Have you ever heard the phrase “seeing is believing”? This old saying refers to the fact that, in general, you need to see something before you can accept that it really exists or occurs. But the problem is, sometimes, we don’t have the means to clearly “see” what’s really going on beneath the surface.
This is especially true when it comes to difficult to “see” but very real conditions like multiple chemical sensitivity. Because this perplexing and difficult-to-pinpoint illness doesn’t have changes that we can clearly and consistently identify and measure, there isn’t a definitive way to arrive at a diagnosis. But that might be changing soon.
Recent research has uncovered some promising results that might just bring us one step closer to being able to officially see and measure the underlying changes triggering multiple chemical sensitivities – meaning we may eventually be able to more accurately diagnose this life-disrupting condition. So let’s dive into exactly what multiple chemical sensitivity is and the exciting new research surrounding its diagnosis.
What Is Multiple Chemical Sensitivity?
Multiple chemical sensitivity, also referred to as MCS, occurs when you have a negative reaction to low levels of certain chemicals within your everyday environment that are generally well tolerated by those without a sensitivity. Meaning, if you have MCS, you will typically have a reaction when exposed to certain chemicals, while others around you are entirely unaffected.1
These chemicals can come in all different forms, stemming from things like:2
- Cleaning products
- Off-gassing from furniture or building materials
- Vehicle exhaust fumes
- And more
These chemicals may seem almost imperceptible to others. But if you have multiple chemical sensitivities, encountering certain chemicals can be the spark that ignites a cascade of unpleasant and disruptive symptoms. Let’s zoom in on some of the perplexing symptoms that can be seen in this complex condition.
What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Chemical Sensitivity?
Symptoms triggered by MCS are often vague and can be challenging to trace back to the offending culprit. Symptoms typically spike shortly after exposure and begin to diminish and eventually disappear when these environmental chemicals are removed. Some of the more common signs and symptoms seen in MCS include:3,4,5
- Headaches, dizziness, and lightheadedness
- Irregular heartbeat
- Rashes and skin issues
- Nausea, indigestion, and general stomach upset
- Upper respiratory discomfort and/or breathing problems
- Allergy-like symptoms such as runny eyes, sneezing, and/or chest and throat pain
- Arthralgia or unexplained joint pain
- Intense fatigue
- Brain fog, lack of concentration, and memory difficulties
- Feelings of depression and anxiety
- Significant mood disruption and mood swings
- Psychological disturbances such as violence and/or hypersexual activity
- Food cravings, binges and/or addictive-type behaviors
So, how is it that some people can be exposed to “normal” levels of these ordinary, everyday chemicals and feel completely fine while others are slammed with a barrage of odd, unpleasant, and life-disrupting symptoms? And how on earth are you supposed to figure out if you are indeed struggling with a sensitivity to chemicals within your environment?
So, How Is Multiple Chemical Sensitivity Officially Diagnosed?
We still don’t have an exact answer as to why some people respond severely to exposure to certain chemicals, but it’s speculated that it is likely a conglomeration of factors that may include:6,7,8,9
- An overactive immune response – triggering your immune system to interpret low levels of certain chemicals as a threat and launching an allergic type response.
- Impaired detoxification – causing a build-up of chemicals that overburdens your body.
- Inflammation of your nervous system – altering the way your sensory neurons respond to stimulants like smells and chemical compounds.
- Limbic system kindling – with synthetic chemicals traveling from your nasal passageway directly into your brain where they stimulate electrical activity throughout the region of your brain known as the limbic system.
But because we don’t know for certain what MCS stems from, combined with the fact that symptoms vary widely, this condition can be downright tricky to diagnose. Diagnosis is even trickier due to the fact that many conventional healthcare practitioners are not familiar with MCS and can mistakenly dismiss these symptoms as being exaggerated or worse, accuse patients of imagining their symptoms.
So at this time, there is not a singular or definitive way to officially arrive at a diagnosis of multiple chemical sensitivity. A diagnosis is usually made through a process of trial-and-error – eliminating the possibility of other potential diagnosis and relying on close examination of symptom triggers. But, with recent research, we may be on the path to having a more concrete and measurable way of officially diagnosing this complex condition.
Emerging Diagnostic Markers: It May Be Possible to Reliably Diagnose Multiple Chemical Sensitivity in the Future
Recent research has found that when properly timed, certain tests do indeed indicate distinct changes that may be able to give us a more definitive diagnosis of MCS. Studies suggest that if MCS is suspected, a comprehensive assessment of seven body systems should be completed that include evaluation of:10
- The central nervous system: Using tests such as electroencephalogram (EEG), MRI, brain mapping and SPECT, among others to evaluate brain function
- The peripheral nervous system: Using nerve conduction and/or neurometric (perception threshold) studies
- Nose and sinuses: To evaluate for thickened mucous membranes, and/or findings consistent with atrophic rhinitis or sinusitis
- Pulmonary function: Utilizing a spirometer and chest x-rays if indicated
- T-cell subsets: To identify if there is an increase in circulating immune cells
- Chemical antibodies: To determine if there is a spike in antibodies after exposure
- Evidence of autoimmunity: To identify the presence of an autoimmune response triggered by chemical exposure
If four or more of these seven systems present with any abnormalities, the suspicion of an MCS diagnosis can be strengthened. While more time and research are needed to truly create a comprehensive and concrete way to reliably diagnose MCS, this criteria and these findings bring us one step closer to finding a practical approach to diagnosis of this life-hindering condition.
But what happens after a multiple chemical sensitivity diagnosis? Is there a treatment?
Is There A Treatment for Multiple Chemical Sensitivity?
The answer to that question is – it’s complicated. While there’s not necessarily a cure in the sense that a treatment or medication can fix MCS, there are some steps you can take to manage your symptoms and drastically improve your quality of life. Here’s what I recommend.
- Modify your environment: While you can’t control everything about your environment, taking steps to make your home and workplace as safe and non-triggering as possible can have a monumental impact. To learn more about how you can make your spaces safer if you have MCS, check out the following articles:
- Lower your toxic burden: Minimizing your overall exposure to irritating chemicals by doing things like filtering your air, purifying your water, and swapping out toxin-filled products for low-tox choices can help your body better cope with exposure to chemicals.
- Support your detoxification pathways: This one goes hand-in-hand with lowering your toxic burden. While it’s crucial to minimize toxins coming in, it can also be helpful to boost the amount of toxins going out by incorporating things like detox binders, infrared sauna therapy, and dry brushing.
- Rewire your brain: MCS can quite literally rewire your brain – making recovery an uphill battle if you don’t address the mental and emotional components right alongside the physical. Click here to read more about the link between MCS and your brain and how you can heal.
- Support your gut health: The health of your digestive tract and your microbiome (the microbes that inhabit your gut) play a monumental role in every single facet of your well-being – including your ability to cope with chemical exposures. Click here to learn more about how you can best prioritize keeping your gut happy, healthy, and balanced.
- Enroll the help of a specialist: While making changes on your own can certainly go a long way, enrolling the help of experienced professionals can save you a ton of time, effort, and frustration. I cannot overemphasize the importance of working with an experienced Integrative and Functional Medicine Doctor if you are concerned that you’re struggling with MCS.
So while there’s not a one-size-fits-all treatment for multiple chemical sensitivity, with the right approach, you can minimize your symptoms and find significant relief from this confounding condition.
Are You Worried You Might Have Multiple Chemical Sensitivity?
If you’re grappling with unexplained symptoms that seem to pop up out of nowhere or have noticed that certain places or smells make you feel ill, it may be time to consider the possibility of multiple chemical sensitivities. If you’re concerned that you may be dealing with MCS, I cannot overemphasize the importance of working with a practitioner who has an understanding of this complicated condition. Because unfortunately, many conventional medicine doctors simply don’t grasp the severity or complexity of MCS and other environmentally triggered illnesses.
And being dismissed and misunderstood when you’re struggling with a condition that no one else around you seems to understand can feel defeating and isolating. But you, my friend are not alone, and there is hope for healing. Simply being heard, understood, and connected to others who get what you’re going through can be a big piece of the puzzle in your healing journey.
That’s why I’m dedicated to being a voice and a beacon of hope for those struggling with these “invisible” illnesses that don’t always fit into the neat, tidy boxes used in conventional medicine. So, if you’re looking for support and education, be sure to browse through my blog and YouTube channel, and sign up for my weekly newsletter by entering your name and email in the form at the bottom of this page. And I strongly encourage you to pick up a copy of my book Unexpected: Finding Resilience Through Functional Medicine, Science, and Faith where I dive into my own journey with environmental sensitivities, how I healed, and some steps you can take to get back to feeling like you again.
Now it’s time to hear from you. Were you surprised to learn that we may be on the way to having the ability to officially diagnose MCS? If you’ve grappled with MCS, what strategies have helped you the most? Leave your questions and thoughts in the comments below!
- Multiple Chemical Sensitivity | Johns Hopkins Medicine
- Multiple Chemical Sensitivity – PMC (nih.gov)
- Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (nih.gov)
- Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS): Symptoms, Causes, treatment (webmd.com)
- Possible Mechanisms for Multiple Chemical Sensitivity: The Limbic System and Others –
- Multiple Chemical Sensitivity Syndrome | AAFP
- Multiple Chemical Sensitivity – an overview | ScienceDirect Topics
- Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (nih.gov)
- Possible Mechanisms for Multiple Chemical Sensitivity: The Limbic System and Others – Multiple Chemical Sensitivities – NCBI Bookshelf (nih.gov)
- Diagnostic Markers of Multiple Chemical Sensitivity – Multiple Chemical Sensitivities – NCBI Bookshelf (nih.gov)
* These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. The product mentioned in this article are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. The information in this article is not intended to replace any recommendations or relationship with your physician. Please review references sited at end of article for scientific support of any claims made.