‘You Have Chronic Fatigue Syndrome? – Oh Yes I’m Really Tired Too’
Is this something you keep hearing when you try to explain your illness to people? It can be frustrating when people don’t understand that you actually do have an illness.
Hopefully this article will give you some pointers to use when explaining the difference between feeling extremely tired all the time and having the illness “Chronic Fatigue Syndrome”. Or, ask your friends and family to read it to gain a better understanding between simply being tired and having this debilitating illness.
I think a lot of the misunderstanding comes from the name given to the illness, ‘chronic fatigue syndrome’. It seems it is much easier to refer to the illness by this common name. But, perhaps if everyone referred to it by it’s other name ‘Myalgic Encephalomyelitis’, people would think of it more as an actual illness. Somehow or other it sounds much more like an actual illness, than ‘chronic fatigue syndrome’.
What Is Tiredness?
People may often talk about feeling tired and exhausted after working long hours. It can be a struggle keeping up with the busy lives we all lead nowadays. You may find it difficult to stop yawning at certain times of the day and feel sleepy.
For many this is normal tiredness caused by the relentless busyness of your life, and you simply may not be getting enough sleep. But feeling ongoing exhaustion over many months can be a symptom of something much more. For example, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS), a debilitating medical problem.
Let’s take a look at the difference between tiredness and CFS.
If you are feeling tired all the time it is usually caused by lifestyle and not getting enough sleep. Adults need an average of between 7 to 9 hours a night. How often do you sleep for this long on a regular basis? Getting regular deep and restorative sleep is extremely important.
While it is normal to feel tired sometimes, you will usually know the cause. For example, a crying baby, sick kids, too many late nights or long hours at work, not taking sufficient rest time. But if tiredness continues for too long it will affect your enjoyment of life.
When there is no obvious cause of prolonged tiredness there could be a medical reason. If this is the case, it is time to visit your medical practitioner. But before you do that, stop and think about whether there are reasons for your ongoing tiredness. Consider things like:
- Whether your lifestyle is so busy you never get the time to take a break.
- Whether something is happening at work, or with friends or family. Maybe work is short staffed and you are picking up the slack. Or there is an illness in your family and you spend a lot of time giving care.
- Whether you are grieving the loss of someone close to you or maybe there has been a relationship break down.
When you visit your doctor because of persistent tiredness, they look at three areas of your life:
- Psychological causes
Tiredness Caused By Lifestyle
We live in a world where we are on the go all day, trying to fit too much into every waking hour.
On top of that you may drink too much coffee, drink alcohol every night, and end up eating too much processed food as it is too much effort to cook a good meal. Many things in your lifestyle can cause tiredness including:
- Caffeine – Caffeine is a stimulant you may rely on to help get you through each long and demanding work day. It is in tea, coffee, energy drinks and cola. Too much of these can make it difficult to sleep. Try switching to decaffeinated drinks, herbal tea, or plain water to restrict your caffeine intake.
- Napping during the day – Taking daytime naps can disrupt your sleep at night. Avoid them if you can to ensure you get a full restorative night’s sleep.
- Alcohol – Drinking too much alcohol affects the quality of your sleep. Even if you get enough sleep a night, drinking too much at night can leave you feeling tired the next day. It can also cause disrupted sleep as it has an effect on the type of sleep inducing lighter sleep patterns. Limit your alcohol intake when tired.
- Shift work – Shift work can affect your quality of sleep especially if you are always bouncing from night to day to night shifts. It never gives your body time to catch up with the different hours you are working.
- Convenience Food – Eating a poor diet high in refined and convenience foods does not supply your body with the nutrients required to supply your energy needs.
Tiredness Caused By Physical Conditions
There are physical conditions that can be the cause of your tiredness. Things such as sleep apnoea, anaemia, low Vitamin D levels or an underactive thyroid. Other conditions that can cause overwhelming tiredness include:
- Undergoing chemotherapy or radiology to treat cancer
- The side effects of some medications
- A virus or infection.
- Being underweight as your muscles are weak and it takes more energy to do anything physical and makes you tired
- Being overweight as your system has to work harder to do physical activities.
If you have been feeling tired for more than a month, and you cannot identify any lifestyle reasons for it, you may want to get a check up from your doctor to make sure there is not some other underlying cause.
Tiredness Caused By Psychological Factors
It is also common for psychological factors to cause tiredness. These can mean you have sleepless nights or poor quality sleep that leaves your brain in a fog the next day. Psychological causes include:
- Feeling anxious – When you experience anxiety you cannot control, you may have an anxiety disorder. This will make you irritable and overly worried leaving you always feeling tired.
- Shocks to the system – A sudden death, redundancy from work, a relationship break down and bad news can all cause interrupted sleep leaving you tired and exhausted.
- Feeling stressed – Stress seems to be a part of everyday life for many people. Changing jobs and moving house, among others, are two major stressors. It causes unnecessary worry and you may not sleep very well.
- Depression – When you have depression you are unhappy, lack energy and often wake up tired even when you get enough sleep.
What Is Chronic Fatigue Syndrome?
Chronic fatigue syndrome is also known as Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (ME). It is a condition that causes persistent, long-term fatigue and exhaustion. It affects your everyday life depending on how severely you have it.
Chronic Fatigue Syndrome affects children and teenagers as well as adults, but is more common in women than in men. Currently, chronic fatigue syndrome affects over one million people in the United States.
The term Myalgic Encephalomyelitis stands for inflammation of the spinal cord and brain, and weakness in the muscles. It is a complex condition that can come on slowly over months, or occur quite suddenly. Chronic fatigue syndrome can also be triggered by exposure to toxins, a bout of gastro, a viral infection, immunisation, an anaesthetic, a traumatic brain injury or any trauma.
It can be triggered by a series of traumas too, not just one single event which can make it particularly difficult to unravel the root cause(s) of this debilitating illness.
What chronic fatigue syndrome IS NOT – is simply tiredness, or feeling exhausted.
Chronic Fatigue Syndrome Symptoms
Chronic fatigue syndrome is characterised by exhaustion “known as post-exertional malaise, a ‘crash’ or ‘payback’.” It means that sufferers have symptoms of debilitating exhaustion after exertion. The exertion can be physical or mental.
Depending on how badly affected you are, a 5 minute walk can mean you crash and spend a day or two in bed until you gather enough energy to function semi normally again. It may be that you are more affected mentally than physically and find that being amongst people leaves you fatigued.
If you have CFS, you have an intolerance to some forms of exertion. This means when you do physical or mental activities beyond your tolerance you can be bedridden for days or weeks as you recover enough energy to resume a semi normal life. And a serious relapse can continue for months or even years.
Post-exertional malaise can take up to 24 hours to manifest after exerting yourself making it difficult to tell what causes it until you begin to understand your tolerance levels. Once you understand how much activity you can tolerate, it makes it easier to pace yourself throughout the day and reduce the number of ‘crashes’ you have.
One very big difference between tiredness and chronic fatigue syndrome is that CFS sufferers have non refreshing sleep. If you are simply very tired, you can have a sleep and wake up feeling refreshed and much better. However, with chronic fatigue syndrome you can wake up after a solid 8 hour sleep and still feel the same level of fatigue you experienced before going to bed. The unrelenting fatigue simply never lets up.
When you have CFS it can be debilitating. What you once took for granted may no longer be possible without leaving you exhausted and it will take a long time to recover. You will lack energy and motivation. Symptoms and how they affect you are different for everyone, and they can change how they manifest as quickly as hourly.
It is a complex syndrome and has a variety of symptoms including:
- Memory loss and cognitive issues like brain fog
- Inability to concentrate
- Ongoing fatigue
- A sore throat
- Headaches that are different to normally experienced
- Tender or enlarged lymph nodes your armpits or neck
- Unexplained muscular or joint pain
- A drop in blood pressure that causes dizziness
- Muscle twitches, pain and cramps
- Flu-like symptoms
- Allergic reactions to chemicals, smells, medications, sounds, light or foods
- Extreme changes in weight loss or gain
- Shortness of breath when exerting yourself, or when standing or sitting upright
- Increased heart rate
- Unable to cope with changes in temperature.
What Causes Chronic Fatigue Syndrome?
While there is no single defined causes of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, it is thought to be biological. Sometimes it may be genetic, and your doctor/GP will tell you there is currently no cure from it, or way to prevent it occurring.
There has been a lot of research into CFS causes which includes problems with the following:
- Viral and other infections
- Neurological, immune and hormonal systems
- Blood pressure issues
- Biochemical abnormalities
- Cardiac and circulatory systems
- Digestive issues
- The body has difficulty producing and distributing energy throughout your system.
Diagnosing Chronic Fatigue Syndrome
Chronic fatigue syndrome is a multi-factorial illness and affects each individual differently. You need to work with a naturopath to work out the root cause(s) of your particular form of chronic fatigue syndrome. This will dictate the natural treatment options and protocol available to you.
How your naturopath chooses to treat it will depend on what the root cause of your CFS is found to be. It is imperative to get a correct diagnosis and a natural treatment plan tailored specifically for your particular case.
There is no one single test for diagnosing Chronic fatigue syndrome. Your doctor/GP will make a CFS diagnosis by eliminating other diseases based on your symptoms. However, getting a diagnosis can take some time as one of the criteria is that your symptoms are continually present for a minimum of 6 months.
Receiving an early diagnosis and treatment gives you a better chance of managing or recovering from the condition. It is also important to have a good support base of family, natural medical practitioners, friends, employers and schools to help your recovery.
You may need to adjust your work or school schedule to make sure you stay within your energy limits. And this is where the support of family, employers and schools is crucial. Firstly of course it is important that they understand you actually do have an illness, and are not ‘just tired’.
They need to understand and be sympathetic to how debilitating the condition can be. It also important to see a physician who understands chronic fatigue syndrome for an accurate diagnosis.
The Difference Between Chronic Fatigue Syndrome And Similar Conditions
Chronic fatigue syndrome has similar symptoms to other conditions. But what can distinguish it is post-exertional malaise. Patients with mild or less severe chronic fatigue syndrome can have short periods where they do not have symptoms or fatigue. Then all of a sudden, within hours or days of exertion, they can crash.
They feel so sick they cannot function for hours, days and even weeks. People can experience extreme fatigue, hoarseness when speaking, flu-like symptoms, an aching body, headaches and nausea. What symptoms a patient has depends on the seriousness of the crash and how their particular form of chronic fatigue syndrome affects them.
For example, you can feel well on Monday morning after a restful weekend and go to work. But by midweek you may struggle to get through the day due to the physical and mental activity. There are other triggers besides physical or mental work such as stress, illness and being in an accident
People with severe chronic fatigue syndrome can struggle to look after themselves and be unable to cook a meal or dress themselves. They can be confined to bed rest for weeks, too weak to talk or even feed themselves. There are many different variables and levels of this illness, which makes it so difficult to diagnose and understand.
Treating Chronic Fatigue Syndrome
There are no medications for treating CFS apart from treating individual symptoms. A doctor/GP for example can only provide you with pain relieving medication or anti anxiety drugs for symptomatic relief.
You may need to limit physical activity and rest between activities, and avoid things that stress you. Your naturopath will probably recommend taking supplements, herbal preparations and/or alternative healing treatments to reduce your symptoms. Helpful alternative therapies can include meditation, massage and acupuncture.
You may be able to work part-time or full-time when you have a mild form of CFS, but you will need to limit other activities. Prioritising your activities in favour of work can be boring but necessary for financial reasons. However, you will probably find you cannot manage a work life as well as a social life until you start to recover.
But if you have a more severe form of CFS you may be unable to work or go to school. And those with severe CFS will be bedridden for periods of time.
If you suspect you may have CFS, visit your doctor for a diagnosis so you can start treatment sooner rather than later. Starting on a healing protocol with a naturopath as quickly as possible will assist in preventing your illness becoming worse.
Putting It All Together
Hopefully, this article makes it easy to understand if feeling extremely tired all the time your is simply tiredness due to lifestyle factors or if it could be chronic fatigue syndrome. And if it IS chronic fatigue syndrome, I hope this article also helps you explain a bit about your illness to others who are struggling to understand the reason for your constant exhaustion.
Please feel free to leave a comment below.