Chronic fatigue syndrome a physical illness, not psychological
Researchers have found an immune system signature that is present in people who have been newly diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS), providing "robust evidence" that the disease has a biological basis.
Led by Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health, the researchers looked at the immune systems of 298 patients suffering from chronic fatigue syndrome and 348 people without the disease. Those who had the condition for three years or less had increased amounts of cytokines, small proteins that affect the interactions between cells. They also had high concentrations of interferon gamma, a molecule that has been linked to fatigue.
"We now have evidence confirming what millions of people with this disease already know, that ME/CFS isn't psychological," said Dr. Mady Hornig, director of translational research at the Center for Infection and Immunity at Columbia University in a news release.
"Our results should accelerate the process of establishing the diagnosis after individuals first fall ill as well as discovery of new treatment strategies focusing on these early blood markers."
The study was published in the journal Science Advances on February 27.
According to the Institute of Medicine, chronic fatigue syndrome affects 836,000 to 2.5 million Americans. However, 84 to 91 percent of CFS sufferers have not yet been diagnosed. The disease is more common in women than men and usually develops in the early 20s to mid-40s.
Chronic fatigue syndrome is also known as myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME). Myalgic means muscle aches or pains and encephalomyelitis means inflammation of the brain and spinal cord.
However, the IOM suggests that ME/CFS be renamed systemic exertion intolerance disease (SEID). According to the institute, studies have shown that the term "chronic fatigue syndrome" affects patients' perception of their illness and can trivialize the seriousness of the condition. The IOM also says that myalgic encephalomyelitis is not an appropriate term because there is a lack of evidence that patients suffer brain inflammation, and myalgia is not a core symptom of the disease.
The symptoms of chronic fatigue syndrome include extreme fatigue, joint pain, headache, tender lymph nodes in the neck or armpit, and difficulties with memory and concentration. But because these symptoms are similar to many other illnesses, chronic fatigue syndrome can be overlooked or misdiagnosed.
There is currently no cure for chronic fatigue syndrome, and treatment focuses on symptom relief. Symptoms can be treated with medications such as anti-anxiety drugs and antidepressants, but according to the Mayo Clinic, the most effective treatment for CFS appears to be a two-pronged approach consisting of a gentle exercise program and psychological counseling. Stress reduction and relaxation exercises such as yoga and meditation have also proven beneficial to some CFS patients.
Diet changes may also be beneficial for chronic fatigue syndrome patients. Refined foods, caffeine, alcohol, saturated fats and sugar should be avoided while consumption of vegetables, whole grains, protein, legumes and essential fatty acids should be increased. Supplements such as magnesium, vitamins B12 and D, and beta-carotene may help reduce symptoms.