In today’s fast-paced world, we all struggle with feeling a little tired from time to time. But what happens when tiredness turns into exhaustion? And when that exhaustion doesn’t resolve no matter how much you rest?
Unfortunately, this is the reality for a growing number of people suffering from a complicated and invisible illness known as chronic fatigue syndrome.
And if you or a loved one has been diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome, chances are you’re all too familiar with how challenging it is to manage and treat this debilitating condition.
Recently, more research has been published that may bring us a little closer to identifying the culprit responsible for causing chronic fatigue syndrome – the vagus nerve. Let’s take a look at the fascinating research behind how the vagus nerve can cause chronic fatigue – and how it might just be the answer to beating this complicated disorder.
What Is Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS)?
Chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS), also known as myalgic encephalomyelitis, is characterized by unrelenting and persistent fatigue that doesn’t seem to resolve regardless of how much rest you get. While the name chronic fatigue syndrome is rather self-explanatory, this condition is anything but straightforward.
CFS is a complicated disorder that is often difficult to diagnose due to it’s vague and seemingly unrelated (or common) symptoms.
In fact, “chronic fatigue syndrome” is not even a diagnosis in itself. Instead, it’s often used as a label to discern a cluster of symptoms stemming from an underlying condition that has not been identified. Typically, in order to reach a diagnosis of CFS, many other potential conditions must be ruled out.
CFS symptoms often have a slow onset and mimic other disorders such as sleep deprivation, adrenal burnout, or hypothyroidism. Therefore, these must be excluded before reaching a diagnosis of CFS.
Symptoms of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome
As the name implies, chronic and persistent fatigue is the overarching symptom accompanied by this diagnosis. But there are officially nine signs and symptoms associated with CFS which are:1
- Loss of memory or concentration
- Sore throat
- Enlarged lymph nodes in your neck or armpits
- Unexplained muscle pain
- Pain that moves from one joint to another without swelling or redness
- Headaches of a new type, pattern, or severity
- Unrefreshing sleep
- Extreme exhaustion lasting more than 24 hours after physical or mental exercise
With the combination of all these symptoms, it’s easy to see how CFS is a debilitating condition.
What Causes Chronic Fatigue Syndrome?
Identifying the underlying cause of CFS is where things get even trickier. Several contributing factors have been speculated to be the root cause of CFS, which are: 2,3,4
- Poor immune system response
- Viral infections
- Increased activity in mast cells
- Food allergies and sensitivities
- Oxidative stress
- Hormonal imbalances
Nearly all of these potential underlying causes share a common pathway of inflammation and immune activation. And research is finding that once we can identify exactly where that inflammation and immune activation is coming from may be the key to pinpointing the cause of CFS.
One leading theory is that a viral infection is triggering the inflammation and immune activation associated with CFS. Exactly where is this possible infection located? The vagus nerve.
The Vagus Nerve: Where Is It & What Does It Do?
The human body contains 12 cranial nerves. These nerves connect the brain to the rest of the body – allowing the body to communicate sensory information (sights, smells, and sensations) to the brain. They also allow the brain to send messages and control motor functions – like the movement of muscles or the function of different glands.
The vagus nerve is the longest cranial nerve, extending from your brainstem all the way to your colon. The vagus nerve is like your body’s communication superhighway – connecting your brain to nearly all of your internal organs and coordinating communication between them.
Some of the functions of the vagus nerve is responsible for are:
- Relaying sensory information from the abdomen, heart, lungs, and throat
- Providing taste sensation behind the tongue
- Movement for the muscles that aid in swallowing and talking
- Facilitating the function and movement of the digestive tract, lungs, and heart
- Orchestrating communication between the gut-brain axis
- Coordinating the production and release of certain neurotransmitters and hormones
It’s also the primary control for the body’s parasympathetic nervous system. When stimulated, the vagus nerve acts on the parasympathetic nervous system by transitioning into “rest and digest” mode by:
- Slowing heart rate
- Decreasing blood pressure
- Slowing breathing
- Increasing digestion
If the vagus nerve becomes irritated or overstimulated, it can essentially cause your body’s entire communication system to go haywire. This is important because infection can lead to inflammation, which leads to an irritated vagus nerve, which then sends mixed or incorrect messages to the rest of the body.
The Link Between the Vagus Nerve & Chronic Fatigue Syndrome
The vagus nerve wanders down the body, innervating the esophagus, lungs, stomach, and spleen. All of these organs could potentially be harboring a latent form of certain viruses that most of us have been exposed to at one point or another such as:5
- Herpes virus
- Epstein Barr virus
When these viruses are reactivated, they trigger cells known as glial cells that launch an attack to disarm the virus. These glial cells are designed to surround and protect the vagus nerve – both structurally and as an important component in nervous system signalling.6
When triggered, they release a cocktail of inflammation-causing compounds. These chemicals release signals to the vagus nerve that an infection is present and tells the brain to initiate “sickness behavior”.
We’re all familiar with what “sickness behavior” is when we’re feeling under the weather. You get really tired – feeling wiped out even after minor activity. You might get achy and struggle to concentrate. Your throat might get sore and you might have trouble getting a restful night’s sleep.
If you scroll back up and take a peek at the cardinal symptoms associated with CFS, you might notice that they’re nearly identical to those associated with “sickness behavior.”
Vagus Nerve Infection Treatment
One of the biggest challenges when it comes to treating an infection of the vagus nerve is that it’s just plain challenging to pinpoint and treat. An infection in the vagus nerve does not necessarily show up in blood tests and it’s impossible to biopsy the vagus nerve.
Some researchers conducting animal studies have proposed glial cell inhibitors paired with antivirals to treat an underlying vagus nerve infection as a treatment in CFS. But more research is needed to fully understand if these medications could truly provide a solution.
Fortunately, from a functional medicine standpoint, there are some things you can do to address the underlying cause of CFS while also minimizing symptoms.
How to Fight Your Chronic Fatigue Syndrome
The foundation of treating any chronic illness – especially CFS – is minimizing overall inflammation while giving your immune system the support it needs. So here’s what I suggest.
Rule Out & Address Other Issues First
To fight off an underlying infection, your immune system needs to be firing on all cylinders. By addressing and treating any issues that may be taxing or suppressing your immune system – such as an overload of environmental toxins, food sensitivities, or heavy metal exposure – you can then direct all of your immune systems resources to destroy any hidden underlying infections.
Reduce Exposure to Toxins
Your home or workplace may be exposing you to countless toxins that are sending your immune system into overdrive.
I’ve written extensively on how mold and other mycotoxins can be contributing to chronic illness and how you can protect yourself. To get started I recommend the following articles:
- Is Toxic Mold Exposure The Cause Of Your Symptoms?
- Mycotoxins: The Hidden Danger Lurking In Your Kitchen
- Got Mold? Prevent Mold By Healing Your Homes Microbiome
Focus on Gut Health
Your immune system and the health of your gut are closely linked. If you have leaky gut syndrome or any other digestive issues, it’s likely that your immune system isn’t functioning at optimal levels. Focus on showing your gut some love by:
- Eliminating foods that cause inflammation like gluten, sugar, soy, corn, dairy, and refined oils
- Focus on consuming healing foods, like nutrient-dense veggies, fermented foods (like sauerkraut or kombucha), healthy fats, and bone broth
- Drinking plenty of high-quality filtered water (I recommend and personally use Berkey water filters)
- Add in some gut-healing supplements, such as Intestinal Essentials, Probiotic Daily Essentials, or Gut Immune
These practices will get your gut in shape and strengthen your immune system.
Give Your Immune System a Boost
If your immune system is constantly overtaxed, it will not be able to do its job properly. Giving your immune system some support can give it the boost it needs to better fight off any low-level hidden infections that might be causing your chronic fatigue. Some of the best ways to support your immune system are to:
- Get plenty of quality sleep: Your immune system requires plenty of restful, quality sleep to do its job properly – so shoot for at least seven hours of uninterrupted sleep each night.
- Minimize stress: Emotional stress stimulates and taxes the immune system. Finding ways to minimize stress is crucial – I recommend trying to develop a simple meditation practice.
- Take an immune-boosting supplement: When your immune system is working, it requires a lot of energy. Taking a supplement, like my Immune Booster, can give your system some extra support when it needs it.
You are your immune system’s best advocate – support your immune system and it will support you!
Next Steps If You’re Struggling With Chronic Fatigue Syndrome
If you are facing a recent CFS diagnosis or are struggling with unrelenting fatigue, I encourage you to contact a functional medicine doctor well versed in treating patients with CFS.
Lifestyle changes are crucial when it comes to treating chronic illness, but I highly recommend doing so under the guidance of an experienced healthcare professional.
If you are new to the functional medicine approach and aren’t sure where to start when it comes to choosing a functional medicine practitioner, head over and read my article on How to Choose a Good Integrative and Functional Medicine Doctor.
Now it’s time to hear from you. Are you surprised to learn that a vagus nerve infection may be the root cause of CFS? If you suffer from chronic fatigue, what steps have you taken to fight back? Leave your questions and thoughts in the comments below.