The scientific community has long dismissed chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) and Gulf War illness (GWI) as mental health disorders, but a study published in Scientific Reports has revealed that the conditions are not all in the mind. The diseases exhibit similar symptoms such as malaise, muscle pain, and cognitive dysfunction. Recent figures also show that between 836,000 and 2.5 million Americans suffer from CFS, while 175,000 war veterans are reportedly suffering from GWI. According to the recent study, the conditions are known to trigger changes in the brain chemistry and cause adverse effects on the body.
“Many healthcare providers are skeptical about the seriousness of [CFS], mistake it for a mental health condition, or consider it a figment of the patient’s imagination. [H]ealthcare providers should acknowledge [CFS] as a serious illness that requires timely diagnosis and appropriate care,” a 2015 review noted.
A team of researchers at the Georgetown University Medical Center in Washington, D.C., pooled data from patients with CFS and GWI as part of the study. The experts used a lumbar puncture to extract cerebrospinal fluid from both the patient group and the healthy controls. The fluids were obtained before and after the volunteers underwent a bicycle exercise session that lasted at least 25 minutes. The scientists also used a functional MRI to assess the participants’ brain health.
The experts noted that both the patients and healthy controls had similar microRNA levels prior to the exercise session. However, the researchers observed that CFS patients had exhibited 12 diminished miRNAs after exercise. The experts likewise discovered significant miRNA changes in two subtypes of GWI, with one subgroup suffering from tachycardia. According to the experts, the heart condition in patients persisted for two to three days following the exercise session. Brain scan data also showed that patients with CFS and GWI had smaller brain stems in areas that regulate heart rate.
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“We clearly see three different patterns in the brain’s production of these molecules in the CFS group and the two GWI phenotypes […] This news will be well-received by patients who suffer from these disorders who are misdiagnosed and instead may be treated for depression or other mental disorders,” lead researcher Dr. James N. Baraniuk told Medical News Today online.
Study: Chronic fatigue patients are exhausted to the core
Another recently published study revealed that people with CFS showed exhaustion at a cellular level, which further solidifies that the condition is not merely due to laziness. Health experts have referred to the condition as “Yuppy Flu” a few decades ago, and had associated CFS with a lazy and unmotivated demeanor. (Related: Study Shows There are Many Types of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.)
A team of researchers at the Newcastle University in the U.K. took white blood cell samples from 52 patients with CFS and 35 healthy patients in order to carry out the study. The samples were subjected to optimal and stressful conditions to see how they coped with significantly low oxygen levels. The researchers observed that exposure to stressful conditions prompted the samples taken from healthy controls to boost their energy production by double. However, white blood cell samples taken from CFS patients could only produce about 50 percent more energy in response to stressful conditions.
“A lot of people dismiss it as a psychological disease, which is a big frustration…The CFS cells couldn’t produce as much energy as the control cells. At baseline, they didn’t perform as well, but the maximum they could reach under any conditions was so much lower than the controls,” researcher Cara Tomas stated in a Science Alert report.
The scientists note that while the study focuses on a single cell, the findings may help establish a correlation between a biochemical reaction in CFS patients and a host of subsequent health markers such as muscle pain, lethargy and impaired cognitive functions.