Detox Learning Center

Multiple Chemical Sensitivity: Understanding and Managing It

We live in an increasingly toxic world. The amount of man-made chemicals is steadily rising in our environment. And so is the number of people becoming chronically ill because of them. New estimates suggest that up to 33% of the population could have some level of multiple chemical sensitivity. (1)  

Have you noticed you react strongly to laundry soap or perfume unlike others around you? You could have multiple chemical sensitivity. 

What Is Multiple Chemical Sensitivity? 

Multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS) is a chronic illness where your body has intense responses — such as rashes, breathing issues, and headaches — when exposed to everyday chemicals. Items such as perfumes, laundry soap, new carpet, or exhaust from vehicles may provoke your body to have intense allergic-like reactions. (2)

This disorder goes by a few different names besides MCS. You may also hear it referred to as toxicant-induced loss of tolerance (TILT) or idiopathic environmental intolerance (IEI). 

MCS affects women more than men. The latest research suggests that around 75% of people with MCS are women. Researchers think that this may be due to hormones. (1

MCS reactions can impact your day-to-day life. You may even start avoiding places and people to minimize reactions. For example, one nation-wide survey of Americans suggests that almost 59% of people with MCS cannot even use a public restroom because of the fragrances from the air fresheners and soap. (2)

MCS may increase in severity over time. Researchers describe the stages of MCS as follows: (3)

  • Stage 0 — Tolerance: You may be exposed to chemical triggers, but your body is able to adapt to it if the exposure is minimal. 
  • Stage 1 — Sensitization: Low concentrations over short or long periods of time start to activate a range of vague symptoms. They may be overlooked as something else and are difficult to correlate with the exposure. 
  • Stage 2 — Inflammation:  Your organ systems begin to have chronic inflammation. Exposures to triggers may last for several days, even weeks.
  • Stage 3 — Deterioration: Your central nervous system becomes impaired. Chronic inflammation increases, which can start to damage organs. That may generate more severe forms of chronic diseases, such as heart attacks, cancer, and autoimmune issues. 

What is multiple chemical sensitivity?

How Do You Identify Multiple Chemical Sensitivity?

The responses from MCS can vary from person to person. The same chemical can give two people with MCS completely different reactions. It also depends on the level of toxin exposure. Higher amounts may create a much more intense response. 

Here’s some of the most common MCS symptoms, as well as other issues that can accompany MCS.   

Symptoms

When you first start to experience MCS, you might brush off the symptoms or attribute them to something else. But these responses can escalate over time. You may develop severe reactions that happen immediately on exposure. 

Reactions or symptoms could include: (3)

  • Rashes
  • Joint pain 
  • Nausea 
  • Fatigue 
  • Headaches 
  • Gut issues  
  • Blood pressure changes 
  • Asthma attacks 
  • Brain fog 
  • Dermatitis 
  • Hormone disorders 
  • Fainting 
  • Poor circulation 
  • Bleeding in your extremities or on your skin 
  • Food and environmental allergies

For some people, the reactions are debilitating. It leaves you unable to function normally or work. And with severe MCS, you can no longer live indoors because any exposure to building materials generates life-threatening responses. (3)

Associated Issues

Researchers have also noticed that people with MCS have higher rates of other disorders and diseases. Rates of chronic fatigue and fibromyalgia are greater among those with MCS. Issues with the respiratory system — such as asthma, bronchitis, pneumonia, and sinusitis — are also prevalent. (4

MCS might also affect your mental health. Studies suggest that MCS may be associated with panic disorder, depression, schizophrenia, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). (4

Researchers believe that the inflammation MCS generates in your body increases the likelihood of developing other issues. As an additional factor, MCS also damages your central nervous system. (3, 4)

Do You Have Multiple Chemical Sensitivity?

With the complexity of symptoms and how much they vary between people, identifying MCS can be difficult. There isn’t a standard blood test, for example, that can diagnosis MCS. 

But you can take a questionnaire called the Quick Environmental Exposure and Sensitivity Inventory (QEESI). The QEESI is a scientifically-validated test developed through extensive research and clinical assessment. (4, 5)

This simple test helps you assess your symptoms. You can take your results to your healthcare practitioner so he or she can better understand your situation.

While your health issues may appear random, they could all stem from sensitivity to chemicals in your environment. 

What Causes Multiple Chemical Sensitivity?

You may react strongly to fabric softener or hair products unlike others in the room, but what’s the difference? Why would you develop a sensitivity while others may not?

A specific exposure in your past may have triggered your body to start having extreme reactions. One study examined what people with MCS believed was their initial trigger. The list includes home renovations and medical treatment, such as an allergic reaction to a drug. Some research implies that post-traumatic stress disorder may also play a factor. (6, 7

Your genetics may impact your susceptibility to MCS as well. Some people's genes allow them to more easily break down and detoxify chemicals they encounter. Others may possess genes that make detox a little tougher. (8

Another risk factor is mold. Being exposed to mold in the past or currently can lead to mold toxicity. Mold toxicity may create inflammation, damage your central nervous system, and cause immune system dysfunction. This could decrease your ability to withstand all the chemicals exposures in your environment. (9)

Chronic infections, such as Lyme disease or parasites, may also erode your ability to tolerate the toxins around you. Research suggests that an infection could possibly trigger MCS. (9, 10)

Heavy metal toxicity, including from dental fillings, may be another factor influencing your ability to detox chemical exposures. Electromagnetic fields, such as from Wi-Fi or power lines, increase your risk of developing MCS as well. (3, 11)

Coping with Multiple Chemical Sensitivity

Quite often, if you have MCS, reactions run into each other. It may seem like you are “allergic” to everything and have to avoid living life. As soon as one reaction stops, another begins. It’s essential to break the cycle in order to get your life back.

Pinpointing your specific MCS activators, as well as lowering your contact with those triggers, are the first steps to overcoming MCS.

Identify Your Triggers

Although everyone with MCS differs, several items do seem to cause the most issues. Be keenly aware if any of the following cause issues for you: (12

  • Pesticides or bug sprays
  • Smoke 
  • Air fresheners
  • Household cleaners
  • Gas or vehicle exhaust
  • Perfumes or products containing fragrance
  • Nail polishes and polish removers
  • Carpet or new furniture 
  • Specific foods or chlorinated water
  • Medications 
  • Personal care products, like lotions or hairspray

To help identify your triggers, keep a journal of symptoms and potential exposures at the time. This may help you pinpoint places, items, foods, and activities that generate more reactions. It may also reveal places where you feel better and have less symptoms.

If you have a sudden surge of symptoms, make a careful analysis of what is “new” to your environment. For example, you might decide to remove your old couch because you think it contains mold, but remember the new couch could emit chemicals that spark symptoms. 

Also, keep the concept of “masking” in mind. Your body may have slightly adapted to chemicals from continual exposure. These continuous triggers could be the culprit behind on-going symptoms, such as muscle aches, dry skin, or constant low-grade headaches. (13, 14)

Don’t rule anything out by thinking it's “silly” and that you couldn’t possibly be reacting to simple items like paper or clothing. Instead, pay attention to the signals your body is trying to send you. You are unique, so all your triggers will differ from others with MCS. 

Minimize Your Exposure

Limiting your reactions by freeing your environment of known triggers is an important step. It allows your body to find the calm in the storm of chemicals that surround you. The following are methods to minimize exposure in your environment.

  • Make your home your safe place: You need a space as free of reaction-inducing chemicals as possible. Remove all traditional cleaners, fragranced soaps, and toxic personal care items. Find filters to remove chlorine, chemicals, and heavy metals from your water for drinking and bathing. 
  • Search for nontoxic alternatives: Find chemical-free products online or at your local health food store. Even some large grocery chains are now carrying nontoxic, fragrance-free items for your home. Look for nontoxic personal care products as well.
  • Seek mold-free surroundings: Since mold is known to initiate MCS, make sure your home is mold-free and has no water-damaged areas. It will be impossible to recover if your body is fighting both chemicals and mold toxicity. You can test your home for mold in order to make sure. 
  • Ask for cooperation: Explain what you are dealing with to friends and family. Let them know how seriously ill fragrances or other products make you, and that you won’t be allowing those items into your home to protect your health. Ask for their understanding and help to overcome MCS by not using trigger products around you.
  • Seek support: Know that you are not alone. Many people deal with similar type sensitivities. Find support groups online or in your area. They may be further along in their health journey and know of resources, research, or practitioners that could speed up your recovery.
  • Pick a team: Find doctors or healthcare practitioners that either have experience with MCS or are willing to learn about it and help you. You need professionals that understand this is a real illness and not question what you are experiencing. Some countries — including Austria, Germany, and the United States — recognize MCS as a disability. You will need their help to obtain disability. (3)
  • Find joy: This may be the hardest part to regain when your world has shrunk to avoid reactions. Find and focus on what you can do rather than all the things you can’t do. Find joy in small things and in the slightest victories on your way to recovery.  Your world will expand again as you advance in your health journey.

  • Although these are steps in the right direction, they are only temporary ways to manage MCS. In order to fully recover, you will need to remove the root causes that may have opened your body to illness in the first place.   

     
    Women struggling with MCS symptoms

    Address the Root Cause of Multiple Chemical Sensitivity

    When you get right down to it, MCS comes from toxins — exposure to them and the inability to efficiently detox them. By increasing detoxification and removing what’s hindering your ability to do so, you will strengthen your body to better handle what comes your way.

    Results won’t be immediate. Be patient. Recovering from MCS is a marathon, not a sprint. But consistent and persistent action will change your inner environment so it can tolerate your outer environment. 

    Increase Drainage and Detoxification

    Being chronically ill can make your detox pathways come to a screeching halt. You may want to kickstart them with supplements. But since you could be hypersensitive, start slowly. You might need to take tiny doses when you begin. 

    For example, you may have to break open a capsule and take a few granules of its contents over several days, rather than the whole capsule. Or for liquids, you may have to dilute a drop in purified water, and then only take a portion of the diluted mixture over several days.

    Here’s some ways to start clearing toxins out your body —

  • Make sure you are pooping: If you’re constipated, then toxins aren’t making a swift exit. Instead, your body could reabsorb them, which would amplify your issues. Make sure you’re pooping two to three times a day. Intestinal moving herbs can help you go more regularly. 
  • Support liver and kidneys: Liver health is imperative to neutralizing and removing toxins. Your liver’s capabilities can take a hit if your toxic load is high. Herbs that support liver and kidney function may help protect your liver from damage, as well as increase liver efficiency.  
  • Get bile flowing: As your liver filters out toxins from your blood, it mixes them with bile so they can be eliminated through your stools. But toxins may turn your bile into sludge, eventually clogging the bile duct. TUDCA, a water-soluble bile acid, helps to thin bile and protect the liver.  
  • Move your lymph: Any area of your body getting “puffy” or “stuffy” — including your eyes, ankles, or nose — is a sign your lymphatic system is backed up. You can move stagnated lymph with an herbal blend so toxins aren’t stuck in your tissues. 
  • Support mitochondrial health: You may be surprised to learn that your mitochondria are crucial to detoxification. Toxins can harm them as well. To help rid yourself of toxins and support better energy, boost your mitochondrial function with carbon-based electrolytes.
  •  

    Treat Chronic Infections

    It’s difficult to move forward with an anchor weighing you down. That anchor could be chronic infections. 

    Whether you have Lyme disease or some of Lyme’s not-so-friendly coinfections, they could be holding back your body from recovering. Parasites are another hidden infection that may wreak havoc on your immune system and create sensitivities alongside MCS. 

    Not only do Lyme disease and parasites harm your immune system, but they provide additional toxins. Make sure you give freeloaders like parasites the boot so they don’t slow down your progress. You can take parasite-killing herbs or a potent gut-scrubber like Mimosa pudica to combat parasitic infections. 

    Other research supports the idea that viruses can act as the trigger leading to MCS. This may include viruses such as Epstein-Barr, retroviruses, or reactivated herpes virus. Binders like BioActive Carbon can help to strip viruses out of your body so they no longer hinder your immune system. (15

    Limbic System Retraining

    MCS involves the central nervous system. Researchers are starting to hypothesize that the limbic part of the brain, associated with learning and memory, becomes damaged in people with MCS. Mold toxicity may be a top contributing factor to limbic system damage. (16)

    Brain images of people with MCS show that the limbic system may be intensely stimulated when exposed to certain smells. The limbic system also analyses your surroundings and determines whether you’re safe or you face a nearby threat. Researchers think that the limbic system may get “stuck” in an ultra-protective mode after an initial onset of symptoms. (17)

    Limbic system retraining involves “rewiring” the portion of your brain that overresponds to normal items in your environment. In essence, it’s training the limbic system to calm down and not perceive everything as a threat. 

    Living without multiple chemical sensitivity symptoms

    From Coping to Conquering

    Multiple chemical sensitivity is a growing issue because of the growing toxicity in our world. You could be more susceptible to developing MCS because of genetics, mold toxicity, viruses, or chronic infections.

    MCS reactions can become so extreme that you avoid people and places in order to minimize your symptoms. Some people are unable to work and become modern day “hermits” to escape the storm of chemicals from normal living.

    But it doesn’t need to stay that way. With patience and persistence, you can take small steps to recover from MCS and address the root cause. 

    By increasing detoxification and addressing chronic infections, you can set your body on a path towards health and wholeness. Limbic system retraining can also help to calm and reset the area of the brain involved with MCS. 

    What root cause of MCS do you need to address to go from coping to conquering?

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