Increasingly, researchers are identifying the role of toxins in numerous illnesses and health problems. In a medical establishment dominated by germ theory, we have come to know a great deal about diseases and causative agents of disease. Diseases are often studied as independent entities, removed from their environments and examined as self-contained entities. Only recently have we begun to learn about the complex processes that maintain health, and only in the aftermath of the AIDS epidemic has substantial research been directed to studying the immune system. In light of that research, we are coming to greater understanding of the role of toxins, particularly their role in chronic diseases.
One conceptual tool that can be helpful in understanding the relationship between certain chronic illnesses is to look at them not in isolation, but as part of a continuum. Viewed along a line of development what first seem to be unrelated conditions can be seen as expressions of a process glimpsed at various points of development. Such a continuum begins with health. Most healthy individuals pay little attention to bodily processes, for the simple reason they have little motivation to do so.
Still, American culture is tough on the immune system. High-fat and high-sugar diets, along with exposures to environmental toxins, can leave the immune system operating at a low level of chronic stress. That kind of chronic physical stress can leave one susceptible to colds or infections. Often the first response of the caring physician is a prescription of antibiotics to clear up infection. The same antibiotics can begin an unanticipated process.
Reginald de Pelichny is a holistic biochemist and molecular biologist. Pelichny has identified what he calls a "mal-digestive syndrome" that can start with just such a prescription of antibiotics. Antibiotics, particularly long-term use, can deplete the helpful bacteria that reside in our intestinal tract. Other factors may be involved. Pelichny also links stress or trauma to the initiation of the mal-digestive syndrome. Regardless which factor precipitates it, a condition develops in which helpful bacteria, called aerobic because they thrive in a high-oxygen environment, are threatened. The opposite type of bacteria, anaerobic, those that do best in a low-oxygen environment, begin to dominate the abdominal tract.
The anaerobic bacterial imbalance has two significant implications. First, a low oxygen environment is the perfect environment to stimulate the growth of yeast. Since aerobic bacteria play a role in controlling yeast levels in the intestinal tract, their absence encourages yeast overgrowth, as do the low-oxygen levels. Secondly, aerobic bacteria play a role in the final breakdown of proteins in the digestive track. When there are not enough aerobic bacteria, mal-digested proteins, in the form of peptides or peptones, the pre-cursors to amino acids, are absorbed into the blood stream and ferried to the liver. The liver can only process amino acids, not peptides and peptones, and so becomes heavy with these indigestible molecules. At this point, the individual is sometimes diagnosed as having Leaky Gut Syndrome. Perhaps most importantly, the body treats these mal-digested proteins as toxins.
As the level of toxins in the liver continues to increase, the individual's immune system becomes compromised. The liver is a major component in the immune system, and it is literally flooded with toxic material, leaving little energy left for processing standard toxins. Additionally, the body has no choice but to use some of this substandard "building material," these poorly digested proteins, for ongoing tissue repair. These proteins, however, are marked as inferior, so that the body can replace them when better material become available. A great deal of tissue repair takes place in the joints, and this substandard material can become concentrated there. The individual may now begin to experience fibromyalgia or rheumatoid symptoms.
The rheumatoid symptoms can be based on an auto-immune response. Once the body has identified these badly digested proteins as toxic, the immune system begins to make antibodies against those proteins. At this point the individual can begin to develop food allergies, particularly to proteins that are eaten regularly. The proteins are no longer just toxic, but have become immunoreactive, stimulating inflammation and a cascade of cortical hormones as part of a generalized histamine response. Additionally the liver is still under siege from other toxins, released by increased levels of yeast. Often the body will put an autogenic marker on yeast as well, increasing the range of food allergies. By this point many individuals have been diagnosed with candidiasis, but their food allergies and the initial mal-digestive syndrome often have not have been identified.
Treatment of candiasis often involves use of anti-mycotic agents, those agents that destroy fungus. In the die off process, when millions of yeast organisms die in the system, toxins are released. At this point many individuals have the equivalent of a significant toxic exposure. It is at this point, too, that the immune system can become distorted or misguided.
According to immunologist Lewell Brenneman, immune triggers, such as chemical exposure, molds, foods or certain pollens, can be damaging to developing immune cells. These cells become "misguided," resulting in auto-immune disorders or other complex immune reactions.
Systemic yeast infections, or candidiasis, seem particularly associated with auto-immune reactions. According to David Feldman, M.D., the head of the Division of Endocrinology at Stanford University School of Medicine, "Candida albicans has a steroid-binding protein. It binds corticoids [steroids such as cortisone] and progesterones." According to Feldman, "'Bidirectional interaction is possible,' meaning that yeast can potentially participate in, and interfere with, human hormone signal systems."
One possibility may be that the immune system, confused by the steroid-binding protein of the yeast, begins to mark steroids or hormones produced by the endocrine system that have bonded with the yeast protein. Endocrinologist Phyllis Saifer, M.D., has noted a group of "disorders arising from autoimmune dysregulation associated with the Candida syndrome." She has identified the APICH syndrome, an acronym standing for "autoimmune polyendocripopathy immune-dysregulation candidosis hypersensitivity syndrome.'' Among related conditions she includes hypothyroidism, thyroiditis, hypodrenalism, Addison's disease, hepatitis, premenstrual syndrome, and rheumatoid arthritis. Although the mechanism is not clearly understood, these conditions seem to be triggered by toxins associated with candidaisis or systemic yeast infections.
Other physicians have focused more on the impact on the adrenal system. One product of the adrenal gland, hydrocortisone, is one of the primary steroid hormones. Physician Sidney MacDonald Baker suggests that low-dosage hydrocortisone therapy may be helpful to individuals who have experienced significant chemical exposure. "One of the puzzling things about chemical exposures," he writes, "is the great variety of symptoms that can be produced in different individuals from an essentially identical exposure." Baker, too, recognizes a connection to stress or trauma. He writes, "an unknown percentage of individuals with adrenal weakness acquire it from stress. This was first studied by Hans Selye, the famous physiologist whose studies of soldiers killed in battle clarified the relationship between the adrenal gland and stress."
Other researchers have also noted the relationship between adrenal function and the process alternately called mal-digestive syndrome, chronic fatigue syndrome, or chronic Epstein-Barr virus. Early researchers believed chronic fatigue syndrome might be a low level form of the Epstein-Barr virus, which is also responsible for mononucleosis. This has since been largely disproven. But physician Jesse Stoff reported, "Many people with CEBV (chronic Epstein-Barr virus) tell me that they are either always chilly or that they are generally more sensitive to the cold than they were before they got sick. In these people I often find abnormalities in the adrenal and/or thyroid function tests." Molecular biologist Reginald de Pelichny writes that the mal-digestive syndrome is "part of that complex that forces the adrenal glad to output more coritcal hormones to try to control the inflammation that it produces. Evenutally, since this is going on three times a day, every meal that you eat
the cortical hormones die off because the system cannot produce them anymore."
One doctor believes that chronic fatigue syndrome is nothing more than the functional hypoadrenalism, chronically low adrenal levels, that results from the mal-digestive syndrome and the de-regulated immune system. Gerald E. Poesnecker writes, "Functional adrenal exhaustion is poorly understood by most physicians, and very little has been written for the general public on this condition. Surprisingly, the earlier investigators in hormones and hormone therapy knew it well. The reason it has been so ignored is difficult to explain."
According to Poesnecker, low adrenal levels may even be the cause of the initial mal-digestive process. When adrenal levels are very low, he reports, "the intestinal musculature is inactive." He continues, "experience has demonstrated that one of the first function to weaken in functional hypoadrenalism is the digestion
With poor digestion and assimilation these patients often exhibit multiple allergies due to incompletely digested proteins entering the blood stream."
A circular pattern seems to develop, with adrenal leading to poor digestion, and poor digestion leading to autoimmune disorders, impaired immune function, and suppressed adrenal levels. "Dysbiosis [incomplete digestion] and delayed food allergies are almost universally present in people with autoimmune disorders," reports Serafina Corsello, M.D., who serves as director of New York's Corsello Centers for Nutritional Complementary Medicine. And according to Burton Goldberg, "Continued dysbiosis leads to more allergies and serious health disorders such as chronic fatigue syndrome."
At least one physician, Sidney MacDonald Baker, directly associates multiple chemical sensitivies with adrenal insufficiency. Thus multiple allergies or chemical sensitivities could be considered a "symptom" of low adrenal levels. When the number of allergies increases to the point where the individual is allergic to almost every substance encountered, they become known as Universal Reactors, someone who reacts to just about everything. Often, their condition is now described as Environmental Illness or Chemical Sensitivity. Unfortunately, according to Baker, "Individuals who suffer from chemical sensitivity often find themselves in a surprisingly adversarial medical setting in which physicians state firmly that they 'do not believe in' chemical sensitivity and cite the find of emotional disorders in chemically sensitive patients as evidence that there is no physiologic basis for the problem
" Baker seems to apologize for his colleagues' responses. The chemically sensitive individual, he writes, "should be forewarned of encounters with physicians who hold strong positions that whatever is wrong with such patients is 'not real.'" The same could be said for individual's anywhere along this continuum. Perhaps most ironic, understandable emotional responses to such treatment by physicians such as depression, frustration, or anger not only serve to validate the physician's opinion, but contribute to the patient's stress, thus further suppress the immune system.
The toxic process once again becomes a circular process and if medical practitioners are confused by conflicting information, how much more confusing this process is to those suffering from it, or those who have family members suffering from one stage or another. It seems as if the physicians are playing the role of the blind men and the elephant, each one focused on a different part and describing a different creature. If names of the disorders are not consistent, one thing is consistent. Whether you call your condition mal-digestive syndrome, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Leaky Gut Syndrome, Candida, PMS, Chronic Epstein-Barr virus, Fibromyalgia, auto-immune Addison's, Hashimoto's thyroiditis, APICH syndrome, Chemical Sensitivity, or Environmental Illness, your immune system is under siege. The better you become at preventing your exposure to toxins, and at detoxing those toxins to which you have already been exposed, the better your embattled immune system will be able to rally and respond to this debilitating process. In order to understand just how detoxification can improve your immune function and general health, check out our section on the Immune System.
. de Pelichny, Reginald, unpublished transcript .
. Breeneman, Lewell D., "Immune Therapy," unpublished information handout for patients.
. Feldman, David, quoted in Trowbridge, John Parks and Walker, Morton, The Yeast Syndrome, New York: Bantam, 1986, 60.
. Ibid., 61.
. Saifer, Phyllis, in Trowbridge and Walker, 327.
. Baker, Sydney MacDonald, Detoxification & Healing: The Key to Optimal Health, New Canaan, CT: Keats Publishing, Co., 1997, 132.
. Ibid., 135-36.
. Stoff, Jesse A., and Pellegrino, Charles R., Chronic Fatigue Syndrome: The Hidden Epidemic, New York: HarperPerennial, 1986, 65.
. de Pelichny, unpublished transcript, 4.
. Poesnecker, Gerald E., Chronic Fatigue Unmasked, "History," HYPERLINK http://www.chronicfatigue.org http://www.chronicfatigue.org /History.html, 9/2/98, 4.
. Ibid., 5.
. Ibid., "Treatment," 2.
. Ibid., 235.
. Goldberg, Burton, Chronic Fatigue, Fibromyalgia & Environmental Illness, Tiburon, CA: Future Medicine Publishing, 1998, 235.
. Baker, 135.
. Baker, 130.