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Mindfulness-based cognitive behavioral therapy may benefit multiple chemical sensitivity sufferers



MCS Carbon-Filter Face MaskA pilot study in which people suffering from multiple chemical sensitivity received weekly sessions of mindfulness-based cognitive behavioral therapy has shown the treatment can have significant benefits in terms of how patients cope with their illness and also through improved sleep.  

Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS) is a chronic condition in which those affected experience an array of non-specific symptoms including headaches, fatigue, weakness, dizziness, cognitive dysfunction, and a general feeling of being unwell, when exposed to minute amounts of chemical triggers such as synthetic fragrances and industrial pollution.

Researchers at The Danish Research Centre for Chemical Sensitivities based at Copenhagen University Hospital describe MCS as "...a medically unexplained and socially disabling disorder characterized by negative health effects attributed to exposure to common airborne chemicals." Recognizing a lack of treatment options for the illness and having seen mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MCBT) produce improvements in patients suffering from related conditions including chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS) and fibromyalgia, the Danish team performed the pilot study to determine if MCBT would also bring about positive change in MCS patients.

MCBT is a combination of minfulness meditation, a technique derived from Buddhist and Hindu traditions, and cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) which is a widely used talk therapy used by psychiatrists, psychologists and counsellors in conventional medicine. Although derived from Eastern religious practices, mindfulness is simply a mental technique which can be used by anyone. It can help to quiet and focus the mind and in combination with CBT has been shown to effectively increase patients' functional level, productivity and improve social interactions.

The Danish pilot study lasted for 8 weeks and was a randomized clinical trial. It aimed to "...evaluate possible effects on psychological distress and illness perception" in MCS patients given 8 weekly sessions of MCBT.

Forty-two adults were screened for eligibility for the study based on The Danish Research Centre for Chemical Sensitivities' own criteria. Of the 42 people screen 37 were included in the study itself. The average age of the participants was 52 years and the majority (35 or 94.6%) were female.

The 37 participants were randomly split into a treatment group and a control group. The treatment group received 8 weekly sessions of MCBT lasting for two and a half hours each.

Each participant in the study, whether receiving MCBT or not, was assessed for measures of psychological distress and illness perceptions before the study began, at  four and eight weeks, and finally three months after the end of the MCBT sessions.

The investigators found no significant changes in illness severity between the two groups at the end of the study. However, the MCS patients who had received MCBT gave very positive feedback about their experience with the therapy. It was also noted that MCBT had a substantial positive effect on their ability to cope with the illness. MCBT recipients also reported a positive effect on the quality of their sleep.

While this study indicates that MCBT is far from a cure for MCS it shows the therapy may have benefits for sufferers that make it worthwhile, particularly as it is inexpensive and once learnt can be practiced indefinitely any time and any place. The importance of being able to cope with symptoms and benefit from a good night's sleep cannot be underestimated in a chronic illness such as MCS.

Source: Skovbjerg S Hauge CR Rasmussen A Winkel P Elberling J (2012) Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy to treat multiple chemical sensitivities: a randomized pilot trial Scandinavian Journal of Psychology 53(3):233-8


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