushrooms, blue cheese)
- Excessive salt
- Rich or fatty greasy meats
- Carbs like yams, sweet potatoes, plantain.
- Rich food (dairy, very concentrated foods or foods cooked for such a long time that they become highly concentrated)
- Stimulants like caffeine eg in coffee or cola or social drugs
- Avoid damp environments and be sure to check for any mold that may be lingering in damp areas in your home. This would include long soaks in a bath or hot tub (sorry!)
- Probiotics may be helpful to add in on a regular basis and be sure to add prebiotic foods into your diet as well such as asparagus, leeks, onion, garlic, dandelion greens, Jerusalem artichoke
- Chew your food really well. It helps break down the foods better which is essential for digestion and absorption of nutrients
- Rest, followed by light exercise, followed by rest. And a little more rest. The more we push through, the more exhausted we can get in the long run.
3 Core Patterns Traditional Chinese Medicine Practitioners See with CFS
Some other patterns commonly seen in Chronic Fatigue Syndrome include:
- Yin Deficiency and/or Heat
- Yang deficiency or cold
- Qi Stagnation
1. Yin Deficiency and Heat
Signs of yin deficiency or heat include: irritability, insomnia, dream-disturbed sleep, hot flashes, night sweats, thinning hair or hair loss; sore back; ringing in the ears; a flushed feeling or heat in your hands, feet and cheeks, afternoon fevers, night sweats, a red and possibly cracked tongue body with very little coating
For this pattern, you want to be sure not to add more heat to your system. Avoid spicy or warming foods such as ginger, cinnamon, hot peppers or warming spices. Avoid hot environments or too many draining stimulants such as coffee or black tea and alcohol
Yang Deficiency or Cold
Yang Deficiency signs include: Extreme fatigue, cold limbs a/or joints, weakness of the lower body, low libido, bright white skin, clear and copious urine, spontaneous sweats, a dislike of cold, weak back particularly the low back which may also feel cold to the touch or feel worse in cold environments, a swollen or enlarged tongue that may also be very pale in colour.
For this pattern, you want to make sure not to add more cold to your system and instead, try to warm it up. Warming foods that you avoid in the ‘hot type’ you can add in for the cold. It’s really important to avoid cold, raw or frozen foods for this pattern (think more cold means…more cold! We want to avoid this!). Try to keep your feel warm and opt for warm water or a ginger tea as opposed to icy drinks or things directly out of the fridge.
Just like water likes to flow smoothly down a stream, our body’s energy pathways like to remain open and clear. When this is the case, we have energy circulating well, our body is able to detoxify easily and effectively and our joints and body feel good.
If things get backed up, there can be a buildup of debris or toxins and things get congested. This is much the way things work in our body. If we have an ‘internal traffic jam’ so to speak, we will get pain, discomfort, accumulations or swellings in joints or throughout the body. We might be cranky and irritable (think Friday afternoon in rush hour internal traffic jam feeling) or experience other symptoms such as physical and mental fatigue, headaches, depression, frequent sighing (yes it is a real symptom!), chest tightness and hypochondriac distension, IBS like symptoms of alternating loose stools and constipation, bitter taste in the mouth.
When Qi begins to flow smoothly and freely again, the blockages get cleared away and the syndrome improves.
Movement helps this system a lot, as does anything that helps us work through any stuck emotions. Irritability, unexpressed anger or prolonged stress each have an impact on this system. Finding healthy ways to ‘clean the emotional house’ so to speak is a very important way to keep the Qi flowing well.
Accumulation of damp in the body is another way that Qi will stagnate so be sure to follow the damp diet above if you relate to any of those symptoms.
Every person suffering from chronic fatigue syndrome has their unique variation of the patterns listed above. The best results come from working with a qualified practitioner to identify your particular imbalance and then using acupuncture and a customized lifestyle and diet plan to help you bring health and vitality back to your body. But remember, every little thing helps, so if you identify with any of the patterns above, there are many lifestyle and dietary shifts that can make a big difference over time!
This fantastic article was written by Angela Warburton, a Traditional Chinese Medicine practitioner, speaker, writer, and teacher. We encourage you to check out her website here, and follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram!
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- Lu, C., X. J. Yang, and J. Hu. “[Randomized controlled clinical trials of acupuncture and moxibustion treatment of chronic fatigue syndrome patients].” Zhen ci yan jiu= Acupuncture research/[Zhongguo yi xue ke xue yuan Yi xue qing bao yan jiu suo bian ji] 39, no. 4 (2014): 313-317.
- Huang, Fang, Xiong Chen, Li-zhi Zhou, Ping Huang, and Li-hong Guo. “Clinical study on electroacupuncture plus interferential current therapy for chronic fatigue syndrome.” Journal of Acupuncture and Tuina Science 12, no. 3 (2014): 156-159.
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