In my functional medicine practice, I've talked to countless people over the years from all different backgrounds and places, whose story is the same: They wake up feeling like "a train hit them," no matter how much they sleep. They are exhausted, craving caffeine and sugary foods just to get through the day. One to 4 million Americans suffer from chronic fatigue syndrome. Shockingly, over 80 percent are undiagnosed and have no idea why they are so tired all the time.
I have written in the past about how microbiome problems such as leaky gut syndrome, toxins,poor diet, and stress can be pieces of the puzzle of chronic health issues. I haven't directly addressed another piece of the puzzle until now: the viral connection.
Viruses are often the underlying missing link in triggering many health conditions. Chronic viral infections can wreak havoc on your health months or years later in life.
The viral infections that I see most are actually part of the same family: the herpes family. When most people hear the word herpes they think of the sexually transmitted disease (STD) or cold sores.
There are actually eight identified members of the human herpes virus family so far. This is also the group of viruses that cause chickenpox and shingles! Herpes is one rough family. The member of the herpes family that I see being an underlying factor to chronic fatigue is the Epstein-Barr virus (EBV).
Epstein-Barr is the cause of "mono" (mononucleosis), known as the "kissing disease," which causes extreme exhaustion in millions of teenagers and young adults. The name herpes comes from the Greek word herpein or "to creep" and that's exactly what EBV can do. They can stay dormant for years until an opportunity to strike occurs. A stressful life event like a divorce or loss of a loved one, leaky gut syndrome, candida overgrowth, adrenal fatigue, or Lyme disease can all be the perfect time for the sleeping, latent viral infection to rise up and trigger chronic fatigue.
A small-scale study published in the medical journal PLoS One explored the link between antibodies against Epstein-Barr and chronic fatigue syndrome.
Another 2015 Polish study looked at the ability of EBV to "hide" in the thyroid and, once reactivated, stimulate the immune system to attack the thyroid, triggering autoimmune thyroid problems or Hashimoto's disease, which is another common cause of fatigue.
Most of us have these viruses living dormant in our body; the variable is our own genetic tolerance to them and the number of other stressors our body is experiencing. We are all unique with different tolerance to viruses and the other factors I mentioned.
If you are going through mono right now, or chronic fatigue, here are my top tips to reboot your immune system and start the healing process:
I suggest getting a full viral screen if you have these or other unexplained health problems. Labs are able to tell if there is an active or past infection.
Methylation is a big biochemical superhighway that makes for a strong immune system. Studies have shown the EBV messes up methylation, so those of us who have genetic changes such as MTHFR mutations and other methylation impairments can't necessarily handle as much as someone who doesn't.
Support methylation with activated B vitamins and foods rich in B vitamins such as green leafy vegetables, onions, garlic, and grass-fed beef and liver.
Research showsthat the healthy fats EPA and DHA from fish oil decreased EBV from being reactivated.
A 2016 study found that vitamin D was able to bring down Epstein-Barr antibodies in patients with the autoimmune disease MS. Make sure to have your vitamin D levels tested to determine dosage, and shoot for the optimal range of 60 to 80.
This root herb is used in traditional Chinese medicine to fight off viral infections.
You can't talk about the immune system without covering where the majority of your immune system resides: your microbiome. A study published in the Journal of Nuclear Medicine found an increase in symptoms of fatigue and depression with an increase in bacterial endotoxins found in leaky gut syndrome.
I recommend having labs done to evaluate your gut health in the context of chronic fatigue. Endotoxins will raise immune labs, such as white blood cell count and inflammatory proteins such as C-reactive protein and IL-6.
Bring detoxing foods into your daily diet. Garlic, cilantro, parsley, spirulina, and sage are some of my favorites. You can use them in smoothies, on salads, or with your meals. Try rotating these foods throughout your week for comprehensive detox support.
Start and end your day with mindfulness meditations—apps such as Headspace and Calm are great tools to try.
An amino acid called theanine has also been shown to improve sleep and allows you to feel rested and rejuvenated when you wake up. Low-caffeine teas like white tea or decaf green tea are great food sources for this sleepy-time medicine. I have a cup every night.
Low levels of iron, magnesium, B12, and folate can all contribute to fatigue and weaken your immune system.
Get labs to check your nutrient levels. If you don't already, focus on eating a clean diet with a wide variety of nutrient-dense whole foods such as vegetables, fruits, organic meats, and healthy fats.
The extract from olive leaf has been shown to have antiviral capabilities.
Research published in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology saw this adaptogenic herb increased helpful immune cells. Cortisol spikes have been shown to trigger a reactivation of EBV, and ashwagandha also has a balancing effect on the main stress hormone.
An exciting study published in Medical Science Monitor found that higher levels of vitamin C produced lower levels of EBV in people with mono and chronic fatigue syndrome.
Try to say larrea tridentata three times fast! This traditional Native American medicine is known as the ancient antiviral antidote of the desert.
Navigating viral chronic fatigue can be overwhelming. Finding a qualified functional medicine practitioner to put the pieces of your health journey together can be invaluable to your health and well-being—it often takes more than one shot to get to the root of it, but a functional medicine doctor will look at your lifestyle holistically rather than simply your symptoms.