Could an overactive immune system be the cause of chronic fatigue syndrome?

Chronic fatigue syndromeCC: Kendal James at Unsplash

As a condition that few people understand, chronic fatigue syndrome places severe lifestyle restrictions on those who suffer from it. Also known as Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (ME), its primary symptoms involve feeling very tired and generally unwell.

Many of the symptoms are difficult to measure, which means patients can spend a while finding a diagnosis. While that’s frustrating on its own, the causes of chronic fatigue syndrome are also poorly understood. According to researchers from King’s College London, an overzealous immune system could be the culprit.

What is chronic fatigue syndrome?

Chronic fatigue syndrome, as the name suggests, involves patients feeling chronically tired and unwell. It’s a long-term illness that comes with the following symptoms:

  • Muscle aches
  • Headaches
  • A sore throat, with no associated lymph node enlargement
  • Problems concentrating
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea

The condition primarily affects women and it often starts in either their 20s or 40s. Symptoms often fluctuate, with some days being severe and others being mild.

Unfortunately, chronic fatigue syndrome is a diagnosis of exclusion. There aren’t any specific blood tests or imaging modalities that will confirm it. As a result, doctors diagnose it once they’ve excluded other illnesses that cause the same symptoms. For example, anemia.

How does your immune system play a role?

Most patients who have chronic fatigue syndrome say that the illness started after they had a viral infection. A classic example is mononucleosis, aka glandular fever. Therefore, medics will often agree that the immune system plays a strong role.

Recent research from King’s College University in London seems to agree with this. The research team took 52 patients with an existing Hepatitis C condition to analyze their immune system responses. Like all Hepatitis C patients, they were due to receive something called Interferon A, which tackles the condition by challenging the immune system.

While monitoring the patients’ immune markers against Interferon A, the researchers looked out for chronic fatigue syndrome symptoms. Around 18 patients went on to develop the condition and all of them had higher immune markers than the 34 who didn’t.

With these findings, it’s possible to conclude that an overactive immune system could play a role in ME. However, we’d need to see a much bigger study to solidify such a statement.

Is it possible to treat or cure chronic fatigue syndrome?

Although there are no specific medications for treating chronic fatigue syndrome, patients can take acetaminophen and other over-the-counter treatments to reduce aches and pains. Unfortunately, there isn’t any evidence of a cure. However, it is possible to make symptoms less difficult with the following steps:

  • Pacing your activities so that you don’t over-exert yourself and experience post-exertional malaise.
  • Keeping a diary of when you feel most tired can help you refine your activities accordingly.
  • Eliminating caffeine, alcohol, and nicotine promotes a better night’s sleep.
  • Maintaining excellent sleep hygiene encourages better sleep.
  • Some chronic fatigue syndrome patients find relief with antidepressants.
  • In a few cases, yoga, tai chi, and other alternative therapies prove helpful.

Finally, if you suffer from chronic fatigue syndrome, consider joining a support group so you can connect with those who understand what ME is like.

About the Author

Laura McKeever
Laura has been a freelance medical writer for eight years. With a BSc in Medical Sciences and an MSc in Physician Assistant Studies, she complements her passion for medical news with real-life experiences. Laura’s most significant experience included writing for international pharmaceutical brands, including GSK.