Chronic Fatigue Syndrome
Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS) is the name commonly given to a disorder characterized by a complex pattern of symptoms, including debilitating exhaustion, depression, fibromyalgia, chemical sensitivity, tender lymph nodes, allergies, abdominal cramps, night sweats, headache, “brain fog,” poor memory, and changes in appetite.
There are many controversial hypotheses about the etiology of CFS. It is often postinfectious and associated with immunologic disturbances. The typical case of CFS arises suddenly in a previously active individual. An otherwise unremarkable flu-like illness or some other acute stress is often pinpointed as the triggering event. Extreme fatigue is left in the wake of this incident. Other symptoms, such as sore throat, headache, abdominal cramps, muscle and joint aches, and frequent feverishness lead to the belief that an infection persists. Other features of the syndrome become evident as time goes on, such as depression and disturbed sleep.
Western Medicine perspective on CFS
Another term used for CFS is “myalgic encephalomyelitis”(ME) or post-viral syndrome. Not only is their a clear causative agent for the disease, even the name is not commonly agreed upon. From a Western medical perspective, CFS is a fairly new disease. “Myalgic” means pain in the muscles and “encephalomyelitis” means inflammation of the brain and nerves(1).
Western medicine requires physical examination and routine laboratory tests to rule out other possible causes of the patient’s symptoms. However, no laboratory test exists which can diagnose this condition or measure its severity.
Overall, Western medicine uses a wide variety of different pharmaceutical drugs to treat the myriad of presenting symptoms, but does not treat the root of the disease. This is due much in part to the fact that allopathic medicine does not understand this disease well enough to treat it adequately or prevent it.
Chinese Medicine (CM) theories about CFS
CM characterizes all illnesses as imbalances of organ function or poor circulation of qi (pronounced chi) — or energy — and blood in the body’s channels. In chronic cases with many diverse symptoms such as CFS, Chinese medicine attempts to discern how, where, and why organ and channel dysfunctions are happening, then works to restore a natural and balanced state of health with a combination of acupuncture, Chinese herbal medicines and lifestyle modifications.
Some post-viral fatigue syndromes such as CFS are characterized by a persistent viral infection while others are caused more by a disharmony of the internal organs following a viral infection. From a Chinese medical perspective, any type of post-viral fatigue syndrome can be diagnosed and treated according to the principles of Chinese medicine, which often pinpoint the cause of this disease to being Residual pathogenic factor, Latent Heat or Lesser Yang pattern.
Residual pathogenic factor
One of the main conditions leading to ME is what Chinese medicine considers “residual pathogenic factor,” which essentially refers to pathogens that get stuck in the body and cause a negative feedback loop of disease. If external Wind — which in Western medicine often presents as a cold or flu, or even acute allergies — invades the body and is not cleared properly, or if the person fails to rest during an acute invasion of Wind, the pathogenic factor may remain in the Interior of the person’s body. Here it continues to produce symptoms and signs while also making the person more susceptible to further invasions of exterior pathogenic factors. It also weakens Qi (energy) and/or Yin, establishing a damaging cycle of pathogenic factor and deficiency.
Latent Heat is an ancient concept in Chinese medicine used to describe the manifestation of an External or Internal Pathogenic Factor that does not create immediate symptoms, but remains latent in the body. In other words, when an external pathogenic factor such as Cold or Heat invades, and an individual’s vital (or called Kidney energy in CM) energy is weak, the pathogenic factor moves inward instead of being pushed out. In Chinese medicine, Cold and Heat are not just temperatures, but occasionally become pathogenic factors that cause imbalance and disease in the body.
Ancient Chinese medical texts such as the Book of Simple Questions, Chapter 3, describes latency in the following manner, “If Cold enters the body in winter-time; it comes out as Heat in springtime.” In reality, this can occur at any season, not just springtime. The process of latency is the body’s attempt to hold onto something when it does not have the energy to immediately expel it, and this may contribute to chronic conditions such as autoimmune disorders, CFS, digestive disorders, joint problems, AIDS, and even cancer.
According to Giovanni Maciocia, the underlying reason for latent heat syndromes is usually a deficiency of the Kidney energy*. He goes on to state that if the body condition is relatively good, a person will develop symptoms at the time when the external pathogenic factor invades. This is a healthy reaction.
*The Chinese medicine version of “Kidney” does not simply refer to the physical organ of a person, but is also used as a general term to describe the energetic components of that particular system in the body. The descriptions used by Chinese medicine pertaining to the treatment of this illness, such as “Kidney deficiency” are merely a metaphor for representing the body.
If the body’s energy is weakened because the body has been taxed with overwork or the maintenance of an unhealthy diet or lifestyle habits, this will make the person more vulnerable to acquiring a Latent Heat condition. Once the pathogen enters the interior of the body, it incubates, turns into Heat and will become evident some months later.
Latent Heat conditions are also described as originating from pestilent factors. In other words, this condition can occur when a strong pestilent factor such as an epidemic febrile disease from a virus, bacteria or fungus invades our body. When the pestilent factor moves inward, it usually lodges at the nutritive level called Ying Qi. This is often defined as the level of the blood vessels and the flesh.
Lesser Yang syndrome
This is also referred to as Shao yang syndrome in Chinese medicine. Latent Heat can also take the form of the Lesser Yang (Shao Yang) syndrome, characterized by alternation of shivers and feeling of heat, when the pathogenic factor is “trapped” between the Interior and Exterior. What this means essentially is, the pathogen is not deep at the level of the internal organs nor is it on the surface (which is often the case in acute illnesses such as colds or flus), but is stuck in the middle of these two levels. for this reason, when it goes towards the Exterior the person feels cold, when it goes towards the Interior the person feels hot. This pattern is more common in teenagers and young people. In all the above conditions the underlying cause is usually overexertion and lack of adequate rest.
Treating CFS with Chinese Medicine
All treatments for CFS using Chinese medicine will specifically treat the root cause of the illness while also supporting the body and reducing troublesome symptoms.
Treating CFS can be done with a variety of Chinese herbal formulas. Here at Buckhead Acupuncture and Herbal Center in Atlanta, we can provide special formulas that help treat CFS despite which of the above differentiations or patterns is at the root of the illness. We can concoct individualized formulas tailored to your specific case of CSF. We can also help provide acupuncture treatments that work to minimize fatigue and all other symptoms associated with CFS. Our experienced Atlanta acupuncturists can also help suggest dietary and lifestyle modifications that help reduce symptoms and support the body’s natural healing processes.
Treatment of complex syndromes such as leaky gut or CFS should be managed by an experienced practitioner of Chinese herbal medicine — and we have quite a few of them here at our Atlanta acupuncture clinic. Come visit us for a consultation to find our more or to find out for yourself how effective Chinese medicine is at treating CFS!
General functional medicine approaches to CFS
Some key treatments for CFS in CM focus on regulating, supporting and detoxifying the liver and repairing small-intestine inflammation and permeability. This requires specific herbs to move liver qi and blood and to cool any inflammatory heat. As the liver regains its ability to detoxify, poisons exit the body. The symptoms of headache, fibromyalgia, and fatigue gradually disappear. Chinese medicine and acupuncture can be quite effective, especially if the intervention occurs early on in the condition. This holds especially true when an active viral irritant is present, as CM is quite effective in combating viral illnesses.
One theory about the root of CFS is that one or more pathogenic microbes, including viruses and bacteria, enter the body during an acute illness that often resembles the flu. These pathogenic microbes can damage a cell’s mitochondria, leading to profound fatigue. In the case of viruses, the pathogen can disturb DNA replication, leading to the chronic nature of the illness.
In addition to microbial invasion, many integrative medicine practitioners believe CFS can result from “leaky gut syndrome,” or small-intestine colitis. Leaky gut syndrome usually manifests after one consumes antibiotics, either as prescribed medicine or in animal foods.
By inadvertently killing the thousands of beneficial and protective intestinal bacteria in the body, the antibiotics allow harmful fungi or pathogenic bacteria to proliferate. These bacteria can then irritate and inflame the internal lining of the small intestine and allow absorption of foods into the blood before they’re fully digested. The body’s immune system will see these as allergens and attack them. In the end, the intestines’ permeability disintegrates, and toxins are absorbed into the blood, overwhelming the immune system as well as the liver’s ability to detoxify.
1. The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine-Simple Questions, 1979, People’s Health Publishing House, Beijing, first published c. 100 BC, p. 21.
2. Maciocia, Giovanni. The Three Treasures Newsletter. Summer, 2006.
3. Kaptchuck, Ted J., The Web That Has No Weaver, Congdon & Weed; ISBN 0-8092-2933-1.
4. Maciocia, Giovanni. The Practice of Chinese medicine, 1994, Churchill Livingston, Tokyo.