Fibromyalgia: Understanding this invisible disorder


Insomnia, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), heart palpitations, dry eyes and memory problems are just a few of the unseen symptoms that people with fibromyalgia live with on a regular basis.

It’s difficult to relate to someone who claims to have such an unbearable illness when they appear to be perfectly healthy. Unfortunately, due to invisibility of this disorder, fibromyalgia is not taken as seriously as it deserves in the public eye.

I personally can vouch for this. Many years ago, I was invited to be the guest speaker at a fibromyalgia support group meeting. I did my research — or so I thought — and with my new found knowledge, I expected to be talking to a group of people that were wheelchair bound, depressed and drugged. Wow, was I surprised when I walked into the meeting. There was laughter, the sharing of refreshments and mingling by foot, not wheelchair. I certainly had not expected this scenario and I questioned whether I was in the correct place, but I was greeted by the chair of the meeting and graciously introduced to the members.

As I began my talk — I always encourage an open conversation — I realized there was a lot more to this illness than what I had read. Now, we must keep in mind that I’m going back about 15 years ago and there really wasn’t a lot of information on fibromyalgia at that time. In fact, it had not been long since it was called “Fibrositis” (labeled in 1843 and prior to this date it was called muscular rheumatism) and in 1976 the name was changed to “Fibromyalgia” when it was established that inflammation in the body was not the cause of the pain.

Over the course of 36 years (1981-2007) much research was done to determine the realism of this disorder, which was once thought to be a neurotic disorder (all in the patient’s head). Studies were conducted over this time period and in 2007 the first FDA (Food and Drug Association) approved medication was made available to treat fibromyalgia. Today there are many treatment options available through a range of medications such as anti-depressants and anti-anxiety drugs, seizure drugs, sleep aids and pain medications. There are also many natural options available such as nutrition, chiropractic, homeopathy, acupuncture, hypnotherapy and osteopathy, just to name a few. In this article, I will discuss the nutritional benefits to supporting fibromyalgia.

First of all, let’s take a look at the illness itself. It is estimated that one million Canadians suffer from this disorder and most affected are women. There is some belief that genetics is involved — studies have shown that 28 per cent of diagnosed fibromyalgia patients are children of women who have also suffered from the disorder. Symptoms usually begin to appear in young adults and gradually progress and become more severe and more frequent over time. Symptoms vary with each individual, but the common factor which is used as part of the diagnoses of fibromyalgia is the 18 tender points (visit www.webmed.com, Fibromyalgia tender points and trigger points) and combined with a complete health assessment evaluating widespread pain, sleep issues, energy levels, stress levels and depression, this will give a medical doctor the information needed to make a thorough diagnosis.

  • To date there is no known scientific cause for this disorder but there are some possibilities:
    • A disruption in the brain’s ability to process pain
    • A history of depression or other brain chemistry disturbances
    • Immune system problems (but fibromyalgia is not labelled an auto-immune disease)
    • Often found to be prevalent with individuals with a history of sexual abuse, violence and/or alcoholism
    • Epstein-Barr virus
    • Candida Albican Fungus or parasites
    Chronic mercury poisoning (from mercury dental fillings)
    • Anaemia
    • Hypoglycaemia (low blood sugar)
  • • Hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid)
    • May be linked to chronic fatigue syndrome

So as you can see, there is a wide range of possibilities without a common link. As a nutritionist, I have found that trauma, whether physical or emotional, has been a common factor in the women I have given nutritional guidance to. One of my clients was in a very abusive relationship, which caused emotional trauma, and another was in a severe car accident, which I truly believe was at the root of her health problems. Regardless of the cause, it is still a very debilitating and frustrating illness as there are many other disorders that seem to develop over time when fibromyalgia is present. Some of these being:
• Food allergies (especially dairy) and chemical sensitivities
• Poor coordination, loss of balance and dizziness
• Severe fatigue to the point of not wanting to get out of bed
• Headaches, memory loss and poor concentration
• Jaw pain
• Sensitivity to light and loud noises
• Stiffness in the morning and walking
• Skin sensitivities such as the feeling of electrical shock
• Menstrual pain and bad PMS
• Almost always Irritable Bowel Syndrome

I must admit, fibromyalgia has not been one of my favourite areas of nutrition and I will also admit that I have only had one client whose symptoms have completely disappeared. But I have certainly seen vast improvement and a decrease in symptoms in my fibromyalgia clients without the side effects of medications.

The whole body, mind and spirit approach is a must as all of these areas are affected by this illness — the body is in a state of constant pain, the mind is frustrated as there appears to be no rhyme or reason for what the individual is going through and the spirit is at a very low level as social relationships and intimate relationships are inevitably affected.

First of all, I start with the body. Low impact aerobic exercise is a must. Exercise releases natural painkillers called endorphins, therefore incorporating 30 minutes a day of walking (at a moderate pace), aqua-fit classes, low impact aerobic classes, cycling, treadmill or whatever you enjoy can make a huge impact not only on the pain but also on your energy levels and the brain chemicals which regulate your moods. If depression is an issue, then this type of exercise will have a huge benefit.

Find ways to feel good

The mind comes next. It is important to feel good about your physical appearance, so schedule a manicure and pedicure every two weeks,enjoy a“me” night — hot shower (stimulates circulation), facial, foot massage, a new hairdo or whatever makes you look in the mirror and say “I look great.” Go on a shopping spree and pick up a few new outfits for the holidays. The power of self-pampering (honestly, we don’t do it enough), is amazing.

Then there is the spirit. Well, this is the hardest. It’s difficult to have a social life and be intimate when you have irritable bowel syndrome or any of the other disorders that may be present. This is where the nutrition kicks in. Consuming a diet which consists of 50 per cent raw fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds is very important as these are energizing, immune building foods. The live enzymes in these foods help the body to digest and use the nutrients taken in through the diet (most individuals with fibromyalgia have a problem with malabsorption); therefore, more vitamins and minerals will be available to do the repair work. These raw foods also help to combat many of the side effects of the illness and medications.

Including foods rich in antioxidants such as pure pomegranate juice, turmeric, garlic, onions, celery and most deep red and orange fruit and vegetables, helps to reduce pain and inflammation.

Plenty of fresh vegetable juices and steam distilled water is a must. Avoiding all saturated fats, alcohol and caffeine and sugar is essential especially if irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a problem.These foods are acid to the body and this will increase inflammation in the body.They are also stimulants to the bowels which means more problems with IBS. Avoiding the nightshade group of foods is a must as these are known to cause inflammation in some individuals. These consist of potatoes, tomatoes, peppers and eggplant.

There are many other dietary recommendations and supplements necessary for fibromyalgia, but since this disorder is so individualized it is best to be assessed by a qualified holistic nutritionist to find out just what you require. I have found that gluten seems to be a concern for most people affected by this disease. So starting with a gluten free diet along with the above recommendations may be just enough to make you see that you can manage fibromyalgia, naturally.

Sometimes all it takes is that first step or in this case first leap, to take control of your health. Do some soul-searching and see what skeletons may be in your closet (mind) and get rid of them.

Whatever trauma has happened in your life, learn from it rather than lean on it.You can’t change the past, but the past can change you if you let it. So move on and be that medical miracle who overcame fibromyalgia. Anything’s possible if you believe in the power of the human body to heal itself.

I wish you a happy and healthy holiday season. ■

fibromyalgiaSusan Cable is a holistic nutritionist, educator, competitive bodybuilder and business owner.  She is the senior academic advisor for the Canadian School of Natural Nutrition, where she aids in the education of students worldwide in holistic nutrition. She works and lives in Hastings, Ontario.