From strutting into awards shows in the most outrageous of outfits to taking the world by storm with her inimitable voice, Lady Gaga—otherwise known as Stefani Joanne Angelina Germonotta—has enchanted the world since her debut song “Just Dance” hit the airwaves.
These days, however, “Mother Monster” is garnering attention not for her costumes or her pleas for world peace. Rather, the tiny (as in 5’2”) New York native is dominating the news due to her public struggle with fibromyalgia.
To some, the medical disorder is well-understood, perhaps affecting themselves or someone they know—after all, the condition impacts approximately 10 million Americans. To others, however, fibromyalgia is as elusive as Bitcoin—seen in the news but incomprehensible. With that in mind, here’s what you should know about the disorder, what you should look out for in yourself, and how it can be relieved naturally:
What is fibromyalgia—and what are its symptoms?
Fibromyalgia first entered the medical lexicon in 1990 to describe the chronic pain condition riddling myriad Americans. Characterized by persistent pain that’s felt from head to toe and is accompanied by symptoms that range from fatigue and headaches to intestinal distress and insomnia, fibromyalgia is often associated with mood and memory problems and a hypersensitivity to pain.
“Pain” itself might sound vague, but as the Mayo Clinic puts it, the widespread “pain associated with fibromyalgia often is described as a constant dull ache that has lasted for at least three months.” As for designating it “widespread,” “the pain must occur on both sides of your body and above and below your waist.”
And it’s not just that perpetual discomfort that disturbs fibromyalgia sufferers.
“People with fibromyalgia often awaken tired, even though they report sleeping for long periods of time,” the Mayo Clinic says. “Sleep is often disrupted by pain, and many patients with fibromyalgia have other sleep disorders, such as restless legs syndrome and sleep apnea.”
Within this, cognitive complications arise, most notably brain fog (or “fibro fog”), which impairs one’s ability to concentrate.
“It’s not that they’re having dementia,” the Mayo Clinic’s Dr. Arya Mohabbat told Billboard, “but they’re having a lot of issues with short term memory and task related memory recall activities, like, 'I pick up my phone but who was I going to call?' type of thing, which can be extremely frustrating.”
The aforementioned tummy troubles and hypersensitivity cannot be overstated. Take it from the award-winning author of Seabiscuit and Unbroken Laura Hillenbrand, who wrote of the disorder that forced her to drop out of college: “…everything I ate made my abdomen balloon. I radiated heat, and my joints and muscles felt bruised. Every day on the way to classes, I struggled a little harder to make it up the hill behind my apartment. Eventually, I began stopping halfway to rest against the trunk of a tree.”
Sound familiar? Read on.
Who does it affect?
As with most medical disorders, fibromyalgia impacts a wide swath of people. That said, nearly 90 percent of those afflicted are women—and most are Caucasian. What’s more, there appears to be a familial pattern to the condition: A twin has a 50 percent greater chance of having fibromyalgia if their “clone” has it as well, while a child is 8.5 times more likely to have the disorder if one of their parents is affected with it. Other disorders also play a role. Those who have osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis and lupus, for example, may have a higher risk of developing fibromyalgia.
How is it caused—and how is it diagnosed?
While genetics play a role, so does one’s, well, life. Certain events—physical trauma, surgery, infection or major psychological stress—can precipitate fibromyalgia. In other cases, though, “symptoms gradually accumulate over time with no single triggering event,” the Mayo Clinic reports. In order to be diagnosed with fibromyalgia, one must have pain in 11 of 18 trigger points around the body, as well as the presence of other symptoms (including “fatigue, waking up tired and trouble thinking,” WebMD says).
What are its complications?
Persistent pain, a tough time sleeping, bladder irritation—these and other symptoms are just half the battle for those with fibromyalgia. Depression is a common side effect (30 precent of fibromyalgia sufferers have it), as well as anxiety—and utter frustration.
“Often one of the toughest things to deal with is the lack of understanding,” Friday Magazine reports. “‘With chronic fatigue-type conditions, sometimes other people will say, ‘Oh, well I feel tired sometimes too, you just have to get on with it,’” Dr. Kim Lawson of Sheffield Hallam University’s Department of Biosciences, Biomedical Research Center told the magazine. “‘They don’t appreciate the severity of it.’”
In response, many people afflicted with fibromyalgia end up giving up their jobs, their hobbies, even their whole way of life.
How can it be helped, naturally?
Take a glance at reports of Lady Gaga’s illness (or her Netflix documentary on chronic pain) and you’ll find that the woman responsible for turning “Poker Face” into a classic has tried a litany of treatments, from medications (the FDA has approved three drugs to treat fibromyalgia) to alternative therapies. Over-the-counter medications—such as Ibuprofen—are also widely used, as well as muscle relaxers and opioid painkillers.
But what if you wanted to treat fibromyalgia naturally?
First, consider the old adage that food is medicine. Antioxidant-rich foods—fruits, vegetables and herbs—naturally support sleep, mood and memory, while foods rich in omega-3s (think: salmon, flaxseed and walnuts) may organically alleviate joint and tendon tenderness and the morning stiffness fibro-sufferers often wake with. Grass-fed beef, when eaten in small amounts, may also help those with fibromyalgia: “It is an excellent source of iron and vitamin B12, both nutrients which are extremely important in keeping your pain-processing nervous system healthy,” says the lead author of Potential Dietary Links in Central Sensitization in Fibromyalgia, Dr. Kathleen Holton. Meanwhile? Avoid additives like MSG and aspartame (which may “activate neurons that increase sensitivity to pain,” Prevention reports) and curb your cappuccino consumption: Caffeine is notorious for interrupting a good night’s sleep, which is central to minimizing fibromyalgia’s symptoms.
In addition, take a look at vitamins and supplements and how they might support you in combating symptoms. Among those you should consider taking? Vitamin D and SAM-e (a substance naturally found in the body—may help with pain by supporting a healthy mood).†
Further, don’t forget how you may (or may not be) coping with stress—an enormous factor in the severity of symptoms. Therapy, massage, acupuncture—all can help you discover some respite from the condition. And while the presence of pain may prevent you from even thinking about exercise, it’s one of the best ways to find relief from discomfort, stress and fatigue—and improve your outlook on life. (Endorphins, anyone?)
†These statements have not been approved by the Food and Drug Administration. These products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent disease.