There's a difference between feeling a little tired and having chronic fatigue syndrome. Here's how to tell the difference.

By Isadora Baum
June 19, 2019

If you’re super tired and getting sick often, it could just mean you’re overworked or a bug is going around. However, if it’s chronic and doesn’t seem to get better with medication or rest, it could actually be a more serious underlying condition known as chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS).

The only problem? CFS is tricky to diagnose and treat. “It is officially recognized as a disease now, but for years, sufferers of CFS were told ‘it's all in your head,’ which was very frustrating. Some doctors still don't believe it exists or are likely to miss the diagnosis, even if they believe it's a real medical problem,” explains Suzanne Dixon, RD a registered dietitian with The Mesothelioma Center in Orlando, Florida. Here's how to know if you have CFS, and what to eat if you do. 

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome Symptoms

While symptoms can be hard to pinpoint, they will definitely be severe. “The level of tiredness is so extreme many sufferers are confined to bed for days to weeks and even months. They simply can't even manage to sit up, take a shower, or even move from bed to chair,” says Dixon.

The crushing, severe fatigue can come and go, so people may have periods of time where they feel a bit better, but the feeling isn't relieved by sleep, and those with chronic fatigue might even have sleep problems and insomnia, too, she says. What’s more, you might find yourself feeling dizzy, having lack of focus, and even muscle pain. Ugh.

The good news is that food can help a little bit in managing symptoms. “According to a recent review paper, people with CFS may be more likely than people without the disease to experience specific nutrient deficiencies: vitamin C, B complex vitamins, sodium, magnesium, zinc, folic acid, l-carnitine, l-tryptophan, essential fatty acids, and coenzyme Q10,” says Dixon.

The more severe the deficiencies are, the greater likelihood of CFS symptoms. Yet, this is only a correlation. “It does not tell us if the deficiencies cause worsening ME/CFS symptoms, or perhaps, the disease itself causes drops in levels of these nutrients in the body,” says Dixon. Still, it makes sense to try to correct these deficiencies to find some relief.

Here are the best foods to eat if you have CFS. And in addition to these foods, Dixon recommends protein with every meal and snack to help preserve lean body mass and normalize glucose levels.

Foods High in Vitamin C

If you think you have CFS, look to load up on fresh fruits and veggies that are packed with vitamin C, which can boost your immunity, provide energy, and keep you well. Some great examples include citrus, strawberries, red peppers, kiwi, broccoli, tomato juice, and melon, says Dixon.

RELATED: 7 Foods With More Vitamin C Than an Orange

Foods Rich in B Vitamins

B Vitamins also help the body maintain its daily functions and boost brain function, to keep you more mentally alert, which is helpful for those with CFS. Plus, it makes you physically energized too, to help you get out of bed and maintain normal activity.

“For folate, eat more green leafy vegetables, spinach, black-eyed peas, fortified plant milks and cereals, romaine lettuce; for other B vitamins, a mix of animal foods (fish, chicken, lean beef), grains and fruits and vegetables will get people plenty of these nutrients,” says Dixon.

RELATED: How to Get Enough B12 in Your Diet When You Don’t Eat Much Meat

Soup

Yes, soup is good for those with CFS, but mostly because of the sodium content, so feel free to get a cup that’s a little higher in salt. “Soups and broth are good for both hydration and sodium replacement,” says Dixon. These are excellent options to keep your electrolytes balanced.

Magnesium-Packed Foods

Here’s another reason to eat spinach and legumes when you have CFS. Magnesium alleviates joint and muscle pain, and it can provide energy and mental focus, so it’s a great nutrient to eat when you have CFS, explains Dixon. Try nuts and nut butters (think almonds, cashews, and peanuts), spinach, whole grain cereals, beans, and other legumes, she recommends.

Healthy Fats

Healthy fats, like unsaturated and omega-3 fatty acids, reduce inflammation, which can boost your immunity, relieve muscle pain, and keep your body in healthier shape, all of which is needed when you’re suffering from CFS symptoms. Go for nuts and nut butters (especially walnuts, which have omega-3’s), flaxseeds and chia seeds, and fatty fish, like salmon, Dixon suggests.

Shellfish

Additionally, you’ll want zinc, as zinc also boosts the immune system to prevent sickness, says Dixon. You can find zinc in shellfish (like oysters and other seafood). And if that’s not your thing, you can also get it in fortified cereals, beef, and liver.

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