More on Overactive Mast Cells and How to Calm Them Down
I wrote earlier about an essential part of our immune systems called mast cells and the period when mine went wild, reacting to pretty much anything I ate or drank as if Attila’s Huns were at the gate and needed to be attacked at all costs – even if they killed me in the process.
Since I figured out that it was hyperactive mast cells that were giving me such grief in 2012 and enlisted my chiropractor and GI doctor to help me calm them down, I’ve continued to have intermittent periods when those cells in my gut immune system have become overactive, resulting in bloating, gas, some diarrhea alternating with constipation, and even occasionally a bit of acid reflux. Always looking to figure out the underlying cause of a health problem and fix it rather than treat only the symptoms, and knowing that chronically hyperactive mast cells produce allergies and autoimmune diseases – along with any number of other diseases and conditions – and that emotional stress exacerbates mast cell hyperactivity, I came to the realization that I actually had the tools to calm myself and slow down the reactivity in my GI tract. Here’s how I finally got the message: Last week I went to see my GI doc just to check if my gut might have developed some new problem that was causing these unpleasant symptoms. He’s a fairly traditional Western doctor and also a very nice, compassionate man. I’d brought my C. difficile article and a stack of other articles on mast cell hyperactivity to my appointment with him in 2012. He thanked me and asked if it would be OK if he read them on his own time. Then he agreed to do a biopsy during my colonoscopy to check for mast cell proliferation. A good thing I’d asked since my colon looked perfect and it was only the biopsy that revealed all the mast cell over activity. Since 2012, he’s become interested in the whole topic of the gut microbiome and opened our appointment last week by giving me an excellent article published in The New York Times in 2005 called “The Other Brain Also Deals With Many Woes”. I highly recommend it to you as the clearest description I’ve read of how mast cells can cause serious mischief and how stress increases the problem. This is the part of the article about mast cells and stress: Another mechanism that lends credence to physiology as the source of intestinal dysfunctions is the system of mast cells in the gut that have an important role in the immune response. “During stress, trauma or ‘fight or flight’ reactions, the barrier between the lumen, the interior of the gut where food is digested, and the rest of the bowel could be broken, and bad stuff could get across,” Dr. Wood said. “So the big brain calls in more immune surveillance at the gut wall by activating mast cells.” These mast cells release histamines and other inflammatory agents, mobilizing the enteric nervous system to expel the perceived intruders, and causing diarrhea. Inflammation-induced by mast cells may turn out to be crucial in understanding and treating GI disorders. Inflamed tissue becomes tender. A gut under stress, with chronic mast cell production and consequent inflammation, may become tender, as well. In animals, Dr. Mawe said, inflammation makes the sensory neurons in the gut fire more often, causing a kind of sensory hyperactivity. “I have a theory that some chronic disorders may be caused by something like attention deficit disorder in the gut,” he said. Dr. Gershon, too, theorizes that physiology is the original culprit in brain-gut dysfunctions. “We have identified molecular defects in the gut of everyone who has irritable bowel syndrome,” he said. “If you were chained by bloody diarrhea to a toilet seat, you, too, might be depressed.” Still, psychology clearly plays a role. Recent studies suggest that stress, especially early in life, can cause chronic GI diseases, at least in animals. “If you put a rat on top of a little platform surrounded by water, which is very stressful for a rat, it develops the equivalent of diarrhea,” Dr. Mayer said. Another experiment showed that when young rats were separated from their mothers, the layer of cells that line the gut, the same barrier that is strengthened by mast cells during stress, weakened and became more permeable, allowing bacteria from the intestine to pass through the bowel walls and stimulate immune cells. “In rats, it’s an adaptive response,” Dr. Mayer said. “If they’re born into a stressful, hostile environment, nature programs them to be more vigilant and stress responsive in their future life.” He said up to 70 percent of the patients he treats for chronic gut disorders had experienced early childhood traumas like parents’ divorces, chronic illnesses or parents’ deaths. “I think that what happens in early life, along with an individual’s genetic background, programs how a person will respond to stress for the rest of his or her life,” he said. Either way, what is good for one brain is often good for the other, too. A team of researchers from Penn State University recently discovered a possible new direction in treating intestinal disorders, biofeedback for the brain in the gut.
CALMING DOWN THOSE HYPERACTIVE MAST CELLS I was now intent on finding a way to soothe my mast cells so they wouldn’t overwork themselves rushing to my rescue when there were no invaders to kill. When my mast cells were working too hard, my gut didn’t feel disorganized or uncentered as it had during the C. difficile infection. It did feel like I was exerting too much pressure on my GI tract, especially on my intestines. I felt a kind of subtle tightness in the area. So I did some simple breath work (pranayama) and visualized removing the tightness, making it roomier inside my gut. And I instantly felt better and all the symptoms stopped. Since then, when I’ve felt myself tightening up in there, I’ve been able to use the technique to reduce the pressure. What a relief!
Here’s a short video showing a simple breathing exercise for anxiety and tension. And a longer guided relaxation video for visualizing health. Please remember that breath work and visualizations don’t need to be done seated cross legged on the floor. Try doing them sitting in a chair, standing, lying down, walking – wherever you are. And they don’t have to be done for a long period. Even 30 seconds can make an enormous difference.
REFERENCES Brown, H. (August 23 2005). The Other Brain Also Deals with Many Woes. The New York Times. See http://www.nytimes.com/2005/08/23/health/23gut.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0 © Copyright 2014 Joan Rothchild Hardin. All Rights Reserved.
DISCLAIMER: Nothing on this site or blog is intended to provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.
Comments submitted prior to 8/25/2021
Thank you for writing about this! I have had what I think is mastcell issues especially in my mouth now bu overall aswell for a couple of years, well since I got MCS and a total food intolerance. I figure my childhood issues and overall stresses became too much and I just became extremely reactive to everything around me. I’m glad you have had success! I have had some success aswell, I am no longer as chemically sensitive but still struggle lots with food issues. Mine are mostly instant reactions in mouth but also lots of acid reflux and stomach cramping up etc. I am trying to stay hopeful and you writing about this is helping!! Take care!
In reply to agnes
Agnes, Multiple Chemical Sensitivity certainly makes life hard. My understanding of MCS is that consumption of antibiotics, repeated exposure to toxins (eg, pesticides in genetically modified foods, toxins in our environment) deplete the good, probiotic bacteria in the gut,
possibly causing Leaky Gut Syndrome. A leaky gut permits microbes, toxins, undigested food and waste to leak out of the gut and into the blood stream, prompting the body to initiate a strong immune reaction (those mast cells) to try to vanquish the invaders & leading to severe health conditions – such as MCS. People with MCS have been found to be low in zinc, magnesium and the amino acid cysteine – all important nutrients involved in the body’s
detoxification processes. If the body can’t detoxify itself adequately, the immune system gets overwhelmed and becomes overly sensitive to toxic ingredients in processed foods, laundry detergents, cigarette smoke, car exhaust, chemicals in carpets & textiles, glues, soaps, food
dyes, perfumes, scented cleaning products, chemical preservatives – chemicals in general.
Are you working on getting your gut bacteria (your gut microbiome) in good shape – eating a variety of fermented foods (to replenish the probiotics the gut needs to work properly), taking high quality probiotic supplements, eating foods and using personal hygiene products that don’t contain genetically modified ingredients & chemical preservatives? Have you also been checked for gut parasites & infections? Please let me know how you’re doing in your search to restore your health.
Thank you for the article! Have realized how lucky I am when noticed years ago was somehow calming IBS intestinal cramping while washing dishes. Would put mind to it and slow relax the spasms. Then realized had been doing with migraines and then asthma. Thought these all seem to be an overreactiveness and all related. Wonder if could use on feeling like soggy noodle in the heat, since think its histamine to BP related. Thought might be vagus nerve or … Went on SCD 4 yrs ago which helped, though couldnt do the 24 yogurt for a year. Doing much better but getting daily-hourly differences in good to not energy &/or
concentration. Healing gut is still going on.
Dr measured methylmalonic acid and they said good (was worried with MTHFR 677TT, might be hi homocysteine with family heart history).
WEll have learned a lot and try to enjoy life and be useful. Those things that aresmelly have always avoided (bus, detergent(remember meeting mother on next isle at market)).
In reply to Lynn D
Calming your mind and body is always helpful. Are you also supplementing with high quality probiotics – including Saccharomyces boulardii? Sounds like you’ve got several autoimmune conditions, all of which could benefit from balancing the probiotics in your gut.
In reply to Joan Rothchild Hardin
Still wanting even better health. Did try S boulardii and it caused even worse constipation than had. Finally found some info that shouldnt take if constipated. WIll try to see if can effect how feel in heat, thought was low BP then wondered if the histamines, maybe can calm them better (tried some fruit and vite C yesterday, felt more human). Only thing diagnosed with is borderline osteoporosis. Maybe like a friend said, taking such good care of self helps.
Did see a few you tubes on Spectracell testing and mentioning cramps (get in legs at night sometimes or just twitching skin). trying to find if mineral imbalance…Is much reduced from 4 yrs ago. Thank you
In reply to Lynn D
Lynn, Yes, the probiotic yeast Saccharomyces boulardii is excellent for stopping diarrhea – so wouldn’t be good for constipation. I’ve had neither diarrhea nor constipation on a maintenance dose of 1 S. boulardii capsule 3X/day.
Causes of leg cramps:
* Dehydration or inadequate intake of water
* Depleted levels of potassium and sodium (salt)
* Depleted carbohydrate levels
* Tense or stiff muscles
* Vitamin deficiencies
* Poor blood circulation
* Shifts in the body fluids such as seen in cirrhosis or during dialysis for kidney failure may also cause cramps.
* Vigorous physical activities and muscle fatigue may cause muscle cramps.
* Rest cramps are commonly seen in older individuals and they often occur at night.
* Injury or trauma such as bone fracture can cause muscle spasm and cramps, acting as a defense mechanism to prevent further injury.