Mast Cell Activation May Underlie Chronic Fatigue Syndrome — Medscape

SALT LAKE CITY, UT — Mast cell activation syndrome (MCAS) may be an overlooked yet potentially treatable contributor to the symptoms of chronic fatigue syndrome/myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME/CFS), say physicians who specialize in ME/CFS and its manifestations.

The subject was discussed during a 2-day clinician summit held March 2 to 3, 2018, during which 13 panelists met to begin developing expert consensus guidance for primary care and specialist physicians for the management of the complex multisystem illness ME/CFS, and to recommend research priorities.

“ME/CFS is a descriptive diagnosis of a bunch of symptoms, but it says nothing about what’s causing the symptoms, which is probably part of the reason it’s so hard for it to get recognition. So, the question becomes, What other pathology is driving this illness and making the person feel so ill? I think mast cell activation is one of those drivers, whether cause, effect, or perpetuator, I don’t know,” internist David Kaufman, MD, who practices in Mountain View, California, told Medscape Medical News.

MCAS is a recently described collection of signs and symptoms involving several different organ systems, that, as with ME/CFS itself, do not typically cause abnormalities in routine laboratory or radiologic testing. Proposed diagnostic criteria were published in 2010 in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology.

Kaufman first learned about MCAS about 5 years ago from a patient who introduced him to the published work of mast cell expert Lawrence Afrin, MD. “I spoke to him and then I started looking for it, and the more I looked, the more I found it,” Kaufman said, estimating that he has identified MCAS in roughly half his patients who meet ME/CFS criteria.

Indeed, summit panel member Charles W. Lapp, MD, who recently retired from his ME/CFS and fibromyalgia practice in Charlotte, North Carolina, told Medscape Medical News, “I see a lot of this. I think it’s one of the many overlap syndromes that we’ve been missing for years.”

Another panel member, New York City ME/CFS specialist Susan M. Levine, MD, also said she sees MCAS frequently. “I suspect 50% to 60% of ME/CFS patients have it. It’s a very new concept.”

In Levine’s experience, MCAS often manifests in patients being unable to tolerate certain foods or medications. “If we can reduce the mast cell problem, we can facilitate taking other drugs to treat ME/CFS,” she said. However, she also cautioned, “It’s going to be a subset, not all ME/CFS patients.”

Clinical Assessment and Laboratory Testing

As discussed at the summit, for patients who meet ME/CFS criteria, the next step is to drill down into individual patients’ symptoms and address treatable abnormalities. Investigation for MCAS may yield such findings among those who exhibit episodic symptoms consistent with mast cell mediator release affecting two or more of the following areas:

  • Skin: urticaria, angioedema, flushing
  • Gastrointestinal: nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal cramping
  • Cardiovascular: hypotensive syncope or near syncope, tachycardia
  • Respiratory: wheezing
  • Naso-ocular: conjunctival injection, pruritus, nasal stuffiness

Symptoms can wax and wane over years and range from mild to severe/debilitating. It is important to ask about triggers, Kaufman advised. “The patient is usually aware of what makes them feel worse.”

Routine laboratory assessments include complete blood count with differential, complete metabolic panel, magnesium, and prothrombin time/partial thromboplastin time.

More specific laboratory testing can be tricky, as the samples must be kept cold. These include serum tryptase, chromogranin A, plasma prostaglandin D2, histamine, heparin, a variety of random and 24-hour urinary prostaglandins, and urinary leukotriene E4.

For patients who have had a prior biopsy, the saved sample can be stained for mast cells.

Kaufman said that initially after he learned about MCAS, he would only run the laboratory tests in patients with suggestive clinical history, such as food sensitivities/triggers, rashes, hives, temperature intolerance, or chemical sensitivities. “But ultimately, I had patients [for whom] I couldn’t figure out what was going on; I would check, and started finding positives in patients I wasn’t suspicious of.”

So, now he just tests for it in all his patients with ME/CFS. “It’s bigger than allergy,” he remarked.

Treatment May Ease Some ME/CFS Symptoms

Treatment of MCAS involves trigger avoidance as possible; H1 receptor antagonists such as loratadine, cetirizine, or fexofenadine (up to double the usual doses); H2 histamine receptor antagonists including famotidine or ranitidine; and mast cell membrane-stabilizers such as cromolyn sodium. Slow-release vitamin C can also help in inhibiting mast cells.

Over-the-counter plant flavonoids such as quercetin also may be helpful, typically at high doses (up to 1000 mg three times daily). “There’s a long list of medications that either quiet down mast cell activation or block the receptor,” Kaufman noted.

But despite that, without controlled trials, it is difficult to determine the exact clinical effects of blocking mast cells, especially as these patients tend to be taking many other medications. And in the context of ME/CFS, the extent to which suppressing mast cell activity addresses the core symptoms of fatigue, postexertional malaise, orthostatic intolerance, and cognitive dysfunction is unclear.

Kaufman noted, “I think treatment clearly helps with the fatigue because they’re not reacting to everything. It improves gastrointestinal symptoms, so they can eat better…. I have seen [postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome] improve, but I have to say I also give meds for dysautonomia, so I can’t be sure.”

Lapp said that in his experience, “[Patients with ME/CFS] aren’t cured, but do get better. [Blocking mast cell activity] gets rid of dizziness, fatigue, nausea, and light sensitivity.”

Levine pointed out, “We’re just at the beginning of identifying this patient subset and thinking what makes sense to try…. One thing that’s sure is that the drugs are pretty safe,” she said, adding that when it comes to working up patients with ME/CFS for MCAS, “There only seem to be good things that can happen.”

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Dental Work Protocol and Precautions for People With MCAS/ME/MCS.

I have to get a filling done for the first time since being sick and extremely reactive to medications. I know this is the beginning of many future dental procedures because I have a lot of aging mercury fillings and I’m sure they will have to be replaced eventually. Also, I haven’t been wearing any sort of oral device when I sleep — be it a night guard or apnea apparatus — so I’ve been clamping down, grinding and cracking my teeth again. Also, my teeth feel more unstable this past year: I have trouble chewing certain foods in certain spots and random pain. I read that this might be a result of immunoglobulin infusions; some people claim it wrecks dental health. I haven’t gone down that research rabbit hole, but it nags at me a bit. So, I need to find out what anesthetics and materials are safe for me and develop a standing protocol for this current cavity and also for future dental work.

I am one of these mast cell people that can eat almost anything, but I have extreme reactions to micro-doses of medications — even medications I’ve taken with no problem in the past — so, I’m scared of being in a dentist’s chair and having an anaphylactic reaction of any sort. I’ve been doing research and, as usual with MCAS, there aren’t great ways to control the outcome of a procedure like this besides taking normal precautions and crossing my fingers. Normal precautions for me are:

  • Schedule my appointment for a safe time of the month. My menstrual cycle is bananas at the moment (has been coming every 13 days some months recently and spotting daily), so I only feel confident the first week after my period.
  • Premedicate: For the week before, I will not forget to take my Loratadine and Ranitidine twice a day. On the day of, I will take Prednisone (I take a VERY low dose because it wallops me), Benadryl, Zantac and Paracetamol.
  • Hydrate to raise blood pressure: In the days before, I will drink 2-3 litres of water. On the day of, I will do IV fluids (maybe).
  • Food to stabilize blood sugar: Be well fed before the procedure and have frozen food prepared for afterwards. I also eat a lower histamine diet in the days before and after a new or risky medical procedure.
  • Rest: Be well rested before and proactively rest after the procedure.
  • Try to do as much of the dental work as possible without anesthetic. Before the dentist starts, bite open a capsule of Benadryl and squirt it on the tooth and gums in question. I learned this trick from an allergist who told me to squirt Benadryl directly on my tongue when it swelled up. Benadryl is a great numbing agent.
  • Have the dentist use a local anesthetic without epinephrine. I found this out the hard way long before I was sick or dealing with mast cell issues. I’ve always responded badly to epi.
  • I always carry salt packets, glucose tablets, electrolyte water, antihistamines and an EpiPen to help stabilse my vitals, manage any reactions and ward off vasovagal syncope.

Once I’ve gotten this first filling out of the way with no reactions, I’ll undoubtedly ease up on the pre-meds and not consider IV fluids, but, because I don’t know how I’ll react, I’m taking all precautions this time.

Here is some info on choices for dental materials:

  • Local anesthetics:
    • Allergic reactions to local anesthetics may occur as a result of sensitivity to:
      • 1) either the ester or amide component;
      • 2) the preservative methylparaben;
      • 3) sulfites (sodium bisulfite, potassium metabisulfite), which are used as a preservative in local anesthetics that contain epinephrine; or
      • 4) the medication, itself.
    • Ester-based local anesthetics are typically associated with a higher incidence of allergic reactions due to one of their metabolites, para-amino benzoic acid (PABA). In general, amide-based local anesthetics are less likely to cause allergic responses because they do not undergo metabolism to PABA.
    • Ester-based injectable local anesthetics are no longer used in the United States, but are used topically (numbing jellies, such as Benzocaine), so discuss what your dentist will be using.
    • Allergic reactions to amide-based local anesthetics can occur because of the preservative, methylparaben, which is structurally similar to PABA. However, methylparaben has been removed from single-use dental local anesthetic cartridges, which are what private dental offices typically use (multi-use vials might still contain methylparaben. These are typically used in hospital settings and physicians’ offices). Double-check what your dentist uses.
    • True allergies to amides are exceedingly rare in the general population (but they do exist — for some ideas on how to navigate dental work with an amide allergy, see this article). Because of this, your dentist might (correctly) tell you that allergies to amides (as opposed to the preservatives in the anesthetic) are virtually unheard of or that it is impossible to be “allergic” to epinephrine. I think it’s important not to use the word “allergy” too casually, but, rather, make sure your doctor understands how mast cell degranulation works with MCAS: that you can have anaphylactic (life-threatening) reactions that are not IgE-mediated, but present the same way.
    • People with ME, mast cell disease or multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS) often have exaggerated reactions to the epinephrine in many local anesthetics. These anesthetics also contain sulfites (added as a preservative for the epinephrine), which can cause allergic reactions. If you are concerned about reactions to epi, sulfites or want to play it safe, I would ask for a local anesthetic without epinephrine. Bear in mind, you will metabolize the anesthetic quicker than if it had epinephrine, so, depending on the procedure, you may need more injections (right before I got sick, I had dental work done that required over 20 injections and I think the gruelling nature of that day probably played a part in my immune system crash).
    • Examples of common anesthetics that are typically tolerated, according to The Mastocytosis Society: Lidocaine, Bupivacaine, Prilocaine (brand names Bidanest or Citanest Plain (the latter contains no vasoconstrictor)), Mepivacaine (also called Carbocaine, Scandonest, Polocaine (by Astra)) and Ropivacaine (which is always preservative-free). I believe Mepivacaine is always free of epinephrine (and I’ve been told by a few friends that they had no reactions to it; one very sensitive friend specified that she got 3cc of 1.7% Carbocaine and was fine), but, as always, double-check with your dentist. This page has a handy chart of local anesthetics’ ingredients.
    • Some anesthetics don’t use epi, but do use a different vasoconstrictor (for example, Citanest Forte), so make sure you are clear on what your dentist uses.
    • Other things to note:
      • If you have Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome (EDS), which is a connective tissue disease that is a common comorbid condition of ME, MCAS and POTS/dysautonomia, you might need more anesthetic and it might wear off quicker than the average person — especially when using a medication without epinephrine because there’s no vasoconstriction.
      • Vasodilators are risky for those of us with hypotension and circulatory problems. Nitrous oxide is a cerebral vasodilator — not to be confused with NITRIC oxide (not used in dentistry, as far as I know), a strong vasodilator often used for respiratory diseases.
      • Most topical anesthetics contain gluten, so those individuals with either celiac disease or gluten sensitivity should avoid topical anesthesia.[ii]
      • I have been told by multiple people with chronic pain syndromes that going without anesthesia is not a good idea because, in these cases, the body “remembers” the pain and it can set you up for future worsening issues.
  • Fillings:
    • Composite: cheaper, expands better than porcelain, usually better for small fillings.
      • Traditional composite examples:
        • Grandioflow
        • Filtek Supreme Ultra by 3M
      • Holistore unshaded by DenMat is a biocompatible composite that is recommended for bonding and smaller fillings. It contains no metal oxides, but is quite white in color and is significantly less durable than some other composites. Premise Indirect (formally BelleGlass) unshaded by Kerr for in a metal-free composite that can be used for crowns, inlays and bridges.
    • Porcelain: looks more natural than composite and the consensus is that this is the safest material option, however porcelain contains more metal oxides than composite and is much more expensive ($thousands vs $hundreds). It cannot be used in certain instances (for example, small spaces between teeth). They are pre-fabricated, so take more time and multiple appointments.
      • Inlays: fit inside the tooth.
      • Onlays: fit over the tooth.
      • Crowns and bridges.
      • Zirconium: can be used for inlays/onlays or implants.
  • Dental cements/adhesives/bonding agents: There are various different kinds (for example, my dentist uses Prime & Bond Elect by Dentsply and Relyx is often used for crowns). Some biological dentists recommend Tenure and Tenure S by DenMat for bonding. Other brands used by bio-dentists I’ve contacted: Optibond, Admira Bond, All Bond Universal. Like composite material, there’s not a lot of information on brands that are “safer”, so you might just have to try one out and cross your fingers.

Dr. Douglas Cook, who is known to see many patients with MCS, has written books and has a lot of info on his website about biocompatible dental materials.

Here’s a link to the most typical dental materials that test as “clean” and relatively inert.

For an good in-depth analysis, see this article: Allergic Reactions to Dental Materials-A Systematic Review.

There are options for reactivity testing before you have dental work done. I’m a bit of a skeptic and, more importantly, I like to conserve energy and money, so I probably won’t do any of this testing, but I’ll lay them out:

Testing before dental work (some info here):

  • Clifford blood test: You need a doctor to order this test and it’s over $300. It tests for “antibody sensitivity” to 94 chemical groups and “correlates” these sensitivities to 17,204 dental materials. I put those in quotes because, after corresponding with Walter Clifford and researching how these tests are done, I’m not sure I trust his skills or the accuracy/scientific legitimacy of the testing. IMHO. I might be wrong. However… it’s something. It’s a guide. Even if, at a minimum, it makes a patient feel more confident and less fearful of a reaction, that, in itself, can calm mast cells. (Note: If you do immunoglobulin infusions, the accuracy of the Clifford test results will be compromised.)
  • Muscle testing dental materials. Biological dentists often have kits that can be sent to your ND. Again, I’m not sure how I feel about muscle testing, but, at the very least, it’s a way to provide direction and give confidence.
  • MELISA blood test for metal allergies. You need a doctor’s order and they’re pricey. Here is their test requisition with the costs. Shipping to Germany from where I live is $118 on top of the cost of the test, so bear this in mind.

It turns out, my cavity has grown around an existing mercury filling, which will have to come out. I was planning to go to my regular dentist (who is interested in learning about mast cell diseases and is phenomenal about talking through options), but he doesn’t take any precautions when removing mercury and the last thing I need is my body to be burdened by additional toxins when I am compromised in virtually every detoxification pathway there is (not just things like liver and methylation, but my body doesn’t even manage to do the very basics like bowel movements and sweating). So, I’m planning on finding a local dentist that practices the “SMART” protocol for mercury removal. The downside of this is that I’ll need another full exam with my new dentist even though I just had one with my regular dentist, which means at least two appointments to get the filling done. Plus, this is all out of pocket for me, but my regular doctor gives me a cash discount which these holistic/biological dentists don’t = energy and $$$.

You can search here, but I asked my doctor, my friends and in local online groups and came up with this list of Seattle-area dentists:

  • Paul Rubin (North Seattle, possibly retiring soon)
  • Richard Stickney (downtown, front office staff is incredibly informative, thorough and kind)
  • Jessica Saepoff (Issaquah and Mercer Island)
  • Rebecca Taylor
  • Gregory Zimmer (Tacoma)
  • Mitch Marder (I ruled him out for myself because of a bad experience.)

I think I am going to see Paul Rubin or Richard Stickney, based on location and my conversations with their staff. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Speaking of detox, you might want to consider taking/using these things before and after dental work (I never have, but I’m considering it):

  • Charcoal capsules
  • Charcoal toothpaste
  • Chlorella
  • DMSA
  • One dentist recommended taking this product up to a month before mercury removal.

See The Mastocytosis Society’s medication guide here and more on medications that impact mast cell degranulation here.

Find mast cell dental info on Lisa Klimas’s Mast Attack blog here and other articles by Cathy Scofield here and here. An ME/CFS dental info handout is here.*

*I did not write these articles or research the details, so some of the info might not be entirely accurate — it’s up to you to do your own research.

**References:**

The Mastocytosis Society’s Emergency Room Protocol.
[i] Allergic Reactions Did you know. . . Volume IV, Number 1 | January/February 2001
[ii] “Numbing Jelly” or Dental Topical Anesthesia.
Understanding allergic reactions to local anesthetics.
Allergic Reactions to Dental Materials-A Systematic Review.
Non-IgE mediated mast cell activation.
Novocaine Allergy Part II – Methylparaben and Sulfites.

SIBO Antibiotic Failure in Half a Milliliter.

Referring to my last post:

I am devastated. But allow me to give you some backstory, so you understand my emotional reaction to a failed drug trial. It took me a year to try the SIBO protocol, but, during that year, I wasn’t just sitting around, waiting to get the nerve up — there was so much time, energy and money invested in procuring the safest and smartest medications for me.

Initially, Dr. K wanted me to take the two gut antibiotics without having the SIBO test, but I asked if I could do the test first ($180) because I had been negative for SIBO a few years ago. The preparatory diet was brutal for me this time (when I did it in 2014, I don’t remember it being a big deal). I had to eat only meat, eggs and rice for two full days because of my chronic constipation and it made me very sick and weak, nauseous, hungry and shaky. During the test, I had a massive blood sugar crash, but you’re not meant to eat or drink while collecting breath samples, so I waited too long and got more and more hypoglycemic, finally giving in to apple juice, but the whole experience took a toll. So, there was that.

Then there was the energy involved getting the Rifaximin: Asking my doctor to send in a pre-authorization, getting refused, sending in an appeal, getting refused, a third party appeal and refusal — all of this taking so much time in between each step. Calling around to pharmacies to see if there was anywhere that sold it for less than $1,500. Not wanting to buy the generic for $200 because it has colourings that I avoid. Asking my doctor to send a sample of the tablets, so I could try them before buying them. Waiting on that sample to arrive. Waiting for a good day to try it — a day I felt strong enough with no other conflicting variables like a migraine or a day I was doing my infusion. Calling a pharmacist to see if I could cut the tablet (they said no because it’s enteric coated to stay in tact until it reaches your gut), but cutting it anyway because I have to start with a sliver and the worst that can happen is it’s not effective and who cares? — this is just a test. Taking bigger and bigger slivers over the course of a week. Deciding it’s okay and safe to order from the online pharmacy in Singapore and, because so much time has gone by and it takes another 2-4 weeks for delivery from the time of order, having it sent to our California address.

In the meantime, once I knew I wouldn’t react to the Rifaximin, I started calling around about the Vancomycin (because I’m meant to take them concurrently). I called so many compounding pharmacies, so much time invested, taking notes on brands, ingredients, prices, my options for liquids or capsules. Then, when I had found the cheapest ($200) and most competent-sounding pharmacy, I consulted with the pharmacist over and over about the details: first, about ingredients (no flavourings, no preservatives, compounded only in sterile water). Then about the timeline, explaining that I couldn’t start at full dose, that it would take me a few weeks to titrate up and is there a way to prolong the 2-week shelf life? He said he could freeze it, extending the “discard by” date from 14 to 90 days. Then we brainstormed some more and decided to freeze it in 4 bottles, so I only needed to defrost one at a time, keeping the others preserved. Then he said he should make it at the last minute, to keep it fresh as long as possible. My husband drove across town on the day we were leaving for California to pick it up. I kept it in a cooler with ice packs during our road trip and managed it like a bird on a nest: tending to it, moving it out of the sun, re-freezing the ice packs each night. And then, once we were here, I just waited for the Rifaximin delivery so I could start them both together.

So much goes into this sort of thing, aside from the $580. Not to mention my hopes. For all my fear of repercussions, once I decide to do something, I put nothing but a positive and excited spin on things. Taking antibiotics for the first time could be a game changer — like antivirals have been for so many. I’ve never addressed my gut and I certainly don’t have a strict diet, so there’s hope for positive change there. What if my brain symptoms are better and my sleep is better and I don’t have to do enemas anymore? I am an expert at swallowing something and forgetting about it, so I’m not nervous or over-analyzing my body. Down the hatch and that’s it. Don’t pay attention. But last night the Vanco got my attention.

My prescribed dosage is 30 ml a day. THIRTY. Last night, I took 0.5 ml. HALF A MILLILITER. Soon after, something started happening in my throat on the left-hand side. Then my tongue started swelling on the left. Then a headache on the left. And, finally, heart palpitations. My tongue got bigger and bigger. I was dumbfounded. If I were going to react to anything, I thought it would be the Sunset Yellow generic Singaporean Rifaximin, not the sterile water vanco that Kyle the pharmacist put so much care into!

Dumbfounded and devastated. For me, tongue swelling is as scary as it gets because it is the precursor to full-blown anaphylaxis — especially tongue swelling with head and heart involvement. The mast cell meltdowns that I experience in the night, with sweats and chills and poisoned feelings, are much worse physically, but not as serious as tongue swelling. Not as scary. All of my anaphylaxis ER visits involved tongue swelling. It’s something that can get worse quickly. So, how do I get the nerve up to try the Vanco again? Are all those frozen bottles of medication a loss? That’s what made me start crying. Not the time or money or hopes dashed, but the thought that I can’t try it again. It’s not like my hydrocortisone success story; I can’t push through. Next time, it could be much worse, like your second bee sting. My control is taken away. Even if I wanted to try again tomorrow… I can’t risk anything even akin to anaphylaxis. It’s the trauma I will always carry. If I spontaneously recovered from ME today, I would still carry the fear of anaphylaxis with me for the rest of my life, like a brown recluse spider, hiding in plain sight, threatening sickness and death when you least expect it. Damn.

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Update: A Google search shows me that people take Rifaximin without the second antibiotic. I inferred from my doctor that they had to be taken together, but maybe not. Maybe all is not lost for treatment.

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Another update: One long bath, one meditation and a good conversation with my husband later… Feel much better about the whole thing. He’s so good at saying, “don’t think about the money, let it go” and “it’s just a drop in the bucket of the last 6 years” and “move on to the next thing” and “you’re doing okay, you’re not bedbound, you’ve made improvements without this treatment.” And then I look at the vast desert sky and envision the stars and universe beyond and think about how small I am. And how lucky I am. My tongue swelling resolved with Benadryl last night and today I’m eating ice cream next to my dogs in the sun, listening to a cacophony of birds nearby and coyotes howling in the distance. 

Medication Wars: Treating SIBO and Low Cortisol

13 months after my California doctor wrote the prescriptions for two gut antibiotics to treat SIBO, today is the day I have to face the music. I’ve put it off for this long out of fear: Fear of a mast cell reaction (Rifaximin ingredients: Sunset Yellow FCF, ffs); fear of no reaction, but feeling terrible from die-off (we just arrived in the Cali desert for a month, so it’s really fear of destroying my idyllic get-away); fear of altering my microbiome for the worse, rather than the better (causing more of a candida flare, causing C. diff etc); fear of spending the money, but not not being able to take the medicine (each one was $200!). Also, although the SIBO test was “off the charts” (in my doctor’s words), I don’t have the symptoms, so fear of messing with the gut I know and creating new issues. I haven’t taken an antibiotic in almost a decade–well before I got sick–so, there’s fear there, too.

IMG_20180501_100901_710.jpg

But I see my doctor later this month and I’m determined to do the treatment before I see him. I now have both medications in front of me, money is spent, no excuses. One of them is compounded in sterile water and needs to be thrown out in a few weeks, so I’m starting now, with one drop, as soon as I stop typing… which, of course, makes me want to keep typing, keep putting it off, what else can I tell you…?
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Okay, I’ll quickly tell you a good drug story, which will bolster my confidence. The first medication I was ever prescribed after getting sick was hydrocortisone. The pharmacist said, “If it gives you a headache, let me know.” It gave me a whopping headache and, back then, I didn’t understand my reactions and how I have to start at micro-doses–I didn’t even know you could cut a tablet or open a capsule–so, I just stopped taking it after two days. The ND said she presented my case to her colleagues and everyone said, “Yes, hydrocortisone!” but it was my first experience with an ND and perhaps I didn’t fully trust her, but, more so, I didn’t want any worsening symptoms, so I just stopped going to her. That has been my MO thus far: try not to rock the boat, except very gently, over a very long period of time (and, by the way, for the most part, I have improved over the years (knock on wood, toba, toba), which has reinforced my careful tendencies).

Last year, my California MD Rxed hydrocortisone again. I tried an 1/8 of a tablet in August and felt short of breath, so didn’t take it again until 3 months later. Then I was spurred on by a receptionist at a doctor’s office who started crying (!) on the phone to me while talking about her daughter who needs hydrocortisone all day long, so I tried it again. It went okay for a few months. Then one day it made me feel gittery, spacey and short of breath again. Then, a few weeks after that, it hit me like a freight train. I wrote in my calender: “Shaky, drugged, agitated, buzzy muscles, feel like I’m on speed, then possible blood sugar crash (or maybe just still shakes from hydrocortisone). Then, after hours, a dull obvious-reaction headache and stuffed ears.”

This is what used to happen to me with antihistamines: I’d handle them for days and then, without warning, the same dose would send me into a scary cascade of anticholinergic symptoms (I still mourn the loss of Unisom, which helped a lot with sleep for a while).

But, I persevered with the hydrocortisone (yay, me!) and, last month, something clicked, I could feel it help my body. I can feel the uptick in energy and the decrease in brain symptoms. I give hydrocortisone full credit for getting me through the weeks of packing for this trip and those back-to-back high-step count days. Each morning, I marveled: I’m not bedbound, I think I can do it again. I have no side effects now and I might even try more than a 1/4 tablet. 😉

Best Endocrinologist Ever.

Every time I have an appointment with my endocrinologist, I hem and haw about whether I should cancel it. It’s on the other side of town, $50 round-trip in an Uber, it only ever lasts about 20 minutes and couldn’t she just look at my thyroid lab results and email me about whether to stick with my current hormone dosages? Well, each time I go, I am so grateful for this doctor (last week I told her nurse I would walk on hot coals for Dr. B) and I vow to come straight home and write an update so I can remember everything she said. I never have managed to do this and the visit summaries hardly mention anything at all, so today I’m going to write a general update of her treatment.

I’ve seen a lot of endocrinologists in the last six years and they have all, without exception, been kind of odd, stoic and monosyllabic. Until Dr. B. She’s vibrant and engaged (after seeing her, I always mourn my lack of brain energy a little more), listens closely, talks about her ideas out loud, thinks outside of the box and is interested in conditions not typically related to the endocrine system. Imagine that: a big hospital allopathic endocrinologist taking the whole body into account!

The first time I saw her a year ago, I told her my basic story (anaphylaxis 2001-2002, vasovagal collapse 2005-2011, thyroid goiters 2009, radioiodine ablation 2010, SICK 2011), assuming she’d check my thyroid and update my prescription as per usual — and she did, but she also ordered pituitary blood tests, a Cortrosyn stimulation test (CST) (otherwise known as an ACTH stimulation test — it measures how well the adrenal glands respond to ACTH), referred me to two neurologists — one that specialises in headaches and one that specialises in dysautonomia — and said we would consider placing a continuous glucose monitoring device to assess the drops in my blood sugar (good news is, my blood sugar crashes got much better, possibly because I am eating all foods again and have put on weight). No other endocrinologist had ever suggested any of these things.

I was dreading the CST because of my reactivity and intravenous injections of anything don’t allow me to start low and slow, but it was fine. I did my research beforehand (yes, they were they only using 1mcg of Cortrosyn; no, I didn’t need to fast; no, it didn’t need to be timed according to the follicular phase of my menstrual cycle; no, I didn’t need to be off bioidentical hormones; and, yes, my husband could be with me), so I felt comfortable about the procedure and the results were normal.

The pituitary testing showed low LH (luteinizing hormone), DHEA and IGF-1. Because of the latter, at our next appointment Dr. B ordered a pituitary MRI to “leave no stone unturned” (LOVE her). The MRI was normal, but she emphasised that it was less reliable because of my unwillingness to use contrast (I didn’t think the risks of a reaction outweighed the benefits of a better MRI — and she was ok with that). She also gave me a prescription for Florinef to see if it would help with my hypotension (blood pressure was 80/60 at this appointment). I trialed it for a month (starting at 0.0125mg (!!), working up to 0.1mg) and thought it might be increasing my headaches (but not my blood pressure, of course), so I stopped, but it’s still on my list to retry.

My thyroid levels have consistently been tanked for the last 6 years and at every appointment Dr. B would tweak my meds. I’ve gone from 50mcg/day of levothyroxine to 100 to 125 and from 5mcg/liothyronine to 10 and — this is exciting — when I told her my naturopath suggested much higher T3 and lower T4, Dr. B said, “I’m totally open to that, let’s try it.” 😮 Typically allopathic endocrinologists and NDs do not see eye to eye on treatment and optimal thyroid levels and often one doctor will be resistant to another doctor’s suggestions, especially when the suggestion comes from someone who isn’t a specialist. Dr. B has no ego getting in the way. So, we increased my T3 to 15mcg twice/day and lowered T4 to 100mcg. I really don’t know if it has helped, but she seems more satisfied with my thyroid levels. She told me to watch out for tremors, heart palpitations and insomnia, but they are all within my normal constellation of symptoms, so who knows (although, as I’m typing this, I realise that my quite-vicious nightly palpitations haven’t happened in a while– maybe weeks). She diagnosed me with “euthyroid sick syndrome” which essentially means your thyroid will stay sick until the underlying chronic illness gets better.

I saw a headache neurologist and a dysautonomia specialist (more on both of those in separate posts), but neither of them were the ones to which Dr. B referred me. And — another reason to love her — she had no problem with that and was still interested in what they had to say. Even better, when I told her the dysautonomia specialist didn’t have much to offer and essentially told me just to make sure I don’t decondition any further, Dr. B raised her eyebrows in surprise and kind of dismissed this, still interested in helping me fix this piece of the puzzle (those of you that haven’t done the doctor rounds might not realise that almost all of them tell you to simply exercise more (or gain/lose weight) (or take antidepressants), so I expected Dr. B to take the specialist’s assessment as bible and agree that I was just deconditioned). She suggested I do a growth hormone challenge (it involves a 17-hour fast, an 8am check-in and a 5-hour test where they give intravenous glucagon and then measure human growth hormone (HGH) response through blood draws) and said the worst side effect she’d seen was vomiting. I wanted to vomit at the thought of getting to a hospital at 8 in the morning. I went home to do some research; that was in July of last year.

When I saw her again at the end of September, I hadn’t done the HGH challenge and she didn’t give me a hard time at all. Three months after that appointment I still hadn’t found the nerve, so I emailed her a long message about my glucagon fears (those of you with mast cell/anaphylaxis/medication sensitivity issues can read my email* below for the reasons it gave me pause) which any other specialist would either not answer or reply that I should come in for an appointment to discuss. Instead, she sent me a very thoughtful, validating reply (not “For fuck sake, stop being such a scaredy-cat and do the bloody test since I’m the one doctor who is investigating all these things!”) and offered an alternative to glucagon — an insulin challenge test — which I agreed to … and then never did. They give you intravenous insulin, drop your blood sugar to 40 and then test HGH. I told her I was more comfortable with the devil I knew (hypoglycemia) then the one I didn’t. But, it turns out I’m not really comfortable with voluntarily meeting any devil. I’ve had my blood sugar drop into the 40s. It was absolutely horrific — one of the worst feelings I’ve ever felt. And, although they give you intravenous glucose right afterwards, I still couldn’t bring myself to do this test and subject myself to the crash when I thought they probably wouldn’t find anything.

So, I waited until my appointment this month — 8 months after she first wanted to investigate this avenue — and told her of my fears about the insulin challenge test as well. I expected her to just give up, to say there’s probably nothing wrong there, anyway, but she didn’t. She said there was an additional reason to do the insulin challenge (other than for HGH output) and that was that it can pick up a hypothalamus issue that the glucagon stimulation test can’t. Ok, I can get on board since it’s a two-fer. However, in another display of out-of-the-box-ness and medical generosity, she suggested I just try HGH injections without doing the challenge test. She said she had two other patients with the dyautonomia-mast cell-EDS trifecta (more on my EDS diagnosis at another time) and, even though neither one flunked the stimulation test, they tried HGH and had really good results. A friend of my sister-in-law’s had a lot of success with HGH and it has always been in the back of my head as something to try when I win the lotto. I read it cost thousands of dollars, but Dr. B’s prescription is “only” $138/month, so I’m on board. If/when I get the nerve, I can stop the HGH for a week and do the challenge test and, if I fail, insurance will pay for my prescription. An added bonus is my nurse who comes to my home every week (to give me intravenous fluids with my immunoglobulin infusions) can show me how to subcutaneously inject the HGH and I don’t need to go across town for a tutorial appointment.

Gratitude for good doctors! Wish me luck with the HGH.

Mast Cell Madness.

I’m officially terrified by my mast cells because Christmas heralded another sick, sick few days. Almost as sick as Thanksgiving, so I’d have to say the 2nd sickest night of my life. However, this time, it all started with my tongue swelling up, which gave me more insight into the mechanism behind it.

I sometimes wonder if all my health issues stem from mast cell activation syndrome. I can tell the difference between ME symptoms and mast cell reactions, but, still, there’s this little seed in my brain that says, what if they’re at the root of EVERYTHING and I should be spending my time finding a doctor with MCAD expertise on this side of the country (it doesn’t seem to exist in Seattle)? I don’t do this because I am generally stable. On a day-to-day basis, I’m not having reactions — unless, of course, many of my chronic symptoms have mast cell degranulation at their core and I just don’t realise it.

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My health issues started with full-blown anaphylaxis, out of the blue, 9 days after my 28th birthday. Doctors were hopeless and gave no advice back then, not even daily preventative antihistamines. The common denominator was alcohol (but not every time I drank, so it was confusing), so, after the last trip to the emergency room in Dublin, where I almost died, I finally quit drinking and haven’t touched a drop in 13 years.

Before that, I had swelling in my eyes and hands and a severe edema episode once or twice that I didn’t really think much about. I linked it to Asian food, so stopped eating that and MSG and didn’t look any further into it. This was eventually diagnosed as autoimmune urticaria and angioedema and I was told to take Zyrtec, but didn’t want to medicate daily for an intermittent condition.

I’ve always had trouble with my periods — crippling dysmenorrhea — but they got progressively worse until I collapsed with syncope and shock 13 days after my 32nd birthday and was taken off in the ambulance. For 6 years, no doctor gave me any advice until, finally, an OBGYN told me to dump salt on my tongue. This doesn’t stop the collapses, but it certainly helps. These episodes continue to happen randomly to this day, always on the first day of my period and are, without a doubt, mast cell mediated, presumably low-grade anaphylaxis (very low blood pressure and pulse, bowel problems, syncope, shortness of breath).

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I have a spot in my throat that has itched for years. It was actually the thing that lead to diagnosis of my toxic thyroid goiters and Grave’s Disease because I mentioned the itch to some random doctor who palpated my throat. I’ve now realised it signals reactivity in my body at a very low level. It’s almost always there, but, when it’s not or when it’s very bad, I pay attention.

I was flushing badly for years, thinking I had developed bizarre self-consciousness, but the self-consciousness was actually a result from flushing and having people point it out! When I was diagnosed with Grave’s, I thought it was a symptom of that, but it never went away after ablation.

Of course, in retrospect, there have always been issues I have dealt with, which may or may not originate with mast cells: thyroid problems and Raynaud’s can be a result of mast cell disorders. Also, constipation, headaches, low blood pressure, and temperature sensitivity (all of which got much worse in recent years). Finally, many of my ME symptoms could also be from MCAS: fatigue, joint and tissue pain, eye pain, vision problems, vertigo, episodes of low body temperature, scent/odour/chemical sensitivity, sinus problems, cognitive impairment, hair loss, decreased bone density (I have osteopenia, on the cusp of osteoporosis), shortness of breath, medication reactions, malabsorption, and tinnitus. See a list of signs and symptoms here.

It would be wonderful to be able to manage and control any of these issues, but none of them scares me like the nights I’ve had recently, not even full-blown anaphylaxis. I’ve tried so hard to figure out my triggers, but they are moving targets. Tongue swelling and angioedema are obvious, as is the very specific breathing difficulty you get with anaphylaxis (it is nothing like asthma or wheezing from an infection). I don’t get daily hives and itching like many people. My reactions now are all about the histamine bucket and completely dependent on where I am in my cycle and what is happening in my life. I may be able to eat anything one week and then suspect that those same foods are giving me sinus trouble, insomnia and a jaw ache a different week. My chronic daily headaches, tinnitus, brain fog and exhaustion could be from food choices, but I’ve never been able to pin down any causation. My diet is very low-histamine compared to normal people and how it used to be, but I still allow myself chocolate, coconut, store-bought chips, beef, almost all fruit, including dried and many things that others avoid. Could these things be contributing to my problems? Yes, but, without a definite correlation, I don’t want to eliminate foods. Once you’ve experienced anaphylaxis, “reactions” like a runny nose, constipation or aching hands are quite ignorable. The only thing that consistently caused a reaction was alcohol and my periods. And, now I can say with certainty, holidays and events, no matter how careful I am.

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I prepared for Christmas over the course of a month and a half, slowly bought presents and wrapped them, slowly wrote some Christmas cards, slowly got the spare room ready for my sister, slowly did laundry — over the course of weeks! Didn’t overexert myself at all. There was no excitement, no activities. My sister and her small dog came over, we watched tv and opened presents. I had rested multiple times throughout the day and the only not normal thing I ate was half a tiny piece of fresh King salmon, which had been brought in off the docks that same morning and, I was told, caught the day before.

My tongue started to swell up after dinner. By the late evening, I had gotten upset for really no good reason (which has historically happened with my mast cell reactions) and was flushing. I had a bad reaction to about 15mg of Benadryl a week or two prior, so I was scared to take a decent dose on this night. I bit a dye-free capsule and put a drop on my swollen tongue and went to bed. At 2am, I awoke with the same evil that I experienced on Thanksgiving and the night after starting Cromolyn (before going to the AirBnb rentals back in September — it was a few days before my period that time, too). I was shaking so badly, I couldn’t lift the water glass, I was drenched in sweat and had weird runaway chills coursing through my body. I crawled on my hands and knees to the bathroom, which scared the shit out of me because, through all the worst of ME, that’s only happened once before. I fell into harrowing nightmares and woke up gasping for breath over and over, feeling poisoned and infected. I dreamt that I was sick and dying and my husband wasn’t paying attention or taking it seriously. I dreamt that I was sick and dying and my mother laughed at me (this isn’t remotely based in truth, this is my terrified mind not knowing how or where to get help). I dreamt that my dog’s neck was broken and I was carrying him to get help, but I was sick and dying and couldn’t do it. And, finally, I dreamt that I was lying on the floor begging my husband over and over: “Please kill me. Please kill me. Please kill me.” I woke up sobbing and so wrung out.

That morning, my period came 5 days early. You better believe, if I had known my period was going to arrive Christmas Day, I might have cancelled Christmas. Or at least postponed present opening for a day. And definitely not eaten even the freshest salmon.

In the past, my anaphylaxis episodes went like this:
My friend A’s birthday party.
My friend C’s birthday party.
Oktoberfest.
Easter party.
C used to joke that I was allergic to fun. I can’t believe he was right. I collapsed and had the paramedics called twice while my mother was staying with us and, also, when my best friend was here from Ireland — both were “events”. I started to get paranoid that, psychologically, I was somehow causing my system to crash when there were visitors. But, every single one of these times, I had my period. There were only a few anaphylactic episodes that I can remember when it wasn’t the first day of my menstrual cycle. EVENT + MENSTRUATION = MAST CELL MELTDOWN. But I think I only really and truly started to believe this 100% on Christmas.

So, Christmas day is a total haze. I crawled downstairs a few times to eat and try to put on a good face, but I don’t remember much and dozed most of the day. Like Thanksgiving and September, however, I bounced back quicker than I could have ever anticipated. That night I kept marveling, “How am I speaking? How am I sitting up? How am I alive?” When it’s bad, you honestly want to die. When it ebbs, the human spirit kicks back in shockingly quickly and you just get on with it, until the next time when you are surprised anew at just how bad the bad is. I didn’t even really modify my diet. I continued to eat my almond butter, coconut ice cream and drink bone broth and tea (all high-ish histamine). If anything, I felt more, Oh fuck it, how much worse could it be? At this stage, I’m much more scared of menstruation and engaging in any sort of event — even one in my house, in my pajamas, with only a single guest.

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I am currently putting together an informational kit (in a bag that was donated to me by a member of one of my groups), so my husband has something to grab in the event of an emergency. My dilemma is that I’ve managed to avoid drugs all this time (never had to use my EpiPen), so I have no way to premedicate for things like plane flights, dental work or necessary procedures like a CT scan or colonoscopy (which my doctor has wanted me to get for years, but I refuse because I’m worried about reactions). I have no safe protocol. 13 years ago, I got IV diphenhydromine for anaphylaxis, now I react to 15mg of Benadryl! 5 years ago, I had IV morphine for dysmennorhea, now my breathing shuts down with a crumb of hydrocodone or codeine. What would happen in a real emergency? If I need surgery? Knock on wood, toba toba, ptooey, ptooey. Once I have everything compiled, I will post it here.

Having said all that, I’m really in quite a good place, feeling happy and hopeful about the new year. Maybe because I realise that these reactions are mast cell degranulations and not ME relapses and that takes some of the fear away. Somehow dying from anaphylaxis is less scary than becoming permanently bedbound with ME. Perhaps only people with both illnesses will understand that. So, here’s what I did New Year’s Eve:

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As well as resilience, forgiveness, positivity and optimism, I’d also like to request that 2015 doles out truckloads of health, wealth and happiness to all of us. That’s all. That’s not too much to ask, right? 🙂