Researchers Closer to Identifying Cause of Chronic Fatigue

A tired teenager sits on her bedAdolescents with chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) may experience endocrine changes, as well as differences in cellular signaling, according to a new study published in the Journal of Translational Medicine. May 12 is International Awareness Day for CFS. An estimated 1-2% of people worldwide have symptoms of CFS.

Chronic fatigue syndrome is characterized by exhaustion even when well-rested, difficulty with physical exertion, impaired concentration and memory, and metabolic issues. Because there is no test for CFS, doctors usually rely solely on symptoms. This approach, coupled with ignorance about CFS, means some people with CFS may go undiagnosed. Others may be accused of faking symptoms, or of having a mental health diagnosis. The latest study may undermine the stigma historically associated with CFS.

In 2015, the Institute of Medicine recommended changing CFS’s name to systemic exertion disorder. Some doctors also refer to chronic fatigue as myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME) or CFS/ME.

Understanding Chronic Fatigue

Previous research has uncovered changes in immune system cells among people with chronic fatigue. The new study built upon these findings by exploring cellular activity in the brains of people with CFS.

Researchers recruited 120 people ages 12-18 with chronic fatigue and compared them to 68 people without CFS. They tracked physical activity with an accelerometer, monitored symptoms with a questionnaire, and measured levels of nine different hormones.

Compared to those without CFS, people with symptoms had differences in cellular signaling in the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, a brain region that plays a critical role in endocrine function. People with CFS also showed differences in the sympathetic adrenal medullary system, which regulates stress response, and in thyroid functioning.

The study’s authors say this data points to a potential cause for CFS. It also demonstrates that symptoms of CFS have clear biological underpinnings. More research could conclusively point to a cause of chronic fatigue.


  1. Further clues in the fight against Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. (2016, May 10). Retrieved from
  2. Wyller, V. B., Vitelli, V., Sulheim, D., Fagermoen, E., Winger, A., Godang, K., & Bollerslev, J. (2016). Altered neuroendocrine control and association to clinical symptoms in adolescent chronic fatigue syndrome: A cross-sectional study. Journal of Translational Medicine, 14(121). doi:10.1186/s12967-016-0873-1

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  • manuela


    May 12th, 2016 at 10:27 AM

    One step closer to answers for my own daughter I pray

  • Eileen


    May 13th, 2016 at 10:28 AM

    But just because they know the cause doesn’t then mean that they then will have a cure.
    All of this is till going to take a whole lot of time.

  • Dianna


    May 14th, 2016 at 10:14 AM

    I have faced so much criticism from friends and family alike since being diagnosed with chronic fatigue. They tell me that it is all in my head or that I am just trying to get out of work or something.

    Don;t they understand how bad it makes me feel when they say things like this to me? I am trying as hard as I can to work hard and be the best person that I can be but it makes me feel just worthless when they talk to me like that.

  • Jounelle


    May 15th, 2016 at 5:37 AM

    As a young female, I have really struggled with people understanding exactly what is going on! Also told constantly that I am over-exaggerating, that I’m a hypochondriac or simply crazy! Spent excessive amounts of money and doctors here in South Africa don’t know anything or can’t assist me in any way. Very frustrating. I always say that no-one knows what it’s like until you personally love through it.

  • blake


    May 16th, 2016 at 11:24 AM

    what kind of doctor would you see for this?

  • Britt


    May 16th, 2016 at 4:35 PM

    I know that those with CFS hope for something new to come along every day that will point out to them and to others why they feel like this and what is causing it. I know that with more extensive research there are answers to be found, but we still need to be on the lookout for a cure.

  • Simone


    May 21st, 2016 at 5:40 PM

    Unfortunately, this article contains misinformation which only serves to perpetuate some of the misunderstandings about ME/CFS. There is much debate about the name of the condition, and many different names are used: Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (ME), Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS), ME/CFS or CFS/ME, Chronic Fatigue Immune Dysfunction (CFIDS) and even, most recently, Systemic Exertion Intolerance Disease (SEID, (not systemic exertion disorder)). However, one thing is clear, ME/CFS is not “chronic fatigue”. Whereas ME/CFS is a disorder that affects a many different systems in the body (abnormalities have been found in the immune, autonomic and central nervous systems, as well as cardiovascular, and gastrointestinal systems, and energy production), “chronic fatigue” is a symptom of many different conditions, and not a condition in its own right. In repeatedly and inaccurately conflating ME/CFS (the condition) with chronic fatigue (the symptom), the author is perpetuating the myth that this condition is mostly just ongoing tiredness, which it is not.
    The Institute of Medicine’s report in Feb 2015 described it as a “serious, chronic, complex and multisystem disease that frequently and dramatically limits the activities of affected patients”. Studies have found that 25% of people with ME/CFS are so affected by the condition that they are either housebound or bed bound. This condition is more than ongoing tiredness. Please do not refer to it as “chronic fatigue”.

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