What Is a Syndrome?
A syndrome is the name given to a collection of symptoms and physical signs that have been observed in the past in a single patient or in a group of similar patients. This is often named after the first person to report this set of observations. It is called a syndrome when others have made the same observations, sometimes years later. The terminology is purely descriptive, even though there may be a constellation of abnormal laboratory tests associated with the clinical facts. Unfortunately, the underlying cause is seldom, if ever, known.
Chronic Fatigue Syndrome
Chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) is also known as myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME). In a review, it is described as a “challenge to physicians”. Its prevalence is reported as approximately 1% in the general German population. The author states that there are no convincing models that might explain the underlying cause as an independent unique disease. A variety of conditions such as chronic infectious disease, multiple sclerosis, endocrine disorders and psychosomatic disease are suggested in a differential diagnosis. There is said to be a significant overlap with major depression.
Another review describes CFS as characterized by debilitating fatigue that is not relieved with rest and is associated with physical symptoms. In order to make the diagnosis, these authors indicate that at least four of the following symptoms are required to make the diagnosis. They include feeling unwell after exertion, unrefreshing sleep, impaired memory or concentration, muscle pain, aching joints, sore throat, or new headaches. They also say that no pharmacologic or alternative medicine therapies have been proven effective.
According to the American College of Rheumatology, fibromyalgia syndrome (FMS) is a common health problem characterized by widespread pain and tenderness. Although chronic, there is a tendency for the pain to fluctuate in intensity and location around the body. Deficient understanding of its true cause gives rise to the false concept that it is neurotic. It is associated with chronic fatigue and patients often have sleep disorders. It is estimated that it affects 2 to 4% of the general population and is most common in women. It affects all ages and the causes are said to be unclear. FMS patients may require psychiatric therapy due to accompanying mental problems. Gonzalez and associates concluded that the combination of psychopathological negative emotionality, interpersonal isolation and low hedonic capacity that they found in a group of patients has implications for the daily living and treatment of these patients.
Regional Pain Syndrome
Complex regional pain syndrome (CRPS) is another common and disabling disorder, characterized by defective autonomic nervous system function and inflammatory features. It reportedly occurs acutely in about 7% of patients who have limb fractures, limb surgery, or other injuries, often quite minor. A small subset of patients progress to a chronic form in which autonomic features dominate. Allodynia (pain due to a stimulus that does not usually provoke pain) and hyperalgesia (increased pain from a stimulus that usually provokes pain) are features of CRPS and require a better understanding.
Sleep Apnea Syndrome
Apnea is the term used for a temporary cessation of automatic breathing that usually happens during the night. This syndrome is described as the most common organic disorder of excessive daytime somnolence. Its prevalence is highest among men age 40 to 65 years and may be as high as 8.5% or higher in this population. It is associated with cigarette smoking, use of alcohol and poor physical fitness.
Similar Cause with Different Manifestations
Complex Regional Pain Syndrome is related to microcirculation impairment associated with tissue hypoxia (lack of oxygen) in the affected limb. Without going into the complex details, hypoxia induces a genetic mechanism called hypoxia inducible factor (HIF-1 alpha) that has a causative association with CRPS. It has been found that inhibiting this factor produced an analgesic effect in a mouse model. The interesting thing about this is that thiamine deficiency does exactly the same thing because it induces biochemical effects similar to those produced by hypoxia (pseudo[false]hypoxia). A group of physicians in Italy have shown that high doses of thiamine produced an appreciable improvement in the symptoms of three female patients affected by fibromyalgia and are probably pursuing this research. Dietary interventions have been reported in seven clinical trials in which five reported improvement. There was variable improvement in associated fatigue, sleep quality, depression, anxiety and gastrointestinal symptoms.
Dr. Marrs and I have published a book that emphasizes deficient energy metabolism as a single cause of many, if not all, diseases. The symptomatic overlap in these so-called syndromes is generated by defective function of cellular metabolism in brain. Fatigue is the best symbol of energy deficiency and the English translation of the Chinese word beriberi is “I can’t, I can’t”. Fatigue is a leading symptom in beriberi. When physicians diagnose psychosomatic disease as “it’s all in your head”, they are of course, quite right. However, to imagine or conclude that the variable symptoms that accompany the leading one of fatigue are “imaginary” is practically an accusation of malingering. The brain is trying to tell its owner that it has not got the energy to perform normally and the physician should be able to recognize the problem by understanding the mechanism by which the symptoms are produced. Every thought, every emotion, every physical action, however small, requires the consumption of energy. Obviously we are considering variable degrees of deficiency from slight to moderate. The greater the deficiency the more serious is the manifestation of disease that follows. Death is a manifestation of deficiency that no longer permits life.
Our book is written primarily for physicians, but it is sufficiently lacking in technological language to encourage reading by patients. It emphasizes, by descriptions of case after case, the details of how genetic risk and failed brain energy are together unable to meet and adapt a person’s ability to meet the daily stresses of life. Stress, genetic risk and poor diet all go together. A whole chapter discusses the functions of the autonomic nervous system and how it deviates when the control mechanisms in the lower brain are defective. This system is the nervous channel that enables the brain to communicate the adaptive body actions necessary to meet living in an essentially hostile environment. We show that an excess of sugar and/or alcohol produce deficiency of vitamin B1 and the so-called psychosomatic disease that results is really early beriberi “I can’t, I can’t”. Variability in symptoms caused by this effect is because the cellular energy deficiency distribution varies from person to person and is affected by genetically determined differences.
This is illustrated by the case of a boy with eosinophilic esophagitis whose first eight years of life were marked by repeated diagnoses of psychosomatic disease. At the age of eight, upper endoscopy revealed the pathology in the esophagus. There was a family history of alcoholism and he was severely addicted to sugar. Many of his symptoms cleared with the administration of a thiamine derivative and resulted in a dramatic increase in stature. No pediatrician or other physician whose attendance was sought through those first 8 years evidently had ever questioned diet or the gross ingestion of sweets. They simply treated each condition as a confirmation that they were “psychological”.
It is worth noting that references 1 through 4 refer to both CFS and FMS syndromes being affected by psychological issues. This implies that the patient is “inventing” the poorly understood (and often bizarre) symptoms as a result of neurosis. The unfortunate complainant may easily become classified in the mind of the attendant physician as a “problem patient”. I have become aware that this can rise to such a degree of misunderstanding that the patient is denied access to the physician and even to other physicians in the same clinic. It is indeed about time that an overall revision be made to the absurd concept that the brain can “invent” a sensation that has no importance in solving the electrochemical problem. When we see the statistics of incidence of these common syndromes we have to conclude that there is an underlying cause and effect that pervades the general population. We are very conscious that our cars need the right fuel to work efficiently but rarely take it into consideration that the quality of food is our sole source of energy synthesis.
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Image credit: J. KAPUSTA/IMAGES.COM/CORBIS
This article was published originally December 2019.