The A to Z of Chronic Fatigue Self-Care
Hey! You’re here because you live with chronic fatigue syndrome, another chronic illness or you’re just a health and wellness geek. Below is a list of the 13 areas I focus on to increase my mental, emotional and physical wellbeing while living with moderate chronic fatigue syndrome for more than seven years now. When you’re incapacitated and unable to work, self-care becomes a full-time job. Usually one you’re not very good at and would be immediately fired from if it was really a full-time job. Living is hard for some of us, so the below points summarise what I’ve learned through years of research and speaking to experts to help make that living a bit easier. Nothing in here is a cure, just tips for daily self-care to gain some reprieve from the symptoms.
Acupoints in the body can be accessed through acupressure massage or acupuncture. Acupressure and acupuncture stimulate energy points around the body to release tension, increase circulation and ease pain. These three goals can benefit a myriad of symptoms and illnesses, but are beneficial specifically for people with blood pressure conditions like chronic fatigue sufferers because it gets the blood moving around your body to help with brain fog and vertigo. In my experience massage makes my symptoms immediately worse (with all that blood flowing around) but significantly better the following day.
I take a B multivitamin to reduce any risk of becoming deficient in B6 or B12, two vitamins whose deficiencies cause chronic fatigue-like symptoms. B12 helps you convert your food into glucose, i.e. energy, so is essential for maintaining a healthy energy level. B12 injections are common amongst chronic fatigue sufferers because it's most easily absorbed through injection.
The basis of good nutrition is an abundance of cruciferous vegetables, including popular veggies such as broccoli, cauliflower, kale, bok choy and turnips. You can't eat too many of these highly nutritious plants!
Because we know the gut acts as the "second brain", keeping your gut healthy with healthy enzymes and probiotics. The probiotics in fermented foods aids digestion and helps us healthily extract nutrients from food and drastically decrease the amount of energy exerted in the digestion process. Kombucha, sauerkraut, kimchi, tempeh, pickles and yoghurt are the most common fermented foods available to us in Melbourne.
Almost universally chronic fatigue and similar chronic illness sufferers are triggered by gluten. For the millions of people living with gluten intolerance we know the immediate effects of vertigo and brain fog are unpleasant and best avoided. Gluten can make your digestion sluggish which affects the gut-brain connection and can trigger your fatigue symptoms. It's also possible that people that currently believe they are suffering chronic fatigue syndrome in fact just have an undiagnosed food intolerance, and increasingly it's being linked to gluten. I usually avoid wheat and rye altogether as those sorts of unnatural, processed carbohydrates retain too much water and cause bloating and weight gain which does nothing but make me feel even more tired.
Getting some headspace is essential. For people with chronic fatigue, mental and emotional rest is just as important as physical rest. When your brain is gluggy, even thinking is exhausting and mental stress can trigger physical payback. Meditation first thing in the morning or last thing before bed is the best time to set yourself up for a good day with a more balanced level of energy. Guided meditation is the best thing for beginners but if you don't feel you're ready, headspace can also include "quiet time" such as distraction-free cooking, reading for pleasure, sensory deprivation tanks, and other relaxation techniques.
I keep two journals, although brain fog and fatigue makes it difficult to uphold the habit daily. My first is a health journal, the kind I'd be comfortable showing health professionals to track my sleep and diet. The second is a private journal for personal and professional development. Lessening mental and emotional stress is important to avoid physical payback, and daily journaling can help you reorder your thoughts and regain control over your thought processes, emotions, life priorities and overall mental wellbeing.
Many health bloggers I've followed recommend green juices as their #1 health tip. Vegan, vegetarian or meat eater, high carb or low carb, no matter the dietary philosophy you follow, every diet celebrates the power of leafy green vegetables. There is double-up here with some of the cruciferous vegetables. Examples include kale, spinach, romaine lettuce, iceberg lettuce, broccoli, and cabbage. The best way to consume your greens is through green juice. Juicing works by separating the fibre from the juice so you access the vitamins from more fruits and vegetables than you otherwise could if you attempted to eat the whole food. While fibre is incredibly important in a healthy lifestyle, if you're eating plenty of cruciferous vegetables and other plant foods you'll be receiving enough fibre, making juice an extra nutritional boost on top of your regular veggie intake!
Magnesium helps boost energy by activating the energy molecule adenosine triphosphate. I use magnesium supplements, blackstrap molasses, magnesium body spray and epsom bath salts to absorb as much of the energy-giving molecule as I can. Magnesium also boosts serotonin, regulates hormones, calms stress, and regulates both blood sugar levels and circulation. However, studies show up to 80% of people in the US are deficient. A magnesium supplement helps assure you don’t become deficient but for chronic fatigue sufferers, the more the better! I incorporate blackstrap molasses into my diet every day as it’s high in magnesium (while also high in iron, bonus!). However, the best way I use magnesium is with a body spray before a shower or an Epsom salt (magnesium sulphate) bath. The spray is applied for 20 minutes for effective absorption, but it also makes me incredibly itchy so I prefer the Epsom salt bath. The bath allows you to absorb the magnesium through your skin over a long period of time, with the added bonus of the relaxation of a hot bath. I feel immediately more relaxed after a bath so it helps insomnia, and much more balanced the following day.
In line with the HCLF vegan lifestyle, I avoid unnecessary fats and that includes cooking in oil. No oil, vegan butter, mylk chocolate or deep fried foods. When I do eat these foods, I suffer increased fatigue symptoms the following day. Keeping in mind that the gut is the second brain, treat your intestines kindly! Consuming junk food makes my brain feel heavy and fuzzy. Instead of unnatural, processed fats that do nothing positive for your health, I stick to simple fats that appear in nature in the form of avocado and limited amounts of nuts and seeds. The bonus of a low-fat diet is that because chronic fatigue sufferers are unable to elevate our heart heartrate, the risk of gaining weight and being exposed to long-term risks such as heart disease can be mediated through a low-fat diet.
Pre & probiotics
While I mentioned fermented foods above, I also take a probiotic daily. Our gut bacteria send biochemical signals to our nervous system and brain telling us how to feel, so healthy gut bacteria is imperative for a healthy brain. Both physically and emotionally. Fun fact: Digesting food can use up to 15% of your energy quota. 30% of the calories you consume from protein sources are used to digest that protein. Digesting food is physically demanding, so the easier the digestion the more energy you have for other struggles we face during the day such as eating, showering and brushing our teeth. Additionally, it’s believed most chronic fatigue sufferers also have leaky gut syndrome – a condition where our intestines are permeable and what is meant to pass out through the small intestine may instead leak into our bloodstream, and probiotics help fortify our gut walls. After probiotics the second thing I incorporate into my diet are prebiotics. Prebiotic foods assist probiotics in promoting beneficial microorganisms in the gut. Examples include raw garlic, raw or cooked onion, and bananas – three foods I consume daily.
Insomnia is the worst symptom of chronic fatigue, as you can be awake for 30 hours then asleep for 30 hours. Trés inconvenient! I need 7.5 hours to function on the best day. If I know I will not have or have not had 7.5 hours sleep, I need to cancel any plans. I have three main techniques to attempt to achieve this sleep minimum: a 3pm caffeine curfew, epsom salt baths, and only using my bed for sleep so my brain is trained that bed time = sleep time. (For those like me who have to lay down 24 hours a day, I use the couch for this and only move to the bed when I’m flat-out exhausted). For those who struggle with sleep like I have my entire life, I recommend the book Sleep Smarter by Shawn Stevenson.
Eating real food is essential for gut health and slow release energy. High carb, high protein, high fibre compared to processed or high-fat foods. The staple foods in my diet are brown rice and sweet potato with a variation of legumes (lentils, black beans, kidney beans, chickpeas). Everyone knows I love junk food that often breaks my gluten and oil rules, but the one thing I would never compromise on is avoiding difficult-to-digest animal protein. The biggest piece of advice I can give anyone suffering with fatigue: Quit dairy. Today. That one choice to switch to soy milk was the single most defining moment of my life because my weight, skin, energy, lung capacity and mood were all transformed. (Dairy is the #1 cause of asthma and mine cleared up straight away.) I was completely unable to focus on a page or read for years because dairy is near impossible for a human to digest, and that was playing havoc on my mental clarity. I started performing better in uni and was more emotionally stable once I quit the cow milk. And again, as we’re higher risk for issues like heart disease and cancer from our inactivity, dropping dairy decimates our chances of catching these diseases.
This list is far from exhaustive, and there are many techniques and tips I’m yet to try. But this is what I do and the rules I follow, and I hope you’ve read something new or I’ve sparked an idea for you to try.