Understanding and Treating Chronic Fatigue Syndrome:
An Interview with Dr. Jacob Teitelbaum
By David Jay Brown
Jacob Teitelbaum, M.D. is a board-certified internist and a leading researcher in the field of chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) and fibromyalgia (FM). He has a specialized practice for CFS/FM and pain patients in Annapolis, Maryland, and is director of the Annapolis Research Center for Effective CFS/FM therapies. Dr. Teitelbaum is also the author of several books, includingFrom Fatigued to Fantastic, Pain Free 1-2-3!: A Proven Program to Get You Pain Free Now!, and Three Steps to Happiness: Healing Through Joy.
Dr. Teitelbaum received his medical degree from the Medical School at Ohio State University, and in 1980 he became Board Certified in Internal Medicine. For over two decades he has worked with CFS/FM patients. His motivation to specialize in this area of medicine began with personal experience. In 1975, Dr. Teitelbaum had to drop out of medical school when he himself contracted CFS/FM, and this had a profound influence on the course of his medical career. Although he recovered enough to resume his medical school training a year later, CFS/FM symptoms persisted for many years, and this motivated him to become an avid reader of the scientific medical literature, where he came across many studies that he not learned about in medical school.
Applying this research, Dr. Teitelbaum began to treat his patients with nutritional and herbal therapies, hormonal supplements, anti-infectious treatments, physical therapy measures, and sleep support. Much to his surprise, these previously untreatable patients started to improve dramatically. Dr. Teitelbaum was amazed as his general internal medicine practice began to fill with patients who were flying in from around the country. He has now effectively treated approximately 2000 patients with CFS/FM related disorders.
In addition to having written several books, Dr. Teitelbaum has written numerous articles on CFS/FM, including the recent landmark paper “Effective Treatment of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and Fibromyalgia–A Randomized, Double-Blind Placebo-Controlled, Intent to Treat Study,” published in the Journal of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. Dr. Teitelbaum has also designed a line of nutritional supplement and support formulas, and all of his royalties from the sale of these products goes to charity. To find ot more about Dr. Teitelbaum’s work visit his Web site: www.endfatigue.com
I interviewed Jacob on October 11, 2004. Jacob is open-minded, curious, and very enthusiastic about alternative medicine. He has a very upbeat perspective on life in general, and he laughs a lot. We spoke about the etiology of chronic fatigue syndrome, the relationship between CFS and FM, how to sleep better and increase mental clarity, and other effective treatments for CFS/FM.
David: What inspired your interest in medicine, and how did your experience with chronic fatigue syndrome in medical school influence your medical career?
Jacob: I’ve wanted to be a healer since I was a little kid. I tend to be very empathic, and if somebody was hurting I could feel what they were feeling. When I was seven or eight years old I still remember how I’d want to hide behind a corner, and just wiggle my finger and make people who were hurting feel better. So that’s always been my goal. If you look at my high school yearbook, you’ll see that it says that’s what I’m going to be. I’ve felt this way for as far back as I can remember. Part of being a Jewish kid is the expectation that you’re going to be a Jewish doctor, but that’s my nature. Part of being empathic is being a healer.
Because I had chronic fatigue syndrome in medical school, I was forced out of school for the year. It also forced me on the road. I was basically homeless, because my dad had died when I was about seventeen and I had no money. I had a scholarship, loans and work study, but since I was out of school, I had none of that, and I couldn’t work because I was too sick. So I was homeless, and I was living on the road. I discovered that on the road you meet fascinating people. I met all these healers and fascinating people along the way–people who were teaching some fascinating areas I had never heard about in medical school.
Also, I grew up in an old Eastern European Hassidic family, and Hassidic community, so the healing arts are very natural. Science is natural, and using healing was natural. So these things were all becoming second nature, as I met people that were teaching energy medicine, naturopathy, all different things along the way. So I healed up enough, in part because of that–probably in large part because of that. I think that’s why I recovered, as opposed to staying sick, was because of the energy work that I was doing and learning. It really kept me open to that as I learned the hard science, instead of just getting closed down. In medical school they would teach that anybody who does any of this stuff is a quack, but I knew better.
Using the chakra system, I could do an energy scan, feel a tumor, and send the person for a test and find it there. You see people get better. You see it and experience it. Then I would also look at the medical literature aggressively for just about everything, not just prescriptions, but also for natural remedies. In my training this encouraged me to not just look at the three main journals, and a specialty journal, that most doctors read, which are basically paid for by the drug companies. They’re basically big advertisements for the medications. They think it’s science, but what they ignore is that if the drug company pays for the study it has a much greater effect on the outcome then whether it’s placebo-controlled or not.
The medical journals wouldn’t dream of publishing something that wasn’t placebo-controlled, but what they publish is almost only articles related to medications that are paid for by the drug company, or by people who are working for the drug company and getting money from them. So it’s a big advertisement, and that creates a selectivity and bias that’s just very strong against natural remedies. And that’s all doctor’s hear about. But I would look at studies from literally dozens of different journals. I discovered that the smaller journals don’t draw as much drug money, and they do more basic research. They’re much more open to just publishing what science shows works, and just giving the straight data. So it got me interested in being open-minded to natural remedies as well as prescriptions.
I learned to recognize that there are many tools in the healing tool kit. In medical school all you come out with is a hammer, and everything looks like a nail. But when you start to do comprehensive medicine, you have a hammer, so if you have appendicitis you can do surgery. But if you have back pain, instead of having to cut the person open, you can give nutritional support or hormonal support. You can use willow bark, for example, which has been shown to be more effective than Motrin. You almost never have send anybody for back surgery, so you don’t have to whack everybody with a hammer. You could use gentler things that are more effective and more appropriate, because you have an entire tool kit.
Around five years ago there was a forest fire and my office burned down. It just took it out, and I saw this as a good thing. The universe knew I was about to burn out, because I’d been doing all that research, writing, lecturing, and teaching, in addition to running a practice, raising my five kids and the rest. The universe knew I would either burn out or the office would burn down, and it always take care of me. So the office burnt down. It gave me a chance to sit back and think, okay, what do I want to rebuild out of the fire? What do I want to let stay in the ashes? So that’s all good stuff. But when the office burnt down I had over 14,000 research study reports in my files that went up in smoke, and that’s only a tiny percent of what I read, because most studies aren’t worth the bother. Now I still know the stuff, because it’s in my head. However, when it first went down, it left me feeling like I got kicked in the stomach.
But this stuff is all accessible anyway, and it actually turned out to be a good thing. So this is what my work is based on, and when people say it’s not evidence-based medicine, and that they see no evidence that natural remedies work, that’s because they won’t look at the thousands of studies that show that it works. (laughter) Then they they can honestly say that they haven’t seen any evidence. It’s like Sgt. Shultz in the old Hogan’s Heroes. He would say, “I see nothing!” Well, that’s what the priests of high medicine are like in academia and the rest. It’s like they see nothing, and they will support no data that shows natural remedies work. If anybody does a study they will peer-review it into the ground, coming up with nonsense reasons to not publish it. If it is published, they question the journal, and they won’t look at the data. Then they can honestly say that they don’t see anything. But it’s a religion. It’s scientism, and basically, if they had their way, they would keep people from having access to a vast panoply of safe and effective therapies.
David: Can you talk a little about what you’ve learned about the etiology of chronic fatigue syndrome?
Jacob: Yes, chronic fatigue syndrome is basically like blowing a fuse. It’s like the