The general population is increasingly being exposed to a variety of “toxic” substances and, as a result, our environmentally polluted world is causing a myriad of health problems. Whilst we generally understand the concept of toxins that come from external sources- for example, car fumes, tobacco smoke, drugs, dental fillings, environmental pollution, etc., we are less aware of the endogenous toxins that we encounter daily. These toxins include those generated from viral and bacterial sources within the body, or toxins that are created by the body itself due to its own metabolism.
Long-term exposure to toxins, a decreased ability to metabolise toxins and therefore neutralise them within the liver, or simply an inability to clear toxins from the body can result in toxic overload that can contribute to the many symptoms associated with ME/CFS/fibromyalgia.
The symptoms of toxic overload, such as fatigue, dizziness and nausea, headaches, brain fog, and so on, are frequently misdiagnosed and pharmaceuticals prescribed, which may exacerbate symptoms and the patient enters a vicious cycle of treatment that has little or no benefit in alleviating symptoms.
So what does the toxic patient do? It is not possible to remove ourselves from all exposures to toxins, but what we can do is to provide the best possible protection from the effect these toxins have on our health. We have a complex internal system, involving multiple enzyme families that act, within the liver, to modify and detoxify agents from external sources, as well as those created internally – as a product of digestion, for example.
These enzymes depend on many dietary nutrients including essential vitamins, essential minerals, proteins and essential fats. Deficiencies of any of these nutrients can contribute not only to the disruption of this important detoxification system, but to all physiological and biochemical pathways that contribute to normal functioning of the cells, tissues and organs that make up the human body. It is no wonder that diet is so important to our overall health.
By modifying our diet we can therefore protect the organs and systems involved in detoxifying and eliminating toxins and manipulate the endogenous systems that protect the body from the effects of toxins.
Broadly, the ME/CFS/fibromyalgia diet should comprise simple, healthy and unadulterated foods that nourish the body and provide the raw nutrients needed to ensure detoxification pathways are provided with the key co-factors to perform optimally. ‘Junk’ foods, and foods that are processed and highly refined (such as white sugar and flour) should all be eliminated, as they offer little nutritional value and are most likely to trigger symptoms, as well as being high in artificial additives and chemicals. Eating a good variety of foods that incorporate organic products will help to eliminate pesticides and other toxins, whilst increasing essential vitamins, minerals, proteins and important fats such as omega-3s. It is also important to eat small portions at regular intervals to ensure that the body’s nutritional requirements are continuously met.
A very important element of the diet relates to the types of fat that we eat, which can have a significant effect on how we feel. Saturated fats and trans fats, found in animal products and processed foods, have a negative effect on our health. In contrast, polyunsaturated fats (omega-6 and omega-3) have a major positive effect on our health because they are converted in the body to powerful hormone-like substances called ‘eicosanoids’. It is these eicosanoids that regulate physiological functions, with major roles in cardiovascular health, inflammation, immunity and mood.
Consuming a diet that is balanced in these types of fat can help to ensure that our bodies work most efficiently, right down to the cellular level. Consuming too much omega-6 fatty acids, however, can have negative effects. Omega-6s are found in plant oils such as vegetable oil and corn oil, or non-organic meat (these animals are fed on grains rich in omega-6), and while omega-6 fats are essential for good health, too much can result in the over-production of eicosanoids, triggering pain-processing pathways and increasing production of inflammatory products, as well as over-stimulating the immune system.
In contrast, omega-3 fatty acids (specifically those found in oily fish) have the opposite effect. Generally, Western diets are high in omega-6 and low in omega-3. Increasing omega-3 fatty acids, especially one known as EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and found in oily fish, can help reduce the production of specific proteins which trigger pain and inflammation, at the same time stimulating the production of neurotransmitters – brain chemicals involved in electrical signalling, mood and sleep.
Unfortunately, however, it’s not as simple as merely increasing fish intake. The polluted state of our oceans means that the benefits of consuming fish, as a rich source of omega-3, may be offset by the presence of contaminants, such as methylmercury (MeHg), dioxins, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), and should be limited to twice weekly. Highly purified omega-3 oils such as Vegepa – a product of choice for many practitioners – offer a safe and convenient method of increasing EPA levels without the risk of consuming hazardous contaminants – a consequence which can be associated with eating too much fish.
Incorporating organic fruit and vegetable produce into the diet, where possible, will also help to ensure that contaminants such as pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers are avoided. Organic produce is also much higher in important vitamins and minerals – micronutrients that are essential in every biochemical pathway in the body. Organic meat is also lower in omega-6, higher in omega-3 and, importantly, is free of the steroids and hormones associated with intensive farming methods.
Sugar is also an important element in the ME/CFS/fibromyalgia diet, since the brain and body need energy supplied at an even rate in order to function optimally. Sudden peaks, followed by troughs, in blood sugar can result in low energy and fatigue. The glycaemic index (GI) ranks carbohydrates according to their effect on blood glucose levels and is a good guide to informing us which foods to include as part of a healthy diet, and indeed which foods to limit. White sugar and other refined (simple) carbohydrates have a high GI value, and can be found in processed white bread and white pasta, white rice and most convenience foods. Avoiding these simple carbohydrates and consuming foods with a low GI value, will help to keep blood sugar levels even, and help to stabilise mood too. Good low GI foods include high fibre cereals, whole grain products, beans, pulses, brown rice, whole wheat pasta, fruit and vegetables. Not only are these foods far better for stabilising our blood sugar levels, but these foods also tend to be high in fibre, as well as vitamins and minerals which are needed for good immune function and maintaining energy levels.
Choice of protein is also key when considering the FM diet, since it is needed by the body for growth and repair, and our requirements increase when our body is in a hypercatabolic state (such as fighting infection, during illness, inflammation etc). Ensuring that we get the right amount and type of protein is extremely important for people with M.E./CFS/fibromyalgia. Amino acids, which are the building blocks of protein, are essential for our health; animal produce is actually the best source of protein as it contains all eight essential amino acids. But we shouldn’t forget that organic meat far outweighs non-organic for nutritional value. It’s sensible to avoid eating too much red meat, and fish is an excellent source of protein, as well as omega-3 good fats. Fish is low in saturated fat and particularly rich in arginine and glutamine – amino acids known to have a regulatory role in both cardiovascular health and immunity. Remember, though – due to contamination issues, fish should be limited to twice weekly, and smaller, short-lived species tend to be safer to eat than larger, long-lived fish such as tuna. Vegetarians, on the other hand, need to eat a good combination of cereals and pulses to ensure that all the essential amino acids are included in the diet. A great plant source of all 8 essential amino acids is quinoa, which can be sprouted or treated in the same way as couscous or rice.
To summarise, these simple guidelines will help people with M.E./CFS/ fibromyalgia to gradually modify their diet towards greater well-being, and a body that is stronger and more resilient to the obstacles it faces with M.E./CFS/fibromyalgia:
Eat small meals and try to eat regularly throughout the day
- Complex carbohydrates (whole grain/wholemeal)
- Organic ‘5-a day’
- Healthy plant fats – replace vegetable oil/corn oil with olive oil
- Fish up to twice weekly – a good source of omega-3 fatty acids
- Omega-3 EPA purified Vegepa capsules
- Lean animal protein and vegetable protein
- 8 glasses of purified water/day
- Junk food and fast food
- Trans fats
- Too much saturated fat
- Processed and refined food (white sugar, white flour, white pasta, white rice)
- Too much alcohol and caffeine
- Artificial ingredients, additives, and chemicals
As well as the above plan for eating well, avoiding stress is also important in managing symptoms. Try to take regular exercise, outdoor walks, perhaps join a support group and spend time with close friends or family – sharing experiences and advice can all help.