Why You Have Chronic Fatigue and How To Beat It
That feeling at the end of a busy day. You’re completely exhausted and can’t wait to go to bed. It’s a normal feeling.
But what if that’s how you operate around the clock?
Well, then you’ve got a problem.
And that’s what chronic fatigue feels like, which you might unfortunately know already.
Chronic fatigue can leave you feeling incapacitated due to pain and exhaustion, and can add varying degrees of difficulty to everyday tasks: working, attending school, exercising, and frankly just flat-out living.
Sadly, because it’s an invisible illness, a lot of people just don’t get it if they don’t suffer from it themselves. They might think you’re exaggerating because there’s no fever, no tumor, no blood work, and no test or tangible way to truly diagnose chronic fatigue—it’s based solely on the person’s descriptions and feelings.
And while there’s also no set medical protocol for treatment, there’s (as always) more than one way to skin this cat.
What Exactly is Chronic Fatigue?
The main characteristic of chronic fatigue, or chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS), is a debilitating and recurrent fatigue that lasts six months or more.
Those who are overweight, inactive, or have depressive or sleep disorders are also more likely to have CFS. Genetic predisposition, allergies, stress and anxiety, poor eating habits, and environmental factors may also increase your risk.
How Does Chronic Fatigue Occur?
Hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) dysfunction is thought to play a role in CFS.5 These three organs work together to regulate your stress response, mood, digestion, immune system, libido, metabolism, and energy levels.
There are four main chemicals used in the HPA axis; one is cortocotropin-releasing hormone (CRH), which is secreted by the hypothalamus, signaling the pituitary gland to secrete adrenocorticotropic hormone.
Adrenocorticotropic hormone (ATCH) stimulates the adrenal glands to increase production of the glucocorticoids necessary for regulating metabolic rate, inflammation, and immune response.
This is what’s known as HPA axis dysfunction, and it’s associated with adrenal insufficiency, depression, chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia, asthma, and eczema.
Symptoms of Chronic Fatigue
The symptoms of CFS vary from person to person based on the severity of the condition, but the most common symptom is exhaustion that’s severe enough to interfere with your daily activities.
- Unrefreshing sleep
- Impaired memory or concentration
- Sore throat
- Tender lymph nodes in neck or armpit areas
- Aching or stiff muscles
- Multi-joint pain
- Headache of new type, pattern, or severity
- Post-exercise malaise or illness feeling which lasts more than 24 hours
Other conditions that commonly occur in people with CFS include fibromyalgia and multiple chemical sensitivity.
Root Causes of Chronic Fatigue
The pathophysiology of chronic fatigue syndrome is unknown, but many experts believe that CFS develops from multiple triggers that can cause a malfunction in the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis. These triggers might be:
Viral, Parasitic, or Bacterial Infection: Some people develop CFS after having an infection.24 These infections can lie dormant inside the body for years and then emerge under conditions of immune dysfunction, causing a variety of symptoms.
Yeast Overgrowth: Candida albicans (a yeast) is a common inhabitant of a healthy human intestinal tract. However, overgrowth of candida may cause health problems, including CFS-like symptoms, and may be involved in CFS in some individuals.25 People who develop CFS from other triggers can develop internal yeast due to the immune suppression.
Mitochondrial Dysfunction: Dysfunction of the mitochondria and mitochondrial enzymes may be associated with chronic fatigue.
Root Cause of Chronic Fatigue: Viral, Parasitic, or Bacterial Infection
Many studies indicate a link between chronic infections and chronic fatigue syndrome.
The hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis is activated during many bacterial and viral infections, resulting in an increase in hormone levels.
Other possible infection sources are:
Mycoplasma: The cause of atypical pneumonia
Bornaviruses: Cause borna disease, an infectious neurological syndrome
Ross River Virus: A mosquito-borne tropical disease
Coxiella Burnetti: The agent that causes Q fever
Root Cause of Chronic Fatigue: Yeast Overgrowth
Candida is a yeast found in the gastrointestinal tract that’s usually harmless. However, when the normal balance of good bacteria in the colon is disturbed, the yeast may quickly proliferate and change the balance in its favor.
Antibiotic use, some steroids, birth control pills, a low-fiber diet, and a diet high in refined sugars can contribute to yeast overgrowth.
Signs of candida overgrowth include skin and nail fungal infections, digestive issues, poor memory, skin issues, difficulty concentrating, and chronic fatigue.
Root Cause of Chronic Fatigue: Hormone Imbalance
People who have chronic fatigue syndrome also sometimes experience abnormal blood levels of hormones produced in the hypothalamus, pituitary glands, or adrenal glands.
Imbalanced thyroid hormone, low adrenal function (low cortisol), and low estrogen or testosterone are associated with chronic fatigue syndrome.
Thyroid Function: Many people with CFS have difficulty in converting thyroxine (T4), which is fairly inactive, to triiodothyronine (T3), the active hormone. Symptoms of an underactive thyroid, known as hypothyroid, include fatigue, poor memory and concentration, aches and pains, and susceptibility to viral infections.
Adrenal Insufficiency: During adrenal fatigue, the adrenal glands do continue to function and produce their signature hormone cortisol, but not well enough to maintain optimal homeostasis.
Cortisol is an adrenal hormone essential for the maintenance of homeostasis, modulating many changes that occur in the body in response to stress. Adrenal dysfunction can cause reduced cortisol levels and thus results in blood sugar imbalances, lowered immune function, brain fog, inflammation, low blood pressure, and fatigue.
Estrogen is the major female hormone, and it not only affects neurotransmitter production and activity but also has a neuroprotective effect on central nervous system functioning.
In perimenopause and menopause, most women will experience lower estrogen levels. Lower levels can trigger some of the same symptoms as CFS, including poor sleep, brain fog, achiness, and fatigue.
Testosterone is important for both men and women. Aside from its role in sexuality, testosterone is also responsible for maintaining muscles and bone integrity and is important for cardiovascular health.
Root Cause of Chronic Fatigue: Chronic Stress
Stress is your body’s way of responding to any kind of demand, and it can be short-term (acute) or long-term (chronic).
Stress can be real or perceived, and it may be physical (exercise, lack of sleep), mental (worry, anxiety), emotional (anger, fear), nutritional (food allergies, nutrient deficiencies), traumatic (injury, illness), or psycho-spiritual (troubled relationships, finances, career).
All stressors can alter the activity of the HPA axis, which controls important functions such as sleep, stress response, and depression.
Modern diets are typically high in refined carbs, salt, and saturated fat but low in complex carbohydrates and fresh fruits and vegetables.
This dietary pattern can produce chronic deficiencies in several micronutrients (B vitamins, magnesium, iron, and zinc, to name a few), which are important for maintaining energy and fighting fatigue.
Nutritional deficiencies can also occur because of infections in the gastrointestinal tract that can result in poor absorption of nutrients. During periods of increased stress, the requirement for these micronutrients is higher.
Root Cause of Chronic Fatigue: Toxicity
Chronic fatigue may be a result of toxin exposure. Toxins can disrupt muscle metabolism, which may explain the muscle pain and fatigue involved in CFS. Toxins can include tobacco smoke, chemicals, and pollutants.
Exposure to heavy metals (including mercury and lead) has also been linked to CFS-like symptoms.42 Heavy metal toxicity can affect the nervous system, gastrointestinal system, cardiovascular system, reproductive system, and kidneys.
Root Cause of Chronic Fatigue: Mitochondrial Dysfunction
Nearly every cell in the human body contains mitochondria. Mitochondria are organelles within cells that serve as batteries, supplying energy to the cells that can be used for a variety of jobs, from muscle contraction to hormone production.
Mitochondrial dysfunction can be inherited or acquired due to adverse effects from drugs, infections, or environmental causes. It has been shown to be associated with CFS, leading to disordered sleep, hormonal imbalances, and autonomic dysfunctions.46 Damage to mitochondria can have widespread consequences.
Natural Relief from Chronic Fatigue
There are several dietary and lifestyle considerations that can help chronic fatigue syndrome, including:
Dr. Aviva Romm refers to adaptogens as the “kings and queens” of herbal medicines for restoring health, vitality, immunity, and stamina.21 Some adaptogenic herbs reputed for boosting energy and supporting healthy immune function include:
In addition to dietary considerations, it’s important to engage in healthy sleep hygiene, ideally sleeping eight hours a night, and stress-reduction exercises such as yoga or meditation, all of which will help aid in relief of symptoms associated with CFS.