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Alternative Medicine and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome

  [ 278 votes ]   [ Discuss This Article ] • September 4, 2002

By William Collinge, M.P.H., Ph.D.

In a 1993 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, a team of Harvard researchers reported that Americans actually make more office visits to providers of unconventional health care than they do to conventional primary care physicians. What's more, we're apparently willing to pay "out-of-pocket" for a great deal of such care since it is often not covered by insurance.

It is becoming clear that Americans are seeking to expand their options beyond just conventional medicine. Yet it is also clear that people are not rejecting conventional medicine altogether. Rather, they are opting for a combination of conventional and alternative care; what is now called "integrative" medicine.

Certainly conventional medicine has some important strengths, particularly in emergency care and surgery. However, it has difficulty with chronic illnesses, and its reliance on drugs is problematic: The University of Arizona College of Pharmacy recently reported that 40% of all prescriptions lead to either failure or a new medical problem, and that 119,000 Americans die each year from prescription drugs.

The integrative approach is to seek out the best that all health care traditions have to offer. Although conventional medicine is by far the most common one in the U.S. today, there are several others available too, each of which has its own strengths and limitations. Below I will summarize the main traditions available to help people with CFIDS.

Conventional Medicine

In this tradition CFIDS is considered a complex chronic illness for which there is currently no medical cure. There are drug treatments for specific symptoms, but no one treatment has been found successful for the syndrome as a whole. The greatest hope from the point of view of conventional medicine is for research to find a single cause, such as a virus, for which a drug can then be developed.

Chinese Medicine

From the perspective of Chinese medicine, CFIDS is considered a "chi deficiency" disease. "Chi" is the vital energy or life force that enlivens the human being and energizes our healing processes. Treatment may involve acupuncture and Chinese herbs, for the purposes of building and harmonizing chi. The hope is that with the proper restoration and balance of chi flowing through the body, healing will then take place naturally as the body's various systems come back into harmony.


This is the health care tradition of India, and has been popularized in the U.S. by Deepak Chopra, M.D. It holds that CFIDS is a result of imbalances in our vital energy caused by inappropriate diet, stress, and build-up of toxins in the body. The main treatments in Ayurveda are a diet that is individually tailored according to your unique energetic nature (your "dosha"), ayurvedic herbs, detoxification, and stress reduction practices such as meditation.

Naturopathic Medicine

Naturopaths usually view CFIDS as a result of nutritional deficiencies, poor digestion, build-up of toxins in the body, and possibly infection with yeasts and intestinal parasites. They use a combination of herbal medicines, nutritional supplements, dietary therapy, hydrotherapy, exercise, and stress reduction practices. Some naturopaths are also trained in other traditions. Rather than treating disease, their focus is on strengthening the body's resistance to illness so the body can heal itself.


Homeopathy is not as concerned with the name of the disease as with observing the unique pattern of symptoms in the individual patient. After this close observation, a homeopathic remedy is selected. Two people with CFIDS may get entirely different remedies. The remedies are extremely dilute quantities of natural substances, in tiny pills. They work by subtly provoking or stimulating the body's healing responses to a higher level.

Mind/Body Medicine

Practitioners of mind/body medicine may be physicians, therapists, or any other health care discipline. It has been found to effectively reduce the pain of fibromyalgia, and improve immune functioning p; such as increase natural killer cell function which is depressed in CFIDS. It uses meditation, relaxation training, imagery, biofeedback and breath therapy. One of the advantages of mind/body medicine is that it can be used easily at home in the form of daily self-healing practices.

Osteopathic Medicine

Osteopaths (D.O.'s) are fully licensed physicians like M.D.'s. Their training is the same, except that they receive additional training in therapeutic manipulation of the musculoskeletal system. Many osteopaths practice conventional medicine only. Some however specialize in manipulative therapies, and research has found osteopathic manipulation helpful with fibromyalgia. Some also use other forms of natural medicine.


Chiropractors primarily treat the health of the body through spinal manipulation. Such manipulation improves the functioning of the nervous system, which is a key to health in all the body's organs and tissues. Regarding CFIDS, the hope is that by improving the flow of energy through the nervous system, the body's healing mechanisms, including the immune system, will restore harmony and work more effectively.

Massage Therapy & Bodywork

These therapies are effective in relieving stress that is held in the body, improving blood and lymph circulation, and creating an overall feeling of well-being. They can also help to remove blockages to the flow of vital energy through the body in the form of muscular tension and holding patterns. Research is underway at the University of Miami in the effects of massage therapy for CFIDS.

How Do We Choose?

Given all these options, how do you choose what's right for you? Every healthcare tradition has its advocates who will passionately argue that theirs is the best approach, superior to the others. However, with CFIDS, the reality is that people have been helped by all of the above traditions. With each and every approach, there are former PWC's who will tell you they owe their recovery to it.

In my experience, the best advice is to be open to trying a variety of approaches. If one tradition doesn't seem to help, don't give up and consider yourself untreatable. Different traditions work for different people. An integration of two or more traditions may prove to be the best answer for you. Fortunately, in America today we are blessed with an abundance of health care options.

To learn more about alternative medicine, see my book, The American Holistic Health Association Complete Guide to Alternative Medicine (Warner Books, January 1996).

(c) William Collinge M.P.H., Ph.D.

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