Living With Chronic Fatigue: 5 Things You Need To Know

Chronic fatigue syndrome is defined as persistent and profound fatigue that endures for more than six months. What makes this fatigue distinct is that it typically intensifies with physical or mental exertion, yet it doesn't improve if you rest.

Chronic fatigue has many names: myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME), post-viral fatigue syndrome (PVS) and chronic fatigue immune dysfunction syndrome (CFIDS). It was even called the Tapanui flu after many people in this small town in Otago started suffering from these symptoms in 1984. With the COVID-19 outbreak, there have been more cases of people suffering from post-viral fatigue (also known as long COVID), which is very similar to chronic fatigue syndrome. 

The incidence of chronic fatigue is increasing, so knowing how to support yourself or your loved ones living with chronic fatigue might be useful.

What are the symptoms of chronic fatigue?

The symptoms people living with chronic fatigue experience vary greatly. For some people, the symptoms come and go in between periods of feeling well; others find that the symptoms are constant and debilitating. 

  • Constant flu-like fatigue
  • Depression
  • Low mood
  • Irritability
  • Hormonal issues
  • Brain fog
  • Muscle pain
  • Joint pain
  • Sleep issues
  • Swollen glands (lymph nodes)
  • Headaches
  • Sore throat
  • Issues with digestion
  • Irritable bowel syndrome
  • Impaired memory
  • Inability to focus or concentrate

What causes these symptoms

There is no definitive answer as to what causes chronic fatigue syndrome, but it is most likely traced back to a viral illness. People often report that after having a viral illness (like glandular fever), they start to develop symptoms of chronic fatigue and can’t get back to their ‘normal’ state of health. This inability to return to ‘normal’ could be that the body has overreacted to the virus and has mounted an immune-like response that it can’t turn off.  

This response is very similar to what happens with autoimmune conditions - where the body starts to attack itself and fluctuates in and out of immune response to an imaginary foreign body or threat. 

When most people fall sick, they usually expect to get better within a few days or, at the most, a few weeks. It becomes an issue when, even after a few weeks, their symptoms are not improving. 

Living with chronic fatigue

Living with chronic fatigue is difficult, but the expectations of those around you can amplify this difficulty. The expectation in our society is that people need to be productive and continue to work, and if you are unwell and unable to do your job as before, there can be a noticeable annoyance or lack of tolerance for what you’re going through.

It can be hard for all involved as employers need staff to do their jobs, and employees need to be able to rest, recuperate and ultimately get back to their normal selves.  But with conditions like chronic fatigue syndrome, how the person works can dramatically change. 
Chronic fatigue can be quite similar to some autoimmune conditions, as the unwell person often has no control over how and when their flare-ups occur. Autoimmune conditions also have similar symptoms, such as fatigue, disrupted sleep, impaired digestion, brain fog and issues with maintaining normal everyday activities. 

As with chronic fatigue, autoimmune sufferers also find it hard to maintain a ‘normal’ everyday routine when unwell, so can often bear the brunt of people becoming impatient with their illness. A great read about what it is like to have a chronic condition can be found here called ‘What’s wrong with me?’ from the New York Times.

How can you treat chronic fatigue syndrome?

1. Reducing stress can help

Stress exacerbates symptoms if you’re living with chronic fatigue and impacts your recovery. Reducing stress can be difficult as modern life can be very stressful, and sometimes it can’t be avoided, but some small changes might help.

Reducing your reliance on caffeine and alcohol. Both affect how well you sleep and can increase the times you wake in the night. The more disturbed your sleep is, the less rested you feel, and it reduces the ability of your body to repair. Don’t stop enjoying yourself, but maybe look at reducing how many coffees or teas you have a day and look to have a few alcohol-free days.

Consider adding nervine supportive herbs like passionflower, chamomile, Californian poppy, skullcap or lemon balm into your day. The addition of nervine plants can help support and reduce your cortisol levels (the hormone you release when you are feeling stressed). Elevated cortisol can keep you awake at night, so by reducing cortisol in the day, you are setting yourself up for a more restful sleep (hopefully!).

Magnesium - in the same way as nervine plants support your stress response, magnesium helps to support many chemical reactions within your body as well as helping to relax your muscles and support your adrenal system. Look for magnesium glycine, citrate or an amino acid for better absorption (and won’t upset your stomach like magnesium oxide does).

Consider adding in daily movement that is not stressful. This could be simple stretching, yoga, gentle swimming or a walk. It doesn’t have to be for long, but sometimes, just small movements can help with energy.


2. What you eat matters

Adding in seasonal fresh fruit and vegetables is always recommended, but meal planning and cooking can feel overwhelming when you are tired and unwell. So make it easy for yourself and buy some of the pre-made soups or vegetable meals you can find in your local supermarket chiller. There are some great options from Pitango that can be frozen and taken out when you need them. Frozen fish and chicken are also great options that do not take long to cook, and throw some salad on the side

The temptation to grab biscuits, chips and processed carbohydrates is incredibly hard to fight as you often crave them. But that small hit of energy you get from eating them is often followed by an energy slump, which can make you further fatigued. The body needs consistent blood sugar levels, which often come from complex carbohydrates found in less processed foods like whole grains and vegetables.

3.  Nutritional supplements can help with energy

Supplements can help support base-level energy levels if you're living with chronic fatigue. B vitamins are a good idea for helping to support sustained energy levels. You can take them in a variety of ways: in a powder, a capsule, a multivitamin or as drops. Having B vitamins daily can be a great thing to add when you feel lower than usual. Please remember to have them with food, though! 

When you are feeling low in energy or are more fatigued than normal, it is a good idea to check your iron and B12 levels, especially if you do not consume meat products. Having good levels of iron and B12 supports healthy energy levels as well as immunity, brain function and the ability to concentrate, so it is very important to make sure you are not deficient. Another supplement to consider is omega-3 (which could be a good quality fish or algae oil), this can support brain function and can help with joint or muscle discomfort. 

4. Lifestyle changes to help with chronic fatigue

You can probably guess what we are going to suggest here: meditation and gentle movement. Nothing new. Gentle movement is always a good idea, you are moving your body, increasing circulation and helping support your body’s lymphatic system. It also means that you get away from screens and change your environment. 

Meditation or pausing to do a couple of deep breaths helps reset your day and brings in some mindfulness - especially when you are tired or struggling. Movement can be as simple as walking around your house, the block, or swimming at the pool or in the sea. It can be morning stretching or stretching before bed. It does not have to be complicated.

Having a manageable plan helps. Include simple goals that are achievable, not another added stress. Create your own road map that you think you can work with, but start small

5. Physical therapies that can help with chronic fatigue

Some people find that physical therapies can be helpful in reducing pain and discomfort. This could be through regular massage or acupuncture. This can help with the symptoms of physical discomfort as well as support relaxation, which can help the nervous system. Massage also helps move circulation around the body, which can also help reduce inflammation.


The big thing to remember about living with chronic fatigue, or any chronic condition, is that some people are unlikely to get back to how they were before they became unwell. This is obviously devastating for that person and their loved ones. It means they have to adapt their life and expectations.

As Meghan O’Rourke detailed in her article ‘What’s wrong with me?’, she still mourns her old ‘robust’ state of health, where she didn’t have to monitor her health so specifically. She ate whatever she wanted and could move without pain or issue. 

For those of us who don’t live with a chronic condition, it is really important to remember that we have the luxury and privilege of moving and living without these restrictions. There might be days when we feel tired, sore or unwell, but we usually bounce back. For our friends, family or colleagues who suffer from chronic fatigue or chronic conditions, they don’t have that ability. They wake up sore or exhausted and are still expected to do just as much as the rest of us - often without help. 

If you know anyone suffering from a chronic illness, it would be amazing if you could help support them where you can. It could be a meal every once in a while, checking in on them to see how they are, going for a gentle walk with them or just spending time with them in a manner that they choose. 




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