Chronic Fatigue?

I’ve a strong urge to answer the question above with a swift ‘No thank you’ and let that be it, but it seems that opportunity has passed despite my best attempts at denial over the course of several months. In fairness, some of the denial was heavily influenced by a complete lack of some of the symptoms that categorise this rather complex condition, and by many standards, even the glaringly obvious symptoms are relatively mild: at no time have I been confined to my bed with totally debilitating fatigue, and neither have I been crippled with pain or been dangerously close to collapse when out and about in public places.

But I am fatigued, chronically, and sleep has been hit and miss with the emphasis on miss, so I’m also frequently tired. And whilst I haven’t fallen apart in public, I’ve certainly come crashing down emotionally at home with angry and tearful anxiety over highly important matters such as which coat to go out in! And whilst I still maintain that I’m one of the lucky ones, these out-of-control outbursts, the fatigue, inability to sleep, and becoming overly aware of the state of my heart due to palpitations and chest pains all put a spotlight on the temporary nature of life … if you get my drift.

I don’t know what’s really behind this; there are suggestions of a viral cause for Chronic Fatigue Syndrome which is of interest especially as what I’m experiencing was seemingly triggered by the flu I had at Christmas. There may also be an element of genetics at play - when both of my sisters have a related condition, is that coincidence? But there has to be some ‘modern life’ factor, or at least some aspects of modern life that perpetuate the illness and make recovery slow and challenging; it is, after all, a modern disease. And this may be the clue to managing it, halting the downward spiral ...maybe even resolving it?

I’ve referred above to my ‘good luck’ in being significantly less profoundly affected than many others who experience Chronic Fatigue, MS or Fibromyalgia (thankfully we’re no longer referring to any of these as ‘Yuppy Flu’ although at my age, there would be a veiled compliment in that insult), but my good fortune may be at least in part attributable to something else. Could it be the way I live? I have a previous illness to thank for a thorough overhaul of my diet and lifestyle which I’ve maintained and further developed over the course of almost two decades. And I can’t help noticing that those with the conditions listed above, who start feeling better seem to move towards where I am; they seek and implement nutritional advice, start eating much more naturally, take supplements where deficiencies seem likely and practice mindfulness or other forms of relaxation. Could this explain my ‘luck’? Could it explain why I seem to be making moderate progress, albeit in a somewhat erratic and haphazard style?

I’ve come to the conclusion that the unbalancing effects of Modern Life can be at least partially addressed by three ‘M’s. I’ll reference these in alphabetical order simply because each has its own merits and varying significance depending on each individual. The first comes with a touch of disappointment for me; over the last 10+ years, I’ve come to really appreciate that nature works synergistically, as a mutually supportive team if you like, and so to put attention on any individual nutrient means we’re seeing natural resources as we see allopathic medicines - one compound for one health problem, and in doing so, we fail to understand the spectacular health-promoting harmony that nature offers. But modern life has led to more than just isolating pharmaceutical compounds to address poor health; the tendency to isolate, dismember and denature has played out in many areas of life including the way we farm and create food. Nutritional deficiencies are unavoidable under these circumstances, but there is one mineral that stands out as being quietly, but catastrophically lacking in our soil, in our food and thus in the hundreds of functions that our bodies need it for. This mineral is magnesium, the first of the three ‘M’s. The list of deficiency symptoms is long and diverse, but all of the symptoms I’ve referred to above are also magnesium deficiency symptoms. All of them. It’s perhaps not surprising then that for 3 or 4 months I assumed I had a magnesium deficiency and that that was the long and the short of it. The only variant appears to be the seemingly random ‘crashes’ that punctuate my life. I’m reluctant to refer to my experiences in this way because for some people a crash is completely life-halting whereas for me, a few afternoons and evenings may grind to a virtual stand-still, but measured and minimal activity is still possible. My heart goes out to those who participated in this BBC Newsround documentary, M.E. and Me. For these young people, the ‘crash’ is something far more profound than what I have come to know, and I’m sorry that any good dietary advice has to be sought out and paid for privately, despite numerous accounts of improvements from those who do make significant dietary adjustments supported by supplements. I can’t recommend magnesium supplementation enough. The more I read, the more I realise deficiency in the population at large is extremely high. A report appeared in the BMJ earlier this year highlighting magnesium deficiency as a public health crisis and a driver of cardiovascular disease. All the currently known causes of magnesium deficiency as well as deficiency symptoms are listed towards the end of the report here. Supplementation in response to any known deficiency is likely to be far more successful if there is a natural and varied diet to support its efforts. I personally consider supplementation to be a potential waste of money if the accompanying diet is anything other than natural and nutrient dense.

It’s estimated that stress plays a role in around 90% of all illnesses. Ninety per cent! Chronic Fatigue is definitely amongst that number, not only because a person’s response to stress worsens when they have it, but there’s a strong likelihood that stressful lives or prolonged stressful events play a part in the emergence of the disease. This (primarily the latter of the two), may also be of relevance to me. The second ‘M’ then is meditation. Again, I was ‘lucky’ to have had rather more than a gentle tap on the shoulder persuading me, eventually, to learn meditation. I had chronic insomnia and a fair helping of anxiety. Meditation reduced both of these sufficiently that for a few years something resembling normality was resumed. The recent return of both, despite a continued meditation practice was initially baffling; why was it no longer 'working'? I didn't know at the time that my body was crying out for magnesium. Nevertheless, meditation was and is always valuable. If I lie awake at night (I can get to sleep but certainly know what the small hours of the morning look like), what else is there that will allow my body and mind to rest instead of worrying about what a lack of sleep might entail for the following day, or for my short and long-term health? I cannot think of any better substitute for sleep if sleep really is unachievable. And tiredness is easier to cope with if you’re mostly happy; I can’t promise that meditation will make a person happy, but stress and worry will almost certainly give rise to the opposite. Our distant ancestors won’t have needed to train their brains to allow for more awareness; they had less capacity for imagination, including the less pleasant side of imagination, ie worry. Our highly developed brains are a gift, but if we spend too long in their darker creations, we cannot experience life as it is happening and if we don’t experience life as it unfolds, are we really living? Also, an emphasis on ‘always busy’, ‘always doing’ keeps us always switched on; we need to reclaim the ability to really switch off and to do so frequently. This is what meditation trains us to do and this is freedom.

The final ‘M’ is exciting to me, it’s one enormous lesson in holism and connectedness, it’s the new and emerging understanding of a physical reality that has accompanied mankind from the start of our history (we assume). It’s the microbiome. Just as we’ve started trying to live antibacterial lives (some bacteria are dangerous to us), we have to overturn most of our notions of bacteria as the prevalence and importance of these minute critters become apparent to us. The known health and wellbeing implications of the microbiome are being revealed at a rapid pace and yet this is an area of our physical lives where there is still much to learn. We do know that diversity is key and we know that beneficial bacteria and yeast flourish according to what we eat (bacteria-containing foods and drinks such as sauerkraut and kombucha) as well as what we feed them: prebiotic foods which are predominantly plant foods and mostly in their raw state with their fibre intact. We know too that there is a negative version of this and that what we term ‘bad’ bacteria proliferate on a diet of refined, processed foods and especially those which have added sugar, or foods which rapidly convert to sugar. For those of us who believe we can eat our way to better health, we now have more reason than ever to believe so: we get help when we do! We’re not going it alone, we have billions, trillions of little helpers, tilting us towards mental and physical wellness long as we treat them right by eating food that has been largely familiar to them since the start of time. It’s true that even natural food has undergone changes, but not in an historic blink of an eye and at no point has it become unrecognisable as useful, nutritious food. The same cannot be said for manufactured, nutrient-poor, industrial foods; this way of eating isn’t working for us, but those who produce it can be confident in their business as long as they continue to successfully manipulate our taste buds and feed the (bad) bacteria in our guts that clamour for more of these food-like substances.

These suggested ‘broad strokes’ for easing us all back into balance, are just that, broad strokes; there is still plenty of detail to fill in for anyone seeking to overcome a modern-life-linked illness, but we all need a starting point or two and this is my aim in presenting these three ‘M’s.

“Sometimes not getting what you want, is a wonderful stroke of luck.” This quote from the Dalai Lama is consistently relevant to me, and I do feel lucky, or at least have frequently felt lucky with hindsight. And this time? Well, I don’t have full hindsight yet; this current reality, a much slower one, is still relatively new and not yet behind me, but I already know I’m extremely lucky to be sharing my life with someone who recognises that what is happening with me isn’t ‘all in my head’ or somehow my fault. I also feel lucky that despite some alarming symptoms, he doesn’t press me to seek conventional medical help for this, knowing as I do that there is no medical response other than to address symptoms with pharmaceuticals or prescribe CBT and graded exercise. With his support and belief in myself I’m ready to make some of my own luck by speaking up more about inclusion. Inclusion is gaining traction in various areas, and rightly so, too. I ask that it applies to me and others like me where food is concerned: I eat natural plant-based food which is not just an ideological preference, but also that which is preferred and needed by my body, as I’m part of nature, too. I would like to be properly catered for at events. The enticement of ‘cake’ at fundraising events (such as cancer charities!) excludes me. I choose not to eat refined, processed foods and cannot eat dairy or even now gluten if I hope to remain feeling well. I do eat natural food that grows in the ground; this is natural and always has been, it may not be ‘normal’ by current standards, but I’m no longer willing to be side-lined by this version of ‘normal’.


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