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Living With And Healing From Multiple Chemical Sensitivities (MCS)

Updated: May 3, 2021

What does it mean to be severely physiologically averse to the common living environment, and how are people healing from it?

 

Over the years we are exposed to a variety of toxins and chemicals in our home and natural environments. Many exist in undetectable states while others are noticeably present. Most are common, familiar anecdotes to everyday tasks like cleaning the kitchen, freshening up a room, or baking with a non-stick pan on the stove. It seems that for the most part these chemicals don’t affect us, until they do.


Growing numbers of people are picking up whatever they can carry and moving out to the dry, arid lands of the Arizona and New Mexico deserts. They trade easy access to their loved ones, communities, and sources of income for a chance at breathable air.


 

Multiple Chemical Sensitivities (MCS) is a term used to describe severe physiological reactions to toxins absorbed by the body through the environment. These toxins can most commonly be found in processed foods, unfiltered water, mold, household and cleaning products, artificial scents, and public environments. They primarily enter the body from inhalation through the nose and mouth, or can be absorbed through the skin and, less commonly, the eyes.


Individuals living with MCS in Southwest climates are engineers, artists, teachers, graphic designers, writers, and more. They have fascinating life stories and are survivalists in ways many people shouldn’t have to imagine or employ. Despite the challenges they face in uprooting their lives to live in toxin-reduced environments, they are still often faced with questions and accusations from family, friends, acquaintances, and doctors. More traditional Western medicine-practicing communities often express doubt around the condition and symptoms can be written off as a psychosomatic response to anxiety.


According to an article from Johns Hopkins Medicine, “some healthcare providers question whether MCS exists and whether the underlying illness is not medical but rather psychiatric, and that the symptoms are caused by anxiety”. This perspective is often uninformed and dismissive of experiences lived by those with MCS. They can be invalidating and discouraging in addition to the already challenging situations an individual with MCS has been forced to live with in order to survive.


Most skeptics want to know why some can be so adversely affected by external influences while others in the same situation are seemingly not affected at all.


Science!


There are many reasons why Multiple Chemical Sensitivities are the result of real, physiological reactions to unnatural chemicals or toxins entering the body. Due to the vast variations between each individual’s biological ability to break down and eliminate certain toxins and chemicals through filtering organs and systems, it is understandable that some are genetically more sensitive to exposures than those who are genetically more capable of processing the toxins with more efficiency and for longer periods of time. According to the New York State Department of Health, factors such as age, genetics, illness, diet, alcohol use, pregnancy and medical or nonmedical drug use can all affect a person's sensitivity to a chemical.


The Olfactory System


Our ability to enjoy a sense of smell is due to the Olfactory System, an intricate sensory system built into the architecture of the nasal cavities inside of our nose. What and how it processes can directly affect the corresponding organs. Just above and behind the Olfactory System is our brain.





Most chemicals and toxins are inhaled through the nose or mouth. The processing and detoxification of what we inhale is then dependent upon the functioning capabilities of many interconnected systems, all of which have an effect on the brain - including cognitive functioning abilities, motor skills, the immune system, and more.


Once inside the Olfactory System, a particle or scent stimulates the hair-like endings of the olfactory receptor cells, which then generate a nerve impulse that travels directly to your brain.

Fragrances and scents have been known to have an affect on psychophysiological activities (combining or involving mental and bodily processes) for a long time. According to a study published in 2016 on the Influence of Fragrances on Human Psychophysiological Activity, humans have about 300 active olfactory receptor genes that are devoted entirely to detecting thousands of different fragrance molecules through a large family of olfactory receptors of a diverse protein sequence.


The sense of smell plays an important role in the physiological effects of mood, stress, and working capacity. Furthermore, electrophysiological studies have revealed that various fragrances affected spontaneous brain activities and cognitive functions, which are measured by an electroencephalograph (EEG). The EEG is a good temporal measure of responses in the central nervous system and it provides information about the physiological state of the brain both in health and disease (Sowndhararajan, K., & Kim, S., 2016).




First The Brain, Then The Liver and Kidneys


A major function of the liver and kidneys is to take up, metabolize, and excrete xenobiotics (substances that are foreign to the body or to an ecological system) that gain access to the blood. In executing these functions, these organs are at high risk for toxin‐induced damage. Liver and kidney toxicities are major concerns in the safety of pharmaceuticals, industrial chemicals, and environmental toxins (Stickel et al, 2000; Onakpoya et al, 2016).


Investigators at Harvard Medical School have developed a machine learning approach to chemical exposure studies using high-quality, large-scale animal model data that sheds new light on the biology of the liver and kidneys after toxin exposure. The findings, published in Molecular Systems Biology in February, reveal new mechanisms of toxin vulnerability and tolerance that may be broadly relevant to studies of human disease, the authors said. Their analysis—based on a publicly available data set of the effects of 160 different chemicals on physiology, histopathology and gene expression in rats—revealed nine distinct patterns of response to chemical exposure that the authors termed “disease states”, which affected the blood, cells, and tissues.


Experiencing Sensitivities


A sensitive individual might not experience symptoms of MCS until later in life. As toxins and chemicals accumulate in the body unknowingly and over time, the symptoms either begin to present slowly or all at once, depending on the individual. Many living with MCS describe their initial experiences with the condition as sudden and “out of the blue”.


According to an article on MCS recovery published in Advanced Health by functional medicine practitioner Dr. Payal Bhandari, our liver, kidneys and lymphatic system play a major role in removing biologically harmful compounds and our bodies have not evolved to deal with the growing number of toxins we unknowingly interact with every day. Detoxification systems can easily become overwhelmed, causing toxin overload. This happens when your body has taken in more toxins than it can process, and when this happens, real damage is imminent.


Dr. Bhandari describes the early stages of MCS as the body responding to toxic overload by making efforts to expel toxins by any means necessary. This might include symptoms of diarrhea, sneezing or coughing fits, excessive urination, sore throat, heartburn, nasal congestion or runny nose, or vomiting. You might notice changes in body odor or excessively oily skin as well, since the body is acting to purge those toxins through the pores. As the toxins gradually accumulate in the system, you might also experience impairment to some of your faculties, most commonly presenting as fatigue, memory difficulties, “brain fog”, sleep impairment, eczema (and other inflammatory conditions like gout), or depression (Bhandari, P., n.d.)



Environmental Intolerances


When this happens, the body can develop what is often referred to as environmental intolerances (EI).


EI is an acquired condition, often attributed to the accumulation and buildup of various odorous substances in the body (e.g., vehicle exhaust, perfumes, cigarette smoke, cleaning agents, freshly printed papers), indoor air environments (certain buildings), and electromagnetic fields (EMFs) (electrical devices) (Vuokko, A., Karvala, K., Lampi, J., Keski-Nisula, L., Pasanen, M., et al, 2018). In other words, adverse physiological reactions to the aforementioned environmental influences can be experienced to the point of intolerance. When the body reaches this point, individuals will often move away from the environment to more dry, arid climates where natural (mold, etc.) and unnatural toxins and chemicals are not present.


For many, the safest environments exist in the deserts of New Mexico and Arizona, which provide spacious land that is usually out of range of harmful EMFs (radio towers, substations, etc.), though landfills and miscellaneous smog can become an issue when set up closer to neighboring cities. Chemicals and other toxins are often sparse enough to create a livable environment for individuals with MCS under these conditions.


Survival Environment


Most of those affected by MCS must live out of trucks or tents in order to avoid exposure to common chemicals and toxins that could seize the ability for them to use their bodies. They often live alone and spend major portions of their days accomplishing the necessities for survival in such a harsh climate. Steps required to achieve these necessities are often inhibited by the symptoms of MCS.


Exposures can result in sudden and severe reactions as the body rejects the task of processing another environmental toxin. Reactions can be disabling and require hours to days of rest and detoxification to recover. They can present as extreme fatigue, body aches, brain fog, and much more.


Maintaining mental and physical health becomes less achievable in such an environment. The focus is no longer on basic emotional needs such as personal wellbeing, fulfillment, and life purpose. Instead, maintaining environmental safety and breathable air while living out of a vehicle or trailer takes precedence. This includes retrieving water that has not been contaminated by plastics or general chemicals on a daily basis, risking exposure to grocery store environments (chemicals, EMFs) in order to buy food and store it in a vehicle (most of which does not keep for long, as it must be natural and unprocessed). Otherwise simple errands could result in disabling reactions. Calling friends and family for brief periods of time, on occasion, can even be a challenge. One that could require scheduling in the time and space for the body to process a reaction from the radio frequencies emitted by a cell phone after the call.

 

Deb Schmeltzer, an individual with MCS living in Snowflake, Arizona, describes the process of acquiring new items for her living environment in a video interview posted by The Guardian.


“This is my sleeping bag..” says Schmeltzer, gesturing to the cot centered in the back of her truck covered with a weather shell. “I purchased another one last fall but I didn’t get it off-gassed enough for me.”


Off-gassing is a term used to describe the process every artificially-made item must go through when brought into the living environment of an individual with MCS. It involves placing the item out in the open air and sun for several days or months, sometimes soaking it for multiple days and nights in natural water solutions in order to allow the chemical byproducts (flame inhibitors, plastic chemicals, etc.) to dissipate enough to avoid another trigger from the toxins. It is yet anther common hurdle and almost unavoidable difficulty in the MCS community.


Teresa Jungling, a writer and the founder of Living Natural Today (a website and blog on tips for natural living), is slowly recovering from her MCS, utilizing detox methods and supplements catered to her specific biological healing needs.

“I struggled through many years of illness that medical doctors could not diagnose.” Jungling explained.


“After multiple CAT Scans, MRIs, ultrasounds, blood tests, and visits with specialists all ending in frustration, I looked into more natural healthcare." Jungling was determined to find answers and to avoid taking prescription medications for the rest of her life.


"It was only after seeking alternative means that I was diagnosed with endocrine and autonomic nervous system issues. The worst of it being major adrenal fatigue, hormone imbalances, immune problems and multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS) to name a few."


In pursuit of finding answers to her health related issues, she recalled becoming more aware of many environmental toxins and chemicals.


"The more I researched, the more I learned about how unhealthy our food, beauty products, cleaning chemicals, and other commonly used items can be for us.”


In a recent interview with Traditional Cooking School on healing from Multiple Chemical Sensitivities, Jungling shared details of her journey, how she had to quit her job after triggers related to stress, environmental toxins and food toxins rendered her physically and mentally unable to work. She recalled initial symptoms of fatigue, brain fog, and headaches, and that it took a lot of doing her own research to “get somewhere”.


“The MCS developed because my body started breaking down from everything else it was trying to process. I started developing allergies to everything: food, dust, etc. The MCS, is becoming an epidemic. People don’t realize they have it until it’s too late. Then I started putting the pieces together. MCS is becoming an epidemic. People don’t realize they have it until it’s too late. I realized I needed to make radical changes in my lifestyle, environment, and diet.”

Acute Chemical Exposures


In 1992, Dr. William Rea documented that 13% of his patients suffering from environmental illness became ill after an acute chemical exposure, 24% of his patients could trace the onset of their illness to an overwhelming massive trauma, childbirth or surgery, and 60% percent of his patients had no significant discernible cause of illness.


Trauma can be a trigger for a wide range of disorders and illnesses. When we go through a traumatic experience or a series of experiences, our bodies trigger physiological responses as a way of adapting to the event or events. These responses aren’t always up to us, of course. They’re determined by our genes, our coping responses, and how our brains regulate. According to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, lasting or latent trauma from events can trigger endocrine and immune problems (that a person may or may not have already been genetically predisposed to). These include chronic autoimmune illnesses, heart attack, diabetes, stroke, and even cancer (Basil, L., 2020). We could then conduce that a system already overloaded with high amounts of toxins would be triggered by a traumatic event, resulting in more severe reactions to exposure to chemicals.


For most affected by MCS, what they might previously describe as general, everyday exposures, have become acute exposures. Acute exposures are strong and shocking reactions to an acute amount of toxins. This can sometimes act as a first-time trigger of MCS in a system that has been progressing toward toxin overload over time, or act as a familiar trigger to indigestible toxins for those already familiar with the symptoms. Either way, acute exposures can result in severe reactions that will often disable those affected for a period of time.


Susi Lippuner, writer and Women’s Voices For The Earth (WVE) member, describes her experience developing and healing from MCS. “Like many chemically sensitive individuals, my vulnerability to chemical injury was a combination of sensitivities resulting from genetic, developmental, trauma, nutritional, and environmental factors. Over time, I became increasingly sensitive to such common substances as perfumes and other fragranced products, fresh paint, tobacco and wood smoke, new carpets, formaldehyde, molds, and pesticides. My attempts to get help for my symptoms were unproductive. Most physicians didn’t have training, belief, or knowledge of environmentally based factors contributing to illness.”


Lippuner states that depression, anxiety, and other stress responses often accompany the physical symptoms that occur as the result of malnutrition and dehydration, sleep disorders, isolation, and multiple losses.


“I lost my job and my income, my standard of living and ultimately my home. I lost my sense of identity, certain significant relationships, and my ability to move freely in the world. I lost my sense of agency and autonomy, my ability to participate in social and cultural events, my hobbies and my pet.


The losses were tremendous, and devastating. It still hurts today, 20 years later, when I look back at the transitions I went through. Yet there were also important gifts from this process. I finally have been able to truly heal. I spent years spinning my wheels going downhill, afraid, misdiagnosed, and lacking information. With the proper diagnosis and tools, I was able to start rebuilding myself from the ground up on every level.


"Unparalleled spiritual and emotional healing has resulted from entering this completely uncharted territory. This healing has extended into my family and other relationships. I have found a new purpose in my life. I was always an environmental activist, and care deeply about the planet and people’s health. Now I have significant tools to share that help people become empowered” (Lippuner, S., 2017).


Steps To Healing


Healing from Multiple Chemical Sensitivities often comes from a targeted, collective approach tailored to the unique needs of the individual.

Eliminating environmental toxins and supplementing the body with a safe and healthy space to detox through the support of food protocol and lifestyle changes are often first steps. While every individual’s healing journey will be unique and nuanced to their specific situation, here’s a broad overview of steps those with MCS often take while healing, according to our research.

Finding a holistic, natural, or functional medicine doctor is often ideal, as they possess the unique knowledge of holistic and naturally effective ways to restore the body’s natural healing abilities. They will often focus on cleansing the system of toxins and chemicals, which can be a process that involves tending to the lymphatic system, the liver and kidneys, the brain, the gut, and the environment, in addition to other systems they deem most important to focus on depending on the individual. Frequency healing modalities can be used to restore balance to certain affected areas of the body or symptoms, including overexposure to and sensitivities from EMFs. This modality of treatment can be done either through frequency healing devices or grounding/Earthing exercises.

While maintaining a network of social support can often be extremely difficult for those healing from MCS, support from healthy relationships is a key ingredient in the healing process, whether it comes from friends, family, community, or support groups.

Studies have shown the healing benefits of a robust relationship between social and emotional support from other along healing journeys. A study on Social Support and Resilience to Stress states that numerous studies indicate social support is essential for maintaining physical and psychological health. The harmful consequences of poor social support and the protective effects of good social support in mental (and physical) illness have been well documented. Social support may moderate genetic and environmental vulnerabilities and confer resilience to stress, possibly via its effects on the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenocortical (HPA) system, the noradrenergic system, and central oxytocin pathways.

Resources


MCS Friends


Resources for emotional support are available even for those living a great distance from family members and friends. MCSfriends.org, an online resource community offering “hope, support, and information”, hosts weekly support group conference calls in addition to providing valuable information on MCS-safe housing rentals, advocacy groups, newsletters, and other resources. The annual membership fee is $15.00 and provides access to self-help and support group calls, educational teleconferences, and a periodic newsletter. This website also provides a list of rich resources ranging from advocacy to accommodations.


Building Biology


Corinne Segura, building biologist and founder of My Chemical-Free House (a website dedicated to living an exposure-free life in a safe environment at home), offers consultations, e-booklets and checklists and blogs on her personal experiences with building tiny homes, all with a focus on avoiding exposure to mold and building chemicals.


Invisible Disability ID Card


Though this option might not be right for everyone, it's good to know that it's available. The Invisible Disabilities Association offers a Invisible Disability ID card that can prove useful in certain situations. The card offers information on an individuals' specific invisible disability so that first responders, medical personnel, retail establishments, transportation companies, educational institutions and more can be presented with the card in a case of an emergency or misunderstanding.


MCS Safe Cleaning Products


Another useful resource from building biologist Corrine Segura is her page on Cleaning Products & Air Fresheners for the Chemically Sensitive offers suggestions and resources for general household cleaning.


A Guide To Living With MCS


Dr. Sharyn Martin, PhD compiles a list of general knowledge for living with MCS in this document: https://anres.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/AguidetolivingwithMCS.pdf.



 


References


Sowndhararajan, K., & Kim, S. (2016). Influence of fragrances on human psychophysiological activity: With special reference to human electroencephalographic response. Scientia pharmaceutica, 84 (4), 724–751. https://doi.org/10.3390/scipharm84040724. Retrieved from:

Unknown (2013). What you know can help you - An introduction to toxic substances. Retrieved from: https://www.health.ny.gov/environmental/chemicals/toxic_substances.htm

Unkown (n.d.). Multiple chemical sensitivity. Johns Hopkins Medicine. Retrieved from: https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/multiple-chemical-sensitivity

Shimada, K., Mitchison, T. (2019) Unsupervised identification of disease states from high‐dimensional physiological and histopathological profiles. Molecular Systems Biology. Retrieved from:

Jiang, K. (2019) Toxin response. Harvard Medical School. Retrieved from:

Vuokko, A., Karvala, K., Lampi, J., Keski-Nisula, L., Pasanen, M., Voutilainen, R., Pekkanen, J., & Sainio, M. (2018). Environmental Intolerance, Symptoms and Disability Among Fertile-Aged Women. International journal of environmental research and public health, 15(2), 293. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph15020293. Retrieved from:

Harmon, W. (n.d.) Is it possible to heal from multiple chemical sensitivities? (KYF086). Traditional Cooking School. Retrieved from:

Lippuner, S. (2017) Finding my way through multiple chemical sensitivities. Women's Voice For The Earth. Retrieved from:

Unknown (n.d.). Recovery. MCS-Aware. Retrieved from: https://www.mcs-aware.org/chemical-sensitivity/125-recovery

Ozbay, F., Johnson, D. C., Dimoulas, E., Morgan, C. A., Charney, D., & Southwick, S. (2007). Social support and resilience to stress: from neurobiology to clinical practice. Psychiatry (Edgmont (Pa. : Township)), 4(5), 35–40. Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2921311/


Basil, L. (2020). How trauma impacts your physical health. EndocrineWeb. Retrieved from: https://www.endocrineweb.com/how-trauma-impacts-your-health

Martin, S. (2013). A guide to living with MCS. ASEHA Qld Inc. Retrieved from:












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