Thanks again to Veronique for providing her intriguing take on chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS). This is one of a series of articles from Health Rising which feature hypotheses created by health care professionals with ME/CFS or who are associated with ME/CFS. (It is a long post – you might want to use the print or PDF options at the bottom left of the article to print it out.)
- What if ME/CFS is an Intelligent Process Gone Awry?
- Could Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (ME/CFS) Be a Chronic Form of Sepsis? (Dr. Bell – ME/CFS physician)
- The RCCX Hypothesis: Could It Help Explain Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (ME/CFS), Fibromyalgia and other Diseases?
Veronique had a very gradual onset of ME/CFS beginning in the 1990s when she was a family physician. Her symptoms worsened slowly over 10 years. At her worst, activities such as sitting, standing, taking a shower, or talking exhausted her.
Using her experience as a guide, Veronique has been researching how the nervous system’s perception of threat can be an important and under-recognized contributor to chronic illnesses. Not because chronic illnesses are psychosomatic or that being sick is our fault – but because studies indicate how events can shape our genes, our biochemistry, and our nervous system functioning.
Her work is informed by her background as an assistant professor of medicine; published research; an MA in somatic psychology with specialties in traumatic stress and body based psychotherapies; work with clients with chronic illness; as well as her own experiences with debilitating chronic illness.
Check out Veronique’s website here.
This post draws from UC San Diego’s Dr. Robert Naviaux’s cell danger response (2014, 2018) and his 2016 study documenting statistically significant, objective, hypometabolic changes in chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS for myalgic encephalitis). These findings clarify how this very real physiological disease is not psychological and how it reflects death-like states similar to freeze and hibernation.
Naviaux’s cell danger response offers insights into why so many people with ME/CFS may improve but not fully recover despite paying extensive attention to helpful treatments such as mitochondrial support, sleep hygiene, dietary changes including ketogenic diets, working with the gut microbiome, addressing leaky gut, stress, thyroid, adrenals, cortisol levels, toxin exposures, infections and beyond … and why many others have trouble tolerating these interventions.
This post expands on Naviaux’s description of the autonomic nervous system and its important role in creating these survival-based states, using the well established science of polyvagal theory. You can download a pdf of this post at the bottom or a free kindle version on my blog.
A second post citing research in epigenetics, brain development, embryology and more will further explain how some people develop ME/CFS when others with exposures to similar environmental stressors such as infections, toxins, chemicals or adversity do not.
A third post will discuss implications for treatment.
Many people with ME/CFS have at one time or another been blamed, shamed, judged and otherwise harmed by mistaken beliefs which suggest their illness is faked, due to personality flaws, caused by weakness, laziness, lack of willpower or seeking attention, or for some other equally inaccurate reason. These views don’t believe or listen to what people are saying about their very real experiences of debilitating illness. They are deeply wounding – and importantly, they don’t reflect the research.
As a result of all these common misperceptions, I emphasize the fact and the scientific evidence explaining that ME/CFS is NOT PSYCHOLOGICAL throughout this post. This includes a quote from Dr. Robert Naviaux who states this very clearly.
The following sections present some of the physiological underpinnings that drive ME/CFS. They also explain how and why the belief that it is psychological is both false and out of date.
ME/CFS: The Cause Remains Unknown
ME/CFS is a disease of extreme fatigue affecting an estimated 1-2.5 million people in the U.S. (and many more undiagnosed) that involves multiple organ systems, often results in profound disability, and has no unifying understanding of cause nor treatment.
Because there is still no clear, universal diagnostic test, many physicians and other health care professionals still believe this illness is psychological.
Naviaux’s study provides detailed, objective, metabolic findings that disprove this perspective and offer an explanation for underlying drivers of ME/CFS as well as other chronic diseases.
In addition to fatigue, characteristic symptoms of ME/CFS include :
- worsening of fatigue and other symptoms with mental or physical activity
- difficulty recovering with rest
- symptoms that are not the result of excessive exertion (even if they are worsened by it)
- problems with memory and thinking (cognitive dysfunction often referred to as brain fog)
- sleep disturbance
- worsening with standing or sitting (orthostatic intolerance)
- chronic or intermittent pain in joints, muscles; headaches
- interstitial cystitis
- irritable bowel syndrome
- subnormal body temperatures and cold extremities, intolerance of extremes of hot or cold
- sensitivities to foods, odors, chemicals, or noise
- and more (see IOM/CDC diagnostic criteria, Canadian Consensus criteria).
- cerebral cytokine dysregulation
- natural killer cell dysfunction
- microbiome abnormalities
- abnormalities in metabolism and metabolites (Naviaux, 2016)
- widespread inflammation in the brain (Younger)
- increased lactate in the brain (lactate occurs with anaerobic metabolism) (Younger)
- reduced brain blood flow and brain volume, small brain lesions
- Th1/Th2 Imbalance (see more here and here)
- a subset of people with ME/CFS have slightly low cortisol levels
- and more.
ME/CFS Is Not Psychological
The perspective that ME/CFS is psychological is false and out of date
Many people with ME/CFS have been or are still told their illness is “all in their heads, ”is caused by mental health conditions such as depression”, or that it is “faked,” due to malingering or attempts to get attention, caused by depression, a personality flaw or unhelpful beliefs, and more. Findings such as those delineated above, new studies in epigenetics and other fields of study, and metabolic abnormalities identified by Dr. Naviaux in the study presented here, explain how this perspective is inaccurate and out of date.
Graded Exercise (GET) & Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) are not appropriate treatments
Following a single, highly flawed and discredited study called the PACE trial, graded exercise (GET), pacing, and cognitive behavioral therapies (CBT) became the single dominant treatment recommendations for ME/CFS by the medical profession and the Centers for Disease Control, among many others.
While these approaches can be supportive in the management of life with any chronic illness, exercise is a characteristic trigger of flares and worsening of fatigue and other symptoms of ME/CFS. Together with CBT, graded exercise inaccurately suggests the underlying causes of ME/CFS and other diseases are psychological, psychosomatic or “functional.” These recommendations elicit an appropriate response of concern, anger, disbelief and distrust by people with ME/CFS, and rightly so.
Polyvagal theory, Naviaux’s findings and trauma theory present a very different understanding and recommendations for ME/CFS, and further clarify how this disease is not psychological.
Naviaux’s Study: Shattering the Myth That ME/CFS is Psychological
In 2016, Robert Naviaux, M.D, Ph.D, Professor of Medicine, Pediatrics and Pathology and director of the Mitochondrial and Metabolic Disease Center at UC San Diego and his team rocked the ME/CFS world when they identified 20 metabolic pathways in people with ME/CFS that were markedly different from healthy controls (here’s his slide show).
In their study, Metabolic features of chronic fatigue syndrome, Naviaux explained how these biological pathways reflected the activation of the cellular defense response (CDR). The CDR constitutes the survival response of a healthy organism to threats such as infection, lack of food or oxygen, or cold and other dangers (Naviaux, 2016):
“The cell danger response (CDR) is the evolutionarily conserved metabolic response that protects cells and hosts from harm. It is triggered by encounters with chemical, physical, or biological threats that exceed the cellular capacity for homeostasis.” (Naviaux, 2014).
80% of the abnormal metabolites Naviaux found in ME/CFS were part of the CDR pathway.
Intriguingly, they were in the opposite direction to the usual CDR response.
In the study, summarized here by Cort, Naviaux explained how these metabolites in ME/CFS were similar to those found in the very low metabolic state of hibernation.
- Naviaux explains the particular state of “dauer” identified in the ME/CFS study is not exactly the same as hibernation because “hibernation does not happen in humans.” I use the concepts of hibernation and freeze here for 4 reasons: 1) they are similar and more recognizable terms compared to the word “dauer”; 2) polyvagal theory describes these hypometabolic states in similar ways that serve similar functions of survival; 3) Naviaux references Porges’s work and the nervous system functions in describing the CDR; and 4) I haven’t found any definitions in the study or elsewhere about significant differences between these states.
The metabolites of hibernation are well known from studies of c. elegans, a worm that adapts to life-threatening situations such as insufficient food or oxygen, drought, and other environmental stressors that cannot be overcome by mobilizing, by entering a death-like state called “dauer.”
Dauer, like hibernation, is a means of preserving survival by severely curtailing functions of ordinary life such as energy, digestion and movement (Naviaux, 2016, p. e5477).
Naviaux added that:
“Similar to dauer, CFS appears to represent a hypometabolic survival state that is triggered by environmental stress.”
The study found that triggering events for ME/CFS fell broadly into five groups (p. e5473):
- biological (viral, bacterial, fungal/mold, and parasitic infections)
- chemical exposures
- physical trauma
- psychological trauma
“The specific biological and chemical exposures and the precise nature of the physical and psychological traumas were diverse, numbering more than a dozen in just this small sample. Several patients had multiple triggers that converged in the same year.
Although biological triggers were most common, no single infectious agent or other stressor was statistically more prevalent, and comprehensive testing for biological exposures in the control group was beyond the scope of this study”. (2016, p. e5473)
Naviaux further explains that ME/CFS is not directly caused by these triggers, not even by toxins or infections as common as Epstein-Barr virus or Lyme. Rather, when a body is exposed to these triggers and goes on to develop ME/CFS, it is due to an activation of the cell danger response.
These different environmental stressors, in other words, trigger a similar hibernation / freeze cell danger response in people who go on to develop ME/CFS. Just like they do in c. elegans.
Only a small percent of people who are acutely infected with Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) or human herpes virus 6 (HHV6), or Lyme disease go on to develop chronic symptoms. If the CDR remains chronically active, many kinds of chronic complex disease can occur.
In the case of CFS, when the CDR gets stuck, or is unable to overcome a danger, a second step kicks in [after the body has worked to fight off the infection and you have maybe been sick for days, weeks or months] that involves a kind of siege metabolism that further diverts resources away from mitochondria and sequesters or jettisons key metabolites and cofactors to make them unavailable to an invading pathogen, or acts to sequester toxins in specialized cells and tissues to limit systemic exposure. This has the effect of further consolidating the hypometabolic state (2016, FAQ).
Naviaux is saying that the effects of these infections and toxins are real but that they lead to ME/CFS because they trigger a particular pattern of the cell danger response.
Importantly, despite the heterogeneity of triggers, the cellular response to these environmental stressors in patients who developed CFS was homogeneous and statistically robust.
That supported the notion that it is the unified cellular response, and not the specific trigger, that lies at the root of the metabolic features of CFS (2016, p. e5473).
So while your body may have been affected by an infection or exposure to a toxin such as mold, your illness arose because of the CDR and all it entails (which includes potentially having difficulty getting rid of the infection or toxin.)
As Naviaux described in their Q&A document, this is not because ME/CFS is psychological (2016):
Q1. Some people still argue that CFS is not a real illness but all in the mind. Does your discovery of a chemical signature help shatter this myth?’
“Yes. The chemical signature that we discovered is evidence that CFS is an objective metabolic disorder that affects mitochondrial energy metabolism, immune function, GI function, the microbiome, the autonomic nervous system, neuroendocrine, and other brain functions. These 7 systems are all connected in a network that is in constant communication. While it is true that you cannot change one of these 7 systems without producing compensatory changes in the others, it is the language of chemistry and metabolism that interconnects them all [read more].
Q1.1. If you found that CFS is caused by chemical changes, why do you ask about childhood trauma in your new questionnaire for the expanded CFS metabolomics study? The questions made me think you were just like all the other doctors who told me that CFS was all in my head?
“The answer to this question has several layers. Perhaps the most important is founded on our discovery that the brain controls metabolism. Any factor that causes a chronic change in how the brain works will produce objective chemical changes in the blood [read more].
Here are insights into why people with ME/CFS can experience states of hibernation, it is possible to have gotten to a state that feels death-like, and why it can be so very difficult to recover.
You’ll learn about science that supports and expands on Naviaux’s findings of the deep, very real physiological basis for prolonged states of metabolic hibernation. Plus, I’ll add more context to explain why ME/CFS is no more psychological, or all in our heads than the state of dauer is for c. elegans or states of hibernation are in bears.
I incorporate areas of study Naviaux refers to in his articles, which include brain development, neurobiology, and epigenetics. I also reference the science of traumatic stress, which offers especially pertinent insights into the effects of environmental stressors such as infections, toxins, as well as adversity on long-term health, including risk for states of hibernation; and how these effects are intelligent, biological, epigenetic and not about simple stress.
The science of traumatic stress, neurobiology, epigenetics and more demonstrate that subtle and overt types of trauma and adversity directly alter physiology, cell function, metabolism, immune and nervous system function and other organic and biological activities to increase risk for autoimmune and other chronic physical diseases, among many other effects.
They indicate that psychological symptoms are a separate symptom of trauma and not the cause of ME/CFS nor of these other effects (Ridout, 2018).
To restate this important distinction, the effects of trauma are not psychological in origin – even if they include concurrent psychological symptoms. Science that has largely been overlooked in medicine offers insights that help explain why the cell danger response can produce a more or less permanent state of hypometabolism and cause ME/CFS in some people.
I was never introduced to this science as a doctor but it has helped me gain a new understanding and respect for autonomic nervous system function and made sense of my ME/CFS (as well as autoimmune diseases such as type 1 diabetes, MS, RA and other illnesses).
Here’s what is being learned about how human bodies orient and respond to threat and how this can set individuals up with pathways leading to states of dauer, hibernation, and freeze.
It starts with the autonomic nervous system and how its main goal is to maximize survival – even when the cost is high.
This research is very slowly beginning to change the face of health care, even as it has a long way yet to go (National Research Council and Institute of Medicine, 2000; Shonkoff, 2012; Chitty, 2013).
Autonomic Nervous System Survival Strategies
As Naviaux explains, the cell danger response is not a new concept.
“The concept of the cell danger response … has evolved from a confluence of six rivers of scholarship that have developed in relative isolation over the past 60 years (2014, p.8).
Furthermore, the CDR is regulated by our autonomic nervous systems:
“The systemic form of the CDR, and its magnified form, the purinergic life-threat response (PLTR), are under direct control by ancient pathways in the brain that are ultimately coordinated by centers in the brainstem (2014, p. 8).
While individual cells and tissues can mount their own defensive responses to infection, physical wounds (such as surgery or physical trauma), toxins and other threats, the nervous system gets involved when the cell defense response becomes stuck and affects the whole body, such as in ME/CFS.
Our autonomic nervous system (ANS) manages and regulates physiological functions such as blood pressure, heart rate, temperature, immune activity, digestion, mitochondrial function, energy levels, metabolism and more. It supports these functions by directing cellular, metabolic and other underlying processes that involve many organ systems.
One of the branches of the autonomic nervous system (ANS) that can cause hibernation-like states in humans originates in the brainstem which is where the CDR is regulated.
It is one of three branches of autonomic nervous system, all of which interact with one another to influence short and long-term health. Below is an overview of the three branches, starting with fight and flight of the sympathetic nervous system – an important aspect of Naviaux’s CDR.
Naviaux writes about these three branches of the nervous system, which are described below, and how the CDR is the source of over 100 diseases identified so far, including ME/CFS, POTS, Fibromyalgia, MS, RA, Inflammatory Bowel Disease, Sjogren’s, diabetes and more). The italics are mine for clarification (Naviaux, 2018, p. 11):
When the CDR is chronically activated, the coordination between the two limbs of the vagus nerve [VVC and DVC] is disrupted. This results in disinhibiting the sympathetic nervous system [i.e.: no longer inhibiting fight flight reactions] and the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA), which dominate during illness.
(The following references support the sections below on the autonomic nervous system and polyvagal theory, including Chitty: Chapter 6, (2013); Fredrickson (2013); Levine, 2010, Chapter 4; Ogden, Chapter 5, (2006); Porges (1992, 1995, 2001, 2004, 2009); Schore (1994, 2001).)
Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) Fight / Flight
We are most familiar with the sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system, which is the branch that can make us feel like someone’s put a foot on our gas pedal. The sympathetic nervous system enables us to take action in everyday life, and also in the event of threat. When we’re in danger, it helps us fight, chase off predators, or flee a hurricane.
In the first minutes and hours of a fight or flight response to stress, our bodies release adrenaline, increase our blood pressure and heart rate, augment our body temperature and breathing, enhance our blood sugar availability to fuel our muscles for fighting and fleeing, and increase our immune response (Dhabhar, 2018). This is all aimed at maximizing energy levels to support fight or flight.
And it is all part of the healthy cell danger response.
These changes optimize our ability to survive through escape mechanisms and by warding off infections, healing wounds by clotting more efficiently, and increasing our speed and strength.
“[The CDR is a] coordinated set of cellular responses … that evolved to help the cell defend itself from microbial attack or physical harm … and at its most fundamental and most ancient role: to improve cell and host survival after viral attack (Naviaux 2014, p. 7).
The actions of the acute fight or flight response are consistent with Naviaux’s acute cell danger response, which is the opposite of what he found in ME/CFS (paraphrased from his 2016 article on ME/CFS):
The acute CDR is found in acute infection, during acute inflammation and in the metabolic syndrome (a cluster of conditions that include high blood pressure, high cholesterol, insulin resistance and high blood sugar levels, and increased fat around the waist area. These symptoms, also known as Syndrome X, are associated with increased risk for heart disease, stroke and diabetes).
In this acute sympathetic nervous system response, our bodies also decrease or suppress functions that aren’t important for immediate survival, such as digestion and rest.
If stress continues for a long time, an increased degree of fight or flight arises in which cortisol is released, the immune system is suppressed, inflammation rises and symptoms can occur.
In health, our bodies return to baseline when the stressor goes away or the threat disappears.
In health, at rest, and in play and safety, the sympathetic nervous system coordinates with the other branches of the autonomic nervous system to constantly tweak and maintain just the right levels of blood pressure, heart rate, oxygen consumption, mitochondrial function and other basics that support our ever changing activities of daily life.
In some circumstances, which I’ll discuss later, the sympathetic nervous system remains turned “on” and this acute CDR contributes to disease (Naviaux, 2014).
The Social Nervous System (“The Vagus”)
As introduced in an earlier post by Tim Vaughan here on Health Rising, psychophysiologist Stephen Porges’ polyvagal theory indicates that the parasympathetic portion of the autonomic nervous system is comprised of two branches rather than one.
The more evolved branch of the parasympathetic nervous system is present in mammals and is called the social nervous system or the ventral vagus complex (VVC).
The social nervous system is regulated by a parasympathetic nervous system branch called the ventral vagus complex because it originates in the brainstem (in the nucleus ambiguous on the ventral or belly-like surface of the brain). Also known as Cranial Nerve X (Ten), the ventral vagus travels from the brain to the facial muscles down to the gut. It is the faster of the two branches and supports safety and survival in the most metabolically energy-efficient capacities we have: those of connection and communication.
If you’ve heard of the ventral vagus, it’s because it is “The Vagus” we refer to when we incorporate mind body practices such as yoga nidra, mindfulness, or meditation to protect or improve our health; use vagal stimulation as a treatment tool; or take up a hobby or go on a vacation to slow down and catch our breath. You may also have heard of it because this is the branch that facilitates the survival response of “tend and befriend” (Taylor, 2000).
In health, our social nervous systems are in charge of autonomic nervous system functions and can inhibit fight or flight as well as institute a process called freeze.
A healthy ventral vagus allows us to connect to ourselves and the world, and to empathize and bond with others, which supports safety through numbers and strength. It also enables people to read others’ facial expressions to assess whether they are safe to approach or should be avoided. This is all part of a highly evolved and built-in survival mechanism.
The ventral vagus allows us to sense into our gut feelings that warn us of safety vs danger, and to communicate using energy-sparing actions through our voices, gestures and facial muscles that show and express our feelings and boundaries.
Through the ventral vagus, for example, babies draw their parents towards them with their big, curious, beautiful eyes, their smiles, and their cries of hunger or discomfort. In health, babies pull at our heart strings to elicit bonds of love and the desire to nurture and protect them. This is all facilitated by the ventral vagus, which stimulates behaviors (cooing, smiling, eye contact), hormones (oxytocin and vasopressin), feelings (love, comfort, pleasure) and more that support feelings of love in both babies and their parents.
This is important because human babies and mammals are born at a very immature stage of development, when it is critical for survival to draw in the proximity and care of adults.
Children and adults communicate affection and form protective, supportive alliances through touch, a smile or a conversation. These are actions of the ventral vagus. The social nervous system also supports our defenses with verbal boundaries like “no” or gestures, such as hand signals inviting approach or conveying “stop.”
The social nervous system facilitates all of these functions through the nerves that connect to our eyes, ears, mouths and facial muscles, to our hearts and voices, and through our endocrine, immune and other organ systems.
The ventral vagus makes survival and defense actions possible by placing a gentle brake on our baseline heart rates, which helps us feel more connected and relaxed. This occurs at the cellular and physiological levels and can often be enhanced through mind body practices.
Defenses that use words, eye contact and gestures are energy efficient.
Babies avert their gaze and look away when they are getting too much input, signaling the communicator to stop or slow down. When you talk someone down from raging at or firing you rather than fleeing the office, you are engaging your ventral vagus. The same is true when you stay present and engaged in the middle of a heated or painful argument with a spouse rather than attacking them physically, or disappearing (which would be sympathetic nervous system functions of fight and flight). Our ventral vagus also enables us to use the tone of our voices, such as to soothe a baby who is distressed or calm down a scared animal so that it doesn’t attack. And you may signal “stop” to a stranger who is approaching closer or faster than you are comfortable with before deciding if you need to flee.
This is the way of the social nervous system.
In health, the ventral vagus gently suppresses fight and flight unless it’s truly needed.
In health, our ventral vagus subtly immobilizes us so we can hold still long enough to make love, bond, or snuggle with and care for our babies and children – which is how the most vulnerable among us engage protection through connection.
In health, the ventral vagus can release its gentle brake so our heart rates can rise a little for activities such as standing, walking and playing. This enables us to shift gears without resorting to the higher energy functions of SNS fight and flight systems with releases of adrenaline or cortisol.
The ventral vagus, then, is a critical player in keeping us healthy through energy-efficient means.
When ventral vagus functions get interrupted, however, we can end up in states of prolonged fight and flight, hibernation and freeze, or some combination of both.
This is what happens when we have an illness like ME/CFS and feel as though we have one foot on the gas and one foot on the brake. It means that we each have our own, unique, individual version of the same disease. I’ll discuss this a little more after the next section on the freeze response.
The Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS) Freeze / Hibernation
If you’ve ever fainted at the sight of blood or of a needle (Bracha, 2004), felt rooted to the ground and unable to move during or after a stressful or scary event (hearing a loud, unexpected sound; seeing something horrifying; having just survived a car accident), you’ve experienced a moment of physiological hibernation or “freeze.”
As you know, it was not something you did on purpose, through conscious control, or to “get attention.”
This “freeze” state is facilitated by the branch of the PNS that acts as a brake in an even stronger manner than the ventral vagus.
Going into states of freeze occurs when our other two forms of self protection – fight or flight and tend and befriend – described above, are either unsuccessful or unlikely to succeed.
Like c. elegans and other living creatures, shutting down (freezing) and going into hibernation is a CDR pathway designed to maximize survival when fighting, fleeing and connecting are not available options.
As Naviaux asserts in his 2016 article, the state of freeze:
is an evolutionarily conserved, genetically regulated, hypometabolic state similar to dauer that permits survival and persistence under conditions of environmental stress but at the cost of severely curtailed function and quality of life (2016, p. e5477).
In other words, the option to freeze has persisted in life forms of all kinds as an evolutionary adaptation to maximize survival.
As mentioned in this video of an opossum in freeze, states of freeze are neither psychological nor manufactured.
In states of freeze, our bodies use the same physiology and produce the same metabolites that c. elegans does when it goes into hibernation to wait out a threat it cannot successfully outrun or outgun.
States of freeze and hibernation are facilitated by the second branch of the parasympathetic nervous system, the dorsal vagal complex (DVC), which, like the ventral vagus, originates in the brainstem (Porges, Chitty).
The Dorsal Vagal Complex (DVC)
In health, the dorsal vagus interacts with the other branches of the autonomic nervous system and uses its braking function to gently decrease blood pressure, heart rate, oxygen use, and to support digestion so that we are operating at maximum efficiency. It’s similar to a thermostat that turns an air conditioner on and off to maintain a comfortable temperature rather than perpetually staying on and making it too cold.
In health, the dorsal vagus coordinates its functions with the social nervous system branch and the sympathetic nervous system to support changes in activity levels that takes us from activity to rest, eating to digesting, and back.
In health, the dorsal vagus functions to help us feel calm and available for play and work and rest.
Under threat, the dorsal vagus intensifies its brake.
Even more than fight and flight, the state of freeze is not a conscious choice or a psychological ploy. It is an unconscious autonomic nervous system response of last resort used only in circumstances we are relatively helpless to address and towards threats that cannot be overcome.
In freeze, the opossum’s heart rate, blood pressure and body temperature actually go down (Gabrielsen, 1985).
These aspects of the freeze state are what the opossum and many other creatures have evolved as a primary defense strategy to fool predators into thinking they are already dead. Predators are less likely to attack when prey is unmoving and already looks dead.
In freeze, our own blood pressure, heart rate, temperature and oxygen levels can also go down.
We may feel slow or foggy headed; we may disconnect and watch the event unfold as if we’re standing outside of our bodies; or we may feel numb, limp or unable to move.
We may also feel exhausted or too weak to stand.
Freeze states can also flood a body with feel-good hormones and numbness or even euphoria. This is nature’s way of supporting humans (and other animals) so that the pain of a broken bone or a physical assault do not prevent trying to escape and engaging fight and flight if an opportunity arises.
When humans experience states of freeze, our physiology uses the same CDR pathways as opossums and bears and c. elegans.
In freeze / hibernation, our bodies divert energy from eating and digesting to hunkering down and conserving as many resources as possible.
Just like c. elegans.
As in c. elegans, the dorsal vagal complex takes humans into states of freeze when other options for survival in the face of threat aren’t available. Our bodies can also go “dorsal vagal” if we’ve had experiences of being unsuccessful at surviving or escaping using fight, flight or ventral vagal functions in the past.
Naviaux explains that dauer / freeze / hibernation physiology occurs as an intelligent strategy, not as a random mistake, mutation or a problem with faulty hardware or software:
- Entry into dauer confers a survival advantage in harsh conditions.
- Entering a hypometabolic state during times of environmental threat is adaptive, even though it comes at the cost of decreasing the optimal functional capacity.
- When the dauer response is blocked by certain mutations, animals are short-lived when exposed to environmental stress (p e5477).
In other words, when the freeze response is not an option, we don’t live as long. The definition of Dauer, interestingly, means “persistence or long-lived in German” (Naviaux, 2016, p. e5477).
As Naviaux further explains, living in states of relative freeze for prolonged periods comes with a recognizable set of physiological changes.
Dauer is comprised of an evolutionarily conserved and synergistic suite of metabolic and structural changes.
This state makes it possible to live efficiently by altering a number of basic mitochondrial functions, fuel preferences, behavior, and physical features.
Changes linked with hypometabolism run in the opposite direction of the acute CDR (Naviaux, 2016), which, as mentioned earlier, is consistent with sympathetic states of fight and flight.
The metabolites Naviaux identified in ME/CFS patients reflect a fundamental reset in our physiology (to use Cort’s term) that is consistent with freeze.
This dauer pathway, akin to freeze and hibernation and opposite to the acute CDR, includes the following:
- energy conservation and death-like states whose primary goal is survival despite the cost
- organism geared towards survival via inaction rather than action, to wait out overwhelming threat
- altered Th1/Th2 imbalance
- decreased immune system ability to fight infection
- loss of antibacterial and antifungal activity
- a “decrease in the ability to restore high-energy phosphate stores after exertion” (this relates to mitochondrial ATP and energy production)
- normal or low blood pressure
- aversion to glucose as a fuel with preference for fat as a fuel (Naviaux, 2016; Lant, 2010) [this suggests why people with ME/CFS may do better with ketogenic diets that use fat as the primary fuel]
- loss of intestinal mucosal integrity and leaky gut
- decreased gut absorption as part of a hypometabolic survival response
- changes in DNA methylation and histone modification that alter gene expression (epigenetic changes, Naviaux, 2014. p. 10)
- stress-induced cholesterol pathways, which are different from routes used in health
- altered mitochondrial function and the finding that:
Mitochondria represent the front lines in cellular defense and innate immunity … Their rapid metabolism makes [them] “canaries in the coal mine” for the cell.” (Naviaux, 2014, p. 9-10).
Low cortisol is another shift that happens as part of nervous system response to threat. Low cortisol is common in late phases of PTSD and in adults with a history of adversity in childhood as well as in their parents’ lives. Cortisol is measured in our physiology, so like other physiological effects of environmental stressors including psychological trauma and adversity, it is not a psychological effect but a biological effect.
Low cortisol is seen in many chronic diseases such as fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS), cardiovascular and gastrointestinal diseases, rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis, and thyroid disease (Lehrner, 2016, p. 268). Low levels of cortisol are not caused by adrenal exhaustion but occur after a body responds to a prolonged threat and becomes more sensitive to this particular chemical.
To reiterate, just like Naviaux’s findings, this physiological response is not a psychological effect of trauma but one that is driven by changes in the nervous system and linked to the nervous system’s perception of threat.
Naviaux explains that the cost of being in a prolonged state of freeze, hibernation or dauer expresses itself as symptoms.
The changes in function listed above translate to many well-known characteristics of this disease.
The dorsal vagal survival state:
- reduces energy levels to death-like states
- inhibits mobilization at cellular, mitochondrial, and other physiological levels
- conserves energy by suppressing states of fight and flight.
Freeze states in humans also inhibit the social nervous system.
Low blood pressure, exhaustion, and other altered physiological processes are all NORMAL aspects and functions of the state of freeze. They are aimed at reducing the body’s energy consumption in order to preserve life as long as possible while we outwait the threat.
So what Naviaux is saying, and what research in the cell danger response and into polyvagal theory and hypometabolic states is finding, is that while the aforementioned signs and symptoms that can occur in a chronic illness like ME/CFS are all entirely real, these are not the CAUSE of ME/CFS.
In other words, a hypometabolic cell danger response is an intelligent, physiological, biological, chemical and epigenetic process that has gotten prolonged.
It is a state that has gone from a single location, group of cells, or tissue alarm to a system-wide state of defense that is guided and directed by the nervous system.
As a result, ME/CFS, like type 1 diabetes, POTS, fibromyalgia, celiac disease, MS, lupus, asthma, Parkinson’s, autism, Alzheimer’s and 100 other diseases that Naviaux refers to, reflects a nervous system pattern that is deliberately inciting one or more kinds of cell danger responses and all the changes they entail.
ME/CFS is, therefore:
- not caused by adrenal exhaustion even if adrenal function is low. (Low adrenal function supports states of freeze while high function is supportive of fight/flight; both or alternating functions can be seen in ME/CFS)
- not due to a thyroid that is out of whack even if our thyroid activity is low. (Low or high thyroid activity supports states of freeze and low energy or fight / flight for survival)
- not primarily from a lack of Vitamin D, nutrients or building blocks that enable mitochondria to function well even though these states can cause symptoms. (We may have low building blocks because of poor absorption but many, such as Vitamin D, are kept intentionally low because the body is more or less sensitive to them in states of freeze, is conserving energy by not producing chemicals that are not absolutely necessary for survival, or is actively removing molecules and chemicals in order to create and preserve a freeze state that needs these factors to be low or absent for optimum function and self-protection) [Naviaux, 2014]
- not directly the result of leaky gut. (Cell walls in the body and gut are intentionally more permeable during states of dauer / freeze / hibernation)
- and so on.
The question in ME/CFS thus become: how do humans get stuck in a state of ME/CFS and freeze – especially if there’s no obvious threat in the present or at the time of onset?
This is where the science of traumatic stress offers important clues. The following draws from research findings that most health care professionals and medical care have not yet caught up with. They include the finding that ME/CFS and freeze often present in it are effects of environmental stressors; i.e. neither is psychological.
Individual Expressions of Freeze and CDRs (“Tired” vs “Wired and Tired”)
There are many different versions of freeze including combinations in which “freeze” can be the dominant problem manifesting as disease and other symptoms.
Tired or more “Pure Dorsal Vagal”
Some types of freeze produce the ‘collapsy”, death-like, shock-like states that Dr. Peter Levine refers to as “fold,”( p. 49) and that others describe as “faint,” along with many other terms such as shock and other terms. These states are characterized by feeling tired / exhausted / death-like , having low body temperature, low blood pressure, etc., and are a more “pure” form of just the hypometabolic CDR or dorsal vagal state. There are additional variations of freeze I don’t go into here.
Some people with ME/CFS are more purely dorsal vagal.
In addition to the physiologic / immune / gut and metabolic abnormalities mentioned elsewhere, the dorsal vagal state can show up in behaviors, emotions, relationships, dreams as well as in other ways. This is, to be clear, not because it is psychological but because the effects of environmental stressors on nervous system function influence all types of health.
As one example, I had dreams of being completely immobilized for many decades. These night terrors started in childhood long before the onset of my ME/CFS. I would awaken within the dream, thinking it was real, and feel terrified but unable to move, cry out, or wake myself up (dorsal vagal state). I had this dream regularly well into adulthood and it only gradually began to change as I began to heal nervous system perceptions of threat. My sleep paralysis states started to shift in parallel with improvements in my ME/CFS.
Early on in these dreams, I started being able to wake myself up with some effort. Over time, while still in the dream, I was able to sometimes make a sound (social nervous system) and eventually to begin to move. At first, these movements were slow, rubbery and without strength (still a dorsal vagal response).
Eventually I was able to mobilize and run in some dreams. In others I was actually able to strike the attacker in a solid, strong, effective way (sympathetic fight / flight). It’s been a long time now since I’ve had any versions of this dream and my ME/CFS is doing much better as well.
Wired and Tired: A Combination of Freeze and Underlying Fight/Flight
Other people experience a combination of both fight / flight AND freeze, in which freeze is the dominant and most visible form and set of symptoms, but suppresses an underlying state of heightened fight /flight.
This makes some people with ME/CFS feel both wired AND tired at the same time.
If you have ME/CFS and also have high blood pressure, the metabolic syndrome with insulin resistance or high cholesterol, or are overweight etc. or if you tend to feel more “wired and tired” than “tired,” this is consistent with a freeze state that dominates over a state of overactive fight/flight.
This is an example of a system that has components of both types of CDRs: both the hypometabolic and the acute CDR sympathetic nervous system response.
This is what is seen in the gazelle that suddenly shifts from running at full tilt (sympathetic flight) and collapsing just before the cheetah pounces on her (dorsal vagal fold).
Her body shifts into parasympathetic mode when her nervous system perceives that she cannot survive the chase by running. Her nervous system tells her body to shut down, she collapses and immobilizes, and this provides a numbness and disconnection that make death painless, even if she gets munched.
Underneath this immobility, however, her body is primed to go from 0 to 60 in a moment’s notice should the cheetah get distracted long enough for her to escape (you see an example of this shift out of immobility to escape in this video of the gazelle).
Naviaux does not talk about this combination of CDRs in his 2016 article but does refer to 3 different types of disease states based on which type of CDR and which stage of healing the body is in (2018). Such mixed states are well known in the trauma literature.
Oscillating Between Freeze and Flight/Flight
While some PWME (people with ME/CFS) have symptoms that are predominantly purely dorsal vagal or dorsal vagal combined with fight or flight, some oscillate between various combinations of fight or flight, and freeze / faint / fold. This has been shown in PTSD, where a person can be in a state of fight or flight (hypervigilance, high blood pressure, states of high blood clotting factors, or rage) in one moment, and in a state of exhaustion, collapse, immobilization, low blood pressure, cold body temperature or depression, in the next.
Science is showing that such variations in symptoms are an effect of environmental stress and the resulting perceptions of threat in the nervous system which are not psychological in nature. In other words, nervous system changes towards hibernation and freeze as well as fight/flight are just as real in humans with ME/CFS and other chronic diseases as they are in c. elegans and other animals.
To offer another example, I have long had a predominantly dorsal vagal imprint in my own ME/CFS that corresponds to a history of low blood pressure (varying between about 90/60 to 100/70). As I recover, my blood pressure has very gradually increased to within more common ranges (It was 118/76 at my annual exam in September – the highest it’s been in the 20 years since the onset of my ME/CFS). I have also experienced more and more irritability as my health has improved – suggesting the emergence of an underlying state of fight/flight.
Another impulse seen in the ME/CFS community is a profound impulse to escape to some quiet place. I had such an impulse when I practiced medicine and life was too full, hectic and overwhelming. The craving arose around the onset of my first fatigue attacks 20 years ago. I fantasized about finding a job in the middle of a national park somewhere, monitoring for forest fires and holing up in a tiny tower high up on stilts, away from everyone and everything except the quiet of nature.
The desire to escape has components of flight but more likely derives from a dorsal vagal freeze response that craves an environment of quiet, stillness and the avoidance of social contact to support the process of healing (see Levine, 2010, Chapter 4)
Why Exhaustion and Other Symptoms Persist in ME/CFS
In the case of ME/CFS, our brains may insist on remaining in a state of hibernation until our autonomic nervous system gets the message that the threat is gone and that it’s safe return to the responsive, moment-to-moment dance that reflects ongoing fluctuating, adaptive interactions and balance between all three branches of the nervous system.
Naviaux explains that while a serious disease like ME/CFS may begin after an environmental stressor such as an infection, a vaccine or a stressful or psychologically traumatic event, the trigger is simply the final straw in a series of life long exposures rather than the single or actual cause of the disease.
As Naviaux reiterates, the symptoms of ME/CFS are not indications of broken mitochondria, faulty genes or nutrient deficiencies so much as they represent the effects of an organism hell bent on maintaining low energy states of hibernation and freeze in all available ways (cell function, physiology, behavior, emotions and more).
In my next post, I’ll build on Naviaux’s work to describe what we now understand about how exposures and life experiences – infection, toxins, loss of a parent in childhood, abuse, a difficult birth, a vaccine – can lead to ME/CFS in some of us, and not in others. I’ll describe research that sheds light on why the stressor that triggers onset of ME/CFS can seem completely minor or not even threatening, and why flares can occur with similarly negligible stressors.
For more, here’s my story with ME/CFS and how this lens makes sense of my symptoms and is helping me to heal. Here’s a detailed summary of the nervous system in chronic illness that is also an overview of my blog. I have additional free downloadables on this page.
Check out Veronique’s first article on this subject.
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