For a condition that affects over 800,000 adults in the United States, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS) remains one of the most misunderstood and complex medical conditions. To the uninitiated, the main cause of CFS might appear to be a lack of sleep. But the physiological patterns that give rise to this highly-debilitating illness are often difficult to understand—and may create a long list of symptoms outside the scope of sleep problems. In addition to brain fog and headaches, one of the most frustrating and common symptoms of chronic fatigue is weight gain.
Perhaps due to the complexity of CFS, research on the condition and its link to weight gain is scant. In fact, a study published in Workplace Health and Safety says, “Few studies have examined the association between weight gain/obesity and CFS.”
Simple Explanations For CFS and Weight Gain
According to the researchers writing in Workplace Health and Safety, despite the dearth of data on CFS and weight gain, here’s what’s known:
“Due to the debilitating nature of CFS, including impaired physical functioning and severe post-exertional malaise which may contribute to inactivity, and the growing evidence of impaired aerobic metabolism in this population, it is likely that patients with CFS often gain weight over time.”
It doesn’t take a medical doctor or Ph.D. to conclude that CFS robs a person of energy. Consequently, metabolism may slow down over time, leading to a higher risk of weight gain.
In addition, there are other factors that may explain how CFS negatively impacts metabolism. For example, if you have debilitating fatigue and you’re not getting enough exercise, you may also not have the energy (or motivation) to cook healthy, nourishing meals.
Thus, if you have CFS, which already indicates a compromised metabolic function, and you consume high-sugar, high-carbohydrate, highly-processed foods, this can lead to having high blood sugar levels.
When there are high levels of insulin and blood sugar in the circulation, the excess blood sugar gets stored in the muscles and liver. However, after the liver and muscles can no longer store excess blood sugar, the excess gets stored in the fat cells. Body fat cells then expand and over time, this leads to unwanted weight gain.
CFS & Weight Gain: A Compromised Stress Response
Beyond the basic fundamentals of metabolic explanations, there are other factors that explain the association between CFS and weight gain. One of the primary physiological triggers of CFS that can lead to unwanted weight gain is a compromised stress response. And in order to understand this misfiring of the body’s response to stressors, one needs to understand how the body responds to stress in normal situations.
When your brain perceives an acute threat such as a car swerving into your lane heading right towards you, your amygdala triggers an alarm. Like a 911 switchboard operator, the amygdala sends the signal to your hypothalamus (H), then to the pituitary gland (P), which then instructs your adrenal glands (A) to pump out the hormone, cortisol, aka the stress hormone. This mechanism is known as the HPA axis.
Cortisol has a negative connotation, precisely because of its association with stress and stress is perceived as a bad thing. Indeed, cortisol imbalances have been linked with several conditions and unwanted side effects, weight gain included. However, a healthy cortisol output in response to acute stress is protective. For example, when a swerving driver is headed straight for you, digestion is slowed down and blood sugar is diverted back into the bloodstream so that you can deal with the acute stress. By shifting blood away from digestion, your muscles have the energy, and your mind, the focus, to steer your car away from an impending collision.
However, if you have an underlying viral infection (which may be why you developed CFS in the first place), the HPA axis is like a 5-alarm fire bell that’s constantly going off. Thus, if your digestion and blood sugar levels are frequently impaired because the HPA axis is in a near-perpetual state of activation, weight gain is likely to occur.
HPA Dysfunction And Cravings
A study in the journal, Domestic Animal Endocrinology, explains that because of HPA dysfunction, patients with abdominal obesity have elevated cortisol levels. Furthermore, patients with HPA dysfunction have been shown to have higher levels of glucocorticoids, which are steroid hormones produced by the adrenal glands. These hormones play a crucial role in metabolism and “are known to increase the consumption of foods enriched in fat and sugar,” state the researchers. In other words, having chronic HPA dysfunction can lead to cravings for unhealthy food.
Excess Cortisol Not Always The Culprit of CFS-Related Weight Gain
In other words HPA dysfunction results not only in excess cortisol, but the opposite can also manifest. A constant stressor can tax the adrenal glands and lead to insufficient cortisol production. Also, HPA dysfunction can lead to a spike of cortisol early in the morning followed by insufficient levels later in the day. When an unresolved infection is present in the body, cortisol secretion can be insufficient during the day and excessive at night. (Cortisol levels should be highest during the morning, but not too high; they should gradually taper off in the afternoon and be low, but not too low in the evening.)
“HPA axis changes seem clinically relevant, as they are associated with worse symptoms and/or disability and with poorer outcomes to standard treatments for CFS,” the researchers in Nature Reviews: Endocrinology conclude.
Perimenopause, CFS & Weight Gain
Chronic fatigue syndrome disproportionately affects more women than men. Research shows that women with CFS have lower levels of cortisol in the morning, in comparison to women without CFS. And women who are in early menopause (perimenopausal) are more likely to develop CFS than other women. The reason for this is that during perimenopause, the amount of estrogen and progesterone that the ovaries stop producing as much estrogen and progesterone. This ties back into HPA axis dysfunction because other hormones are affected by this physiological change, including cortisol.
Hypothyroidism, CFS & Weight Gain
The hypothalamus of the HPA axis isn’t just involved in cortisol production. It’s also the gland responsible for making thyroid-stimulating hormone. Thyroid-stimulating hormone stimulates the thyroid gland to produce thyroid hormone. The thyroid gland is the master regulator of metabolism and critical for cellular energy. Thus, if the thyroid gland is underperforming (hypothyroidism) because it’s not being stimulated by adequate thyroid-stimulating hormone, then weight gain, feeling cold and fatigued are likely to manifest.
In addition, having a sluggish thyroid can lead to fluid retention, which, of course, can cause the scales to not tip in your favor.
Other Factors That Lead To Weight Gain Related To CFS
If digestion and metabolism are compromised because of hormonal imbalance and HPA axis dysfunction, constipation and bloating can become more frequent. With constipation and bloating, more fecal matter and gas is trapped in the intestines, which can cause weight gain. In addition, taking antidepressants can cause an increase in unwanted body weight.
Finally, with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, the immune system may play a role in weight gain. As an article in Science explains, there is a correlation between inflammation, which is a heightened immune response, and obesity.
The Innovative Medicine Approach To Treating CFS
The Innovative Medicine paradigm recognizes that CFS is complex, multifactorial and demands an individualized response and a holistic, tailored program.
An Innovative Medicine practitioner addresses the individual with CFS holistically, meaning every approach from herbs to the latest cutting-edge therapies are considered. The Innovative Medicine approach to CFS is restoring homeostasis by any safe and effective means necessary.
Your Innovative Medicine practitioner will create a treatment plan based on your individual needs and will possess these 6 common traits.
Disclaimer: The statements made in this article have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. Any products or treatments mentioned are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. Please consult a licensed medical practitioner for medical advice.
At Innovative Medicine, we believe in transparency. We want you to know that we may participate in affiliate advertising programs pertaining to products mentioned herein.
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