Chronic Fatigue Syndrome Starts in Your Gut

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome

Story at-a-glance

  • Chronic fatigue syndrome or myalgic encephalomyelitis can be debilitating and devastating to the individual and their family members
  • Leaking waste products and bacteria from your gut may trigger an inflammatory response, resulting in physical symptoms and neurological changes
  • Eliminating carbohydrates like sugars and grains, especially wheat products, and including high-fiber and fermented foods may help heal your gut and improve your symptoms

Chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) can be debilitating, causing sufferers to experience unrelenting fatigue no matter how much rest they get. Other symptoms are related to pain and an inflammatory response throughout your body. The medical term for the condition is myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME).

In years past, without an ability to pinpoint a cause, many physicians attributed the condition to psychological origins. No physiological or anatomical commonalities were found between large groups of patients that might have separated the condition from other comparable illnesses.

Widely known as ME/CFS, reports of the condition were first made public in the literature as far back 1934.1 Recently, research from Cornell University discovered biological markers in both microbes in your blood stream and bacteria in your gut.2

With diagnostic changes, in combination with changes discovered in brain tissue of individuals with ME/CFS, it appears scientists may be close to finding a causative agent, potentially improving treatment options.

What Is Chronic Fatigue Syndrome?

Until recently, the diagnosis of ME/CFS has been one of exclusion. This meant all other illnesses mimicking the symptoms of ME/CFS must first be ruled out before doctors could suggest you were suffering from ME/CFS.

Symptoms of ME/CFS can vary widely from one individual to the next. The most common symptom is one of overwhelming exhaustion that worsens with physical or mental energy expenditure and does not get better with rest.3 It may take up to 48 hours after activity to experience the full extent of the exhaustion.

Additional symptoms of the condition may mimic other medical conditions, and include:4,5,6

Muscle pain Memory problems Headaches
Sore throat Pain in multiple joints Difficulty sleeping
Tender lymph nodes Visible muscle twitching (fasciculations) Difficulty concentrating
Short attention span Word find problems Excessive sweating
Palpitations Fainting Clumsiness
Enlarged glands Intermittent flu-like symptoms Alcohol intolerance
Irritable bowel-like symptoms Mood swings Temperature control
Food intolerance Gastrointestinal problems Hypersensitivity to light and noise

While the symptoms are well-documented, to date the cause has not been identified. Possible further complications from the condition include depression, social isolation, lifestyle restrictions and increased absences at work related to your inability to function optimally.

People of all ages, ethnic and racial groups and socioeconomic status are affected by the condition.7 However, women report symptoms four times more often than men, and although people of all ages may have the condition, more report symptoms during their 40s and 50s.

The list of symptoms isn’t a complete indication how people with ME/CFS suffer. David Tuller, coordinator at the University of California (UC), Berkley writes in Virology:8

“In an interview with The New York Times earlier this year, best-selling author Laura Hillenbrand (“Seabiscuit,” “Unbroken”), who has lived with CFS for decades, called the name of the illness ‘condescending’ and ‘so grossly misleading.’

She added: ‘The average person who has this disease, before they got it, we were not lazy people; it’s very typical that people were Type A and hard, hard workers …

Fatigue is what we experience, but it is what a match is to an atomic bomb. This disease leaves people bedridden. I’ve gone through phases where I couldn’t roll over in bed. I couldn’t speak. To have it called ‘fatigue’ is a gross misnomer.’”

Links to ME/CFS Found in Your Gut

In a study released in the journal Microbiome, researchers from Cornell University evaluated the blood and stool of 48 people diagnosed with ME/CFS and compared the results to those from 39 healthy people.9

What they found may shed new light on diagnostic procedures for the condition and may lead to specific strategies for treatment and prevention. Differences were revealed in both stool and blood samples.

Using DNA sequencing, a process of determining the precise order of nucleotides in a DNA molecule, they found a distinct lack in diversity in the gut microbiome in affected individuals and inflammatory markers in the blood.10

Although these changes could not be clearly identified as either the cause or consequence of ME/CFS, researchers were heartened by the presence of these markers in 83 percent of the samples, and the possibility of treatment options to reduce symptoms.

Quoted in the Washington Journal, professor of molecular biology and genetics at Cornell University, Maureen Hanson, Ph.D., said:11

“Our work demonstrates that the gut bacterial microbiome in chronic fatigue syndrome patients isn’t normal, perhaps leading to gastrointestinal and inflammatory symptoms in victims of the disease.

Furthermore, our detection of a biological abnormality provides further evidence against the ridiculous concept that the disease is psychological in origin.”

Leaky Gut Might Be Key

As reported in The Washington Post, researchers from Cornell University theorize the inflammatory markers in the blood could be the result of a “leaky gut from intestinal problems that allow bacteria to enter the blood.”12

Leaky gut is triggered by the development of “gaps” between membrane cells that line your intestinal tract. These tiny gaps allow material meant to remain in your intestinal tract, to leak into your bloodstream. Materials such as undigested food, bacteria and waste products may escape through these gaps.

There is a distinct link between the development of these gaps between cells and the food you eat each day. Grains are particularly troublesome. Research shows that gluten stimulates a molecule in your gut called zonulin, a protein that triggers the opening of junctures between the cells in your gut lining.

In essence, it makes your gut more permeable, allowing food particles to escape into your bloodstream, causing inflammation, immune reactions and raising your risk of various autoimmune disorders.

Not all people with a leaky gut have ME/CFS. However, healing and sealing your gut and reducing the inflammatory response in your body may result in a significant reduction in symptoms. A decline in symptoms is not a cure, but rather supports your body’s immune system.

Brain Changes Associated With ME/CFS

In 2014, researchers from Stanford University uncovered changes in white matter in the brains of those who suffered from ME/CFS, finally giving doctors and patients concrete evidence of neurological changes resulting from the condition.13

Imaging studies using new technology, can now distinguish differences between the brains of people suffering with ME/CFS and healthy individuals.

Those differences included both a diminished amount of white matter and abnormalities in the right hemisphere of the brain.14,15 According to a press release from Stanford Medical Center:

“It’s not uncommon for CFS patients to face several mischaracterizations of their condition, or even suspicions of hypochondria, before receiving a diagnosis of CFS. The abnormalities identified in the study … may help to resolve those ambiguities, said lead author Dr. Michael Zeineh, assistant professor of radiology.”

This study revealed three noteworthy findings scientists may be able to use in an effort to find the cause and cure for this devastating condition.16 The first finding, a reduction in brain white matter responsible for transporting information throughout the brain, was not unexpected. Chronic inflammation has a known effect on white matter.

A consistent abnormality in the right brain hemisphere of people suffering from ME/CFS was a surprise. This area, which connects the frontal and temporal lobes demonstrated an abnormal appearance in advanced imaging techniques. The degree of abnormality was strongly correlated with the severity of the patient’s symptoms. A third finding, thickening of the gray matter on either end of the white matter between the temporal and frontal lobes, makes it unlikely that these findings are coincidental.

Support and Treatment Options at Home

Recent research links an alteration in your gut microbiome, resulting in loss of bacteria and waste products from your intestines, to an increased inflammatory response in the body. Neurological changes found in individuals with ME/CFS are also linked to inflammation, possibly the result of changes in your gut.

While improving the health of your intestinal walls and gut microbiome may not eliminate your symptoms, it will likely improve them. Practical changes to your nutritional plan may help heal the gaps in your intestinal membranes.

Avoid gluten and wheat products: in the U.S., we’re told to increase our whole wheat consumption as a part of a balanced diet and to increase fiber. However, this may actually be damaging your gut health. Gliadins, a component of gluten, are a class of protein found in wheat and cereals. These proteins increase the permeability of your gut.17 Keep in mind that gluten can also be found in other grains, not just wheat.

Wheat germ agglutinin (WGA) is a lectin, or plant protein found in high concentration in seed form. Bread wheat is a relatively new form of wheat that has a resilient and problematic form of WGA.18 It plays a key role in a toxic effect on your kidneys, and there is evidence it increases the damage to your intestinal membrane walls.

Reduce your net carbs: the carbohydrate sugar, like grains, will upset the balance of microbes in your gut. Sugar is the food source for bacteria that can prompt damage to your intestinal walls, while fiber is the food source for bacteria that build your intestinal membranes.

Your net carbs are the total grams of carbohydrates you’ve eaten in a day, minus the grams of fiber you’ve eaten. The difference is your net carbs. Seek to reduce your net carbs to 50 grams per 1,000 calories of food eat each day.

Increase your fiber intake: the fiber you eat from whole foods is the nutrient source for bacteria in your gut that help maintain and build the membrane cells in your intestinal walls. This helps to seal the “gaps” between the cells and reduces any leakage of waste products and bacteria into your blood stream. Focus on eating whole food vegetables, nuts and seeds, such as:

Chia seeds Almonds Beans Berries
Cauliflowers Green beans Peas Broccoli
Brussels sprouts Onions Sweet potatoes Psyllium husk
Flax seeds Beets Parsnips Turnips

Eat fermented foods: although the idea of eating “fermented” foods may sound distasteful, you might be surprised by the list of tasty delicacies produced through this ancient preparation and preservation technique. By breaking down carbohydrates and proteins using bacteria, foods become functional, delicious and a source of natural probiotics to feed your gut.

Olives, pickles, grass-fed cheese, homemade yogurt and sauerkraut are just a few of the foods you may not have considered. Your best bet is to make your own. In this video, Julie and I demonstrate how to make your own fermented vegetables at home.

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