New research adds more evidence that chronic fatigue syndrome is a real disease, with a biological basis. U.S. health officials have released several studies showing that people who suffer the malady have a genetic makeup that affects the body's ability to adapt to life's stresses.
Chronic fatigue syndrome was first identified in the 1980s, but the cause has been elusive. It feels like several days without sleep, a flu-like condition that drains energy and is often accompanied by weakness, headaches, sore joints and lymph nodes, and impaired memory. Bed rest offers no cure. Women are diagnosed with it two-to-four times as often as men.
Some experts thought the condition might be something else, like mononucleosis, a virus, or an immune system weakness. Others were skeptical, suggesting that it is only imagined. But the U.S. government's disease tracking agency, the Centers for Disease Control, offers assurance that chronic fatigue syndrome - CFS - is real.
One of the agency's leading scientists on the issue is Dr. William Reeves.
"One of the common stereotypes is that this is a bunch of hysterical, upper class professional white women who are seeing physicians and have a mass hysteria," explained Dr. Reeves. "People with CFS are as impaired, as a whole, as people with MS [multiple sclerosis], as people with AIDS, as people undergoing chemotherapy for cancer."
As evidence, Reeves points to a comprehensive government-funded study of 227 chronic fatigue syndrome patients in Wichita, Kansas, the results of which are published in 14 papers in the April issue of the journal Pharmacogenomics. The volunteers spent two days in a hospital ward undergoing detailed evaluations of their nervous systems, blood, sleep, cognitive function and the activity of 20,000 genes.
The outcome shows that chronic fatigue syndrome has five different subtypes. But the common feature is that sufferers have certain genes that interfere with their ability to handle physical and environmental stress, such as illness, injury and various other adverse events.
"The results are groundbreaking," he added. "Knowing that there is now a biological basis for CFS will help us identify ways to more effectively diagnose the illness and to come up with more effective treatments, including cognitive behavioral therapy, medications, or a combination of both."
The new research is the latest of several studies published within the past eight months implicating certain genes in chronic fatigue syndrome. But the scientists say it will take time to identify the biological pathways involved.
In the United States, the government estimates that as many as one million people have the condition. It says the average family of a sufferer loses about $20,000 a year in earnings and savings due to missed work.