Environmental Illness is a term used to describe illness in which environmental triggers play a significant role in producing symptoms, and the illness itself.
People suffering from environmental illness may have allergies, be sensitive to certain chemicals, as in multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS) or be unable to work in an office or other enclosed environment without becoming ill, which is known as sick building syndrome.
Some people who suffer from environmental illness become sensitive to almost everything in their environment. They may be allergic to pollen, mold and animal dander, be made sick by a large number of common foods through immediate food allergies and delayed food sensitivities, and be unable to tolerate tiny amounts of everyday chemicals in cleaning and cosmetic products. These people are often referred to as 'universal reactors' because their bodies react to so many environmental triggers.
Environmental illness is sometimes referred to as "universal allergy" or "20th century syndrome". As yet there is no standard definition for environmental illness, as agreement has yet to be reached about what this should entail. There are many differing opinions within the medical and research communities as to the causes and mechanisms of "EI" and some refuse to acknowledge the existence of anything other than classical allergic reactions.
In the absence of an official definition, environmental illness can loosely be defined as: "A reaction to common components of a persons environment, including chemicals, food, water and physical particles, that results in symptoms relating to multiple organ systems and a general poor state of health."
Alternatively, The American Academy of Environmental Medicine puts it this way: "ENVIRONMENTALLY TRIGGERED ILLNESSES (ETI) are the adverse consequences that result when the homeodynamic interactions among biological functions are compromised by external or internal stressors. These stressors may range from severe acute exposure to a single stressor, to cumulative relatively low-grade exposures to many stressors over time. The resultant dysfunction is dependent on the patient's genetic makeup, his nutrition and health in general, the stressors, the degree of exposure to them, and the effects of seven fundamental biological governing principles: biochemical individuality, individual susceptibility, the total load, the level of adaptation, the bipolarity of responses, the spreading phenomenon, and the switch phenomenon."
Environmental Illness research is in its infancy but hopefully in the near future more solid definitions can be agreed upon and this distressing illness accepted for what it is....a physical illness triggered by factors in a person's environment.
The Environmental Illness Connection In many ways, IBS itself can be seen as an environmental illness. In recent years, much research has been published showing that factors such as food sensitivities, drugs and small bowel bacterial overgrowth (SBBO) can contribute to IBS symptoms. SBBO is thought to be caused mainly by the overuse of antibiotics, which disrupt the natural balance of organisms within the gut. All of these factors fit the environmental illness model, in that foreign substances entering the body from the environmental are causing symptoms of disease.
Even stress, which has long been known to play a significant role in IBS, can be thought of as an environmental trigger. The stress reaction is caused by the way we perceive certain events in the environment.
A further connection between IBS and environmental illness is seen when we consider illnesses such as chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia. It is known that the incidence of IBS is far more common in CFS and fibromyalgia patients than it is in the general population. Research has shown that food sensitivities, SBBO and other environmental factors such as chemical exposure also play a large role in these illnesses. The incidence of allergies and other reactions to environmental factors is also much higher in CFS and fibromyalgia than in the general population. What does this mean for the Irritable Bowel Syndrome patient? This environmental illness aspect of IBS offers patients another avenue to pursue with regards to treatment and management of their illness.
Tests for food sensitivities can be ordered from many specialist laboratories by your physician, or alternative practitioner in many cases. The most common food sensitivity test is called the ELISA test. For a few hundred dollars an ELISA test will show, from a sample of over 100 common foods, which may be causing you problems. By cutting these foods out of your diet you can reduce your symptoms, often considerably.
SBBO is very easy and cheap to test for. Generally you are given a drink containing a sugar such as lactulose and then your breath is tested for levels of hydrogen after a set time period. Bacteria produce hydrogen when they digest the sugar in the drink, so a high level of hydrogen in the breath indicates a bacterial overgrowth. If it is discovered you do have SBBO, treatment usually consists of antibiotic drugs or natural alternatives. Again, studies have shown that when SBBO is present and effectively treated, symptoms of IBS are substantially reduced.
Be aware that although you may not display symptoms of environmental illness such as respiratory allergies and chemical sensitivity, environmental factors may play a role in your illness. As a result, searching them out and treating them accordingly could be well worth the effort and improve your quality of life considerably.