Chronic Fatigue Syndrome: CFS Symptoms, Causes, and Treatment

Fact checked by Megan Soliman MD, MSc
Board-certified internal medicine physician

The condition known as chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) is characterized by extreme exhaustion that persists even after bed rest. Any activity, whether mental or physical, may make symptoms worse.

The symptoms of CFS might appear out of nowhere and last for years. The disorder is more prevalent in women than it is in men. In this article, we will discuss what fatigue means and how to treat it effectively.

What is fatigue syndrome?

When you’re feeling extremely tired for at least six months and there’s no known underlying medical condition, you may be dealing with chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS). In this case, the feeling of tiredness intensifies with physical or mental effort and doesn’t get better with rest.

There are several theories about the origin of chronic fatigue syndrome, ranging from viral infections to psychological stress.

Some medical professionals think a number of variables may contribute to the development of chronic fatigue syndrome.

There isn’t a single test that can confirm a chronic fatigue syndrome diagnosis. To rule out further medical conditions with comparable symptoms, you may need a number of medical tests. The goal of chronic fatigue syndrome treatment is to reduce symptoms.

Symptoms of fatigue

Many patients have symptoms of myalgic encephalitis (ME) — another term for chronic fatigue syndrome — that are similar to those of other illnesses like the flu. Over time, symptoms may come and go, and their intensity may worsen or improve.

The symptoms of ME/CFS might vary greatly from one individual to the next. Many symptoms of fatigue syndrome make it difficult to function on a day-to-day basis. These symptoms include the following:

  • Extreme tiredness that has been present for at least six months and does not get better with rest or sleep
  • Symptoms similar to those of the flu include aching joints, headaches, and enlarged lymph nodes
  • Difficulties with thinking (cognition), including concentration and memory issues
  • Trouble falling or staying asleep
  • Muscle ache
A slept-in bed as a way to show fatigue syndrome

Among the less frequent symptoms of ME/CFS are the following:

  • Irritable bowel syndrome
  • Chills
  • Vision issues
  • Sweating at night
  • Numbness or tingling in the feet, hands, or face
  • Uncomfortable bloating, gas, constipation, and diarrhea
  • Problems relating to psychology or mental health, such as irritability, anxiety, and cyclical mood swings

The symptoms of chronic fatigue syndrome tend to become more severe after the person has engaged in intense mental or physical activity.

Dizziness, weakness, and even fainting might be indications of orthostatic intolerance, which refers to symptoms that become more severe when the affected person stands or sits upright.

Most common fatigue causes

There is currently no recognized explanation for CFS, but some of the following may be an important factor:

  • Stress
  • Viruses
  • Genetics
  • Weakened immunity
  • Hormonal imbalance

Despite the fact that CFS may occasionally develop after an infection with a virus, there is no one kind of infection that has been identified as the cause of CFS. Infections produced by the following viruses have been investigated for their possible links to chronic fatigue syndrome:

  • Epstein-Barr virus
  • Ross River virus
  • Human herpesvirus 6
  • Rubella virus

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention hypothesize that chronic fatigue syndrome may represent the combination of a number of distinct diseases as opposed to a single illness.

In addition, experts believe that people who have experienced severe symptoms with any of these three infections are more likely to develop CFS in the future.

Some people with chronic fatigue syndrome have compromised immune systems. However, medical professionals are unsure as to whether or not this is sufficient to trigger the condition.

People with chronic fatigue syndrome may also have aberrant hormone levels. Medical professionals are unable to agree on whether or not this is relevant at this point.

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What causes fatigue after eating?

Someone who habitually has feelings of drowsiness or sleepiness after a meal may have a condition known as postprandial somnolence. If you have postprandial somnolence, you could discover that after you eat, you have an overwhelming desire to lie down and take a nap.

There is often not a single cause of postprandial somnolence. Nonetheless, there are a few prevalent scenarios that may explain why you feel fatigued just after eating:

  • Diet
  • Overall health
  • Digestion cycle
  • Physical exertion
  • Sleeping patterns
  • Portion size of the meal
  • The times of the meal

Fatigue and joint pain: What’s the connection?

Many different kinds of arthritis and associated diseases have been linked to fatigue. It is a typical symptom of autoimmune disorders, such as rheumatoid arthritis, reactive arthritis, and lupus.

Other autoimmune illnesses may also cause it. In autoimmune disorders, the immune system targets the body’s own healthy tissues because it thinks they are foreign invaders.

It also has a significant connection to illnesses that may cause chronic pain, such as fibromyalgia, polymyalgia rheumatica, and complex regional pain syndrome. These disorders can all manifest as widespread musculoskeletal pain.

Can you get fatigue from allergies?

When your immune system responds to a chemical that you are allergic to, you will experience the symptoms of an allergy. Immunoglobulin E and histamine are two of the chemicals that are secreted by your body as part of the immune response to an allergen.

These compounds generate inflammation in your body as a defense mechanism against allergens, which may result in allergic symptoms such as the following:

  • Sneezing
  • Itchy nose
  • Runny nose
  • Congestion
  • Itchy, watery, or red eyes
  • Itchy rash or hives
  • Headache
  • Cough
  • Irritation of the throat

In addition to these traditional allergy symptoms, research shows that the inflammation that occurs throughout the body as a result of an allergic response might also cause you to feel fatigued.

When you have allergies, you could also find that you have difficulty concentrating due to brain fog — the inability to focus on activities or recall information. Moreover, in the case of nasal congestion, it is possible that you take in less oxygen via your nose than usual, which can also affect cognition.

The symptoms of an allergy might sometimes make it difficult to fall or stay asleep.

If you have a stuffy nose or a cough that keeps you up at night and causes you to toss and turn, you may feel tired the following day.

Last but not least, it’s possible that the medicine you take for your allergies is making you feel fatigued. For instance, the antihistamine diphenhydramine is often used as a sleep aid because of its reputation for inducing drowsiness.

If you believe that the allergy medicine you are taking is contributing to your fatigue, you should discuss the matter with your health care provider.

How to treat fatigue

Chronic fatigue syndrome cannot be cured, but it can be managed. Treatment will aim to manage your symptoms and restore your quality of life. Some individuals are unable to return to the level of health and functionality they had before.

Together, you and your doctor will first decide which of your symptoms are causing you the most trouble. You will then tackle those symptoms together as soon as possible.

Many individuals with CFS find that counseling is useful for them. By altering people’s ideas and habits, this kind of therapy enables patients to better endure their symptoms.

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If the severity of your symptoms is really disrupting your quality of life, your doctor may recommend that you take medication, such as antidepressants or sleep aids. Some patients with CFS find that using these drugs helps reduce symptoms such as restless sleep.

However, before prescribing sleep aids, your doctor may offer advice for naturally boosting your ability to fall and stay asleep. For example, they could recommend that you see a doctor who specializes in treating sleep disorders. If you experience extreme daytime sleepiness and fatigue, your doctor may examine you further for conditions such as sleep apnea, hypothyroidism, or anemia to rule out other potential causes.

It’s possible that your health care provider may suggest that you become a member of a support group for those coping with fatigue syndrome. These groups may help you manage the disease by getting you in contact with other people who know precisely what you’re going through.

A woman making a healthy smoothie to fight fatigue syndrome

Best vitamins for fatigue

There are several vitamins that in addition to coffee, tea, or energy drinks, may improve your energy level and help with chronic fatigue syndrome. These naturally occurring fatigue vitamins include the following:

  • Vitamin B. The eight different types of B vitamins (thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, pantothenic acid, B6, biotin, folate, and B12) work together to assist the body in extracting energy from the food that you consume.
  • Vitamin C. In the mitochondria of our cells, vitamin C helps generate usable energy.
  • Magnesium and iron. These are elements that help in the creation and use of energy molecules (ATP). Iron is necessary for the formation of hemoglobin and the transfer of oxygen throughout the body.

Foods to give you an energy boost

What you put into your body is what it runs on. Making sure that you give yourself the healthiest food possible can be an effective strategy to maximize the amount of energy that you get from the food that you consume.

Here are some foods that might give you an energy boost:

  • Unprocessed foods
  • Fruits
  • Green vegetables
  • Non-caffeinated beverages
  • Lean proteins
  • Whole grains
  • Nuts
  • Water
  • Bananas
  • Oats
  • Chia seeds

Wrapping up

Chronic fatigue syndrome is an illness that may completely transform a person’s life by interfering with every facet of their day-to-day activities.

Due to the fact that the symptoms are not specific but rather overlap with those of other disorders, getting a diagnosis may be a time-consuming process.

Some lifestyle adjustments may assist a person in overcoming obstacles associated with CFS, regardless of whether or not they have received a diagnosis.

Until researchers discover a particular therapy for fatigue, coping methods will be an important component in disease management.

March 14, 2023