Chronic Fatigue Syndrome
If the flu makes you feel as though you've been hit by a car, then chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) is like getting socked by the entire General Motors assembly line. Flulike symptoms are typical of CFS--a low-grade fever, sore throat, assorted aches and pains and the kind of dead-on-your-feet fatigue that makes a slug look industrious.
But unlike real flu, this so-called yuppie flu just wont go away--not in days, weeks or even months; it's so bad that many people can't get out of bed, let alone hold jobs.
Doctors aren't sure what causes CFS, nor do they agree on how best to treat it. Some consider CFS a sleep disorder, since its victims often sleep twice as long as other people yet still feel severely fatigued. Others think it results from stress, since CFS often strikes young high achievers who lead stressful lives but otherwise are in good health. And researchers wonder why 80 percent of CFS patients are women, most of them between the ages of 25 and 45.
While the search for some concrete answers continues, here are some of the things doctors say you should do if you're diagnosed as having CFS.
Try to stay alive. Some experts heartily encourage CFS patients to exercise lightly each day. "It's important to stay active, even if a 50-yard walk up and down the block is you all can do comfortably," says James F. Jones, M.D., immunologist at the National Jewish Center for Immunology and Respiratory Medicine in Denver.
Jay A. Goldstein, M.D., director of the Chronic Fatigue Syndrome Institute in Anaheim Hills, California, suspects that exercise plays a key role in preventing CFS. "It's been documented that people who were in good physical condition before they got sick don't get as sick from CFS as those who weren't exercisers, and they rebound quicker."
But don't overexert yourself. "While exercise is important, you don't want to exercise to the point where you'll wind up in bed for a week afterward because you overexerted yourself," says Dr. Goldstein. "I tell people that they should exercise until they begin to perspire."
Get mucho magnesium. Some doctors and researchers have concluded that CFS sufferers may have abnormally low levels of magnesium in their blood. "I've noticed that about half of my CFS patients are also magnesium-deficient," says Allan Magaziner, D.O., a family practitioner in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, who specializes in nutritional therapy and preventive medicine. Good food sources of magnesium include dark green, leafy vegetables, peas, nuts and whole grains such as brown rice and soybeans.
Junk the junk food in your diet. "Another thing I've noticed is that many of my CFS patients eat way too much sugar, white flour and processed foods," adds Dr. Magaziner, who has treated more than 200 CFS patients. He recommends to his patients that they stick with well-balanced, "home-cooked" meals with plenty of fresh vegetables.
Make up for missing nutrients. Several vitamins and minerals that may be missing from processed foods can benefit CFS patients. "I tell all my patients to take a multivitamin, even if they are eating fairly good diets. It certainly can't hurt," says Dr. Goldstein.
Pay special attention to allergies. "Allergies in CFS patients can sometimes be very pronounced, since the immune system is activated to fight whatever is causing this illness," says James Kornish, a CFS researcher at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston. "If you know you are allergic to something, be careful to avoid it." And Dr. Goldstein advises against drinking red wine or eating aged cheeses, since these foods can trigger migrainelike headaches in CFS patients.
Have a good night's sleep. CFS patients have a greater need for sleep, and while they may get more sleep, it's not always good quality. "You aren't going to get better if you don't sleep well," says Dr. Goldstein. (See page 000 for tips on how to get better sleep.)
Talk it out with loved ones. "It helps when family members and significant others can understand the illness, so they don't think the person is lazy or crazy," says Dr. Goldstein. "Many CFS patients feel very unsupported because they can't work and their families think they're just being lazy. Many marriages and friendships have broken up over this disease." Dr. Goldstein points out that conflict in relationships can add to stress, and additional stress only makes symptoms worse.