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All in your head

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Chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS), also known as myalgic encephalomyelitis, or ME, has such strange physical manifestations—from severe unexplained physical and mental fatigue to memory loss, nervous system problems and even flu-like symptoms—that some scientists go as far as to label it the twenty-first century polio.

For a swathe of the medical profession, what can’t be explained is often dismissed as psychological, and in the case of chronic fatigue, it’s been disparaged as all in the sufferer’s head, with an antidepressant and some talking therapy like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) the usual prescription.

This view became more entrenched with the publication, in 2011, of the influential PACE study—the largest trial of CFS ever attempted. It was orchestrated by researchers who’d already published articles claiming that after some sort of viral trigger, patients with CFS develop “unhelpful beliefs” that prevent them from resuming a normal life. 

The study’s conclusion was that patients needed CBT to get rid of these limiting beliefs, and then to launch into a graded exercise program to help them overcome their “fear avoidance” of physical exercise.

After the study’s publication, the UK press urged CFS sufferers to get out of bed and into the gym, and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommended that CBT should be adopted as the standard treatment for CFS. 

Unsurprisingly, the study provoked a great outcry from CFS sufferers and researchers alike. Although the PACE team resisted, eventually other researchers got to review the original data. They concluded that the PACE team had inflated the benefits of CBT and exercise three-fold.

There’s no doubt that chronic fatigue causes massive physical symptoms right down to the cellular level. WDDTY panel member Dr Sarah Myhill, an expert who has successfully treated some 5,000 patients with CFS, has amassed an abundance of scientific and clinical evidence demonstrating that it is a disorder of the mitochondria, the tiny power packs that supply energy to every cell.

She and others have found that, often, the condition is indeed set off by one or more triggers, whether an infection, a chemical insult, such as exposure to heavy metals, or even stress.But in most instances, the ongoing problem mainly has to do with your gut and the state of your digestion, where foods are fermented rather than digested. 

Thanks to evidence from Cornell University researchers, who analyzed the gut bacteria and blood samples of patients with chronic fatigue, we know that CFS/ME patients have fewer types of gut bacteria than healthy controls—with DNA signatures similar to patients suffering from Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis—and are likely to have a leaky gut too.

Dr Myhill finds that the most successful treatment involves diet and lifestyle measures including supplements that repair the gut and power up the mitochondria.

Angela Johnson (see page 62) suffered from chronic fatigue since her senior year in high school. After all the usual recommendations of relaxation, exercise and antidepressants, she discovered tapping, or Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT).

She found that the main trigger had been chronic stress, and her path to wellness was “peeling the emotional layers” of fear, anxiety and other issues  that had contributed to the stress and eventually the illness.

For the most part, medicine fails to appreciate the intricate and multifactorial nature of illness and the power of emotion to exacerbate it. Despite the lip service paid to ‘mind-body’ connection, medical therapies seldom address the profound link between the mind and the body’s state of health.

Plenty of scientific evidence shows that natural killer cells dip during even minor conflicts, as does the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal gland axis, which regulates disease.

The fact that addressing these emotionally laden stresses got Angela well does not mean that CFS was ‘all in her head.’  Her physical symptoms were genuine—as they are with virtually all sufferers.

But the solution to Angela’s condition ultimately lay in recognizing this connection and resolving the unfinished business in her emotional life. 

Integrative practitioner Dr Leo Galland has long claimed there are four pillars to healing. While diet, detox and environmental factors are important, relationships and community are the greatest triggers to health or wellness, and negative emotion perhaps the body’s greatest virus—powerful enough to set off debilitating illness that is not, in any way, imaginary. 

Once medicine finally appreciates this delicate interconnection, doctors may finally discover the way to make CFS patients better.

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