Fatigue is one of the primary complaints that doctors hear from their patients, day after day, week after week. Not only is it a symptom of many health conditions, it is also a result of lifestyle factors such as poor diet, dehydration, high stress and too little sleep.
Thus, it is not surprising that reporting fatigue as a symptom often sends both practitioners and their patients on a scavenger hunt for a diagnosis, especially when fatigue occurs in conjunction with other generalized symptoms such as pain, trouble sleeping and “brain fog.”
But chronic fatigue is very real, as is chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS). Just ask the more than one million American adults (approximately 80% of which are women) that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) now believe may be affected by CFS. Add to that over five million adults (as reported by the CDC in 2005) who may suffer from chronic fatigue associated with fibromyalgia syndrome (FMS). And the millions more that have symptoms of chronic fatigue but do not quite meet the CDC guidelines for a CFS diagnosis. (See “What’s in a Name?”)
As of 2013, Dr. Jacob Teitelbaum, who specializes in the treatment of both CFS and FMS, estimated that the combined incidence of CFS and FMS is in the range of 12 to 24 million Americans. That statistic represents a lot of lost productivity, both socially and economically, not to mention a severe hampering of personal quality of life.
Why So Much Fatigue?
In The Fatigue and Fibromyalgia Solution, Dr. Teitelbaum explains that a modern day “perfect storm” of energy-draining circumstances has created an epidemic of fatigue. First and foremost, he points out that the average American consumes a high-calorie, low-nutrient diet. We are “both obese and malnourished, for the first time in human history.” Dr. Teitelbaum continues “Dozens of nutrients are critical for our energy-producing machinery, and without these, fats and other calories cannot be converted into energy. This leaves people both overweight and exhausted.”
The second energy drain is sleep deficiency, says Dr. Teitelbaum. With the advent of electricity, light bulbs, television and computers that keep us awake after dark, the average night’s sleep has been reduced from over nine hours per night to under seven hours per night. We are pushing our bodies to do more, with less sleep. In addition, “restless leg syndrome and sleep apnea are also much more common in people with CFS/FMS,” according to Dr. Teitelbaum, further diminishing good solid sleep.
An overburdened immune system is the third factor contributing to Dr. Teitelbaum’s “perfect storm” scenario. Our ancestors did not have to deal with the abundance of environmental toxins that now exist, and which constantly bombard our immune system. Any “foreign invader” triggers the immune system to respond, gradually depleting our adrenal glands, potentially to the point of exhaustion.
Compounding both the nutritional deficiencies and a burdened immune system is poor digestion or absorption due to the use of antibiotics and acid blockers, “leaky gut” due to candida overgrowth, and other gastrointestinal flora imbalances. Dr. Teitelbaum recognizes hormone imbalances or deficiencies as another major factor contributing to the fatigue epidemic. He notes that increased stress not only exhausts our adrenal glands, but also suppresses the hypothalamus, which is the hormone control center. “In CFS/FMS, hormone problems are widespread,” according to Dr. Teitelbaum, even when the lab test results come back “normal,” as they often do. (See “But My Hormone Lab Test Results are ‘Normal’…”)
The “perfect storm” is a combination of factors that can lead to a major “energy crisis” throughout the body, causing the hypothalamus to eventually shut down, which Dr. Teitelbaum calls the biological equivalent of the circuit breaker “blowing a fuse.”