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Potential Mechanisms in Chemical Intolerance and Related Conditions


  • Daniel J. Clauw

    1. Georgetown Chronic Pain and Fatigue Research Center, and Division of Rheumatology, Immunology, and Allergy, Department of Medicine, Georgetown University Medical Center, Washington, District of Columbia 20007, USA
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Abstract: The symptom of chemical intolerance may occur in isolation, but often occurs in conjunction with other chronic symptoms such as pain, fatigue, memory disturbances, etc. This frequent clustering of symptoms in individuals has led to the definition of several chronic multisymptom syndromes, such as multiple chemical sensitivity, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, and Gulf War illnesses. The aggregate research into these syndromes has suggested some unifying mechanisms that contribute to symptomatology. Multiple lines of evidence suggest that there is aberrant function of numerous efferent neural pathways, such as the autonomic nervous system and hypothalamic-pituitary axes, in subsets of individuals with these conditions. There is perhaps the greatest evidence for abnormal sensory processing in these syndromes, with a low “unpleasantness threshold” for multiple types of sensory stimuli. Psychological and behavioral factors are known to play a significant role in initiating or perpetuating symptoms in some persons with these illnesses. In the field of pain research, the interrelationship between physiologic and psychologic factors in symptom expression has been well studied. Using both established and novel methodologies, studies have suggested that psychologic factors such as hypervigilance and expectancy are playing a relatively minor role in most individuals with fibromyalgia and that clear evidence exists of physiologic amplification of sensory stimuli. These studies need to be extended to more sensory tasks and to larger numbers of subjects with related conditions. It is of note, though, that existing data on this spectrum of illnesses would suggest that there may be greater psychologic contributions to symptomatology if an illness is defined in part by behavior (e.g., avoidance of chemical exposures) rather than on the basis of symptoms alone.