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Researchers Find Evidence Chronic Fatigue Syndrome Is an Inflammatory Disease

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A new study has found a link between chronic fatigue syndrome/myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME/CFS) and 17 markers of inflammation found in the blood — indicating that not only does the often-doubted condition have a real, biological basis, it may be diagnosable with a blood test.

What the Research Says

Using blood samples from 192 patients with ME/CFS and 392 people without the condition, researchers from the Stanford School of Medicine found significant differences in cytokine levels — immune-system signaling proteins found in your blood — between those with and without the condition.

After analyzing 51 cytokines, the study, which was published in the “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences,” discovered that the levels of two different cytokines were markedly different in those with ME/CFS. Among those with the condition, levels of 17 cytokines varied based on the severity of their symptoms.

Of those 17 cytokines, 13 were found to be “pro-inflammatory,” suggesting that inflammation drives ME/CFS. This connection to the immune system may explain many of the symptoms people with ME/CFS experience, which are often described as “flulike.”

Interestingly, some cytokine levels were lower in patients with mild ME/CFS than in the healthy control subjects, but higher in patients with severe ME/CFS. Lead author Dr. Jose Montoya, who oversees the Stanford ME/CFS Initiative, said he believes this may reflect varying genetic predispositions among patients, which could help explain why some people have a more severe form of ME/CFS. The study also shed light on a possible reason why more women have ME/CFS than men — as women tend to have more leptin, one of the cytokines associated with disease severity, in their blood.

What It Means For You

With measurable differences between the blood of those with and without ME/CFS, researchers say their findings could lead to a diagnostic blood test as well as pave the way for future treatments.

“There’s been a great deal of controversy and confusion surrounding ME/CFS — even whether it is an actual disease,” said Dr. Mark Davis, the director of Stanford’s Institute for Immunity, Transplantation and Infection and the study’s senior author. “Our findings show clearly that it’s an inflammatory disease and provide a solid basis for a diagnostic blood test.”

More research is needed to establish any cause and effect between the inflammatory cytokines and ME/CFS, but Montoya told Stat News that the research gives an idea about the type of inflammation patients are experiencing, validating the disease.

“I have seen the horrors of this disease, multiplied by hundreds of patients,” he said. “It’s been observed and talked about for 35 years now, sometimes with the onus of being described as a psychological condition. But chronic fatigue syndrome is by no means a figment of the imagination. This is real.”

Thinkstock photo by Martynasfoto

Originally published: August 3, 2017
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