A Little Background
About a year ago, I began an ambitious and naive effort to solve the mystery of my crashes. I added three new columns to my daily health chart, one for "Activity level," one for "stress level," and one which assigned a binary numerical value (1 or 0) to whether or not the day was a work day. In addition, I was already keeping track of my daily health rating and my "big three symptoms": flu, shortness of breath, and flank pain.
The plan was this: after a year of tracking all three of these potential causes, I would use the spreadsheet's automatic graphing feature to create graphs showing the relationships between those three potential causes and my daily health rating (the effect). This would, in theory, show me what caused crashes, what my crash threshold is, and any lag time between cause and crash.
Well, after 8 months of tracking the three potential causes (ending in January), I figured I had enough data and made the graphs. What did I find? Nothing. Absolutely no patterns emerged whatsoever. Usually if you're really looking for a pattern, you can find one, even if there's no actual cause/effect relationship. But the data defied all attempts to make sense of it. Sometimes a particularly "active" day would be followed by a crash, but other times, not. The same went for a particularly stressful day or a work day.
I came away from this experiment resigned to the fact that crashes (and their causes) are simply too complicated to hope to gain much, if any, control over. Since then I've spent more time thinking about why my experiment failed, and I've come to believe that it's because there are too many different types of crashes. As an example, the six that are most prominent in my life are:
The Dirty Half-Dozen
1. Post Exertional Malaise: This is the kind of crash that seems to get the most ink on ME/CFS forums and blogs. It's where the patient surpasses his/her anaerobic threshold (AT) for too long or too often in a given day. The crash sets in 2 to 3 days later as the body attempts to clear out the excess oxidization created by crossing the AT. It feels exactly like the name suggests - utter and complete malaise of a type that only a PWME can understand. Then your AT becomes even lower. Suddenly your heart rate spikes with even the mildest of efforts. People sometimes try to avoid these crashes by wearing a heart rate monitor.
2. PEM - the other kind: Crashing doesn't always require crossing one's AT, does it? I wish it were that simple. For those of us who are lucky enough to be able to stand and walk without surpassing our AT, we know that even if we stay under our AT and don't do anything that raises our heart rate too much, we can still crash from simply standing too long, or walking too long. For those with bad POTS symptoms, even sitting upright for too long will do it. And for others, mental strain will do it as well. The feeling of this type of crash is similar to the first type of PEM - utter malaise.
3. Bugs: We encounter a whole slew of viruses and bacteria every single day. People with healthy immune systems fight off the vast majority of these invaders before the person ever feels the slightest symptom. For us, it's different. In the bodies of PWMEs, otherwise weak pathogens find a place where they can hang out for a while and spar with our weak T-cells and B-cells. I don't know if it's the pathogens themselves or the immune system's reaction that makes us feel so awful, but I recognize this type of crash by its symptoms. These crashes come with sniffles and coughs, sore throats, respiratory issues and other traditional cough and cold symptoms.
4. Herx. Ah, the mysterious and possibly mythical Herxheimer reaction, also known as the "die off" effect. Supposedly this means that whatever medicine or supplement regimen you embarked on is working. The problem is, few if any can really distinguish between a Herx reaction and a plain ol' bad reaction. Some say they can tell the difference, but there's no consensus on exactly what that feels like. The only thing I know for sure about Herx is that, if you're feeling blue about a crash, you can often convince yourself that it is actually a good sign. This is almost never the case, but it feels good to think it anyway.
5. Adverse reaction: Different from Herx, this is when you simply didn't react well to a new treatment. This can feel like anything, it just depends on the treatment and your body chemistry. Maybe you added a new supplement that started a reaction which stripped your body of another critical nutrient. If you're lucky, you can trace it back to a supplement you started the day before. But sometimes it can take months for your body's reserves of a particular nutrient to be depleted, and good luck tracing that back to its origin. I hope you like pouring through 86 page threads on Phoenix Rising, looking for a few nuggets of scientific truth among mountains of speculation. About half the new treatments I try end this way. For some people I know, it's more like 100%.
6. New symptom: Sometimes a new symptom just hits you out of the clear blue sky. You have no idea where it came from or why it chose that particular day to reveal itself. You know it's somehow related to ME/CFS because you never suffered such random attacks before ME/CFS. But you don't have the faintest clue how it fits into 'the big scheme of things.' You figure you won't even bother telling your doctor about this one because she won't have the faintest clue either. Sometimes it goes away in a few days, as mysteriously as it appeared. Sometimes it becomes a new recurring symptom and now it's not a crash anymore. Congratulations, it's your new baseline.
I'm sure that there are other types of crashes that I am forgetting, or that I haven't experienced...yet. I know others have spoken about stressful life events leading to crashes. I can't speak to that yet, but some day I just might. Hopefully not.
Of these six types of crashes, the only one that I feel I have the slightest modicum of control over is the first one: traditional post exertional malaise. To a lesser extent, I may have some control over 2 and 5, but I'm unwilling to stop tinkering with treatments and I'm not going to shut down all activity unless/until I ever get to the point where I'm housebound.
I'm usually pretty good at managing my lifestyle and avoiding PEM crashes, yet I still crash all the time. It's because there are still 5 other types of crashes waiting to come up on the ME/CFS wheel of fortune. For me, number 3 ("Bugs") is by far the most common type of crash I experience. So, like most of us, I do the best I can to minimize my chances of crashing while still accepting that most crashes are beyond my control. And somewhere in the margin are a handful of #1 & #2 crashes to whom I say: bring it on. It's worth it.