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How to tackle Chronic Fatigue Syndrome

Rosalind Scutt
Wednesday, March 28, 2012
Image: Getty

Do you suffer from overwhelming post-exertion fatigue, dysfunctional sleep, problems with memory and recurrent flu-like symptoms? If so, you could be one of the estimated 180,000 Australians suffering from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS).

CFS (sometimes called Myalgic Encephalomyelitis), has only recently risen to mainstream awareness although it has been classified as a neurological disorder in the World Health Organisation's International Classification of Diseases since 1969.

Recently, CFS is reaping more publicity as research discovers more about its debilitating effects. And while some in the medical fraternity are still debating its very existence, sufferers are left to wonder which avenue will provide the best treatment

Frustratingly for those who suspect they have CFS, there is no easy test for a quick diagnosis — especially since the medical fraternity itself remains at odds about the illness, its causes and symptoms — even about its very existence.

We spoke to three health care practitioners about how best to deal with the condition.

The naturopath — Vicki Vandenhurk

Causes and risk factors for CFS include a stressed immune system due to recent acute illness, chronic health problems, poor nutrition and/or emotional factors such as anxiety and depression. Environmental pollutants and contaminants may provide some risk.

Treatment should involve psychological, herbal, nutritional and lifestyle therapies. Patients should have small but frequent meals that are low in sugar and carbohydrates and easy to digest such as warm vegetables. Eating protein at each meal will provide amino acids for healthy neurotransmitter and energy production. Patients should avoid alcohol, caffeine and soft drinks.

Movement is essential but exercise should only be conducted at a level that is tolerated. Herbal treatments include Rhodiola, Withania, Passion Flower, Astragalus and Gingko.

Naturopath, iridologist and medical herbalist Vicki Vandenhurk is a former nurse.

The physician — Dr Michael Oldmeadow

The symptoms of CFS are often precipitated by infection or acute events such as general anaesthetics, drug reactions and other acute stressors.

Invariably, preceding development of symptoms, the patient will disclose high levels of energy expenditure (physical, mental or emotional) usually over some years. It is therefore important to separate this illness from “burnout” or an “emotional breakdown”, which, when correctly diagnosed, it is not. Nor is it a primary depressive illness.

Appropriate management begins with a detailed examination to rule out alternative medical or psychiatric illness and to understand such factors as sleep, mood and emotional patterns. A structured 3 to 6 month Graded Exercise Therapy program is of particular benefit to teenagers and young adults. However this must be carefully supervised. Dietary manipulation frequently alleviates symptoms due to Irritable Bowel Syndrome. It may also improve energy. Vitamin B12 injections frequently seem to provide some benefit. Unresolved emotional issues preclude progress and unresolved anger in particular is a potent driver of the illness. It is essential these issues be addressed.

Dr Michael Oldmeadow is a medical doctor and specialist physician with a particular interest in the research and treatment of CFS.

The Traditional Chinese Medicine practitioner — Qi Chen

CFS is caused by different types of viruses (pathogens).The virus may affect the person's energy level causing constant fatigue and tiredness.

From the point of view of traditional Chinese medicine, Qi and blood are the driving forces of life. Qi is the life-giving energy and blood is the nutrient that feeds the life energy. Most patients with CFS are typically diagnosed with a pattern that involves kidney exhaustion, blood stagnation and Qi disturbance or blockages in the spleen, stomach and liver.

To treat CFS I attempt to boost the patient's immune system by expelling any pathogens from the body before tonifying (nourishing and replenishing) Qi and blood. This is frequently achieved through acupuncture and herbal medicine. Acupuncture is used to adjust the flow of Qi between the channel systems in the body (to harmonise) and herbal medicine is used to nourish and tonify.

Qi Chen is a TCM (traditional Chinese medicine) practitioner in Sydney and was formerly an oncologist in China.

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