Chemical Sensitivity: Genetically Vulnerable to a Toxic World

Friday Oct 25 | BY |
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Chemical Sensitivity

Chemical sensitivity can cause headaches, stomachaches, and even chronic disease.

My family was planning for a festive Thanksgiving Day. I decided a new carpet for the living room was in order. It was installed the day before Thanksgiving. The job was completed quickly and the carpet looked great!

The padding, carpet, and adhesives, however, had a strong chemical smell. I quickly became dizzy and nauseated. It had to be a reaction to the chemicals. By the next morning I had a massive headache, blurred vision, nausea, and weakness.

My wife and kids were fine. She encouraged me to get out of the house for the morning, so I went with the kids to walk on the beach. (At the time, in 1984, I lived in Encinitas, California close to Moonlight Beach.) I felt better away from the carpet, but not immediately. It took me close to a week to recover.

Unfortunately, some people don’t recover from toxic chemical exposure. Why?

The Beginnings of Chemical Sensitivity Awareness

My experience was so dramatic that I looked into the clinical evidence and scientific research on chemical sensitivity. I couldn’t find much. In 1984, Theron Randolf, M.D. (1906 –1995), among the first to recognize chemical sensitivity in patients and considered the father of clinical ecology as an allergy medicine sub-specialty, was one of a handful of doctors practicing medicine that took into consideration the patient’s environment. The field of environmental medicine and clinical ecology was in its infancy.

Around that time, I started to see more chronically ill patients who claimed to be sensitive to foods, allergens, and chemicals. My own experience taught me not to dismiss them as neurotics. I not only took them seriously, but in 1985, co-founded Ecology Medical Clinic in Del Mar, California to diagnose and treat chronic disease and allergic disorders, including chemical sensitivity—illnesses associated with our toxic environment. However, we knew so little about these conditions at that time, that I had almost nothing to offer patients.

Clinical Science for Toxic Times

It’s taken more than two decades for doctors and researchers to listen to sick patients. In July 2012, Claudia S. Miller, M.D., an allergist and immunologist, and professor of occupational and environmental medicine in the School of Medicine at The University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio, published a landmark paper. Her team found that 22% of all patients with chronic health issues experienced some form of chemical intolerance.

Dr. Miller coined the new medical term “toxicant-induced loss of tolerance” (TILT) to describe chemical sensitivity that produces clinical symptoms and debility.

Let’s take a moment to define some terms. A toxin is a naturally occurring poison like snake or spider venom, or a jellyfish sting, produced by living cells. A toxicant is a man-made poison, a toxic substance released into the environment in any of a number of ways. People and wildlife are sensitive to manmade chemical toxicants.

Common Ways Toxicants Enter the Environment

  • Indoor Air Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)—carpets, building materials, plastics, fragrances
  • Solvents—gasoline, nail polish and remover, glues, plaints
  • Pesticides—organophosphates, pyrethrins
  • Drugs—vaccines, anesthetics, chemotherapeutics, pain killers, implants
  • Cleaning Agents—ammonia, bleach, disinfectants
  • Combustion Products—car exhaust, cigarette smoke, tar and asphalt
  • Industrial Chemicals—polychlorinated biphenyls, dioxins, cadmium

It’s estimated that about 1/3 ton of toxic chemicals are released into our air, land, and water by industrial facilities around the world every second. This amounts to about 10 million tons of toxic chemicals released into our environment by industries each year. Of these, over 2 million tons per year are recognized carcinogens.

Most people have more than 100 toxic chemicals in trace levels in their bodies. The conservative CDC links about 200 chemicals in the environment to diseases including brain, breast, prostate, and ovarian cancers; birth defects; cardiovascular disease; and learning/behavior disorders. However, only 14% of the chemicals used in the largest amounts have the minimum amount of data publicly available to make a basic safety assessment.

Three Groups of Chemicals with Known Harmful Properties

  1. Chemicals that break down slowly or not at all, and accumulate in the bodies of wildlife and people.
  2. Chemicals that interfere with the hormone systems of animals and people.
  3. Chemicals that cause cancer, reproductive problems, or damage DNA.

Chemicals are everywhere. We are virtually at the mercy of toxicants in our environment.

A Process of Many Stages

Your body has a remarkable way of handling exposure to just about anything the environment can throw at it. At the extreme, a bit from a poisonous snake can kill. But most organic compounds are biologically normal; we evolved alongside toxins for eons. Industrial man-made chemicals are another issue.

There are now over 82,000 man-made chemicals in use, and many of those end up in our bodies from foods or drugs, or indirectly over time from the environment in the air we breathe and the water we drink and bath with.

The basic two-step process identified by Dr. Miller begins with initial exposure and leads to chronic illness. In step one, instead of clearing the toxicant from the body—a process that mainly occurs in the liver’s sophisticated detoxification pathways—small, but important parts of the nervous system and immune response are disrupted. In step two, the brain can no longer handle chemicals, and sensitivity increases.

It is exactly because the hormonal, immune, and neural network is damaged that patients experience a bewildering array of symptoms ranging from chronic fatigue, brain fog, gut problems, bladder issues, asthma and sinusitis, headaches, insomnia, and chronic pain. Simple, cumulative exposure affects many body systems.

TILT describes a new class of diseases unique to post-modern times. More and more people are intolerant to man-made chemicals in the environment. My clinical experience is consistent with what Dr. Miller found. However, I believe the actual number of people with TILT is higher. My experience suggests that at least 25-50% of all chronic disease patients have some form of chemical sensitivity.

How Toxic Is Your House?

  • How many toxicants are in my home?
  • How many drugs has my doctor prescribed? Do I need all of them?
  • Are there any hidden toxicants in my food or water?

If you have a chronic disease, suspect chemical intolerance to be a part of the problem.

There is no cure for TILT. However, my clinical experience shows that patients can clean many toxicants from their body resulting in improved tolerance.

You can take positive action to prevent over exposure. Clean up your personal environment and eat only organically grown foods. Ask your doctor to test you for heavy metals like cadmium. If you suspect you have TILT, look for a specialist in environmental medicine who will have ways to test for chemical toxicants in your body. If your condition is serious, ask your specialist to perform brain imaging with SPECT scanning to track blood flow changes in the tissues. This is considered an indirect way to diagnose TILT.

Though not a classical medical disease, TILT is a real illness. Even though TILT is a biologically caused illness, there are deep psychological implications. Cognitive therapy can help TILT patients cope better with the spectrum of emotional issues that are associated with chemical sensitivity.

Seven Ways to Beat TILT

  1. Get diagnosed—find a doctor who specializes in chemical sensitivity.
  2. Avoid new exposure—clean up your environment, use air filters, eat organic food.
  3. Improve detoxification pathways—work on your liver by conducting gentle cleanses with specialized medical beverages like UltraClear.
  4. Use only healing therapies that don’t add any chemicals to your body’s environment—try acupuncture, homeopathy, Heel bioregulatory medicines, fresh green juices.
  5. Consider therapy with proven medical devices like Ondamed that help reset the bioelectrical balance of your body.
  6. Get rid of toxic metals—use intravenous or oral chelation therapy to clear your body of mercury, arsenic, and cadmium.
  7. Rebalance your limbic system and improve vagal tone with gentle flowing yoga styles, taiqi, qigong, swimming and dancing.

Chemical sensitivity, now called TILT syndrome, is an extremely challenging condition to treat effectively. It requires a complete reset of the neuroendoimmune (NEI) super system. And it takes time. Doctors are doing their best to understand TILT, but there is no cure so far. In the mean time, go gentle with the seven ways to beat TILT.

Dr. J. E. Williams


Dr. Williams is a pioneer in integrative and functional medicine, the author of six books, and a practicing clinician with over 100,000 patient visits. His areas of interest include longevity and viral immunity. Formerly from San Diego, he now resides in Sarasota, Florida and practices at the Florida Integrative Medical Center. He teaches at NOVA Southeastern University and Emperor’s College of Oriental Medicine.

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  1. Molly Drakes says:

    Was searching for information in chemical sensitivity. Very nicely written article.

  2. Great article, Dr. Williams. Thanks so much for your contribution to this very misunderstood syndrome.

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