by Dr. Bill Rawls
Learn why the symptoms of fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome are so similar, what makes the disorders different, and how to overcome both.
Question: How are fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome different?
What is the difference between fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome? (And beyond that, we’ve got all kinds of other disorders that are similarly related to those.) It gets pretty confusing. When you look at those two entities, and the symptom profiles that people identify with fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue, they’re almost identical.
The biggest difference between fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue is that people with fibromyalgia identify more with pain. They have more muscle and joint pain. They feel like they’ve been in a wrestling match or thrown off of a horse. Whereas with chronic fatigue, they identify more with this oppressive fatigue, this lack of energy, like the vital energy of your being has been drained from your body. But otherwise, the symptoms are very, very much alike, and there’s a lot of overlap.
As far as a formal medical definition, they’re both considered disorders. Disorders are not considered true diseases, according to the medical establishment. They are conditions for which we don’t know the cause and, therefore, we don’t have a treatment — we can only treat symptoms.
I interpret that as saying, “We don’t have a test that can define a process that our drugs will work for.” But anything that happens in the universe is the result of cause, including fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue, and I think because their symptoms are so related, they probably have common causes.
When we look at those two entities and look for causes, we find that a commonality is disruption of the communication systems of the body — neurotransmitters, hormones, and the messengers of the immune system called cytokines. But there are no absolute distinct patterns, so in a way, every person with fibromyalgia is different from every other person with fibromyalgia. The same is true with chronic fatigue, so everybody has a slightly individual presentation of that.
I think the immune system disruption is related to things that are happening in our world that have become so common in the past hundred years: the food we eat, these artificial, grain-based products, are a driving force; this oppressive stress that every one of us lives with; and a lifestyle of not being active in a normal way (sitting behind a desk). Then there are the insidious toxins that we’re all exposed to.
All of those things affect our immune system, which allows things in our microbiome to flourish. Our microbiome is the total makeup of microbes in our body. We now know that there are 20,000 to 40,000 species, and we have microbes not only in our gut and on our skin, but throughout our tissues in very, very low concentrations. Some of these microbes are called stealth microbes. That can be bacteria, viruses, protozoa — there are many.
Now, the characteristic of a stealth microbe is that it lives inside cells. It can live in white blood cells, which allows it to manipulate the immune system’s messaging systems. It’s kind of like if criminals hijacked a police car. They could call central dispatch and have all the rest of the police force sent in the wrong direction. Well, that’s kind of what stealth microbes can do.
So, you’ve got microbes that are very different, but share those same characteristics, but they all do it just a little bit differently. I think with chronic fatigue you’re more apt to see certain kinds of microbes. Everybody with chronic fatigue typically has reactivation of Epstein-Barr virus, but that’s not the only virus. There’s a spectrum of viruses that can occur. A microbe called mycoplasma is very common.
With fibromyalgia, we might see a slightly different selection. I almost like to think of it as everybody has a unique cocktail of microbes. If you disrupt the immune system, end up with chronic immune dysfunction, and allow these things to flourish in the background (and if you happen to have the wrong kinds of microbes that start to flourish), that’s what causes all these systemic symptoms, this disruption of communication so nothing can work in the body.
Everything becomes inflamed. A prevalence of certain kinds of microbes or viruses may cause that oppressive fatigue, whereas other kinds are going to cause that oppressive pain, that muscle, joint, and whole-body discomfort that’s more common with what we would identify as fibromyalgia.
In my personal struggle with these kinds of situations and learning about these things over the years, that’s how I see these disorders and how I see them as being a little bit different. Fortunately, though, some of the solutions are the same.
Of course, you have to clean up your diet and fix the things that were disrupting your immune system in the first place. And herbs are really a fantastic solution, because they suppress these kinds of microbes, restoring normal communications and reducing inflammation. I see herbs as an ideal option to address these kinds of problems.