Insidious and Invited Invasion of the Immune System
Random odors can enter the body on a cellular level in seconds.
By Diana Prizio
Wake up, get out of bed, but before you drag that comb across your head you might take a quick shower. Soap up. Wash your hair, condition it, maybe use shave cream. Towel dry, deodorant, maybe skin lotion, maybe styling gel for the coif. Freshly laundered clothes. Maybe cologne, maybe aftershave.
If some of these activities are a part of our morning regimen, by the time we settle in for a hot cup of something, we’ve already ingested a dozen different fragrances directly and in steam through our skin, throat and nasal passages.
Before birth, the olfactory node, which recognizes smells, is part of the hypothalamus gland, often called the “brain” of the endocrine system. This gland provides a vital link to other systems. Although these organs may seem to “separate” after birth, their connection is continuous and their interaction is critical to good health.
Our inclination toward survival is often dictated by being around things that smell good rather than things that smell offensive. I now think that all smells fall into two categories: Warning and Welcome. We naturally tend not to linger in places that stink. Often, however, the prevalence of places that stink is inevitable, so we create chemicals to mask these odors. These masking chemicals are common in public places, airports, on planes, in waiting rooms, rest rooms, department stores, on damp carpet, in air conditioning systems, in heating ducts. Even when we can’t smell them, we are breathing odorless substances, chemicals, in addition to bacteriostatic chemicals and bacteria themselves, resulting in much confusion for the brain, and certainly for the endocrine system.
We each have our own natural odor. A baby recognizes its mother this way. Often we attempt to cover that odor with fragrances. Even if we aren’t trying, practically everything we add to our skin, hair, laundry, clothing, dishes has a scent. This overloaded sense of smell, however it happens, predictably clouds the ability of an immune system to differentiate between healthy and unhealthy environments.
The Endocrine and Limbic Systems
The endocrine system regulates growth of the body, energy levels and reproductive functions. It includes the pineal, pituitary, thyroid, parathyroid and adrenal glands, the hypothalamus, thymus, pancreas, ovaries and testes. Scientists admit that much is still not understood about the functions of some of these glands, or their connection to the olfactory node. In search of clues to the mysteries of how the body heals, and in light of the epidemic of hormone imbalance now plaguing both sexes of many species, this system is a good place to investigate further.
The endocrine system – a network of glands, each secreting a type of hormone – sends signals throughout the body, much like the nervous system. These hormones regulate mood, growth, development, tissue function, metabolism and other functions. The endocrine system is strongly connected to the part of the brain involved with the sense of smell: the olfactory system. Patients with Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS) have a greater increase in electrical activity in their brains than non-sensitive people when exposed to chemicals to which they are sensitive.
Some health care practitioners observe that during pregnancy, the condition of the lining of the mother’s nasal passages indicates the condition of the lining of her uterus and cervix. Pale nasal mucosa can indicate anemia; chronic nosebleeds can indicate a weakness in the uterine wall. This acknowledges the intrinsic connection between these systems.
The brain’s limbic system (or Paleomammalian brain) includes the hippocampus, amygdala, anterior thalamic nuclei and limbic cortex and is involved in emotion, behavior, long-term memory and olfaction. “Limbic,” from the Latin limbus, loosely translates as “border” or “belt.”
One main function of the limbic system is to regulate mood and autonomic nervous system functions, which would explain why many symptoms of MCS involve changes in mood, thought and sensory information. Researchers have suggested that in MCS, the brain, and limbic system in particular, have become hypersensitized, or overexposed and prone to “allergic” reaction, so that increasingly smaller amounts of chemicals cause the brain to become agitated. This hypothesis is supported by research showing that the limbic systems of animals exposed to either high concentrations of chemicals (such as formaldehyde) for a short time or lower concentrations for a long time have become hypersensitized so that further exposure to a chemical that previously would have had no effect now initiates a lot of electrical activity in the brain. Researchers found that chemicals that differed greatly in their structure had a remarkably similar effect on the limbic system. What the chemicals did have in common is that they produced odors.
Additionally, the hypothalamus, as part of the limbic system, is an important information-processing center and is the focal point in the brain where the immune, autonomic nervous, limbic and endocrine systems interact. Researchers have proposed that a malfunctioning hypothalamus, upon exposure to chemical triggers, could produce symptoms described in MCS and other illnesses, including various scleroses, candiasis and the many so-called autoimmune disorders. The limbic system is known to respond to both chemical and cortical stimuli, so it can be activated by mental activity or by exposure of the outer organ layers to chemicals in the form of natural neurotransmitters, or, in the context of MCS, in the form of chemical irritants that enter the body through the nose. This fact provides a strong argument against those who state that MCS is purely a psychological illness, as chemicals activating the limbic system have been shown to initiate mood changes and other symptoms typically labeled as psychiatric. Indeed, some suggest that MCS properly be called Multiple Chemical Toxification, or MCT, as many people with this disorder have gone well beyond the point of sensitivity, with external irritants creating toxified systems.
Sense of smell is the early warning system for the immune system. A smell is actual particles of the substance itself: When we smell things, we are ingesting particles of them. Our “sense” tells us whether to stay or leave. Even though we may have moved beyond our need to smell an approaching predator, our sense of smell continues to send signals to the rest of the body when a foreign odor is detected. From the time a child is born, we mask her smell with talcs and lotions, new clothing, new bedding, soaps, shampoos. We “freshen” his room with candles or sprays or herbs or oils. These odors send confusing messages via the olfactory node to the child’s developing endocrine and immune systems. Hormonal balances are adjusted as the thyroid attempts to assimilate the array it receives, and endocrine disruption occurs.
What Are Endocrine Disruptors?
Simply put, what seems to occur is that molecules of certain chemicals and compounds masquerade as particular hormones, sometimes just coincidentally: The cellular shape of some chemicals, notably bisphenol A (BPA), fits perfectly into the estrogen receptors (which are always looking for signals), and the chemicals, ironically called esters, are mistakenly adopted by the body as hormones.
Since these estrogen analogs have no function in the body, the endocrine system is thrown off balance for lack of the actual hormone, raising and lowering testosterone as well as estrogen levels; hence the category endocrine disruptors, or endocrine disrupting compounds (EDCs).
A Google search lists thousands of these chemicals, some manufactured as odors and perfumes, some as compounds added to building materials, medicines, skin and hair products. To list only a few general categories: cosmetics, carpet and furniture “finishes,” anything containing “fragrance,”* commercial fabric dyes (especially dark colors and the blue used on denim), most paints, stains, plywood, chipboard, composite building materials, glues, vinyl in any form, carbonless paper, glossy paper, chlorine.
Additionally, most products labeled as “antibacterial” or “antimicrobial” may contain triclosan – a pesticide with residual content in products we use every day, such as soap, toothpaste, deodorant and even baby changing stations. It is banned in Japan and Canada, while the European Union classifies it as an irritant, dangerous for the environment and very toxic to aquatic organisms. It persists in the environment and is recognized, like BPA, as an endocrine disruptor.
Eliminating plastics (many of which contain BPA) and fragrances from our environment seems impossible. The person in line in front of me at the post office just doused himself with cologne and hair dressing before he left home. The post office itself has a tiny cardboard rendering of a spruce tree that emits a “room freshener” for us all to enjoy. A plug-in deodorizer in the back room masks the moldy smell of mailbags. Malls are hotbeds of artificial smells, from automatically sprayed fresheners to simulated pizza scent. Add every cologne, deodorant, hair spray, shampoo, conditioner in a crowd … How can our endocrine systems be anything but confused?
Even some natural scents, essential plant oils, may have been processed with hexane and other chemical solvents to produce complex compositions that appear to behave as naturals, but are not totally natural. Natural materials are often cut with synthetics to obtain a more standardized product and to cut costs by extending the more expensive natural materials.
Symptoms in Humans
Allergic reactions to fumes and fragrances in humans can range from mild dizziness and disorientation to severe bronchial disorders, asthma, skin rashes, migraine headaches, nosebleeds, adrenal exhaustion, needle pains on the skin, hardening of the skin (sclerosis), itching, severe vaginal and rectal pain, candiasis-type symptoms, razor-like neural pains in and around the genitals and rectum, breast soreness, soft swellings with slight itch, and anaphylactic shock. Due to the wide range of symptoms, the source of irritation is often difficult to identify, and doctors will treat to suppress the symptoms with steroids such as cortisone rather than seek the causes. Steroids offer short-term relief, but the symptoms usually return unless the source of irritation is actually removed.
The point is, the substances contained in fumes and fragrances have easy and instant access to our bodies on a cellular level, becoming irritants and toxins to muscles and organs, potentially causing acute, long-term or debilitating illness.
Petroleum Runs Deep
Many industries use these chemicals, including those in the business of “fragrance,” the entire plastics industry, pharmaceuticals, food ware, fabrics, home furnishings, cosmetics, toys, electronics, packaging, construction, fuel, agriculture, transportation, and all the secondary and tertiary businesses involved with these. No wonder the media do not discuss the issue of ambient chemical pollution as a major immune suppressant: These outlets, including public media, have industry sponsors.
During a healing process, I was shocked to discover that a homeopathic calendula gel I had been using for skin care for years contained two forms of parabens – known endocrine disrupting compounds. Some of my most trusted lotions contained “fragrance,” although they were touted as “all natural.” Scented candles, a nasty culprit, were completely removed from my environment. Avoiding mega-stores and malls is not difficult for me, but when I am forced to experience them, my immune system is clearly compromised and I experience physical pain. The only reason we do not see lots of people with filter masks walking around the supermarket is that the most sensitive people must stay at home and send hardier friends to the task. If we actually could view the numbers of people who must filter their breathing air, we would quickly become more aware of the extent of this problem.
Ferreting Out Fragrances
We can write and e-mail manufacturers, asking them to omit the fragrance. When “fragrance” is simply listed as an ingredient, it can represent hundreds of combined chemicals.* Request fragrance-free products. Get to know the true fragrances of flowers, leaves, woods and natural oils and learn which ones help you feel better. Try to minimize exposure to mixtures and compounds in order to determine which individual scents bother you. If you feel the need to wear scent, try to keep it to one variety at a time.
Not long ago, humans lived without petroleum fumes and artificial fragrances. Might we link part of our health decline and new diseases to these unavoidable substances?
As with so many such discoveries, rejecting fumes and fragrances must be a groundswell movement. Thanks to the Internet, individuals can tell millions about their personal experiences with environmental toxins. Sites such as Fragranced Products Information Network (www.fpin.org), https://thinkbeforeyoustink.com and Women to Women (www.womentowomen.com) invite input from sufferers. Record ill effects you think may have resulted from environmental toxins, even (and maybe most of all) in your own home. Look for common factors when you hear of people succumbing to persistent allergies of all kinds, skin problems, hormonal imbalance, tumors. Allergy represents overload; not even necessarily of the allergen, but of foreign substances that cause the body to work overtime. Look further when you know of someone who has been diagnosed with an “autoimmune” disease such as HIV, AIDS, Epstein-Barr, Lupus, ALS or MS, LS (Lichen Sclerosis), MCS, SAD, or someone who is chronically depressed. What toxins, especially fumes and fragrances, might be in their environment? That MCS is considered in any way separate from any other disease is to fail to connect the dots.
We are polluting our environment in a most inadvertent way. If we really want to eliminate toxins from the atmosphere, we need to consider not just our carbon, but our cologne.
* “Unscented” and “fragrance-free” products are not synonymous. “Unscented” generally means fragrance-masking chemicals have been added, whereas “fragrance-free” refers to the absence of chemicals added to enhance aroma. Furthermore, according to the FDA code of federal regulations, title 21, volume 7, section 700.3(d), “fragrance” means any natural or synthetic substance or substances used solely to impart an odor to a cosmetic product. Strict adherence to the definition of a fragrance means that products labeled “fragrance-free” may contain fragrance-based ingredients added for another purpose, e.g., as a preservative or emollient. (From Sharon E. Jacob, M.D; Food and Drugs. Food and Drug Administration Department of Health and Human Services. Code of Federal Regulations. www.accessdata.fda.gov/scripts/cdrh/cfdocs/cfcfr/CFRSearch.cfm?fr=720.4)
About the author: Diana Prizio is proprietor of Garden Variety in Thorndike Village and author of Beyond Granola: An evolutionary approach to natural foods.