You step into an elevator, finding yourself next to a woman whose perfume is entirely too strong. Or, your neighbor has sprayed chemical pesticides on his lawn again. Most people around you don’t know the difference, but you sure do. You’re extremely fatigued, you can’t think straight, and that itchy patch on your skin is reminding you of its existence once again.
Your family doctor is of little to no help (in fact, many conventionally-trained doctors don’t believe this condition even exists), so you have few options to turn to. A quick internet search gives you more information and indeed can give one a sense of validation. Scrolling through the lists of familiar symptoms and nodding to yourself, you eventually find yourself saying, “great! We now know this exists and how it manifests. But what’s causing it? And what–if anything–can I do about it?”
…Which is where the articles often fall short. There are several possible theories, but relatively little has been officially established as fact yet. The best advice one typically finds is, to paraphrase, “avoid as many chemicals as you can.” These articles usually include comprehensive lists of sources of various chemicals, and these are quite helpful. But what about the underlying cause? That’s where the explanations get vague and sketchy because that’s the weakest link in the current knowledge. Such is the reality of Multiple Chemical Sensitivity.
The mechanisms most commonly described involve imbalances in immune system function, enzyme depletion (enzymes are needed to carry out biochemical reactions), and neuro-psychological conditioning (where two events happen at the same time and although they’re unrelated, your mind associates them with each other).
In my clinical experience, I’ve seen several additional possible causes. These include adverse reactions to common foods, hormone imbalances (since hormone balance is closely tied to proper immune system function), impaired liver detoxification function, heavy metal overload (especially arsenic, mercury, cadmium, and lead), chronic daily stress, and the ever-common Leaky Gut phenomenon. I’ve also seen bacterial and yeast infections, as well as vitamin, mineral, or other nutrient deficiencies contribute to extreme chemical sensitivity.
Multiple Chemical Sensitivity covers a lot of bases and affects a lot of different body systems, and has lots of different possible causes and aggravating factors. The good news is, there is a way to detangle this web of possible causes and start ruling various factors in or out. Of course, the process starts with good comprehensive lab testing. Yes, believe it or not, there is lab testing for everything I mentioned above. The bad news is, your regular doctor is almost certainly not ordering all the needed tests. The good news is, a good Functional Medicine doctor WILL. Functional Medicine doctors often have access to a greater variety of more thorough testing through multiple lab companies because of their tendency to think outside the box and their lack of entanglement with insurance companies that tend to skimp on the coverage they offer.
Although there is no specific lab testing for MCS, there are several functional lab tests that can provide a lot of valuable information about what might REALLY be going on:
Liver detoxification function – this test measures a product of the liver detoxification process, assessing liver function in a way that is far superior to conventional blood tests, detecting breakdowns in function long before any blood test.
Why run this test if you have MCS? Your liver must process everything your body comes in contact with, and every waste it needs to get rid of. This includes environmental pollution, heavy metals, cellular-level wastes, spent hormones, and more. In today’s overloaded world, we tend to put a lot of stress on the liver. This can cause a “traffic jam” of substances to be detoxified, which can then back up into the body. Then, when we encounter one more strong toxin, such as someone’s perfume, we can’t handle it as well, and it’s easy to develop the symptoms of MCS.
Nutrient status – this test assesses various levels of vitamins and minerals that your body needs in order to perform its basic functions – detoxification, energy production, nutrient conversion, hormone production, and so much more. Without these nutrients, the body cannot perform these crucial functions, and we begin to notice signs of breakdown and the development of chronic diseases and disorders. Many nutrients can be measured individually with conventional blood testing, but the costs can add up quickly; Functional Medicine doctors have access to much broader and more complete functional panels that measure many nutrients at once, for a lower overall cost.
Why run this test if you have MCS? Even though we live in a Land-of-Plenty in regards to food supply, most of us are still woefully deficient in many vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients, due to our stressful lifestyles and processed food consumption. Many of the detoxification processes needed to effectively rid the body of toxins require large amounts of certain vitamins and trace minerals, so if you’re experiencing MCS symptoms, it’s important to evaluate your levels of these nutrients to see if that may be causing or contributing to those symptoms.
Food intolerances – these tests evaluate your body’s reaction to certain foods, especially those found to be common triggers of adverse immunological reactions, such as wheat gluten, dairy, soy, yeast, egg, corn, oats, and more. Various labs offer this testing, and there’s a wide variety of panels available. Beware those that test only one type of reaction – unless multiple types are assessed, your doctor may miss a problematic reaction.
Why run this test if you have MCS? Many of the symptoms consistent with MCS are also consistent with food allergies and intolerances – migraines, abdominal discomfort, nausea, skin itching, and many others. It’s important to rule out an undiagnosed food allergy, especially since they are so common already, and becoming even more so.
Heavy metals – this test screens for the presence of toxic heavy metals in your system (such as lead, cadmium, arsenic, aluminum, and mercury, to name a few). These metals can interfere with many body functions, such as detoxification, nutrient absorption and metabolism, and nerve signal conduction (from your brain to other parts of your body). We’re exposed to these metals through many avenues – soil, air, water, food, household products, toys, storebought nutritional supplements, dental fillings, construction materials, cookware, plumbing, and more. These metals may accumulate in various tissues of the body and reside there indefinitely, until they’re dealt with, IF they’re ever dealt with. Important note: although the hair analysis method is popular and common, it is not the most reliable method of heavy metal testing. In fact, some metals are known to stop hair growth altogether, which will skew the results. Samples of urine and blood are MUCH more scientifically reliable and will give a much more accurate picture.
Why run this test if you have MCS? It’s important to find out if metal toxicity is overloading your body. Since metals often interfere with digestion and absorption of important nutrients, detoxification of wastes and toxins, and nerve conduction (which ultimately drives ALL of these functions), it’s extremely important to find out if you’ve got a metal toxicity.
Digestive analysis – this test measures your body’s abilities to digest and absorb food as it passes through the digestive tract. Many of these tests will also use DNA technology to screen for harmful microorganisms such as yeasts, parasites, and fungi. It’s best to utilize the DNA method rather than a simple stool culture because the former is 200 to 500 TIMES more sensitive (and thus accurate) than the latter.
Why run this test if you have MCS? This test is important to run on most people in general, and doubly so for those with MCS. Many people have yeast or bacterial overgrowths or parasitic infections and have absolutely no idea. These microbes can cause symptoms that closely mimic MCS, such as brain fog, fatigue or low energy, pain and inflammation, and abdominal symptoms. We need to find out if you’re carrying one (or more) of these microbes so that we can eliminate it. Sometimes that alone can greatly improve the MCS symptoms.
Wow! That looks like a lot, and it is. Sometimes, “a lot” is exactly what’s needed. Functional Medicine tends to tackle problems that aren’t very cut-and-dry, but have multiple possible causes and symptoms that all overlap. So, although it may look overwhelming at first, it’s very comforting to know that there’s an approach that will “go the distance” in helping you get to the bottom of what’s happening, and help you heal and finally have peace and relief.