For the millions of sufferers of chronic fatigue syndrome, the relief will not be felt in your symptoms but in the realization that you can finally point to something tangible. This latest study adds to the growing body of evidence linking chronic fatigue syndrome to a malfunctioning immune system.

The disease is being tied to an increase in chemical messengers in the immune system, causing the response. Tying the immune system to chronic fatigue is the work of lead study author, Dr. Hornig, the director of Translational Research at the Jerome L. and Dawn Greene Infectious Laboratory at Columbia University. Yeah, it’s a hell of a title.

In a patient with chronic fatigue syndrome, their immune system is unable to shut down or reduce its response to an infection once it has passed. Instead of acting normally, the immune system pumps out cytokines – chemical messengers that coordinate the response of the system as a whole.

“Their immune system is no longer resilient and able to bounce back after this cytokine surge” in response to an infection, Hornig said. “We need the system to be regulated, so it shuts off after the disease is gone, and that isn’t happening here.”

Testing for Chronic Fatigue Syndrome

What this offers is a way for physicians to test patients for increased levels in their blood samples. This could aid in the diagnosis and treatment protocols for the disease.

“We may be able to reduce the time it takes to get a diagnosis, and reduce the time it takes to get them some treatment,” Hornig said. “Treating chronic fatigue syndrome early could reduce its future impact on patients’ lives,” she added.

Researchers estimate that there are 836,000 to 2.5 million Americans who suffer from chronic fatigue syndrome. Even more stark than the number, is the percentage of undiagnosed patients. That estimate ranges from 84 to 91 percent.

The disease commonly strikes people in their 40s and 50s, and occurs four times more often in women than men.

This study is a big win for patients as it proves this disease is a biological condition and not a psychological one. “It is so valuable to be able to find something that can help further validate the disease status of this condition,” Hornig said of her team’s results. “It’s a biological disorder, not a psychological one.”

Stages of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome

Another important detail to emerge from the study is there are stages of chronic fatigue. This means a new patient with the disease will have to be treated differently from a long-time sufferer of the disease.

Having stages brings up the possibility of halting the disease early before long-term effects emerge. This alone is massive clinical tool as researchers and doctors move forward with developing treatments.

“It may be possible to prevent the long-term consequences of this illness by intervening early and dampening down these cytokines,” she said. “It also has implications for the very large population of people who have had this disease for a long time and for whom a different strategy may be important.”

The study was published in the most recent edition of the journal, Science Advances.


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