CFS - Chronic Fatigue Syndrome

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Finding a good herbalist

Much of what's written in this article is entirely suitable for a person to work through themselves but, especially if things are quite bad, or you just know that you need further help, then there may be a great deal of benefit to you to go to whatever lengths necessary to find a good herbalist or truly holistic practitioner to guide you on to a safe and strong treatment program. There's a short write-up to suggest how you might go about finding such a person here.

What's really going on?

In the early years of my practice I met many people who had been diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS), nowadays the same kind of symptoms are more likely to be described as adrenal fatigue or fibromyalgia but CFS has become an established and accepted label and there are still many people who are told that this is what is wrong with them and why they are have become so desperately tired and unwell.

Sometimes labels are important, even vital, and give us the necessary starting point to be looking and working in the right direction, and sometimes labels are frankly unhelpful, even harmful. The name 'chronic fatigue syndrome' is not a helpful one because it doesn't help you actually understand what's really going on any more than it helps you to know what to do about it!

For some people, this label even does significant harm because they naturally go online to look it up and then can develop some very negative expectations from reading the accounts of others who have become somewhat lost in the system.

People do suffer with the exact same symptoms as described in the criteria for diagnosing CFS. My argument against CFS as a label is that it does nothing to help us understand the cause of what we are dealing with, it would be much better to start again with an open mind. Then we can ask the most important question, 'what is really going on?'


Post-viral Syndrome

Many people, diagnosed with CFS, when telling the story of their health problems, have an extremely important answer to the vital question 'how did it all begin?' They talk about having had an infectious illness, in some cases a very long time ago, after which their health has never been quite right since...

The classic picture of the post-viral syndrome is an infectious event at the origin of the troubles and then a cycle of relapsing symptoms since that time that typically include advanced levels of fatigue, aches and pains, swollen glands and, in some but not all cases, signs in the early stages of the problem that the body was trying to mount a fever to rid itself of what, in effect, has become a chronic infection. These signs typically included feelings of being chilled or suffering from night-sweats.

Two white blood cells amongst red cells under the microscope


Diaphoresis (also known as Sweating Therapy)

This last point about feeling chilled etc. is a key one to grasp in successfully treating the post-viral syndrome because one of the most effective therapeutic strategies we can bring to this problem is to work with nature and help the body do what it tried to do in those early stages but failed to achieve; i.e. to mount a fever!

Fevers are widely feared and misunderstood in modern medicine, they are seen as an undesirable side-effect of illnesses which should be squashed as quickly as possible with drugs such as paracetamol or aspirin but, in many cases, nothing could be further from the truth!

There is a place for all drugs at some point in time but nature, and evolution, are not stupid, we have developed the ability to mount a fever simply because it is the fastest and most powerful way to activate an immune system to fight against whatever invader it has detected. Each degree your temperature rises the activity of your immune system practically doubles!

If I have a patient who has clear signs of the post-viral syndrome I will usually employ diaphoresis, aka sweating-therapy, as a front-line approach to help get the condition improving as quickly as possible. We will often begin with them doing a therapeutic sweat at home within two or three days of their starting to take immune tonic herbs etc. and then, if needed, we repeat the diaphoresis once a week or so until they are clearly very much better. This whole process is outlined in practical detail here.


Immune Health

It doesn't matter what the original infection was. If the pattern is one of deep fatigue and exhaustion after an initial infection, then the main efforts in recovery need to be directed at rebuilding good immune health.

In such cases, lean heavily on the support of two of the greatest immune tonic herbs; Echinacea, more here and Astragalus, more here These two allies will lend sure support and are a solid start, for further ideas read the article on immune health here.

Echinacea angustifolia


Depression or Anxiety

The 2nd most common root cause of CFS, after the post-viral syndrome, is depression or anxiety however, we must approach this subject with the utmost care because, if you were not depressed or anxious before you became profoundly tired, then you are very likely to have become so afterwards!

In practice, it is really a matter of carefully listening to the answer to this most important question, 'what was happening in your life when you first became sick?' People know when they had been under just too much stress and had reached a breaking point.

If they have never been well since they had a kind of nervous system collapse, then you must understand that the nervous system as just as physical a part of the body as any other part and that it is something that can always be healed with the right approach and the right support.

Also note that depression and anxiety are not one and the same thing. A person who has what can be called 'anergic depression' has, as their dominant symptom, a profound loss of energy and motivation. A person who is suffering from chronic anxiety will have, underlying their tiredness, a deep and abiding tension and agitation.

Emotionally, depression comes with deep feelings of sadness, anxiety comes with much stronger feelings of worry. There are cross-overs in how we can effectively treat both depression and anxiety but there are also some key differences for the best herbs to use and the best strategies to focus on. Further information on depression here and anxiety here.

Scutellaria lateriflora (Skullcap)


The next most common cause for CFS is a simple deficiency of one or more of the many elements that are essential for energy metabolism. The brain is the most sensitive organ in the body and the first symptoms of deficiency of any of the essential nutrients can simply be tiredness, even profound tiredness.

Further to a blood test to rule out the essentials there are often other visible 'tells' that deficiencies are a key issue, especially in the growth of hair on the head and the nails of the hand. Losing significant amounts of hair can be caused by stress but it can also be a sign of nutritional deficiency. Likewise, signs on the nails such as weakness, slow growing, splitting, spots etc. can all be clues that something essential may be lacking.

In New Zealand, we have extremely low levels of Selenium in our soils (the second lowest in the world), likewise zinc and magnesium are chronically low in population studies done both here and elsewhere. I am an advocate for a good multi-vitamin/mineral once a day but, supplements aside, there is truly no substitute for a healthy diet and this is where tiredness that comes from deficiency is by far the biggest issue.

The biggest issue with food and fatigue is the vicious cycle that happens when people who are too tired go for refined and processed foods because they are quick and easy to prepare and their high sugar and intense flavours trick us into thinking they will make us feel better.

It can't be overemphasised what a difference eating well can make to good health. If you know you need to work on this area, read the article on excellent nutrition here


CFS & Toxicity

A further potential cause of CFS can come from excess toxicity in the body. Low grade poisoning from things like heavy metals or other environmental toxins can cause deep and unrelenting tiredness along with other unpleasant symptoms.

The subject of detoxification is an important one but it has many myths and misinformation. If needed, read the article, including the section on 'how do you know if detoxification is necessary', found here

CFS & Thyroid Health

No-one can be in any doubt that a low functioning thyroid gland can cause major issues with energy and fatigue consequently, if you have ever been to a doctor for your fatigue, then surely this will have been ruled out as a primary cause from a simple laboratory blood test.

Where things get murky is when a mildly underactive thyroid gland is a contributor to the issue. More information about thyroid health, including a process of getting a more sensitive picture of where it is at by measuring your morning temperature, is found here

CFS and Insomnia

Somewhat surprisingly, many people have been given the CFS label when the true root of their health breakdown turns out to be that they are just not sleeping well!

If this is the case for you then you must start learning about some key remedies from Nature that help relax the body into a better state for deeper and healthier sleep starting with but not limited to Valerian root, more on it here and more info on the subject of insomnia here

Valeriana officinalis (Valerian)


The Tonics

Whatever the cause of CFS, it is likely that the recovery will be aided by the great tonic herbs.

There are a number of herbs that may be of much help. For example, Hawthorn, both leaf and berry, has been seen to restore physical vitality to the hearts of many hundreds of people who were tired and unable to restore their fitness before they made good use of its help, more here

Another great tonic is St John's wort, it has a tremendous ability to nourish an exhausted nervous system and is much more than the natural 'anti-depressant' it has been marketed to be, more here

Two of the top tonics in the natural world are Panax Ginseng and Withania somnifera. Panax Ginseng is known as the 'Emperor tonic' in Chinese medicine and has been revered for millennia for its ability to restore energy. Withania is equally as highly regarded in the great Ayurvedic system of the Indian sub-continent and likewise is used for all kinds of problems where increasing a person's vital energy is the key to their healing. Learn more about Panax Ginseng here and Withania here


Permission to rest!

Many people who get chronic tiredness have an upbringing or a nature to push themselves hard in whatever they do and may not take well to being idle. For such people, the most important step of all in the healing process may be simply giving themselves permission to rest.

This probably sounds simple and you could easily gloss over it, especially if it applies to you! In fact, this single point can be the greatest challenge to the whole healing process.

Only you can say if you know how to give yourself permission to rest when you are tired. If you do, don't worry about this, but if not, think about it, this could be the thing that makes or breaks your future health.

Constitutional Health Note:

Finally, you might benefit from learning about your constitution to know what kind of foods, herbs, exercises etc. will work especially well for your health in general.

Constitutional health is an old and fascinating way of understanding our differences. There's a brief introduction here and a more detailed section on working out which constitution you are here

Please understand that I cannot personally advise you without seeing you in my clinic.
This living 'book' is my labour of love so, wherever you are, I wish you peace & good health!



© 2011 R.J.Whelan Ltd