Solving the Riddle
(The following is an excerpt from "Solving the Riddle of Multiple Chemical Sensitivity: The Importance of TRP Channels," which can be downloaded from the Home page of this site.)
Once I had a basic grasp of how TRP channels work, and felt myself in possession of a good explanation for how I had become so chemically sensitive, I was in a hurry to start addressing the problem by trying to assertively ‘desensitize’ my own TRPV1 and TRPA1 with my own self-fashioned ‘spice protocol.’
Why spices? Well, I was very focused on the fact that desensitization of a channel first required the activation of the channel. Plus, I had read on the Salicylate Sensitivity forum that some people felt they could increase their tolerance for high salicylate foods by first ingesting cayenne pepper, the well-known TRPV1 agonist that reportedly initiated the activation necessary for desensitization. And so, I began eating cayenne for TRPV1 and mustard for TRPA1 at the beginning of every meal, and waited excitedly for ‘normal’ TRP function to return.
Unfortunately, instead of heading toward normal, within 10 days or so I had relapsed back into Stage Three of MCS, and was experiencing the worst reactions to detergent scents I’d had in months. I was beyond disappointed. But the experiment made me think more carefully about all the possible ways TRP channels might be dysfunctional in MCS.
Was my problem primarily the vicious feedback loop of inflammation overactivating TRPs? That seemed plausible; for years, my blood test results had showed highly elevated C-reactive protein levels, a well-known marker for inflammation. To address whatever inflammatory soup might be swirling through me, I started taking high doses of fish oil each day, and making sure I kept to a low histamine diet.
Was my problem simply the result of an overexpression of too many TRP channels? Looking at a family history of allergies and aversions to scented products, it seemed likely that I might have a genetic reason for making too much TRP protein. Of course, there wasn’t much I could do to change my genes; but, perhaps a TRP gene defect had been epigenetically turned ‘on’ through a lifestyle which included a TRP-activating spicy diet or frequent alcohol use. If that was the case, I could work to change my habits, and perhaps over time the defect would turn ‘off.’ And so, I drastically cut down on alcohol and tossed my spices into the trash.
I thought again about my failed spice protocol experiment. If activation was necessary for desensitization, why hadn’t specifically activating the relevant TRP channels led to desensitization? It dawned on me that maybe my primary dysfunction was not merely in the overexpression of TRP proteins, but also in the desensitizating of, or closing of, the channel. Perhaps some people with MCS had TRP channels stuck “open” in activation mode, and so continually churned out cascades of the inflammatory compounds that created the symptoms of a reaction. Perhaps my entire problem was that my ion channels were not desensitizing properly.
I knew from my research that TRP channel desensitization was the result of an influx of calcium into the cell, and, at least in normal functioning, once a certain level of intracellular calcium was reached, the channel would close to avoid a toxic overload of calcium. So if my TRP channels were not closing, was it because calcium ions were somehow not properly flowing into the channel?
The only reason this question occurred to me was because for the past decade, I had been taking the calcium channel blocker Norvasc, prescribed for unexplained hypertension I’d had since my 20s. (Turns out TRP channels are involved in blood pressure regulation, but that’s a different story). Back when I first discovered I had MCS, I had of course wondered if my daily dose of Norvasc might have anything to do with it, but I had been taking it for over ten years without noticeable side effects, so I doubted it had suddenly triggered the onset of MCS. Plus, not once, in any article or forum or message board, had I come across any mention of calcium channel blockers in relation to chemical sensitivity or food intolerance. Still, I wondered whether I should try to wean myself off the pills, just in case.
I then looked back at my journals to see what I might have been doing differently in the weeks before onset that might have specifically influenced the flow of calcium ions into my cells. I was reminded that I’d started taking magnesium about a month before the onset of MCS; I had read that it helped to lower blood pressure and combat stress with a calming effect on mind and body. Indeed, I had found that magnesium supplements dramatically helped relieve my muscle tension and improve my sleep, and I’d felt pleased with the discovery. Once I was sick, and saw that it was on Martin Pall’s list of supplements, I upped my daily intake still more, to 400 mg a day.
But despite my confidence that magnesium was nothing but beneficial to me, the time correlation between starting the supplement and the onset of MCS sent me back to the computer to research magnesium. After a few google searches, I found the mineral described as… (drumroll please)…. “nature’s calcium channel blocker.” Another Aha! moment. I read some more and discovered that calcium ions are “antagonized” by magnesium ions in the nervous system, and that supplemental magnesium has been shown to enhance the effects of calcium channel blockers like Norvasc.
I immediately stopped taking magnesium. And, in less than a week, I noticed I was no longer having reactions when I left the house. I also noticed I no longer got an instant headache when someone wearing detergent-washed clothes walked into my house. I was afraid to believe it could be that easy, I was sure I must be imagining it. So I went out to buy some scented detergent and washed a shirt in it in the sink to better test it. I sat with the shirt for an hour, less than a foot away from my nose, and no reaction. None. I was stunned Just like that, I had moved out of Stage Two of MCS, back into Stage One, and life as I once knew it was returned to me. At least for a few weeks...
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