Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS) or Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (ME) is a chronic illness which manifests as extreme fatigue which lasts for more than six months (1). It is a condition that is very difficult to diagnose and diagnosis usually begins by ruling out other possible underlying diseases.
The National Institute of Health and Care Excellence (NICE) estimates the prevalence of CFS / ME is ‘at least’ 0.2% to 0.4% of the UK population (2), suggesting that up to 1 in 250 people are affected. Women are 2–4 times more likely than men to be diagnosed.
Chronic fatigue often starts suddenly, with flu-like symptoms. But unlike the flu, the symptoms can persist for a long time. As well as extreme fatigue, symptoms can include;
- Joint and/or muscle pain
- Poor concentration / brain fog
- Loss of memory
- Swollen glands
- Night sweats
- Digestive disorders like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
- Irritability, anxiety and depression.
The cause of CFS/ME varies between individuals and that is why a Functional Medicine approach has the advantage, as it looks to address the underlying cause, working with the person as an individual to understand what may have triggered their particular condition. We combine industry-leading nutrition and functional medicine expertise, alongside the latest in-house testing, so we can attend to all your health needs in one trip. Our experienced clinicians collaborate in a unique way, working as a team to get you to optimal health.
Many people with CFS/ME suffer from digestive symptoms and research has pointed to a link between food allergies and sensitivities (3). Dietary approaches can make a significant difference and while we do take an individual approach because we know that for some people, certain foods can make their symptoms worse, or indeed better. Generally, there are certain foods which may be beneficial for all CFS/ME sufferers and certain foods which may be detrimental or make symptoms worse.
What foods are good for Chronic Fatigue Syndrome?
Protein foods are broken down by the body into amino acids which go to form the building blocks of literally every function that the body does; from the production of neurotransmitters, to immune complexes, to digestive enzymes to hormones. Meat, fish, eggs, nuts, seeds, beans, lentils, tofu and tempeh are all good sources of protein.
We want to fuel the body with a nutrient rich diet and vegetables are packed with nutrients. They are also full of the fibre that our beneficial bacteria love and this can help to alleviate digestive symptoms and help with elimination. Vegetables are also full of the antioxidants that protect our cells and help to reduce inflammation. Try to eat a rainbow of colours. The more colourful, the more antioxidants.
It is important to stay hydrated as dehydration can be a trigger for fatigue (4). We also need adequate hydration to support detoxification and elimination and to keep the synovial pouches which protect and cushion the joints in good order so helping to reduce joint pain. The government guidelines are approx. 2Ltrs p/d for Men and 1.5Ltrs for Women.
Omega 3 fatty acids which are found in oily fish (aim for 2-3 x p.w), walnuts, chia and flax seeds and rapeseed oils, can help to support anti-inflammatory prostaglandin pathways and this can help to reduce fatigue and pain. Healthy fats are also essential for our heart and our brains and research has shown that omega 3 fatty acids may help to improve low mood and/or anxiety (5).
When trying to improve energy it’s important not to go long periods without food for fuel. People with CFS/ME often find that regular snacks of healthy foods can help to keep their blood sugar levels and therefore energy levels much more stable.
Foods to avoid with CFS
Caffeine – is coffee bad for chronic fatigue?
Caffeine can give us a temporary lift in energy, but it is thought to stimulate the adrenal glands to produce Cortisol (6), our main stress hormone and as there is very often a stress or trauma component involved in CFS/ME, driving the stress response further is best avoided.
Sugar is one of the most pro-inflammatory foods that we can eat. It is also one of the main fuels of the opportunistic gut bacteria that may be causing some of those digestive symptoms. Sugar and sugary foods may give you a temporary lift but can swiftly lead to a blood sugar drop which can lead to fatigue.
Researchers from Columbia University Medical Centre recently have found that a significant number of patients with CFS have gastrointestinal symptoms and blood markers that are associated with non-celiac wheat sensitivity (7). Even if there is no intolerance to gluten itself, gluten triggers a compound called Zonulin which regulates the ‘tight junctions’ of the gut wall, potentially making them more permeable, so allowing undigested foods or bacteria through into the system, increasing inflammation and potentially triggering the immune system inappropriately.
Processed foods tend to be very high in sugar and salt and very low in the nutrients that we need to fuel our bodies and help us produce energy. They also tend to be very low in the fibres needed to fuel our beneficial gut bacteria and support our digestion. Ultra-processed foods are designed to fuel our appetite and make us want to eat more (8) and as weight gain is often a factor in CFS/ME, processed foods are best avoided.
CFS and Weight
People with CFS/ME may gain weight because they are unable to exercise due to their exhaustion, muscle pain or other symptoms. They can also find that they eat more, because of low mood and the resulting cravings. Some sufferers will lose weight because they have lost their appetite, feel nauseous or their digestive symptoms make it difficult to eat. Some may find it hard to eat well because they simply don’t have the energy to go shopping or to prepare meals, and working with a nutritional therapist who really understands the condition can help with strategies to easily improve the diet to help relieve symptoms.
Many of our expert practitioners understand CFS/ME, often because they have experienced and recovered from the condition themselves. Get in touch to book a consultation.
Author Jacqui Mayes
Jacqui’s personal interest in Fibromyalgia and auto-immunity has led her to work with clients who have complex conditions such as Fibromyalgia, CFS/ME, Hashimoto’s and other auto-immune conditions. As a qualified Nutritional Therapist, she uses the Functional Medicine model to support patients with mould toxicity, headache/migraines, skin conditions, Diabetes, IBS, Asthma, PMS and other hormone related symptoms, fertility and women’s health.
Jacqui is a full member of the British Association for Nutrition and Lifestyle Medicine (BANT) and the Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council (CNHC). She is also a University Lecturer, NLP coach and works in the corporate sector delivering webinars and running corporate wellness days.