Fatigue is a feeling that most of us have probably experienced at one time or another. Whether from stress, poor eating habits, sleep deprivation, overwork, or even medical treatments, fatigue often has a lot to do with our habits and routines, though it can sometimes be caused by an underlying medical condition. But sometimes in spite of what we do, fatigue can become an ongoing problem. In severe cases, it may be diagnosed as chronic fatigue syndrome, a complicated disorder without obvious onset or causes.

Fatigue in Chinese Medicine (TCM) includes both chronic fatigue syndrome, and short-term or ongoing fatigue. Fatigue can be brought on by a number of factors. A hereditary weak constitution is one common cause, particularly in chronic fatigue syndrome.  A person’s constitution is determined by several factors: the parents’ constitution, parents’ health and parents’ age at time of conception, the conditions of pregnancy, and childhood development.  Hereditary weakness can manifest in any of the five “vital” organs- or yin organs as Chinese Medicine calls them, because they are said to store the body’s essence.

A hereditary weakness in the heart would produce symptoms of nervousness and disturbed sleep in childhood. Lung weakness would show signs of catching colds easily, chest diseases in childhood, thin chest, and a weak voice. Spleen weakness will cause symptoms of weak muscles and physical tiredness in childhood, a poor appetite and digestive problems. Liver weakness will show myopia and headaches in childhood, and infertility and menstrual irregularities in adulthood. The kidneys will show signs of nocturnal enuresis and childhood fears, poor bone development, and in adulthood infertility and premature aging and graying of hair.

Lifestyle factors also contribute to fatigue, particularly overwork and eating habits. Overwork can mean either excessive mental or physical work of long hours with inadequate rest. This is a very common cause of fatigue in western societies, and in many cases rest is the only treatment needed. Physical overexertion is also a factor, which includes overexertion at work, as well as excessive exercising or sports activities. Again, this can become a problem when not allowing the body proper adequate rest.

Improper diet is by far the most common cause of chronic fatigue. Irregular eating habits, eating poor-quality food, rich, greasy, fatty and even sometimes too much cold-raw foods, can all injure the spleen and stomach. With the spleen and stomach being the main organs for the transformation of food into energy and blood, its always important to assess eating habits because our food is what provides our body with fuel- insufficient fuel will result in insufficient energy.

Other important factors that are not too uncommon for chronic fatigue are severe illness, the long-term use of medications (which can stress the body), and childbirth. Childbirth can mean many births in a short period of time, or having a weak constitution going into pregnancy or delivery.

It is important to understand that lifestyle factors combined with our constitutional weaknesses are what create the formula for a condition to develop- this is why some people may develop this condition, whereas others may experience symptoms in other areas of health. All of these factors can develop weakness in one or more of the vital organs: lungs, spleen, kidney, liver and heart.  There can be a deficiency of either qi, blood, yin, or yang of one or more of these organs. Whereas in western medicine, chronic fatigue syndrome is a difficult to understand syndrome with uncertain causes, in Chinese medicine chronic fatigue has well-understood causes, which explain why it may develop in some people and not others. When the cause is clear, treatment is straightforward and effective.

This makes acupuncture is an effective option for people who suffer from fatigue with no relief, as acupuncture can produce positive results. In fact, an increase in energy for people with normally low energy is a common result of acupuncture, even though it may not have been directly targeted in treatment.

James Kaufman is a Registered Acupuncturist at Okanagan Acupuncture Centre, 1625 Ellis St, Kelowna, BC.