Nearly three million American adults are living with chronic fatigue syndrome, or CFS (now called ME/CFS) – a mysterious disease that causes symptoms such as extreme fatigue, pain and insomnia.
Until recently, ME/CFS wasn’t considered a “real” disease, since it can’t be diagnosed with standard medical tests. But new research reveals a distinctive biological “signature” that links symptoms to a long and growing list of bacterial and viral infections – including COVID-19.
There’s currently no cure for ME/CFS, so treatment focuses on reducing symptoms and helping people return to normal life. Because symptoms can vary widely, treatments can range from prescription medications to physical therapy and counseling – or a combination of all of these. But several promising new studies suggest that natural compounds such as magnesium, carnitine and CBD can help sufferers feel better and sleep better, without the side effects of pharmaceuticals.
CFS: An Old Disease Gets a New Name
For decades, standard medical tests have failed to reveal specific biomarkers that identify ME/CFS, so doctors have had to rely on symptoms alone to come up with a diagnosis. Without a definitive test, people who complained of debilitating exhaustion, brain fog and whole-body pain were often told they didn’t have a legitimate health condition and their symptoms were probably due to things like stress or depression.
But more recent research reveals that this condition does have a distinctive biosignature, which includes blood markers for inflammation in the brain and dysfunctional T cells, a key component of the immune system. These discoveries have helped leading health organizations to recognize CFS as a legitimate disease with a new name: myalgic encephalomyelitis, or ME. That’s why CFS is now formally called ME/CFS.
The symptoms of ME/CFS typically include:
- Extreme fatigue that interferes with daily life
- Exhaustion after exercising or other kinds of exertion
- Muscle aches and pains
- “Brain fog” and cognitive problems
- Problems with coordination and balance
- Nausea and other flu like symptoms
Many people also struggle with anxiety and depression.
Recent studies have revealed that over 50 percent of people with ME/CFS had a bacterial or viral infection before they developed symptoms. That includes common viruses such as:
- Epstein-Barr virus
- Rubella (measles)
- Human herpes 6
The COVID Connection
One of the many viruses that can cause CFS is the SARS virus. It’s one of a family of coronaviruses that also includes today’s COVID-19 (official name: SARS-CoV2). Now, research suggests that the connection between CFS and viral infections like SARS can also explain the mystifying symptoms experienced by about ten percent of people who contract COVID-19. These are the COVID-19 “long haulers” – people who continue to have debilitating fatigue, brain fog and other symptoms such as muscle aches for months after recovering from an initial bout of COVID-19.
There currently isn’t a cure for ME/CFS, and treatments typically focus on relieving symptoms with medications that can range from over-the-counter pain relievers to strong prescription drugs for insomnia, mood regulation and nausea. For some people, medication alternatives such as acupuncture, massage, yoga, or “talk” therapy can also make it easier to live with the condition.
Along with those non-medical options, several studies suggest that natural compounds and nutrients that support energy production and promote homeostasis, or balance, among the body’s many systems may also help – and they’re more effective and safer than pharmaceuticals. Here’s a look at the most promising options.
This non-psychoactive cannabis compound has well-documented benefits for reducing inflammation, boosting immune functioning and regulating mood. ME/CFS symptoms seem to arise from severe dysregulation of many different systems in the body. But CBD supports the endocannabinoid system, an extensive network of cell receptors that helps to maintain homeostasis, or balance, among those subsystems. CBD is widely used for relief from pain, anxiety and depression, and it can also protect and support the central nervous system and neural activity in the brain. There are also strains that contain THC which may help energize you while experiencing chronic fatigua.
NADH stands for nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide + hydrogen, a naturally occurring chemical that supports cellular energy production and brain functioning. It’s generally safe and widely used to treat conditions ranging from Parkinson’s disease to dementia and depression. In a recent study, a majority of ME/CFS patients who took NADH supplements saw an improvement in symptoms such as fatigue and brain fog.
Coenzyme Q10 (CQ10)
A recent study indicates that many ME/CFS patients are deficient in Coenzyme Q10, a natural antioxidant that helps to support heart health and promote cell maintenance. CoQ10 supplements can help to reduce the severe fatigue associated with ME/CFS, especially when combined with NADH. A variety of non-prescription CoQ10 supplements are widely available.
Magnesium is the fourth most abundant mineral in the body, and it plays a role in more than 600 different processes, including energy creation, muscle movement, and the healthy functioning of the nervous system. People with ME/CFS often have low levels of red blood cell magnesium, and recent studies suggest that magnesium supplements may boost their energy, reduce pain and improve mood. Magnesium is found in a variety of foods, and a variety of supplements are available without a prescription.
Carnitine is the name of a family of natural compounds derived from amino acids. These include the well-known L-carnitine as well as the variants acetyl-L-carnitine and propionyl-L-carnitine. Carnitine compounds play a key role in mitochondrial energy production.
But research reveals that people with ME/CFS have low levels of carnitine, which affects the efficiency of those processes. In a recent study, carnitine supplements increased energy and reduced fatigue in 12 out of 18 patients. Food sources of carnitine include red meat and dairy products, and over the counter L-carnitine supplements are available wherever vitamins are sold.
Ribose is a natural carbohydrate that’s an essential component of adenosine triphosphate, a molecule that supplies energy to cells. Ribose supplements are popular among athletes as a way to boost performance, but some recent research suggests that added ribose may also improve energy levels and reduce fatigue in people with ME/CFS. Ribose is found naturally in a variety of foods including dairy products, meat and mushrooms, and ribose supplements are available without a prescription.