Chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) is a life-altering chronic illness that affects up to 2.5% of the UK population. It is also one of the most mysterious to understand, with no simple underlying cause easily determined. Diagnosis is made from a mix of symptoms rather than specific biological markers in the body. Therefore, identifying the condition is not quite so clear cut as many other commonly diagnosed diseases and can be a great challenge. Science research reveals the neurochemistry of chronic fatigue syndrome, and offers new ways of understanding the disease, which can allow better treatments to be made available.
Recent studies have indicated that the brain has some involvement, as suggested by the disorder’s common symptoms of pain sensitivity, sleep problems, and cognitive impairment which can manifest as dizzy “brain fog”. Even so, the condition is not “all in the head” or imaginary, as there are real physiological changes to the body and brain chemistry that can be identified in patients suffering from the illness.
Identifying CFS in the brain
It is important to identify how CFS is linked to the neurochemistry of the brain, so that the condition can be better understood and diagnosed. Last year, a research team led by clinical researcher Beata Godlewska used magnetic resonance spectroscopy (MRS) to investigate brain neurochemistry in those with CFS. It had been thought in recent research that CFS is associated with abnormal levels of oxidative stress and energy metabolism, which can be identified by biomarkers glutathione and creatine.
To look for these clues, scientists used a 7 Tesla magnetic resonance imaging system in Oxford to compare the neurophysiology of 22 CFS patients with 13 healthy subjects. They found that the biomarkers glutathione and creatine were lower in the CFS patients, justifying that oxidative and energetic stress is involved.
Interestingly, the scientists also observed metabolites associated with neuropsychiatric problems, such as amino acid neurotransmitters (GABA), neuronal and glial markers (NAA) and myo-inositol. They observed reduced myo-inositol which is associated with glial dysfunction.
Ultimately, the study’s findings reinforce the importance of nutrition for coping with the effects of neurological oxidative and energetic stress experienced by CFS sufferers. The brain is very sensitive to oxidative stress, due to its high lipid-rich content and reliance on consuming high amounts of oxygen. Being an energy demanding organ, it is vulnerable to oxidative problems, such as those experienced by CFS sufferers.
Antioxidants like glutathione and creatine help to regulate reactive oxygen species (small oxygen-derived molecules), which when too high, can damage proteins and contribute to neurodegeneration. To combat oxidative stress, a balanced diet that brings in antioxidants is recommended, and some medicinal herbs can help. There is much more to understand about how CFS relates to the neurochemistry of the brain and the central nervous system. This study sheds some light, but there should be even more research exploring this link, so that this common, debilitating illness can be better understood.
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