by Dr. Damien Downing MD
During our lifetimes we have poisoned the planet and all its inhabitants. Small birds are disappearing from our hedgerows, bees suffer colony collapse (now known to be caused by pesticides in at least some cases); many streams and rivers are toxic sewers. Even the badgers and cows suffering bovine TB are the victims of a poisoned ecosystem. Humans are in no way exempt, with sperm counts dropping, and allergies and auto-immune diseases soaring. Those of us with environmental illnesses, or EI, are just the pit canaries.
There is no single clearly defined environmental illness, no single chemical sensitivity syndrome; there are perhaps as many different subtypes of illness as there are sufferers, and for each sufferer there is typically a list of several component diagnoses, including toxic symptoms, allergies, auto-immune, endocrine and neurological disruptions, and of course fatigue. As with allergies, of course, there are also a host of other diseases and symptoms that can be set off.
When I started seeing allergic patients (many years ago!) this all seemed to be a largely American problem; it is only within the last decade or so that it has become so common in this country. And it is only in the last few years that we have learnt some powerful methods for dealing with EI.
We work with a number of laboratories worldwide to provide the best up-to-date analyses. There have been important advances in laboratory technique in areas that are important to EI:
These tiny structures (there are hundreds in every cell) are the batteries of cellular life, producing energy from oxygen and other nutrients to fuel, well, everything. Not surprising then that mitochondrial dysfunction has been linked to fatigue, cancer, heart disease, diabetes, Parkinson’s, schizophrenia - and on and on. The laboratory we use can now look at mitochondria, assess how they are functioning and whether there are chemicals interfering, and even identify (not always) what the chemicals are.
I have to point out that this is all experimental still; no scientific studies have examined this methodology, we don’t have all the answers and we don’t know how much we don’t know. Nonetheless, my experience so far is that this can provide explanations that we just couldn’t obtain before, and that sometimes, at least, the clinical benefit can be powerful.
In the last few years it has become possible to look at and identify chemicals actually attached (adducted) to our chromosomes. This can be valuable both in assessing toxicity and monitoring treatment. If a toxin has penetrated so deeply into your cells that it is attached to your genes, then it is likely to be having a whole range of effects throughout your tissues.
Sometimes the test reports that toxins are attached to specific genes, where they may have “epigenetic” effects - i.e. influence the expression, the switching on and off, of genes. Although this is both too complex and too cutting-edge to be regarded as fact in every case, it can point in useful directions, and other tests can help to make sense of the picture.
Since the completion of the Human Genome Project, genetics has been in explosive growth, because we can now identify small variations in your DNA code that subtly alter the way you function, rather than giving you genetic disorders (Down’s, Huntington’s). I must stress that this science is also in its infancy, growing fast but with a long way to grow. In 10 years things will look very different. But what we can tell already is powerful, and not a moment too soon.
One major area is that of detoxification - the chemical processing and removal of toxic chemicals, that happens mainly (not exclusively) in the liver. There are 3 major genetic variations, each occurring in around 50% of Europeans, that can alter the way we handle such chemicals. If you have 2 or all 3 of them you will be much more vulnerable to the toxic effects. Finding this out not only helps to explain your illness but tells us something about which strategies will work to improve your health.
Genomic testing is now much less expensive — the cheapest panel in relation to environmental illness is about €300 — and not always necessary, but you only need to do it once, and it can tell you a lot about your individual biochemical make-up.
As well as detox, it can provide insights into your drug metabolism, cardiovascular risk, osteoporosis and so on. Most important, it can tell us what your resources are that can be employed to detox and improve health.
Although we can have blood samples tested for toxic chemicals, they tend not to remain in blood for very long. This is why we use a Fat Biopsy (through a small needle, less unpleasant than an injection) to assess how much of the main toxic chemicals you are carrying around. Toxic metals we normally assess on a urine test (and other routes sometimes). Then we can start working out how to remove them. We have found that Nickel sensitivity is a surprisingly common problem, for instance.
It is possible to test the degree of reaction by your immune cells (i.e. white blood cells) to specific toxins. Look at it this way; if your first line of defence, the detox enzymes, fail to remove the toxins, the immune system can become involved in trying to deal with them. But this is not very effective, and is likely to cause allergy-related symptoms. You then have a double problem; both toxic and allergic.
My colleague Dr Stephen Davies coined the phrase Nutrient-Toxin Interface; in order to handle, and not be harmed by, toxins you need adequate amounts of a number of nutrients - vitamins, minerals, fatty acids. We can advise you on what is important, and organise testing for these. Many of these are done at Biolab in London.
When you find you are in a hole, the first thing to do is stop digging! In other words, the treatments that follow will be much harder if you are still being exposed to the toxins in question. We can help you to identify the most useful and achievable steps toward this goal. We can put you in touch with our long-standing dietitian who has become an expert in the practicalities of addressing environmental sensitivity issues.
While total avoidance of chemicals, pollution etc is practically impossible, your environment can almost always be improved. We will work through this with you, and can also put you in contact with suppliers of various useful equipment, materials etc.
You are probably already taking supplements; we can advise you on what you really need, and how to improve your existing regime. We can arrange intravenous nutritional supplementation when appropriate.
Diet is often a problem; we can recommend both specific foods and full diets. If you need detailed dietary work, you may find it best to work with our nurse-practitioner, who is also a trained and skilled nutritional therapist.
Please note that various populist health writers have used the word “detox” to mean cleaning up your life and stopping taking in toxins. We will of course assist you in this, but we use detox to mean removal of toxins from your body.
Many people find that CAM therapies such as acupuncture or physical therapies are helpful in keeping the symptoms down. We are happy to work with practitioners, and have experienced specialists within the New Medicine Group.
If you have an increased body burden of toxins, whether pesticides, heavy metals or anything, we can advise you on the best ways of removing them — and on how to avoid or reduce side effects, and ensure the process is done safely.
There are three main methods of removal or “detox”: they all take some time, and need careful supervision.
Phospholipid Exchange Therapy - PLX
This injected treatment was developed by researchers in the USA from a combination of several established therapies, which had already each been used safely for some years, with demonstrated benefits.
PLX is effective at removing both metals and chemicals. We are one of the few UK providers. Some people start with an injection roughly once a week, for several weeks, with oral supplements as well, and find this is sufficient. Others need more vigorous and/or prolonged treatment. It always makes sense to combine injections with oral treatment.
This means using particular molecules that bind to metals in the body and are excreted with them. It can be given orally, transdermally (rubbed into the skin) or intravenously (which we don’t do). All chelating agents will also pull out essential minerals like Zinc, so we insist on careful monitoring and supplementation. It is a long process but it can be done. Chelation only works for metals.
Inducing sweating by saunas can increase excretion of toxic chemicals (not metals), and people who do not sweat normally seem to be more prone to symptoms from chemicals. We can establish and run suitable regimes for you, including supplementation, and recommend suitable equipment suppliers.
Sometimes removal techniques are impracticable or inappropriate, and we can use the Enzyme Potentiated Desensitisation technique to reduce and control your allergic reactions — to chemicals and to other allergies and intolerances.