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Natural Treatments for Chronic Fatigue Syndrome

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Updated June 26, 2014

Natural Treatments for Chronic Fatigue Syndrome
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What is Chronic Fatigue Syndrome?

Related Terms: Chronic fatigue and immune dysfunction syndrome, CFIDS, CFS, Myalgic encephalomyelitis

Chronic fatigue syndrome is a complex illness affecting the brain and multiple body systems. It is defined by incapacitating fatigue that is not relieved by rest, and at least four of the following symptoms for at least six months:

  • impaired short-term memory of concentration which significantly affects normal activities
  • sore throat
  • tender lymph nodes in the neck or underarms
  • muscle pain
  • pain in multiple joints with no joint swelling or redness
  • headaches of a new type or severity
  • unrefreshing sleep
  • general malaise following physical exertion that lasts more than 24 hours

Other common symptoms include: bloating, nausea, diarrhea, night sweats or chills, brain fogginess, dizziness, shortness of breath, chronic cough, visual disturbances, allergies or sensitivities to foods, alcohol, chemicals, irregular heartbeat or palpitations, jaw pain, or eyes or mouth.

The Centers for Disease Control officially recognized this condition in 1988. Chronic fatigue syndrome is more common in women than men, and the majority of people affected are in their thirties.

Alternative Treatments for Chronic Fatigue Syndrome

Although medication may be prescribed to address the various symptoms of chronic fatigue syndrome, there is currently no known conventional treatment for chronic fatigue syndrome, which is why many people seek complementary and alternative treatments.

1) Ginseng

Ginseng is an herb that has been used in Asia for centuries to increase energy and combat fatigue. A survey of 155 people by researchers at the University of Iowa with persistent fatigue found that ginseng was considered one of the more helpful treatments, with 56% of people who used ginseng rating it as effective.

Researchers in California found that Panax ginseng significantly enhanced cellular immune function by peripheral mononuclear cells (blood cells that are a critical component in the immune system to fight infection) in people with chronic fatigue syndrome or acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS).

A double-blind, placebo-controlled study involving 96 people with persistent fatigue, however, found that Siberian ginseng was not better than placebo at reducing fatigue.

For more information, read the Ginseng Fact Sheet.

2) Nicotinamide Adenine Dinucleotide (NADH)

NADH is a naturally occurring molecule formed from vitamin B3 (niacin) that plays an essential role in cellular energy production.

A double-blind, placebo-controlled trial evaluated the effectiveness of NADH in 26 people diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome. Participants received either 1 mg of NADH or placebo for 4 weeks. At the end of the study, 8 out of 26 (31%) responded favorably to NADH in contrast to 2 out of 26 (8%) who responded to placebo. No severe adverse effects were reported. Although very promising, larger studies are needed to prove the effectiveness of this supplement.

3) L-Carnitine

Carnitine, found in nearly all body cells, is responsible for transporting long-chain fatty acids into mitochondria, the energy-producing centers of cells. It allows these fatty acids to be converted into energy.

Some studies have found that carnitine levels in the body are decreased in people with chronic fatigue syndrome and it has been linked with muscle fatigue and pain and impaired exercise tolerance. However, other studies haven't found an association between carnitine deficiency and symptoms of chronic fatigue syndrome.

One study examined the use of L-carnitine in 30 people with chronic fatigue syndrome. After 8 weeks of treatment, there was statistically significant clinical improvement in 12 of the 18 parameters, with the greatest improvement occurring after 4 weeks of treatment. One person was unable to complete the 8 weeks of treatment due to diarrhea. There was no placebo group in this study and it wasn't blinded, so more clinical trials are needed.

Supplemental L-carnitine is generally well tolerated, however high doses of L-carnitine may cause digestive upset and diarrhea. Occasionally, increased appetite, body odor, and rash may occur.

A rare side effect that has been reported with L-carnitine use is seizures in people with or without pre-existing seizure disorders.

4) Coenzyme Q10

Coenzyme Q10 (Co Q10) is a compound found naturally in the mitochondria, the energy-producing center of our cells. Co Q10 is involved in the production of ATP, the main energy source of body cells. Co Q10 is also an antioxidant.

A survey of 155 people with persistent fatigue found that the percentage of users who found a treatment helpful was greatest for Co Q10 (69% of 13 people). For more information about Co Q10, please read the Co Q10 Fact Sheet.

5) Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA)

DHEA is a hormone secreted by the adrenal glands and in smaller amounts by the ovaries and testes. DHEA can be converted in the body to other steroid hormones, such as estrogen and testosterone. It is also involved in memory, mood, and sleep. Levels of DHEA in the body peak when a person is in his or her mid-20's and then slowly decline with age.

Studies have shown that DHEA-s levels are abnormal in people with chronic fatigue syndrome.

DHEA is not recommended unless lab tests indicate there is a deficiency. Treatment should be closely supervised by a qualified health practitioner. Little is known about the long-term safety of DHEA.

Because DHEA is converted to estrogen and testosterone, people with estrogen- and testosterone-related conditions, such as breast, ovarian, prostate, and testicular cancer) should avoid DHEA.

Adverse effects of DHEA include high blood pressure, lowered HDL ("good") cholesterol, and liver toxicity. DHEA can increase testosterone in women and result in male pattern baldness, weight gain, acne, deepening of the voice, and other signs of masculinization.

DHEA can interact with certain medications. For example, it has been found to increase the effect of the HIV medication AZT (Zidovudine), barbituates, the cancer medication cisplatin, steroids, and estrogen replacement therapy.

Learn more about DHEA supplements.

More remedies for CFS on the next page...

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