You may have been directed to our website because you have a condition such as chronic fatigue syndrome / ME or fibromyalgia, or unexplained symptoms (disturbances of your body function). Here we will provide a new way of understanding your symptoms, based on a scientific explanation, and give you some ideas about how to reclaim your health.
Diseases and symptoms
Medicine in the Western world has made great progress by identifying “diseases”. By studying large numbers of people with similar health problems and investigating their bodies with scans, microscopes and blood tests doctors have identified some particular patterns which have allowed them to predict the way that illnesses will develop and find ways of treating them. Cancers, allergies and infections are all types of disease. But you may be surprised to find out that around half of all people who have troublesome symptoms do not have any disease; that is to say, if you were to examine them with scans and blood tests you would not find anything wrong. This does not mean that these symptoms are imaginary or “all in the head” – they are very real, and may be completely disabling.
Medicine has tried to understand these symptoms by applying labels, such as ME or irritable bowel syndrome. But there is a huge overlap between the symptoms of these different conditions, and we do not think that these labels are helpful.
So what is the cause of these symptoms? We call them “functional”, which means that they are due to a body whose structure is normal but which is not working as it should. You might compare it to a radio which is “off tune”. As you might imagine, co-ordinating the day-to-day working of the human body is a very complex process, and sometimes it goes wrong. In order to explain how this can happen we need to tell you more about how the body works.
Layers of the brain
The brain is the master co-ordinator of the body, and it is in constant contact with every cell and organ by means of signals sent down nerves and “messenger chemicals”, including hormones, in the bloodstream. Most of the time all of this occurs automatically, without you noticing what is happening. For example, you do not usually have to remind yourself to breathe.
The brain is structured in layers. At the core is the “autopilot” which controls your heartbeat, breathing rate, temperature etc. The next layer up is the ”lifesaver” alarm system, which registers a threat like a lorry mounting the pavement in front of you in a fraction of a second, and would make you jump out of the way before you knew what had happened. The outer layer is the “logic”, the cortex of grey cells which allow learning and intelligent thought. All the layers are networked with each other and the rest of the body. For more information about this, click here.
Your breathing pattern is very sensitive to stress, and sometimes people’s bodies get stuck in a way of breathing which can make them feel ill. You may remember being taught that we “breathe in oxygen and breath out carbon dioxide”, but in fact the carbon dioxide level in the body is important for our health and if it falls too low it will upset the acidity level of the blood and cause a wide range of different symptoms. Many people over-breathe, or use their upper chest and shoulders too much. Learn more. Conversely, learning particular breathing techniques may help you to reset your body into “maintenance mode”.
Pain, especially if unexplained, is a very distressing body symptom. It commonly comes from muscles that are tight (ready to run) or overworking because of an unusual body posture. Minor injuries or traumatic memories may also become locked into the muscle, and the body tries to protect the area by tightening (spasm), which may make the problem worse. Sometimes the brain continues to register pain messages long after the original problem has healed – like a fire alarm which carries on ringing after the fire has been put out. To help you to understand chronic pain, click here.
Your body can function well in a range of different states. Think how you would feel in these situations:
- Hearing the last number on your lottery ticket come up
- After a very large meal
- Seeing that lorry mount the pavement and veer towards you
- Feeling calm and content while drifting off to sleep
The body would not only feel different, it would also be working very differently. For example, your pulse rate and the speed and pattern of your breathing would be changed. The different states of the body have evolved to help it to work most efficiently in different situations. Think about the two extremes:
- Emergency mode
This is designed to save your life, so the priority is to be able to run away at high speed – the “fight or flight” response.
- Maintenance mode
Here the priorities are to digest your food, repair any injuries and rest – “rest and digest”
Now imagine what would happen if your body was in the wrong state for the situations described above. This is a common cause of functional symptoms, particularly when the body gets stuck into “emergency mode”. You might compare it to always driving a car with the accelerator pushed to the floor. As well as damaging the engine, if you do this for a long time you will soon run out of fuel – the human equivalent is “adrenal burnout”.
Other specific symptoms
For an explanation of a wide variety of different symptoms, visit www.neurosymptoms.org