If you’re one of the millions of people dealing with chronic fatigue syndrome, you know how debilitating this condition can be. Simply checking basic tasks off your to-do list may leave you exhausted, and you might find yourself regularly struggling to get out of bed.
Sometimes referred to as myalgic encephalomyelitis, chronic fatigue syndrome is a serious illness that makes living a normal, active life extremely difficult. In addition to a feeling of exhaustion that no amount of sleep can mitigate, symptoms of chronic fatigue include:
- Decreased ability to do things that weren’t difficult before illness
- A feeling of ‘crashing’ after engaging in normal physical or mental activity (known as post-exertional malaise)
- Sleep problems such as falling or staying asleep
- Impaired cognition, including memory problems, trouble concentrating and ‘brain fog’
- Muscle and joint pain
- Frequent sore throats
The exact cause of chronic fatigue syndrome is unknown, but a few theories have gained traction in the scientific community. Based on the fact that many people with chronic fatigue syndrome feel their condition originated with a flu-like illness, some experts believe it’s caused by a viral infection, while others think a bacterial infection like pneumonia may trigger the illness. Since chronic fatigue syndrome and autoimmune disorders share characteristics like increased inflammation, problems with the immune system are also considered a potential cause. Stress and genetics are other theoretical triggers of chronic fatigue syndrome.
Recently, researchers have begun to explore a possible link between chronic fatigue syndrome and imbalanced gut bacteria. In a 2017 study conducted at the Center for Infection and Immunity (CII) at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health, scientists identified abnormal levels of certain gut bacteria in patients with chronic fatigue syndrome. Not only were levels of specific strains of intestinal species strongly associated with chronic fatigue syndrome, the severity of chronic fatigue symptoms experienced by study subjects correlated with the relative abundance of these bacterial types. Based on their findings, researchers concluded that chronic fatigue syndrome may involve a breakdown in communication between the brain and the gut.
Considering that a growing body of evidence points to the importance of a healthy microbiome – the community of microorganisms living in our bodies – for overall well-being, it’s perhaps unsurprising that chronic fatigue syndrome has been associated with the gut. As science continues to uncover the many roles our microbiome plays in our health, the importance of protecting it becomes increasingly clear. The microflora in your gut aid digestion, produce vitamins and support your immune system, among other things. Your microbiome also affects your mental health, with some research pointing to a connection between gut bacteria and mood. Other conditions linked to the microbiome include irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), diabetes and even obesity.
A healthy microbiome is important for everyone, but it’s especially critical for people with chronic fatigue syndrome, who may be experiencing an imbalance of gut bacteria that is contributing to their condition. For these patients, probiotic supplements may be a useful tool for supporting the microbiome and reducing symptoms of chronic fatigue.
The microbiome is made up of many different types of bacteria, both helpful and harmful. When we’re healthy, these good and bad bacteria are balanced. But when something happens to upset this balance – whether it’s illness or a course of antibiotics – the microbiome can’t function optimally. When levels of beneficial bacteria dip too low, harmful microbes may take over, potentially leading to a microbiome that’s overrun with bad bacteria. This imbalance negatively impacts our wellness.
Enter probiotics. These supplements contain various strains of live bacteria that help repopulate the microbiome with beneficial microbes, restoring the balance between harmful and helpful. Not only are sickness-causing pathogens kept at bay, digestive processes are optimised and the immune system is able to function properly.
The benefits of probiotics have been widely studied, and science suggests these supplements can help with a whole host of health problems. Here are some of the many conditions probiotics have been shown to treat and/or prevent:
- Vaginal infections
- Irritable bowel syndrome
- Urinary tract infections
- Eczema (in children)
- Ulcerative colitis
- Crohn’s disease
Studies specifically examining the effect of probiotics on symptoms of chronic fatigue syndrome have also been promising. One systematic review found that ‘the studied strains of probiotics have demonstrated a significant effect on modulating the anxiety and inflammatory processes’ in chronic fatigue patients.
With research suggesting that an imbalanced microbiome could be a cause of chronic fatigue syndrome, taking probiotics to bring the microbiome back into balance may be an effective way to reduce symptoms of chronic fatigue. Since probiotics typically don’t interact with any medication, they can be a safe, natural and gentle addition to any chronic fatigue treatment plan.
Additionally, gut health can perfectly be promoted by the right diet: Increase in fibre to foster the good ones and include fermented foods as probiotic yoghurts or others. The gut is a precious organ to be taken care of!