Updated: December 2021
I work with a lot of patients who list fatigue as one of their chief complaints. It happens so often that I decided it is time to write an article about not just fatigue but chronic fatigue.
So many of my patients talk about how they have energy for the first time in years after I help them get back on their feet with better health.
People tell me that they have mental clarity again and that they feel like living. I have to say that is one of the great joys that I get from working with my patients. It’s wonderful to know that what I have to offer humankind is truly meaningful and makes a huge difference in peoples lives.
Can a Virus cause Chronic Fatigue?
So, let’s talk about chronic fatigue. I have seen a high correlation with viral infections in people who suffer with chronic fatigue.
Most people think of herpes as a sexually transmitted disease. It is true that some forms of herpes fall into this category. However, chicken pox and mononucleosis are also caused by the herpes virus.
Most of us had chicken pox when we were children. Once you are “over” chicken pox, you are never really “over” it. Chicken pox lies dormant in the body (just off of the spine in a bundle of nerves) and can become active again years later.
When the chicken pox virus becomes active later in life, it is called “shingles”. Once contracted, you will have that same virus for your entire life!
The virus that causes shingles can just lay dormant for decades. When people become stressed (either physically or mentally) the virus can become active again.
Does the Immune System have a Memory?
This is a really important point. Your immune system absolutely 100% has a memory. It’s like someone who holds a grudge for a lifetime. Once your immune system sees something that doesn’t belong (such as a virus), it will remember that virus for the rest of your life.
This has potentially life altering consequences that could lead to autoimmune disease. Autoimmune disease is when the immune system recognizes a part of your body as foreign and attacks it the same as it would a virus or bacteria.
Common examples of autoimmune disease would be rheumatoid arthritis, Systemic Lupus Erythematosis (SLE), Sjogren’s syndrome, Psoriasis, Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, celiac, scleroderma, Addison’s disease, Grave’s disease, and others.
What is Molecular Mimicry?
There is a phenomenon called “molecular mimicry” where viruses can look similar to the tissues in your body. When molecular mimicry occurs, it can be almost impossible for your immune system to tell the difference between the virus and self body tissue.
Molecular mimicry can be a major driver of autoimmune disease. Using the chicken pox virus (herpes zoster) as our example: If the protein structure in the chicken pox virus is similar to the protein structure of an organ in your body, your immune system could try to kill the virus but also attack your body by mistake.
Your immune system is non-discriminatory. It can’t tell the difference so it just kills both. It goes after all foreign invaders no matter what.
How does Mono cause Fatigue?
Another example of a virus that is associated with autoimmune disease is mononucleosis. “Mono” is called the kissing disease. Mono is caused by the Epstein Barr virus.
The vast majority of people contract mono when they are a child and never develop the chronic fatigue associated with the classic “mono” symptoms that teenagers get.
Most of us have had the Epstein Barr virus in our bodies for all of our lives and never developed the overwhelming symptoms of fatigue that occur with acute cases of mono.
It is the patients who develop chronic fatigue who know what it’s like to not have any energy and suffer from daily malaise or lack of motivation. They understand it all too well.
What is the difference between an Acute and Chronic Viral Infection?
An acute viral infection will usually elevate absolute lymphocytes and monocytes on a blood test. Chronic viral infections usually don’t show a rise in the absolute values, but can shift the lymphocyte percentages, etc…
That is one differentiation between an acute and chronic infection. Through my career, many people have sought out my care because they were having chronic pain and couldn’t get help anywhere else.
People find me because they have tried for years and years with various Drs., medications and treatments with one failure after another.
By the time people begin consulting with me, most are dealing with chronic inflammation versus acute inflammation. Chronic inflammation leads to breakdown of your tissues.
Tissues that get broken down over time can lead to severe neck pain, back pain, sciatica, neuropathy, autoimmune disorders, and all other disease in the body.
I’ve said it a million times: “Inflammation is the driver of all disease”. A rogue immune system will cause bucket loads of inflammation and can eventually cause more disease.
The same is true of a viral infection. You could have an acute viral infection which can put you down for a while and require bed rest to recover from. However, many people suffer from a chronic viral infection that they have had their entire life.
Children have what is called a “biological reserve”. As we age, we lose our biological reserve and more and more symptoms such as autoimmune disorders start to appear. One of the most obvious is chronic fatigue.
How is the Hypothalamus related to Fatigue?
Viruses have a down-regulating effect on a part of the brain called the hypothalamus. In the hypothalamus, there are the paraventricular nuclei. The paraventricular nuclei are specifically what viruses target and they suppress its function.
Why is this important? The hypothalamus is the part of the brain that is the bridge between the nervous, immune and endocrine (hormone) systems.
It makes complete sense that when the part of your brain that bridges between these 3 important systems in your body is suppressed, you can have major, systemic (whole body) consequences such as fatigue or malaise.
The hypothalamus is what sends messages to your pituitary gland and tells it what to do. When the hypothalamus is suppressed by a chronic viral infection, pituitary function will be suppressed as well and here we go.
The following is a table that shows the pituitary hormones and the systemic effects of hypothalamus/pituitary dysfunction or down-regulation:
Table of pituitary hormones
|ACTH||Adrenals||Stimulates the adrenal glands to produce a hormone called cortisol.|
|TSH||Thyroid||Stimulates the thyroid gland to secrete thyroxine, or “TSH”. TSH is also known as thyrotropin.|
|LH & FSH||Ovaries
|Controls reproductive functioning and sexual characteristics. Stimulates the ovaries to produce estrogen and progesterone and the testes to produce testosterone and sperm.|
|PRL||Breasts||Stimulates the breasts to produce milk.|
|GH||Whole body||Stimulates growth and repair of tissues.|
|MSH||Exact role in humans is unknown.|
|ADH||Kidneys||Controls the blood fluid and mineral levels in the body by affecting water retention by the kidneys.|
|Affects uterine contractions in pregnancy and birth and the release of breast milk.|
When you read this table, you can clearly understand the systemic effects that a chronic viral infection can have on your body. When your nervous system is affected, then so will your endocrine and immune systems.
The nervous, endocrine, and immune systems are all tied together and you can’t have one being effected without the others going through changes as well.
There are natural ways to suppress viral activity and suppress immune system over-activity. I have had patients report that they have much higher energy levels and less chronic fatigue after working with me.
Once again, I want to be clear that we have to support the foundations first which are to regulate blood sugar levels (calming cortisol pathways) and get the liver working properly.
It is all part of a process and there is no short cutting that process. If you suffer from chronic fatigue, contact my office today to schedule your functional medicine consultation so that you can get back to being the real you and living your life again.
Health is Happiness,
Dr. Keith Currie