Chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) is a complex disease with a wide variety of symptoms. This can make it difficult to diagnose and treat in a conventional way and more and more people are now turning to traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) to seek relief.
TCM is thousands of years old, and views the body in a very different way to modern, western medicine. Diseases are classified by which organ or substance (qi, blood etc.) is being affected, and how. As the symptoms of CFS are so diverse, this means that there are many possible classifications. However, CFS is almost always classed as a disease of deficiency, and the most commonly affected organs are the Kidneys, Spleen and Liver. These three organs, along with the Lungs and Heart, play an important role in the health of qi and blood. This means that a deficiency in any of these organs can result in a wide variety of symptoms throughout the whole body.
Qi and Blood Deficiency
Qi and blood are closely related in TCM, and the way that they are made by the body is very similar.
The Lungs breathe in oxygen from the air, and the digestive organs (the Stomach and Spleen) extract the nutrients from food. Inside the body, these combine with what is known as “original qi”. This is stored by the Kidneys and can be compared to our genetics. These three components combine to make up the qi of our entire bodies, which gives us energy and warmth to carry out all of our physiological functions. Movement, respiration, reproduction, digestion and immunity all rely on strong and abundant qi.
Blood is formed in a similar way. Qi is extracted from food by the Stomach and Spleen, and pushed by the Lungs into the Heart, where it becomes blood. This also relies on healthy Kidneys and original qi, which help the transformation process.
The Liver does not directly influence the formation of blood, but it plays an important role in storing and nourishing it. The Liver is also responsible for the circulation of both qi and blood.
When all of these organs are functioning well, qi and blood will be plentiful and you will feel healthy and energetic. However, if one or more of them stops working as it should, qi and blood can become deficient and symptoms such as fatigue, weakness, sleep problems and digestive issues can arise.
The organs can become imbalanced for a number of different reasons. The Stomach and Spleen are affected badly by a poor diet or irregular eating habits. The Kidneys are affected by overwork or chronic illness, and the Liver is affected by stress. All of these factors can combine to disrupt the normal formation of qi and blood, and result in deficiency syndromes such as CFS.
If the Spleen does not have enough qi to perform its task of digestion properly, this can cause gastrointestinal symptoms and other serious problems throughout the body and mind. One of the Spleen's tasks is to convert nutrients and fluids from food into a form which is usable by the body. If it fails to do this, excess fluids begin to collect and create a condition known in TCM as dampness.
Dampness can cause obvious symptoms of fluid retention such as bloating and swelling, but also other, less obvious symptoms such as heavy, aching limbs and poor concentration or “brain fog”.
The best way to take care of your Spleen and prevent this from happening is to eat a healthy diet consisting of more whole foods and less processed, fatty and fried foods. From a TCM perspective, the Spleen prefers foods which are cooked or warm as they are easier to digest. Too many raw foods can tax the Spleen, eventually resulting in deficiency.
It is also important to eat at regular intervals, take time to enjoy your food and chew every mouthful properly. All of this encourages good digestion and helps the Spleen to perform its important role in qi and blood formation.
The Kidneys play an important role in the formation of qi and blood, and are also the source of yin and yang energy within the body. Kidney-yang provides warmth for all of our other biological functions, keeping us running in the same way that an engine runs a car.
When the Kidneys become imbalanced, this can have a knock on effect on the digestive process and prevent qi and blood from being created as they should. This leads to symptoms such as fatigue, weakness, chills and fever, irregular menstruation, low libido and pain, especially knee and back pain.
To ensure that your Kidneys function well, it is important to get a good balance between activity and rest. Regular, gentle exercise will help to build Kidney-yang, while getting enough downtime restores Kidney-yin. Balance is key for the Kidneys and overworking, smoking, drinking and excessive sexual activity can all have a negative effect. In TCM, it is thought that going to bed early, eating a balanced diet and practices such as qi gong can all have a positive effect on your Kidneys. This in turn can help to prevent deficiency and is even believed to prolong your life!
As we have already mentioned, the Liver plays an important role in storing and nourishing blood. It is also responsible for the smooth flow of qi and blood. When the Liver is functioning well, qi and blood will be able to flow freely, reaching the far corners of the body and keeping every tissue and organ healthy.
If the Liver becomes imbalanced, qi and blood can stop flowing as they should and begin to stagnate. This causes many different symptoms including pain, digestive issues, irregular menstruation, irritability and depression.
The Liver is easily affected by stress, so one of the best ways to keep it healthy is by staying on an even keel emotionally. Relaxation techniques such as meditation, tai chi and qi gong may all help, and regular exercise is also good.
In the west, we are often taught that negative emotions such as anger should be suppressed, but according to TCM, you should express these emotions in an appropriate way, or your health could suffer. This does not necessarily mean that you should go around yelling at everyone who annoys you, but it is good to find some other way to regularly vent rather than letting it all build up.
How does Acupuncture Treat Chronic fatigue Syndrome?
Acupuncture is now a popular treatment for CFS, and it works in a number of different ways. When you go for your first consultation, your acupuncturist will make a diagnosis based on your individual symptoms, medical history and lifestyle. They will identify which organ or organs are being affected the most, and work on strengthening and rebalancing them. They will also work on building up your qi and blood to relieve symptoms of fatigue.
Because acupuncture is an holistic treatment, every symptom, physical or emotional, will be taken into account. This means that every patient ends up with a unique diagnosis and treatment plan according to their own needs. Acupuncture treatment may be supplemented with herbal prescriptions if necessary and you will be given personalized dietary and lifestyle advice where needed.
By identifying which organs are at the root of your condition, acupuncture can treat CFS at a deeper level than most medications which just mask the symptoms. This means that although progress can be slow and there may be many ups and downs, it is likely to provide far more sustainable results. It also means that you will have a specific plan of action in place, allowing you to relax and get on with your life.