Exhaustion Can Be For Real

Exhaustion can be a real illness, though it's not officially recognized in the United States.The Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s 2010 – 2011 season was barely underway when its new music director, Maestro Riccardo Muti, headed back to Italy to see his physicians in Milan because of what was described as gastric distress.  Muti’s ultimate diagnosis?  Exhaustion and doctor’s orders to spend a month relaxing along Italy’s Adriatic Sea.

Non-celebrities frequently suffer from exhaustion due to lengthy periods of physical stress and a lack of sleep – symptoms that should not be ignored although the condition may not be compatible with the American work ethic.  “Exhaustion is real on many levels, but it’s not part of our medical lexicon,” said Dr. John Stracks, a mind-body specialist who treats chronic pain at Northwestern Memorial Hospital’s Center for Integrative Medicine.  “So when you hear about Muti (being prescribed rest), it seems like a spoof, which speaks to how jaded and hard-driving we are these days.”  Dr. Eve Van Cauter, a sleep researcher and professor at the University of Chicago Medical School, agrees, noting that Americans sleep less and work longer hours than people in other industrialized nations.

“Your mood and your gut function are intimately tied together,” said Dr. Gerard Mullin, a gastroenterologist and professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.  People under stress can have their “flight or fight” response cause an adrenaline surge that can impact food and digestive enzymes, resulting in reflux, heartburn or other abdominal problems.  Exhaustion also can be caused by an undiagnosed illness, such as cancer, low thyroid, anemia or other metabolic abnormalities.  Prescription drugs also can factor in, particularly beta blockers, muscle relaxants and mood stabilizers.

Although the World Health Organization recognizes medical exhaustion resulting from heat, pregnancy, too much exertion, combat, malaise and other conditions, the United States government has not assigned it a diagnostic code.

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