What is Fibromyalgia?

Fibromyalgia (FM) is a chronic complex syndrome that causes pain, stiffness, and tenderness of the muscles, tendons, joints, and other soft tissues.  In FM, there is a generalized disturbance of the way in which pain is processed by the body whereby ordinary non painful sensations are experienced as pain sensations.  In addition to pain and tenderness, fibromyalgia is also characterized by fatigue, restless sleep, awakening feeling tired, morning stiffness, headaches, and dizziness, trouble with concentration, depression, anxiety, and inactivity.  It has been associated with stress, tension, trauma, overexertion, hormone deficiency diseases (particularly thyroid disease), and alterations in brain chemistry, anemia, parasites, and viral infections.

The name, Fibromyalgia, means pain in the muscles and the fibrous connective tissues (the ligaments and tendons).  Fibromyalgia lacks laboratory abnormalities; instead, the diagnosis depends mostly on a person’s report or complaints and feelings.  Pain is the most prominent symptom of Fibromyalgia.  It generally occurs throughout the body although it may start in one region, such as the neck and shoulders, and spread to other areas over a period of time.

Most people with Fibromyalgia experience moderate or severe fatigue with a lack of energy, decreased exercise endurance, or the kind of exhaustion that results from the flu or lack of sleep.  Sometimes the fatigue is more of a problem that the pain.  Headaches, especially muscular (tension headaches) and migraine headaches, are common in Fibromyalgia.  Abdominal pain, bloating, alternating constipation, bladder spasms, and irritability may cause urinary urgency or frequency.  Your skin and blood circulation can be sensitive to temperature changes, resulting in temporary changes in skin color. It does not discriminate by gender or age, but predominately affects women between the ages of 35 and 54. It is mostly characterized by pain, muscle pain, fatigue, brain fog, and much more.

Other common symptoms include:

Flu-like pain that can be severe and constant
A constant feeling of exhaustion
Specific tender points that hurt
Overall body aches
Muscle stiffness and pain
Insomnia or other sleep disorders
Extreme fatigue
Depression not caused by a trauma or event, but by chronic discomfort
Cognitive problems, often called “brain fog”
Reoccurring headaches
Multiple reoccurring infections
Irritable bowel syndrome

Frequency, degree and location of pain vary from day to day. Any given day a Fibromyalgia patient’s level of discomfort may range from mild muscle stiffness to extreme, radiating pain so severe they feel completely debilitated and unable to carry out simple activities.

What causes fibromyalgia?

Although there has been considerable international investigation devoted to understanding FM, no single cause factor has yet been identified.  Experts in the field disagree as to what are its causes therefore FM is often classified as a rheumatic disorder, similar in origin to rheumatoid arthritis (RA) or it is also described as an autoimmune disorder because it often develops along with other conditions such as chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) or Lupus Erythematosis.  Unlike the stiffness of rheumatoid arthritis though, pain from fibromyalgia typically doesn’t diminish with activity.  The pain is made worse by cold, damp weather, overexertion, anxiety or stress.  Researchers have found elevated levels of a nerve chemical signal, called substance P, and nerve growth factor in the spinal fluid of FM patients.

The brain chemical, serotonin is also relatively low in patients with FM.  In the central nervous system, serotonin is believed to play an important role in the regulation of our moods, sleep, impulses, appetites, and motivations.  Low levels of serotonin are associated with several disorders including FM, clinical depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety disorders, irritable bowel syndrome, and others.  The food you eat has the potential to raise or lower your serotonin levels.  That’s why the ingredients of a meal have such a powerful impact on the way you feel after you eat it.  The body makes serotonin out of an amino acid called Tryptophan.  Amino acids are the building blocks of protein, and Tryptophan is found in abundance in all high-protein foods, such as dairy products, eggs, meat and fish.  Vegetarians also have many good sources for Tryptophan, including seeds, nuts, and a number of vegetables.  When these foods are digested, their amino acids, including Tryptophan, enter the bloodstream and are carried to tissues that will use them to synthesize the body’s own proteins and other essential molecules, including serotonin.  Of all the chemicals present in the brain, healthy serotonin levels are probably the most important for the maintenance of an overall sensation of well being.  That’s why serotonin is known as Mother Nature’s “feel good chemical”.   In chapter four we will discuss this in more detail as well as the best food sources to eat which raise serotonin levels and lift moods.

In FM there is a definite lowering of the immune system defenses and this can set the scene or leave the door open to invading bacteria, virus, and infections.  Often times we aren’t aware that our body is going into defense mode to fight off some virus or bacteria that’s attacking us.   FM can be brought on by a combination of triggers such as stress, toxins, infections, and diet so it’s vital to improve your health on every level in order to build the immune system back up.   You will learn about many of the ways you can do that in this book.

It is also firmly established that a central nervous system (CNS) dysfunction is primarily responsible for the increased pain sensitivity of fibromyalgia.  A dysfunction in the CNS also causes problems in the autonomic nervous system (ANS) which in turn feeds back to the CNS.  Dysfunction in CNS and ANS can lead to thyroid and adrenal problems and other hormonal abnormalities, which are common findings in many FM sufferers.  In any event, FM leaves the sufferer with a wide range of symptom fluctuations and high levels of debilitating pain which can be as disabling as rheumatoid arthritis and results in at least 30 percent of sufferers unable to continue in their customary lifestyle and occupations due to the unrelenting exhaustion and depletion of their overall energy and vitality.

Who does Fibromyalgia Affect?

Fibromyalgia is widespread, affecting between 6 and 15 percent of the adult population in the United States and is most commonly diagnosed in individuals between the ages of 20 and 50.  It may also occur at any age though, even in childhood, and is 7 times more common in women than men.  The current incidence of FM in women is approximately 3.5% and increases with age to more than 7% between the ages of 60 and 79 (Wolfe, Ross, Anderson, Et al. 1995).

How is Fibromyalgia Diagnosed?

Diagnosis is difficult. Currently there is no medical test that will clearly diagnose Fibromyalgia. Diagnosis is presently based on patient history and tender point sensitivity. “Tender Points” refer to 18 points on the body in which extreme sensitivity may occur in at least 11. Tender point sensitivity, as well as a history of widespread chronic body pain for at least 3 months, provides the most definitive diagnosis at this time. Other symptoms relating to a diagnosis are listed below.

What are Common Medical Treatments for Fibromyalgia?

Even though the American Medical Association (AMA) recognized fibromyalgia as a true illness and a major cause of disability in 1987, many physicians today still lack the skills to diagnose and treat it effectively.  Diagnosis is made more difficult in fibromyalgia because the symptoms are so diverse and vary among sufferers.   It is not uncommon for a sufferer to see as many as 12 physicians before getting a confirmed diagnosis.  This can delay the onset of treatment interventions and curative measures and drive the patient into a downward spiral of despair and depression.   For many, a timely and accurate diagnosis of the problem offers them a great sense of relief.  It helps to finally learn what it is and know that it’s a recognized illness and get confirmation, that it’s not all in their heads and they’re not going crazy.  Numerous sufferers have been told this.

FM patients are usually offered a variety of pharmaceutical drugs by their physicians. Pain-relievers, NSAIDs, muscle relaxants, tranquilizers, SRI’s and anti-depressant drugs are all popular, but none have proven particularly helpful.  Attempts to focus on a specific set of symptoms, such as the aching and stiffness, for example, are counterproductive because these are symptoms of a pervasive life-problem that you have to solve at its source.  To date, no person has ever been cured of fibromyalgia by drugs alone.  The treatment programs must be individualized for each person.  They are most effective when they combine revision of diet with the addition of proper nutritional support, patient education, stress reduction and lifestyle modification techniques, and regular exercise.   Research studies have verified that the best outcome for each person results from a combination of approaches that involves addressing the problem at its source and of which diet is a major factor.

What Other Disorders are Associated with Fibromyalgia?

People with fibromyalgia are said to have associated symptoms from other primary diagnoses.  They in fact have multi-system symptoms because there are various systems in the body which are affected by the disorder and exhibit such a wide array of symptoms.  There are a number of other disorders that can produce many of the same symptoms as fibromyalgia.  Other disorders known to produce similar symptoms are:

  • Chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS)
  • Irritable bowel syndrome
  • Lupus Erythematosis
  • Myalgic Encephalopathy (ME)
  • Myofascial pain syndrome
  • Tension myositis syndrome
  • Mercury toxicity
  • Lyme’s disease
  • Influenza
  • Gulf War syndrome
  • Thyroid disease
  • Tendonitis
  • Vitamin B12 deficiency
  • Vitamin D deficiency
  • Lead poisoning
  • Influenza
  • Depression
  • carpal tunnel syndrome
  • mitral valve prolapse
  • Raynaud’s syndrome and
  • Rheumatic disease.

It’s seldom to see a fibromyalgia sufferer who does not exhibit some other health problem.   Greater than sixty percent of patients diagnosed with fibromyalgia have chronic digestive disorders and more than half have symptoms suggestive of allergy to food and airborne allergens.  Many are overweight and have blood sugar abnormalities.   There is an obvious biochemical upset and imbalance occurring and this leads us again to nutrition and to closely scrutinizing our diet.

What Causes Lack of Energy in Fibromyalgia Sufferers?

In many ways, you could call fibromyalgia an energy crisis because one of the biggest complaints expressed by people diagnosed with the disorder is the feeling of complete and utter exhaustion and the lack of energy and vitality.   In support of this hypothesis some studies have found that fibromyalgia patients suffer from a condition in which structures called mitochondria within the muscle cells were inefficient in their production of energy, causing fatigue and a complete drain of energy in the individual.  The lack of cellular energy eventually leads to immune system dysfunction.  This is because the immune system is not able to have the energy it needs to eliminate toxins from the body or to fight infections.  This puts even more demand on the immune system which is already in a weakened state leading to further exhaustion.

Where Did Fibromyalgia Come From, Why Me?

Like most chronic conditions, fibromyalgia develops gradually over time and is in the making for several years.  By the time we begin to see symptoms fully appear and get a diagnosis for the disorder we are often presented with a major illness.  The health background and history of many sufferers upon closer inspection often reveals an evolution of many long-term, chronic, or recurrent symptoms building up and revealing themselves over time.  They may have been symptoms that were dismissed or discounted at the time or not taken seriously.   We tend not to link symptoms together and see them as a complex dysfunctional or generally declining state that evolves over time.   As our symptoms stabilize we go about our lives in a state of diminished function or slowly increasing disability, transitioning gradually all the while to the new declining state.   Throw into the mix some newly added stress factors such as the birth of a new baby, the move to a new home, a new job or change in employment status, or an accident requiring hospitalization and drug therapy, and suddenly our bodies can no longer cope.  Ironically, for many people the increased levels of stress can translate into coping behaviors and strategies that make matters worse.  For example, they respond by drinking higher amounts of coffee and or alcohol, eating junk foods and inadequate diets, smoking cigarettes, working longer hours, and exercising less or not at all.   We may even reassure ourselves that everything is OK in an effort to deny our real state as meanwhile our health is gradually declining further.  Highly motivated, goal-oriented, or type-A personalities are typical of this type of behavior, and in our fast paced modern world that we live in most people have lives which are busy and often filled with more than enough to handle on a daily basis.  We go too far out of our normal range over a period of time until finally we are diagnosed with a much more disabling condition or chronic disease to deal with.   It’s not that we suddenly came down with the illness or disease or that our body was otherwise 100 percent healthy up till that time.  What really happened is the result of a manifestation of a down-spiraling effect from a series of negative events and symptoms over many months to years.   It’s like the straw that broke the camel’s back; even though our body was giving us flagrant signs of protest along the way, there’s only so much we can take before the body finally collapses under all the pressure.

Since there is not a distinct starting point, but rather a gradual creeping-up-over-time, it stands to reason that we cannot expect FM to go away overnight.  What really brought FM on?  It’s not hereditary, nor is it 100 percent proven to be genetically passed along; even though there are some incidents where children with FM also have one or both parents that suffer from it.   While it may be somewhat convenient to make genetics the main culprit and blame it entirely on your personal luck of the draw in the genetic lottery, this is not altogether the truth of the matter.   The greater majority of people who have FM do not come from families who also have the disorder.   How your genes express themselves is very much influenced by factors that are within your control—in particular, diet and lifestyle.

Is there a Genetic Link?

Genetic pre-disposition toward fibromyalgia—or any other disease condition—is mainly determined by the environment in which your genes function.   Your genes express themselves in your environment based on nutrients (i.e., macronutrients, micronutrients, air, water, etc.) and lifestyle factors, of which diet plays a central role.  The interaction between nutrition and genes is a highly innovative and fast-growing field.  There are two new sciences exploring this territory, Nutritional Genomics or Nutritgenomics, and Epigenetics.  Nutritgenomics combines information from genetics, nutrition, physiology, pathology, molecular biology, and other scientific disciplines and links the response to changes in type and concentration of dietary chemicals and the understanding of their effects on health.  It is now widely accepted that nutrients alter molecular processes such as DNA structure, gene expression, and metabolism, and that these in turn may initiate disease and further its development or progression.    Individual genetic variation can influence how nutrients are assimilated, metabolized, stored, and excreted by the body.

How Common are Nutrient Deficiencies with Fibromyalgia?

Nutrient deficiencies are another common finding in people who have problems with maintaining or sustaining energy levels or who complain of feeling tired and exhausted.  Studies show that 100% of fibromyalgia sufferers have some form of nutrient deficiency and are in need of additional nutritional support.  Your body has a requirement for a minimum of at least fifty vitamins and minerals every day. This includes not only eating a properly well-balanced diet but also taking vitamin and mineral supplementation daily to replenish these stores and build up reserves.  With fibromyalgia you have increased needs for nutrients combined with decreased absorption capabilities going on already within the body.  Gastrointestinal tract problems are especially common. These make it all the more important to address nutritional aspects and the underlying deficiencies which are occurring.   Later, in other chapters of this book we will discuss in more detail what some of the most vital nutrients, vitamins, and mineral supplements are to help you win the battle against fibromyalgia and regain your optimum health.

How Does Nutrition Help with Fibromyalgia?

There is increasing evidence to show that diet and nutrition plays a major role in the reduction of FM symptoms.  In fact, people with FM, chronic fatigue, and other rheumatic or immune compromised disorders frequently use complementary integrative treatment methods with the modification of their diets and the inclusion or exclusion of specific foods being one of the most successful approaches used today.

The role of diet and nutrition in the treatment of FM has been the subject of a growing body of research, particularly in Scandinavian nations, with results showing benefits in pain reduction, sleep quality, and general health.  Based on clinical experience with hundreds of patients diagnosed with FM, many people have helped to alleviate their headaches, irritable bowel, bladder symptoms, and pain using cleansing and detoxification diets and other forms of nutritional or herbal supplements and remedies.    Removal of anti-nutrients from the diet (such as caffeine, alcohol, sugar, preservatives, chemicals, and others) and the addition of foods high in antioxidants, minerals and vitamins derived from a raw, or live foods vegetarian/vegan diet have had a profound effect and increase in quality of health in every case.

Studies consistently show that all fibromyalgia sufferers have nutritional deficiencies in 100% of cases.   This is not surprising to learn that nutrition plays such as large a role as it does in fibromyalgia when you consider that the supply of energy to the cells is impaired in all fibromyalgia sufferers.  This common denominator with low energy mainly comes about because of faulty blood sugar metabolism—sometimes called reactive or functional hypoglycemia.  Hypoglycemia, (also known as low blood sugar), occurs when your blood glucose (blood sugar) level drops too low to provide enough energy for your body’s activities.  Symptoms occur because sugar levels fluctuate, swinging from high to low.  This leaves you feeling tired and fatigued and you may develop food cravings, particularly for sweet foods, alcohol, or caffeinated drinks.  A whole host of mental symptoms can also result because your brain is literally being starved of glucose which it needs for fuel.  Mood swings, drowsiness, mental confusion, depression, impaired memory and concentration are just a few of them.  These, and many other symptoms, are common among many fibromyalgia patients.   Sugar and high-glycemic carbohydrates when consumed in excess can wreak havoc on your whole body and particularly your immune system.   It can eventually lead to insulin resistance and later, to diabetes, which also happens to be the fifth leading cause of death in the United States.

Learn more about Founder Deirdre Rawlings, Phd, MD, MH, CNC

Purchase Deirdre’s book Foods that Help with the Battle Against Fibromyalgia.

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