Some medical conditions are relatively easy to diagnose with a standard blood test, urine test, or medical imaging. Among them are diabetes, anemia, impaired kidney or liver function, certain thyroid disorders, and certain infections and cancers.
However, Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS) isn’t one of those conditions. In order to diagnose MCS, doctors must first be aware of the condition, and then generally must rely on a clinical diagnosis — a trained doctor’s best guess based on the signs and symptoms of the illness and the patient’s medical history, rather than on lab tests or medical imaging.
That’s a problem, because most conventional doctors have trouble accepting that multiple chemical sensitivity is a bona fide illness, and without hard evidence, such as that provided by lab tests or medical imaging, patients can’t prove that they have a medical condition. I often see patients who have been suffering with MCS for years on end. They’ve been to a half dozen doctors or more who’ve been unable to offer any explanation for their symptoms. In some cases, their doctors have gone so far as to suggest that nothing is medically wrong with them, or even led them to believe that “it’s all in your head.”
I’m here to tell you that if you’re experiencing symptoms of multiple chemical sensitivity — which I will describe in this post — you have a real medical condition. It’s certainly not a figment of your imagination, and you’re not a hypochondriac. I’m also here to tell you that bona fide medical treatments are available to alleviate your symptoms and put you back on the road to recovery.
Understanding Multiple Chemical Sensitivity
Multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS) is a medical condition that causes a person to react to low levels of certain chemicals in their environment, such as the following:
- Cleaning products
- Off-gassing from furniture or building materials
- Perfumes and other fragrances
- Tobacco smoke
- Vehicle exhaust fumes
Electromagnetic fields may also pose a risk to some individuals.
While most people without MCS tolerate low levels of these chemicals, people with MCS react to them. It’s not technically an allergic reaction, but it can trigger allergy-like symptoms that cause discomfort or negatively impact your quality of life.
Recognizing the Signs and Symptoms of Multiple Chemical Sensitivity
Multiple chemical sensitivity symptoms differ among individuals who have the condition, but generally include one or more of the following:
- Anxiety (often at least partially from having a chronic medical condition)
- Brain fog — impaired memory, thinking, or concentration
- Chest or throat pain
- Food cravings, binges and/or addictive-type behaviors
- Hormonal imbalances (irregular or painful menses, flare up of sensitivity during or near menstrual cycle)
- Intense fatigue
- Irregular heartbeat
- Joint pain
- Mood irregularities
- Nausea, indigestion, stomach upset
- Rashes and skin issues
- Runny nose, sneezing, congestion
- Upper respiratory discomfort, breathing problems
- Watery eyes
Often, doctors prescribe treatment for one or more symptoms. For example, they may prescribe anti-anxiety medication or an antidepressant to deal with mood-related issues, pain relievers to treat chronic pain, acid reducers to alleviate indigestion, antihistamines to treat allergy symptoms, and so on. The trouble is, they never address the root cause of the symptoms. As a result, patients with multiple chemical sensitivity typically end up being placed on multiple medications and continue to suffer.
Exploring Possible Causes of Multiple Chemical Sensitivity
Several factors are thought to contribute to multiple chemical sensitivity, including the following:
- Overactive immune response: The immune system identifies certain chemicals as a threat and launches an inflammatory response that produces symptoms. This overactive immune response can develop into an autoimmune condition, in which case the immune system attacks systems, organs, or tissues of the body. Symptoms will vary depending on what the immune system targets — the thyroid gland, upper or lower respiratory system, digestive system, nervous system, skeletal system, and so on. This may explain to some degree why symptoms vary among people with MCS.
- Mast cell activation syndrome: An overactive immune responsive may be caused, at least in part, by mast cell activation syndrome (MCAS) — an immune system disorder that results when mast cells (a type of white blood cell) become overly sensitive and easily triggered, inappropriately releasing into the body excessive immune system mediators, such as histamine. For more about MCAS, check out my previous post, “Diagnosing and Treating Mast Cell Activation Syndrome (MCAS).”
- Toxic overload: High levels of toxins in the body can make the body more susceptible to triggers. Toxins can build up in the body in two ways — the body is exposed to an abnormally high level of toxins and/or its ability to detoxify itself is impaired. Detox pathways can become compromised as a result of a genetic abnormality, nutritional deficiency, impaired liver or kidney function, or simply by being overwhelmed by toxins.
- Nervous system inflammation: Inflammation of the nervous system can also be caused by an overactive immune response related to MCAS or some other cause. It can change the way your sensory neurons respond to fragrances and chemical compounds, making you feel tired, anxious, or depressed or causing chronic pain or cognitive difficulties.
- Limbic system kindling: The limbic system is a group of interconnected structures in the brain involved in emotions, memory, and behavior. Repeated exposure to low levels of various chemicals can lead to sensitization of the limbic system making it increasingly reactive to these triggers over time.
In my experience with patients who have severe MCS, there appears to be a connection with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Living with a severe intolerance of one’s environment or multiple food sensitivities becomes a daily and chronic traumatic experience. Patients start to lose joy in their lives as they become more fearful of going out to a favorite restaurant or socializing. This is due to the constraints of what they may be exposed to and the subsequent reaction they have after eating or breathing something that triggers their symptoms.
To make the situation worse, the conventional healthcare practitioners from whom the patient seeks help aren’t able to diagnose or treat the condition. This leads the patient to believe that the main issue is in their head or is primarily or solely the result of some sort of anxiety that requires treatment. The entire situation becomes a complex puzzle that both patient and doctor struggle to solve, resulting in increasing frustration and anxiety.
Of course, more than one factor can contribute to the condition. In the case of MCS, the patient may have been experiencing an acute traumatic life situation or had years of chronic unrelenting stress leading to burnout, which initiated changes in immune sensitivity. At the same time, the patient may have been exposed to mold or other toxins, a change in hormones, infection, or some other stress to the body that further impacted their immune system or their body’s ability to detox.
Once the symptoms kick in, the symptoms themselves become a source of stress. The patient tries to find help and some symptom relief and is getting only vague answers if they get any answers at all. The situation can quickly become a vicious cycle.
Of course, when doctors diagnose anxiety, they’re not wrong in doing so. Many of my MCS patients have anxiety, and even PTSD, and require anxiety and stress support. But they also need someone who understands their concerns and is willing to guide them, not blame them or just try to medicate them to provide symptom relief because they’re unaware of MCS or unwilling, for whatever reason, to diagnose it.
Diagnosing Multiple Chemical Sensitivity
As of now, the medical community has no single test for MCS. Doctors must perform a clinical diagnosis based on a physical exam of the patient and on the patient’s symptoms, medical history, and family history. However, recent research has revealed that certain tests do indicate distinct physical changes that can be used to arrive at a more definitive diagnosis of MCS. If MCS is suspected, doctors can provide a comprehensive assessment of the following seven body systems to determine the likelihood that a patient has MCS:
- The central nervous system: Tests such as electroencephalogram (EEG), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), brain mapping and single-photon emission computerized tomography (SPECT) among others, can be used to evaluate brain function.
- The peripheral nervous system: Nerve conduction and/or neurometric (perception threshold) studies can be used to evaluate the peripheral nervous system.
- Nose and sinuses: Thickened mucous membranes or signs of atrophic rhinitis or sinusitis may indicate a chronically overreactive immune response.
- Pulmonary function: Spirometer and chest x-rays, if indicated, can provide insight into lung health and function.
- T-cell subsets: Lab tests that examine T-cell subsets can reveal whether there is an increase in circulating immune cells.
- Chemical antibodies: After exposure to a trigger, patients can be tested to determine whether they’ve experienced an increase in antibodies. For example, mold antibodies can be assessed in the blood to see if a patient is responding to mold toxin from a possible source at home, work, or elsewhere.
- Evidence of autoimmunity: Any evidence of an autoimmune condition, such as celiac disease, type 1 diabetes, or Hashimoto’s thyroiditis can increase the likelihood that MCS is a contributing factor.
If a patient experiences abnormalities related to four or more of these seven symptoms, the likelihood that they have MCS is increased.
Treating Multiple Chemical Sensitivity
In my experience, MCS needs to be treated holistically, and there is quite a bit that can be done to improve quality of life and even resolve a large part of the chemical and food sensitivities. Here are some recommendations I often offer patients as part of their personalized treatment plan:
- Have your home professionally inspected/treated for any mold. If mold is part of the problem, you need to reduce and eliminate your exposure to it. In some cases, patients may need to move out of their homes temporarily or permanently to address exposure.
- Detoxify your home. Stop using dryer sheets. Use natural, unscented soaps, detergents, and cleaning products. Avoid chemical room deodorizers. Filter your drinking water. Use stainless steel, cast iron, or enameled cookware. Opt instead for ceramic or wood flooring instead of wall-to-wall carpet. Use more natural cosmetics and other personal care and hygiene products. Have your airducts cleaned professionally and look into having a high-end air filtration system installed.
- Identify food sensitivities and avoid foods that trigger symptoms. Foods that often trigger reactions including gluten and dairy, but food sensitivities can be highly individualized. We can identify problem foods through testing and an elimination diet. Patients are often better off reducing sugar and alcohol consumption, as well, because these substances can be inflammatory.
- Support your body’s detoxification pathways. Various nutrients and other supplements, including antioxidants like vitamin C and detox binders, can be used to support your detox pathways. Certain therapies can also be helpful, including infrared sauna therapy, dry brushing, and good old-fashioned sweating.
- Rewire your brain. Emotional stress can traumatize your brain, especially your limbic system, and that can stand in the way of your recovery. Identifying and addressing your emotional stressors and triggers is key, whether they’re at home, work, school, or in other areas of your life. I can also recommend specific therapies for rewiring your brain, including cranial sacral therapy, integrative manual physical therapy, neurofeedback, relaxed breathing, and neuro linguistic programming. For guidance on alleviating anxiety and calming the brain, see my previous post, “Anxiety is Normal But Also a Hindrance to Optimal Health.”
- Restore gut health and function. Gut health and function play a key role in both immune function and detox. I can recommend treatment protocols for repairing any damage to the lining of the gut and to your microbiome (the microorganisms that inhabit the gut and are crucial for proper digestion and nutrition).
At my medical practice, I don’t offer a one-size-fits-all approach to treat multiple chemical sensitivity. Nobody can. Having a personalized treatment plan that addresses your symptoms and your unique situation is the most effective and efficient approach. And that begins with a thorough examination and testing to identify the root cause(s) of your condition.
I strongly recommend that you begin your journey to recovery by consulting with a physician who practices functional medicine — someone who’s focused on identifying and treating the root cause of whatever’s ailing you instead of merely providing symptomatic relief. If you’d like to consult with me about multiple chemical sensitivity, please visit my Appointment page to schedule an online or in-person consultation.
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About the Author: Dr. Matt Lewis, D.C., DACBN, CFMP®, specializes in diagnosing and treating the underlying causes of the symptoms related to chronic and unexplained illness through nutrition, lifestyle, chiropractic, and other natural approaches to whole-health healing in Tampa, Fla. Dr. Lewis has 20 years of experience practicing nutritional and holistic medicine. He earned his B.S. in Biology from Shenandoah University, his Doctorate in Chiropractic from Life University, his Diplomate status in Clinical Nutrition from the American Clinical Board of Nutrition, his CFMP from Functional Medicine University, and his certification as a Digestive Health Specialist (DHS) through the Food Enzyme Institute. Dr. Lewis’ passion for health and wellness stems from his own personal experience. With a family history of autoimmune conditions and diabetes, and his own lab tests showing his genetic susceptibility to Hashimoto’s thyroiditis (autoimmune thyroid), Dr. Lewis has learned how to restore his own health and vigor to prevent the onset of these and other illnesses and live an incredibly active life. Through this process, he acquired a deeper understanding of health and wellness, which he now offers his patients in Tampa and elsewhere.