Treating Chronic Fatigue Syndrome

Manage this mysterious malady with medicinal herbs.

| September/October 2003

  • Ashwaganda (Withania somnifera) has anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and immune-boosting properties.
    Steven Foster

Chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS), also known as chronic fatigue immune dysfunction syndrome, bears a striking resemblance to fibromyalgia, a frustrating and debilitating syndrome characterized by musculoskeletal pain and fatigue.

Both CFS and fibromyalgia have substantially overlapping symptom patterns. In fact, many sufferers could properly be diagnosed as having either condition, depending on which specialist gives the diagnosis. Both syndromes are characterized by a broad spectrum of physical and emotional symptoms, and both are increasing rapidly in the population, attracting rising attention from the medical profession.

The reason for this increase remains unclear, but it may be linked to greater levels of stress, reduced sleep and chronic malnutrition in our culture.

What is CFS?

Patients with CFS have been fatigued for more than six months, even though they feel they’ve been getting enough rest and aren’t working too hard. They often report various nonspecific symptoms, including a sore throat, tender or painful lymph nodes in the neck or armpits, muscle soreness, unusual headaches, unrefreshing sleep, impaired memory and feeling very tired for more than 24 hours after normal exercise and sufficient sleep.

A 1994 study by medical doctor Debra Buchwald, probably the most notable CFS researcher in the United States, concluded that CFS, fibromyalgia and multiple chemical sensitivity syndrome have significant overlap and may even be one condition. She points out that 70 percent of people with fibromyalgia meet the official case definition for CFS. Buchwald followed up with a 2001 study in which she looked at studies from a variety of “unexplained clinical conditions” — those that share features, including symptoms of fatigue and pain, disability out of proportion to physical findings, inconsistent laboratory abnormalities and a connection with stress and psychosocial factors.

The researchers looked at CFS, fibromyalgia, irritable bowel syndrome, multiple chemical sensitivity, temporomandibular disorder (jaw problems such as TMJ), tension headache, interstitial cystitis (a chronic inflammatory condition of the bladder) and postconcussion syndrome (which occurs when a person has had a concussion and hasn’t recovered within a few months). The overlap between these mysterious diseases is substantial, according to the report. “The proportion of patients with one unexplained clinical condition meeting criteria for a second unexplained condition was striking,” researchers said.

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