How I Beat Chronic Fatigue Syndrome

By Melissa Diane Smith
© Copyright 1999 by Melissa Diane Smith
This article was first published in Great Life magazine, November 1999.

Imagine feeling like you have the flu -- achy, utterly exhausted, with intermittent chills and swollen glands -- every day over and over again.

Imagine doing something you love to do -- such as shopping for clothes -- and being so wiped out that you couldn't go anywhere for days afterwards.

Imagine feeling depressed, confused and defeated by life because you can't do what you want to do and because no one can tell you why you're so sick. That's what it's like to have Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS).

I speak from experience. When I had CFS, it felt at the time like the worst thing that ever happened to me. Looking back on it, though, CFS turned out to be one of the best things that ever happened. In my near-solo search for answers, I got a crash course in how nutrition helps -- and sometimes can totally turn around -- the health of CFS patients. My experience also helped me uncover an unsuspected factor in some cases of CFS.

A mysterious and often debilitating illness, CFS afflicts an estimated three million Americans -- and twice as many women as men. It often starts with flu-like symptoms, but fatigue and other symptoms characteristic of influenza, which normally last a week or two, persist indefinitely for victims of CFS.

No single causative agent has been found for CFS. However, according to Michael Rosenbaum, M.D., and Murray Susser, M.D., authors of Solving the Puzzle of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (Tacoma, WA: Life Sciences Press, 1992), viruses -- e.g., Epstein-Barr virus and others -- are always involved in CFS. Other factors -- such as nutrient deficiencies, heavy metal toxicity, exposure to synthetic chemicals, allergies, and bacteria, yeast and parasite infections -- are commonly intertwined.

There is no way to definitively diagnose the illness. Rather, CFS is deduced from assessing symptoms and excluding other medical conditions. According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta, the major symptom needed to diagnose CFS is debilitating fatigue which persists in a steady or relapsing course for at least six months. Minor criteria include low-grade fever or chills, sore throat, muscle aches or weakness, joint aches, sleep disturbance, mental confusion, headache and emotional imbalance.

Because of the nebulous ways of defining and detecting CFS, the condition can often go undiagnosed for years. Many conventional medical doctors believe there is no cure, so even if CFS is diagnosed, individuals who suffer from it often become discouraged and frustrated with mainstream medicine.

Down and Out
I developed CFS in 1987 after a period of extreme emotional and physical stress. I left a job I loved, took on a dreadful technical writing job, began working unreasonably long hours, and stretched myself financially to buy a car, then had trouble paying the bills each month. In my personal life, close friends moved away and the type of personal relationship I wanted always seemed beyond my grasp. I also was exposed to a flurry of common but toxic chemicals -- most notably, pesticides, formaldehyde from a new carpet, and a new perm.

All of these stresses combined apparently sent my health spiraling. On Labor Day weekend that year, I developed what felt like a very bad flu, complete with a severe sore throat, muscle and joint aches and total exhaustion. I figured this would last for a few days or a week. But weeks passed, then months passed and I knew something was very wrong with me.

Much of the next few years is largely a blur. My fatigue and fuzzy thinking became so severe that I stopped working. I couldn't do activities I loved to do -- such as playing tennis, dancing or staying up late socializing. I lost friends who couldn't understand what was going on with me. And, of course, I saw doctors -- a string of eight, to be exact -- all of whom did nothing for me or gave me drugs that made me feel worse. These doctors ordered so many blood tests I felt like a human pin cushion, and one who couldn't find anything from all the tests that were done suggested that I might be a hypochondriac. The last doctor I saw diagnosed Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, but he didn't offer me any real options about how to get better, other than to rest, which is what I had been doing for about two years.

Frustrated beyond belief, I knew I had to try something different. Because I was trained as a journalist, I decided to use what energy I could muster to draw on my investigative research skills. I delved into the study of nutrition and health -- two lifelong interests of mine -- and began to experiment with diet, nutritional supplements and other forms of alternative medicine. Through a lot of trial and error -- a process that often felt like two steps forward and one step back -- after five years or so, I finally ironed out the nutritional factors that enabled me to regain my health.

The Diet That Saved Me
Finding the right diet was the most important factor in my recovery. In an effort to get better, I tried several popular vegetarian, macrobiotic and high-carbohydrate diets. To my surprise and discouragement, I became sicker and weaker on each one.

I continued to experiment and eventually stumbled upon the diet that helped turn my health around. It consisted of several portions of chicken, turkey and eggs throughout the day, lots of non-starchy vegetables, small amounts of gluten-free grains, starchy vegetables and unrefined olive oil, and virtually no fruits or dairy products. When I ate this combination of foods, the difference in my health was dramatic. My persistent sore throat vanished, my aches lessened, my energy increased and stayed steadier throughout the day and my mood improved. While this diet didn't totally erase my illness, I felt a significant improvement within a just day or two of eating this way.

Probably the most important reason this diet worked for me was that it was high in zinc (from poultry, eggs and meats) and low in zinc inhibitors and copper (from soy foods, beans, grains, chocolate and nuts). One of the last and most important findings in my quest for better health was learning, through hair analysis, that I had high levels of copper in my tissues, a condition called "copper overload." Although copper is an essential mineral for health, too much copper can build up in the system just like toxic metals, such as mercury. When this happens, it interferes with zinc, an immune-boosting nutrient that has anti-viral properties. High levels of copper in the body, therefore, predisposes an individual to recurring viral infections. David L. Watts, D.C., Ph.D, president of Trace Elements, Inc., a tissue mineral analysis laboratory in Addison, Texas, reports that copper overload is a common but overlooked factor in many cases of CFS.

The zinc-rich diet that helped me recover -- which I now recommend for everyone with CFS -- has other health benefits, too:
  • It is free of virtually all types of sugar, which suppresses the immune response to viruses and bacteria.

  • It helps promote steady blood-sugar levels, which in turn encourages steadier energy levels throughout the day.

  • It is rich in protein, which is vital for a strong immune system and for helping the body rebuild and repair damaged tissue.

  • It emphasizes high-lysine foods (such as poultry and eggs) and avoids high-arginine foods (such as grains, seeds and chocolate). Herpes viruses, which are often involved in CFS, require arginine to multiply; lysine, however, may be able to suppress replication.

  • It supplies significant amounts of carnitine, coenzyme Q10, and alpha-lipoic acid, three vitamin-like substances that play important roles in the production of cellular energy. (See sidebar.)
The Supplements That Worked
Judicious use of supplements complemented the immune-strengthening diet I found. I avoided multimineral or once-a-day-type supplements that contained copper and took zinc, which is vital for overcoming copper overload.Other supplements in my daily regimen included vitamins A, C, E and selenium -- essentially, the standard antioxidant formula. Each of these has immune-enhancing effects, and they probably all worked together to bolster my body's defenses. The dosages I regularly took -- which may not be appropriate for everyone -- were 10,000 IU vitamin A, 1,000 mg vitamin C, 400 IU vitamin E, and 200 mcg selenium.During viral outbreaks, though, I increased the vitamin A and vitamin C I took to 25,000 IU and 3,000 mg, respectively. I found vitamin A, sometimes called the "anti-infective" vitamin, particularly effective for combatting my persistent sore throats. [A caution, though: if you are pregnant or considering becoming pregnant, take less than 10,000 IU vitamin A daily. Dosages higher than that during the first trimester of pregnancy have been associated with birth defects.]Other helpful supplements for me were:
  • Black currant oil, a rich source of essential fatty acids (EFAs). EFAs (also found in evening primrose oil and borage oil supplements) have both direct and indirect antiviral actions. Viral infections interfere with EFA metabolism, but EFA supplements can improve the EFA status of CFS patients and reduce many viral symptoms. I took 85 mg. GLA from black currant oil three times daily, and it helped lessen my joint aches better than any other supplement.

  • Milk thistle, an herb rich in antioxidants. The active ingredient in milk thistle, silymarin, is known to regenerate cells in the liver -- a powerhouse organ that detoxifies chemicals, heavy metals and excess copper. A poorly functioning liver is common in CFS patients and can lead to listlessness and loss of will -- trademarks of the disease. In my case, milk thistle helped improve my energy and lessen the food allergies I had developed when my illness began; the amount I used was 175 mg of milk thistle extract standardized to contain 80 percent silymarin, taken three times daily.

  • Lysine, an amino acid. During stressful times, I often experienced viral symptoms coming back on or worsening, and 500 mg of lysine taken three times daily helped hold these at bay.

  • B complex vitamins, "anti-stress" nutrients involved in energy production. Vitamin B6 was especially helpful: it helped give great relief from the depression and premenstrual symptoms I developed when my illness began. I took a B-50 complex and 100 mg. additional vitamin B6 each day.
My experience with CFS so convinced me of the power of nutrition that I became a nutritional counselor. After working with clients with CFS, I have come to believe that many factors are involved in CFS, so treatment must be individualized. Although nutrition isn't the only answer to CFS -- easing your stress load, pursuing the activities you love, and having supportive relationships certainly are important -- diet and nutritional supplements provide the raw materials the body needs for health. Thus, the nutritional factors I list here are good starting points for success. I am convinced that without the right nutrition plan, I wouldn't be able to say, "I've recovered from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome!"
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