According to the Centers for Disease Control, approximately 2.5 million people in the United States suffer from chronic fatigue syndrome, with another 17 million suffering worldwide. It is an extremely debilitating disease with 75% of those who suffer becoming disabled and 25% homebound . Even more frustrating to many with the condition is the lack of information or treatment available to them. So little is known about this disease, yet so many suffer from it every year. This has led researchers to not only want to learn more, but find safe treatment solutions to help chronic fatigue syndrome patients. One option that has raised interest from within the community is the effect of cannabis on those being treated for chronic fatigue.
What is Chronic Fatigue Syndrome
Chronic fatigue syndrome is also known as myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME), often abbreviated as ME/CFS, although more recently the term systemic exertional intolerance disease (SEID) has been proposed to replace the other two other terms. Most doctors have found chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) difficult to diagnose. It’s a complicated disease with symptoms similar to a number of other common disorders. People who suffer from chronic fatigue syndrome often find themselves frustrated as medical professionals struggle to properly diagnose them. Some of the symptoms of CFS include:
- Extreme fatigue that does not lessen with rest
- Sleep issues, including insomnia or sleep that doesn’t feel refreshing
- Memory, focus, and concentration problems
- Chronic dizziness that is especially amplified when moving from a prone position to sitting or standing
- Sore throat
- Enlarged lymph nodes
- Muscle or joint pain
Even after much research, the cause of chronic fatigue syndrome is still unknown. Researchers have many theories, including viral infections and psychological stress, however the data still does not support these analyses and the cause is unknown. Experts don’t even know if there is one cause of chronic fatigue or if it’s triggered by a combination of factors. Some potential triggers include:
- Viral infections. Doctors have noticed that some people find themselves with chronic fatigue syndrome after recovering from a viral infection. Some of the most common diseases that lead to CFS are the Epstein-Barr virus and the human herpes virus 6, however no conclusive evidence has been found to link these.
- Immune system issues. Often the immune system of those afflicted with chronic fatigue syndrome are slightly impaired, but again there is no evidence to suggest that the impaired immune system caused the CFS.
- Hormonal imbalances. Doctors have also noticed that those who suffer from chronic fatigue also struggle with abnormal blood levels of hormones. This is all anecdotal evidence without any data to back it up, but it is something being investigated.
- Physical and emotional trauma. Some people have experienced chronic fatigue syndrome after experiencing an injury, surgery, or some sort of extreme emotional distress.
There still aren’t many known risk factors for chronic fatigue syndrome, however it does seem to affect young to middle-aged adult women most often. It should be noted that since there is still very little known about this condition, that data could simply signify that that particular demographic is just the most common to actually report their symptoms to a doctor. Chronic fatigue syndrome can have a wide range of complications, with some people reporting a complete disruption to their everyday life. Common issues include lifestyle changes and restrictions, increased work absences, social isolation, and depression.
How Cannabis Can Help
Even though ME/CFS is recognized by the World Health Organization and the CDC as a real disease, there are still no FDA-approved treatments for it. This has led many who suffer to research their own treatment plans based on their individual symptoms. Cannabis has been something that many in that chronic fatigue community have found themselves reaching for. Some of the most common symptoms of chronic fatigue syndrome have been researched heavily in regards to how cannabis works to combat them.
Current research suggests that because cannabis could be used as an effective treatment for a number of inflammatory diseases . It has also received attention for its ability to control inflammation in the brain as well. Patients suffering from ME/CFS have been found to have neuroinflammatory symptoms similar to those suffering from multiple sclerosis. A recent study found that several cannabinoids found within cannabis had the ability to calm the inflammatory response, leading to a reduction of symptoms .
Cannabis has also shown its potential to help with depression. Recent studies performed on mice have shown that CBD exhibited both anti-anxiety and antidepressant effects in those animals . Another study concluded that CBD had strong antidepressant effects when tested for its effectiveness on non-psychiatric and psychiatric disorders . These results could prove beneficial for those suffering from depression associated with ME/CFS.
Research has shown that the success of CBD as a sleep aid may come directly from its success as an anti-anxiety treatment. Because it’s such a powerful remedy for stress and anxiety, CBD users often find themselves falling asleep more quickly than they are able to without the supplemental aid. It has also been shown to be helpful for those struggling to fall asleep because of pain or nervous system conditions as the cannabinoids help relieve the troublesome symptoms .
Chronic fatigue syndrome is thought to have similar properties to diseases that cause chronic neuropathic pain. This is a pain that comes from damaged nerves, which is different from the tissue pain most commonly experienced in issues like back or neck pain. Research has shown that CBD may be a treatment option for both types of pain, with many people swearing by CBD as a treatment for their neuropathic pain . Neuropathic pain is one of the most difficult to treat, yet research studies have revealed that cannabis and CBD can be beneficial to those patients who have not responded well to pharmaceutical treatments .
How it Works
The process of how cannabis interacts with the human body is somewhat complicated, but the easiest way to understand it is to briefly describe one of the most important systems in the human body.
The Endocannabinoid System
The endocannabinoid system’s (ECS) main purpose is to maintain a constant state of homeostasis within the body. All of the body’s internal systems need to be in equilibrium in order to work effectively, so if even one becomes unstable the ECS must activate and rush to the location of the issue to quickly work to stabilize it.
There are three primary elements that make up the endocannabinoid system:
- Endocannabinoids. The chemical compounds the body naturally produces. These are structurally similar to cannabinoids, the chemical compounds found in cannabis.
- Cannabinoid receptors. Found on the surface of cells throughout the entire body, endocannabinoids and cannabinoids are both able to attach to receptors allowing them to communicate with a variety of systems inside the body. This communication is what enables the ECS to detect and correct instability and what allows cannabis the ability to interact with so many systems of the human body.
- Enzymes. These are proteins that work to break down the cannabinoids and endocannabinoids after they’ve attached themselves to the receptors and after successful homeostasis has been achieved. Enzymes are there to make sure the cannabinoids do not create an overcorrection.
Since cannabinoids from cannabis plants are very similar to the naturally produced compounds in the body, it’s possible for cannabinoid compounds to attach to the receptors just as endocannabinoids do. CBD, for instance, has the ability to bind to both the CB1 and CB2 receptors, and once attached acts as a blocker, binding to receptors and dampening their signals.
While many have found help with their chronic fatigue syndrome through the use of cannabis products like THC or CBD, it is still important that all patients discuss their options with their own doctor. Dealing with ME/CFS may become a lifelong commitment, so finding a safe and effective treatment is important. For many that treatment will come in the form of cannabis, which has shown itself to be life-changing for many suffering from chronic fatigue.