As you may know, I suffered from severe mast cell reactions for over 34 years before linking my childhood traumas to my mast cell issues. I thought I was just a girl that was “allergic to the world”. I also thought that I “had gotten away unscathed” after experiencing three major childhood traumas at ages 6, 14, and 15. Then at age 15, I suddenly broke out in rashes all over my body and, after many tests, found out I was allergic to nearly all chemicals, animal life, plant life, and many foods.
I had suppressed the 6-year-old trauma until age 41, and I chose not to discuss the 14-year-old trauma as I, 1) blamed myself partially that I had allowed the boys to get me drunk and 2) wanted to protect a close family friend as I knew he would get arrested if I told anyone, and it would break up our families. So, I kept quiet and never spoke a word about it to anyone for over 34 years.
How does this all relate to allergies and Mast Cell Activation Syndrome you may ask?
Studies have shown that mental and/or emotional stress often leads to mast cell degranulation in several tissues throughout the body. According to Pubmed.gov, “Several lines of experimental evidence indicate that stress, working through the sympathetic nervous system, or the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis, stimulates peripheral nerves to release neuropeptides that bind to receptors on the mast cells, causing them to degranulate.”
What does that mean to you in laymen’s terms? Simply stated, it means that stress can cause the degranulation of mast cells, which in turn causes moderate to severe allergic reactions. In order to better understand the process of mast cell degranulation, let’s take a closer look at mast cells in general.
Mast cells are important cells of the immune system that are found in mucosal and epithelial tissues throughout the body. Mast cells are found in all vascularized tissues except for the central nervous system and the retina. They are found in the GI tract, skin, respiratory epithelium, and below the epithelium in the connective tissue surrounding blood cells, smooth muscle, mucous, and hair follicles.
Phenotypes (observable trait) of Mast Cells:
- Mucosal mast cells that produce only tryptase
- Connective tissue mast cells that produce chymase, tryptase, and carboxypeptidases
The above is important in understanding the types of enzymes that are released during a reaction.
- Tryptase is an enzyme that is released, along with histamine and other chemicals, from mast cells when they are activated as part of a normal immune response as well as in allergic responses. Tryptase tests can be taken to measure the amount of tryptase in one’s blood.
- Chymase in mast cells have essential roles in blood coagulation, apoptosis, inflammation, and host immunity, among other processes. Mast cell chymase is a common potential marker for anaphylaxis.
- Peptidases are the major protein of all mast cells. Carboxypeptidases are co-released with tryptase during mast cell degranulation and are more frequently utilized as a test for mast cell activation syndrome over the past few years.
Mast Cell Degranulation:
Definition from the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology:
Mast cells are allergy cells responsible for immediate allergic reactions. They cause allergic symptoms by releasing products called “mediators” stored inside them or made by them. In allergic reactions, this release occurs when the allergy antibody IgE, which is present on the mast cell surfaces, binds to proteins that cause allergies, called allergens. This triggering is called activation, and the release of these mediators is called degranulation.
What Happens Upon Degranulation?:
At the point that a mast cell detects a substance that triggers an allergic reaction (allergen), the degranulation process begins and histamine, along with other chemicals, are released into the bloodstream. Histamine then creates the blood vessels to expand, and the surrounding skin becomes itchy and swollen. It can also create a build-up of mucus in the airways, which narrows the airway.
Ok, now that we have the terms and definitions out of the way, and we understand a little more about mast cell degranulation, let’s take a closer look at how all this relates to trauma and stress!
Remember above when I mentioned that stress processes through the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and can lead to degranulation of the mast cells?
Well, this is because the SNS contributes to the Fight or Flight response in the body. During this time, the SNS signals the adrenal glands to release epinephrine and cortisol hormones in the body.
But isn’t cortisol a good thing as it helps reduce histamine in the body, you might ask?
Yes, that is true under normal circumstances. However, when the body is undergoing constant allergic reactions such as in individuals with chronic allergies or MCAS, the adrenal glands are often tired and not able to produce enough cortisol to help with the high amount of histamine that is released during mast cell degranulation. This simply means that the release of histamine through degranulation is stronger, or more abundant, than the release of cortisol, and the mast cell release of histamine overpowers the cortisol release, leading to allergic reactions that occur each time the body encounters a trigger (or fight/flight response in the SNS).
Diving even deeper, it is important to note that trauma, and/or triggers from past trauma, often show up as depression, anxiety, inability to manage one’s emotions, and/or PTSD. However, people that deal with chronic allergic reactions or MCAS may find that their triggers show up physically as allergic reactions, rather than emotionally. Or, one may experience both.
Let’s put this into a real-life scenario!
Remember that I never spoke about my trauma at age 14. And I truly believed that I had gotten away unscathed from the two traumas I knew about. That is because I never felt emotional pain from the traumas beyond the moment they happened.
How is that possible you ask?
Great question. In reality, I now know that I shoved the pain deep inside me, rather than face it. I basically swallowed the pain, put a smile on my face as I told myself I was “fine” and “lucky, because it could have been worse”. However, my body never forgot. It held on to every emotion that I was unable or unwilling to face. It remembered every detail, every feeling. It held onto the physical and the emotional pain that I suffered and tried so hard to scream at me to listen for over 34 years!
My functional doctor once told me that “my body made me allergic to the world by protecting me from the world”. It didn’t make a lot of sense at first, but over time as I healed my body’s response to the trauma, I understood what he meant. Every single thing that was in my surroundings during all three traumas had become a threat to my body. The foods that were in my digestive system, the grass I was lying on and the trees and flowers that I could see or smell, the spores I inhaled while lying on my stomach (basically everything I saw, smelt, or touched during the traumas) became a threat to my body. And my SNS responded by means of degranulation of my mast cells when I encountered the triggers from each of the traumas.
And as life carried on, and more stress piled on as I raised a family, earned a degree, and worked full time while managing the allergic reactions as best as possible, the triggers became worse and the reactions more intense. Until my body nearly shut down, as it had had enough!
However, if you have read my story, you know that it didn’t end there. Over time I was able to heal my mast cell reactions, first by focusing on healing the trauma. I spent over 34 years taking one medication after another, trying to figure out what I could eat each day, and trying to control my surroundings so “it wouldn’t happen again”. I know now that managing and controlling was never going to last. What I needed to do was heal. I needed to feel it all and let all the pain out of my body. And that is what I did!
And you can too!!