Environmental Illness and Total Body Burden
By Janelle Bertler, Traditional Naturopath
It is true that our bodies have a natural detoxification system. Yet, our world is more toxic today than the times our great grandparents lived in and our bodies just can’t keep up!
Let me introduce you to the idea of the total body burden. We liken the body to a bucket. It can only hold so much! When toxin load comes in, the body does an excellent job of shuttling the toxins out of the blood in an attempt to protect the vital organs. It doesn’t matter what type of toxin it is. Either it is processed for excretion and/or stored in the cells. Depending upon the balance between the ingress of toxin load and the excretion through the body’s detoxification abilities we can either feel healthy or become chronically ill.
The saying in alternative health is, “Our genetics loads the gun and the environment pulls the trigger”. Environmental illness impacts everyone differently. Some people have genes that support healthy detoxification. Others have genes that can put them at a slight to moderate deficit. Many people have heard of the MTHFR gene and a few may have even heard of the HLA-DR genes. In a non-toxic environment everyone’s systems are going to function adequately enough to keep our total body burden relatively moderated. You can even take people without the above gene changes and put them in an unhealthy environment and their body’s detoxification system will be able to keep up with the greater ingress of toxin load. Yet, you take someone with the above gene snips, put them in the same unhealthy environment and the body’s balance of ingress vs. excretion/elimination becomes unbalanced. The ingress becomes too much for their natural detoxification systems. This is why you can put a family of 4 in a moldy house and 1 to 2 out of the 4 will get sick.
Toxin load can come from the environment in some very unexpected places. There are the usual suspects that most people know about: Roundup, lead paint, lead pipes, car exhaust, tap water, house cleaning chemicals, etc. but the most damaging toxins come in the form most people don’t even think about. Do you ever wonder what kind of microorganisms that biting bugs carry? Have you ever heard about the damaging effects of mold toxins and their harmful off-gassing? Do you have silver fillings, that unbeknownst to you leach heavy metals with every bite you take or every sip of hot liquid? Have you ever wondered how EMF’s & RF impede our body’s electrical communication system? All of these things found in our environment increase our total body burden, increasing the likelihood that our health will diminish over time potentially leading to chronic illness.
Conventional medicine used to call it multiple chemical sensitivity but attendees at the World Health Organization have now updated it to “Idiopathic environmental intolerance” (IEI). Conventional medicine defines IEI as “a subjective illness marked by recurrent, nonspecific symptoms attributed to low levels of chemical, biologic, or physical agents. These symptoms occur in the absence of consistent objective diagnostic physical findings or laboratory tests that define an illness. Many experiments and observational studies consistently identify psychopathology in patients with IEI.” In layman’s terms, since the illness can create symptomatology at low thresholds with inconsistent diagnostic ability/lab tests, conventional medicine assumes that the mental health maladies that concur with this illness are the cause. People are told they are crazy!
Conventional medicine claims Idiopathic Environmental Intolerance to be of unknown cause. It is often challenging to diagnose and treat since there is no specific test for diagnosis. Although, in Naturopathic health we understand that IEI is complex and multifactorial. Environmental exposure to toxins, genetics, chronic infections, stress, dysbiosis, and other factors such as poor nutrition and sensitivity to EMF’s may all play a role in the development. Some people may be more susceptible to environmental illness due to genetic factors. Others may develop the condition due to exposure to certain chemicals or a combination of chemicals over time.
- Air fresheners/deodorizers
- Scented laundry soap/products
- Sensitivity to electromagnetic fields
- Food sensitivities
- Exposure to chemicals/pollutants
- New carpet &/or paint
- New furniture
- Heavy metals
- Renovation materials
- Cleaning supplies
- Pesticides or bug sprays
- Nail polishes and polish removers
- Chlorinated water
- Personal care products, like lotions or hairspray
The amount of man-made chemicals in our environment is steadily rising and so is the number of people becoming chronically ill because of them. One study provided evidence that IEI is widespread and increasing in the US population. They reported a prevalence of 12.8% of the population medically diagnosed and 25.9% self-reported. While newer estimates suggest that up to 33% of the population have some level of chemical sensitivities.
IEI has the potential to cause such a wide range of symptoms, possibly affecting every organ system in the body. Symptoms can also vary widely between individuals. When you first start experiencing symptoms, you might brush them off or attribute them to something else entirely! Maybe it’s such a slow steady decline that you don’t notice? Or maybe you attribute it to the normal process of aging? But these responses can escalate over time.
Common symptoms of environmental illness include:
- Rashes/Dermatitis/Skin irritation
- Joint pain
- Dizziness & Nausea
- Gut issues
- Blood pressure changes
- Asthma attacks & Breathing difficulties
- Cognitive impairment such as: Brain fog, Memory loss, Difficulty concentration or recalling words
- Mood changes: Anxiety & Depression
- Panic attacks &/or Heart Palpitations
- Hormone disorders
- Poor circulation
- Bleeding in your extremities or on your skin
- Food and environmental allergies
- Increased incidence of static shock
- Respiratory issues
- Muscle and Joint pain
For some, reactions to the above causes could lead to someone unable to function normally. According to a survey conducted by the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act of 2008, 76.0% of people with Multiple Chemical Sensitivities (MCS) reported that their health problems substantially limit one or more major life activities: seeing, hearing, eating, sleeping, walking, standing, lifting, bending, speaking, breathing, learning, reading, concentrating, thinking, communicating, or working. Can you imagine if fragranced products restricted your access in society? 58.6% of individuals with MCS are unable to use public restrooms that have an air freshener, deodorizer, or scented product; 55.2% are unable to wash their hands in a public place if the soap is fragranced; 63.4% enter a business but then want to leave as quickly as possible due to a fragranced product; and 70.3% have been prevented from going someplace because of the presence of a fragranced product that would make them sick.
There are several associated issues with Environmental Illness, some of which include:
- Social isolation: People with MCS may become isolated from society because they are unable to tolerate the chemicals found in public places like schools, malls, and restaurants.
- Employment difficulties: MCS can make it challenging for individuals to find and maintain employment due to their sensitivity to common workplace chemicals.
- Financial strain: People with MCS often need to spend more money on specialized products and treatments, which can put a significant financial strain on them and their families.
- Difficulty accessing healthcare: Many healthcare providers are not familiar with MCS and may dismiss patients’ symptoms, which can make it challenging for people with MCS to get the care they need.
- Limitations on daily activities: MCS can limit people’s ability to engage in everyday activities like going to the grocery store, attending social events, or even leaving their homes.
There are several comorbidities or conditions that are commonly associated with Environmental Illness. The presence of one or more of these conditions may increase the likelihood of developing Environmental Illness, and may also make it more difficult to manage symptoms.
- Fibromyalgia: Fibromyalgia is a chronic condition that causes widespread pain and tenderness in the body. It is often accompanied by fatigue, sleep disturbances, and mood disorders, and is commonly seen in people with MCS.
- Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS): CFS is a condition that causes extreme fatigue that is not alleviated by rest. It is also commonly associated with MCS and often shares similar symptoms.
- Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS): IBS is a common digestive disorder that causes symptoms such as abdominal pain, bloating, and changes in bowel habits. It is frequently seen in people with MCS, and may be triggered by exposure to certain chemicals.
- Chronic Pain: Many people with MCS also experience chronic pain, which may be related to fibromyalgia or other underlying conditions.
- Asthma: Environmental triggers and in some cases, exposure to chemicals can exacerbate asthma symptoms. There is also growing evidence to suggest that exposure to air pollution, tobacco smoke, certain allergens, environmental toxins and other irritants contribute to the development of asthma.
- Fragrance Sensitivities: People are more likely to develop fragrance sensitivity as a result of ongoing exposure to a wide range of environmental toxins and irritants.
- Mental health problems: Living with a chronic condition can cause mental health problems such as anxiety and depression. Several factors play into this with the top offenders being stress, frustration, lack of answers, and a lack of being believed that something is really wrong.
Dealing with environmental illness can be challenging, but there are several practical steps that individuals can take to manage their symptoms and improve their quality of life.
- Identify and avoid triggers: One of the most important steps in managing environmental illness is to identify the specific triggers that are causing symptoms. Once triggers have been identified, it is important to take steps to avoid them as much as possible. This may involve making changes to the home environment.
- Improve indoor air quality: Indoor air pollution can be a major trigger for environmental illness. Improving indoor air quality can involve a variety of steps, such as using HEPA air filters, maintaining regular cleaning, using non-toxic cleaning products, and maintaining good ventilation. Keeping indoor humidity levels low can also help prevent the growth of mold, which can be a common trigger for environmental illness.
- Reduce exposure to electromagnetic fields (EMFs): EMFs are a type of environmental trigger that can be particularly challenging to avoid, as they are present in many everyday devices such as cell phones, computers, and microwaves. However, there are several steps that can be taken to reduce exposure, such as using wired connections instead of Wi-Fi, turning off devices when not in use, and keeping cell phones and other electronic devices away from the body.
- Practice stress management: Stress can exacerbate symptoms of environmental illness, so it is important to practice stress management techniques such as deep breathing, meditation, or yoga. Getting regular exercise and adequate sleep can also help reduce stress levels.
- Healthy Diet: Eating a whole foods diet focusing on foods with nutrient density as well as avoiding inflammatory foods, creates a diet that assist the body in healing.
- Some people may also benefit from cognitive-behavioral therapy or other forms of counseling to help them cope with the emotional and psychological impact of environmental illness.
- Work with a healthcare provider: Finally, it is important to work closely with a healthcare provider who is familiar with environmental illness and can provide guidance on managing symptoms.
Dealing with environmental illness requires a practitioner that is right for you, as well as a combination of lifestyle changes and environmental modifications. It is possible to improve quality of life! You too can become highly health resilient again! We here at Longevity Health Center understand that health is multifactorial, and we can support you in your healing journey through any environmental illness. If you find that the above information sounds a lot like you or a loved one, we would be honored to be your support team. Hope this finds you when you might need it most. Let it be your hope till you can see your own.