Over the last few months, I’ve been busy doing two things. One of them is talking about the book Happy Food, written by Niklas Ekstedt and me. It’s about the connection between the brain and the intestinal flora. The second thing that comes to mind is a couple of articles about CFS/ME, generally and often mistakenly known as chronic fatigue syndrome, that I’ve written for the Swedish newspaper SvD.
The emails have been pouring in. And I have been deeply touched by the stories people have generously shared with me.
Like so many of us, I know people who have experienced exhaustion and burnout. For most people, things get better. But if they’re struggling with chronic fatigue syndrome, that’s rarely the case. I have read what sometimes seemed like endless stories of suffering. Friends and family of those who suffer describe it as a debilitating disorder characterized by extreme, lifelong, painful and paralyzing fatigue. It doesn’t go away with rest, but stays forever, decade after decade. It doesn’t kill you, but it will take your life away.
Also, our national healthcare systems don’t always support people who have ME. The illness is often misunderstood and might not be taken seriously by healthcare providers. According to the CDC, more than one million Americans have ME. At least one-quarter of them are bed bound or housebound at some point in the illness, and most never regain their pre-disease level of functioning.
I’ve talked to numerous people who suffer from ME, and they are no longer able to live their lives in the way they did before. For many of them, it’s been like that for 20 or 30 years. Almost all of them used to live healthy and active lives until, all of a sudden, they got symptoms similar to those of flu or an infection. And then they never recovered, it never stops. Literally, IT NEVER STOPS. Gradually, more and more symptoms are added: fever, shivers, headache, abdominal pains, dizziness, cramps, and increased risk of allergic reactions.
Also, the illness is often misunderstood and mistaken for stress-related exhaustion disorder. Unfortunately, what will help people with stress-related exhaustion, like exercise, will worsen the symptoms for someone with ME.
So, how is this related to food? A couple of months ago, I visited the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, close to Washington DC. NIH is one of the world’s foremost medical research centers and an agency of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. They’ve finally decided to closely examine the clinical and biological characteristics of the disorder and improve our understanding of its cause and progression.
Vicky Whittemore and Joseph Breen, program directors for the NIH’s ME study, believe that the disease is not psychosomatic, but a chronic autoimmune multi-systemic disease, that is physiological in nature. According to NIH, the illness may also be related to the so-called Gulf war syndrome. The causes aren’t well-understood, but some theories include viral infection, stress-related immune changes, or a combination of factors.
This is where the food comes in. Over the last few years, scientists have grasped how critical a rich and thriving intestinal flora is to our health. And why shouldn’t it? The bacteria in our intestine help extract nutrients from the food we eat, and at the same time, our intestine is a total pro at protecting itself against bacterial and viral invaders.
To protect ourselves, we have to be on good terms with the bacteria in our colon. They can’t live without us, and we can’t live without them. When we’re healthy, and the good bacteria exist in an environment in which they thrive, we form a dynamic ecosystem together that will easily mow down every enemy in its path.
Problem is, the diet most of us subside on today is more likely to strengthen the bad bacteria than the good, and our good bacteria die out when we fail to take care of them. Compared to some indigenous populations, westerners have decimated large sections of our gastrointestinal flora. And, as we all know, if too many species go extinct, entire ecosystems will disappear.
In line with this, NIH will study the connection between the intestinal flora and ME, and some interesting findings have already been made.
Scientists know that more or less all chronic diseases can be associated with an imbalanced gut flora. And unfortunately, autoimmune diseases in general are increasing. Some are well-known, like MS, rheumatism, and fibromyalgia. However, some symptoms are difficult to diagnose, and many sufferers are still approached with suspicion.
We need to start talking about autoimmune diseases, on top of all the other problems related to junk food, like obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease. It is no coincidence that many of these diseases are also associated with gastrointestinal disorders like IBS or IBD, and celiac disease.
In the future, scientists hope to be able to repair damaged intestinal flora by adding bacteria to the digestive tract. Until then, don’t forget to strengthen the good bacteria in your colon by eating a wide variety of foods.
Science journalist and writer Henrik Ennart is the author of the book Happy Food. Now and then, he writes here at Food Pharmacy.