Stress, MCS and Yoga
Can stress contribute to the development of Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS)? That’s one of the questions I’ll be looking at today. And I also want to consider how yoga might offer some relief for MSC sufferers.
Most people who experience sensitivity to chemical smells, or MCS as it’s known, seem to be “sensitive” in general and not just from breathing in foreign substances.
Yet, still, many medical professionals will reject the legitimacy of this illness, refusing to treat it or suggesting that it’s based in psychological rather than physical causes.
However, some holistic practitioners have questioned whether MCS goes beyond simply being “allergic” to everything, and is actually an overactive neurologic response to stress.
Indeed, if you speak with different people who have a very high sensitivity to smells and an apparent low tolerance for synthetic substances, you’ll discover that many have also lived through some type of prolonged and extreme stress in their lives.
If the body detects danger or threat it triggers the stress or “fight or flight” response. The threat could be anything including:
- overt physical danger
- something more subtle like dealing with interpersonal conflict eg a disagreement with a neighbor
- coping with situational pressures, for instance debt problems
The body’s attempts to deal with a threatening situation will cause a series of reactions:
- the heart accelerates to provide maximum oxygen levels to organs and cells
- the muscles tighten and shorten to prepare for action, to get through the situation, to fight or to flee from the danger
- Adrenaline courses through the body heightening awareness and providing a quick burst of energy
This automatic stress response serves to protect the body.
However, chronic stress, ie remaining in a stress response state for a prolonged period, has a negative impact on the body. It causes physical and psychological distress, which affects a person’s overall health and well-being.
Some say that the root of MCS is actually an overactive “fight or flight” response. This causes too many stress chemicals (cortisol, adrenalin) to be released by the adrenal glands as a reaction to mild stressors in the environment, which in turn leads to the body systems malfunctioning as a result of being constantly flooded with stress hormones.
Those who believe that MCS is, at least in part, rooted in neurological impairment tend to recommend yoga as a method of not only relieving symptoms, but also reducing the severity of, or eliminating entirely, the reactions to chemical odors being experienced.
Yoga works on people who have MCS for the following two reasons:
- the yoga movements and breathing works to regulate and heal the parasympathetic nervous system by lowering cortisol levels and teaching the mind to observe (through meditation) rather than react to situations.; and
- many yoga positions naturally stimulate the internal organs, such as the liver, kidneys, pancreas and thyroid, to help the body eliminate toxins from the bloodstream in a more efficient manner.
What is the parasympathetic nervous system?
The parasympathetic nervous system regulates body functions, such as breathing and digestion, that occur when we are at rest.
This is in direct opposition to the sympathetic nervous system, which speeds up heart rate and inhibits digestion as a response to neurological stimuli.
What seems to be the case with some people who have multiple chemical sensitivity is that there is an overactive sympathetic, or reactive nervous system, and an underactive resting nervous system response.
Put quite simply, people who suffer from multiple chemical sensitivity may have forgotten how to relax. They can’t seem to shut off their overactive sympathetic nervous system and are permanently stuck in internal fight or flight mode. This is where yoga comes in.
How do I get started with Yoga?
If perfumes, car exhaust, pesticides and cleaning solutions tend to make you feel ill and you want to reduce your reactions, then you might start with a slow introduction to yoga. Yoga is an age-old practice that brings relaxation and healing as it restores, tones and strengthens the body.
Today millions of Americans from young children to seniors in their eighties and nineties are practicing it.
The essential purpose of yoga is to achieve a stable balance between the mind and the body and also, to achieve self-enlightenment. It accomplishes this by combining movement, breathing, posture, deep relaxation and meditation to maintain a healthy, lively and balanced approach to life.
It is not just a work out. It does everything from helping you to achieve strength to gaining endurance, improving balance, gaining flexibility and also helping you relax.
Yoga is more than mere stretch outs and relaxing. It is the definitive mind and body test and a superb means of achieving body and mind alertness.
A typical session of yoga will make you feel a sense of pure energy and relaxation. You get to work on your physique and align your bones correctly, as well as learning to breathe deeply, thus providing adequate oxygen for your lungs, blood and brain.
Even if you have never lifted your finger to carry a pen, yoga will do you good and will gradually become as comfortable as it would be to someone who jogs an hour a day or works out daily.
You may say to yourself, “I can’t do yoga… I can’t be around other people who may be wearing perfumes in the class” or ” “the smell of the rubber mat will make me feel ill”.
But you would be wrong. The fact is, you can begin practicing yoga as soon as tomorrow.
You could get a book of poses to learn but instructional programs on DVD would be more beneficial. It is very important to learn the proper techniques for poses, relaxation and breathing to reap all the benefits yoga has to offer. You can do this better if you can see others do what you will need to do.
Trying out yoga in the comfort and safety of your own home will address your concerns about the smell from fragrances and rubber mats.
You might start with a basic relaxation series that includes well-known favorites like downward dog, cat and cow, shoulder stand, tailor pose, bridge pose, forward fold, and other poses that you can move through at a slow and relaxing pace.
As you become stronger and are able to hold your poses for longer amounts of time, you can add new ones to your routine and also engage in different asanas for different purposes, such as strengthening, hormone balance, digestive ease and others.
If you’re worried about the odor of a yoga mat, you can buy one and store it someplace like a hot attic in summer time, giving time for the chemicals to out-gas, before using it. Or, perhaps buy a used one or borrow one from a friend.
Yoga has been in practice for many thousands of years before faux-rubber yoga mats even existed. So, you’ll be just as good doing yoga on a linoleum kitchen floor, wood floor with comfortable pillows for extra support, or outside on the solid earth, with a natural carpet of soft grass, as you would on a gym mat.
It may also be possible to find a yoga class where people are discouraged from wearing perfumes and scents. Some yoga teachers will be aware of the sensitivities of some of those who wish to attend.
Call in advance and chat with the yoga instructor. Often, smaller yoga studios are the best choice for those who are extra sensitive, and the people who work there more willing to try to accommodate you.
Good luck and let’s hope that yoga can make a difference to your life.