Have you ever noticed that vacations that involve “getting off the grid” can be extra relaxing or energy boosting? While I was writing a book this summer, I would periodically sneak off to my boyfriend’s family cabin in near Willow, Alaska. The beautiful cabin sits on a lake and has zero Wifi and a very poor cell signal, so my phone goes on airplane mode. Every time I would head out there, I found a dramatic reduction in my symptoms. Literally overnight, my insomnia would vanish and I was sleeping deeply. Headaches and fatigue were minimal, and my typical gastroparesis issues would improve dramatically. And sure enough, the minute I got back home the symptoms returned. It was so blissful that I actually consider moving out there for the summer.
According to the National Cancer Institute, “Electric and magnetic fields are invisible areas of energy (also called radiation) that are produced by electricity, which is the movement of electrons, or current, through a wire.” 1 EMF radiation exposure is not just a “step away from the microwave” concern. Hair dryers, power lines, shavers, lamps, coffee makers, vacuum cleaners, dishwashers, electric wiring and electric blankets are examples of common everyday “extremely low frequency EMFs” although some experts claim that this name is misleading because these can cause harmful effects.
The more concerning radiofrequency radiation sources include many of our everyday devices – cell phones, ipads, laptops, smart watches, and e-readers. These are often claimed to be “non-ionizing” sources of radiation, though this is a controversial point. Electrical motors such as the motor in your refrigerator, clock radios and sleeping near the wall of the house’s main power meter may also be EMF sources to consider avoiding.
In the past decade, electric companies began installing new “smart meters” (digital gas and electric meters) that track when someone is home. While at first glance they seem like a good idea for energy efficiency and use of resources, what you may not know is that the meters emit radiation non-stop by covering an EMF grid over your entire home.2 And if your neighbors on each side also have smart meters in their homes, you’re potentially getting exposed to even more radiation!
Electric and Magnetic Fields (EMFs) have been long associated with problematic health effects anecdotally, but it’s another area where the medical system seems to turn a blind eye to the growing risks and negative health implications. Researchers have made correlations between increasing health complaints such as insomnia, moodiness and headaches in smart-meter friendly neighborhoods.3
Multiple scientific review articles assert that using your cell phone for 30 minutes a day over several years or decades increases your risk of developing a brain tumor, in some estimates up to 40-50%.4 Cell phone radiation has been connected to all sorts of diseases, including childhood leukemia, other types of cancer, neurodegenerative diseases, immune system issues, cardiovascular symptoms, infertility and allergic and inflammatory responses.4
Mast Cells and EMFs
Olle Johannson of Sweden is leading the way with research into the effects of EMFs on mast cell physiology. Johannson describes a phenomenon called electro-hypersensitivity (“EHS”) where certain patients experience reactions to the full-body penetration of electric and magnetic fields in their environment. Specifically, patient labeling of “environmental illness” or “multiple chemical sensitivity” are the strongest predictors of electro-hypersensitivity to EMFs.5
The unnatural environmental trigger of EMFs can cause system-wide symptoms and alterations in the immune system function. Specifically, Johannson noted that “EMFs disturb immune function through stimulation of various allergic and inflammatory responses, as well as effects on tissue repair processes.” 5 Johannson describes “hypersensitivity reaction” events and theorizes that they are caused by three different types of antigens: (a) infectious agents, (b) environmental disturbances, and (c) self-antigens. EMFs are most certainly considered environmental disturbances.5
Researchers first noted skin-specific reactions, including skin and mucosa signs of itching and redness, flushing, pain, papules, pustules, etc. in patients who were exposed to electronic screens and mobile phones in studies conducted back in the 1980’s. They also noted symptoms that were triggered in the heart and central nervous system in the same patients.5 Further research in the early 2000’s on electrical hypersensitivity noted headaches in about 85% of cell phone users, and a significant number of subjects also reported fatigue, dizziness, nausea, itching, redness, burning and cognitive symptoms. 5
A study in 2004 found that overnight EMF exposure negatively impacted soundness of sleep and well-being in the morning. Interestingly, they also found that patients tended to shift to the side of the bed that was furthest from the source of radiation during the night.5
Johannson also confirmed that cardiac changes, including heart palpitations and heart attack symptoms have been found in patients with electro-hypersensitivity after being exposed to EMFs. He noted that brain mast cells may also experience chronic degranulation and subsequent tissue inflammation when under the influence of EMF exposure. It seems that no area of the body is immune to the potential EMF effects that can trigger mast cell reactions.5
Johannson5 notes that EMFs appear to increase both the size and quantity of mast cells, the migration/infiltration of mast cells, and the rate of degranulation of mast cells in electro-hypersensitivity patients. The research supports that EMF exposure triggers a classic mast cell degranulation response in the skin and other tissues, which can trigger a cascade of inflammatory events in the body as mast cells degranulate their plethora of chemical mediators. And sure enough, Johannson’s literature review noted that mast cell mediators like chymase, tryptase and histamine were found to be elevated following exposure to EMFs.5
It’s possible that patients who were labeled “electro-hypersensitive” in the early 2000’s are in essence patients who would now be clinically diagnosed with MCAS. This research indicates that such patients are more susceptible to the harmful effects of EMFs, and it’s possible that the increased number and/or reactivity of mast cells is to blame for increased symptoms following exposure.
Perhaps this phenomenon is similar to the synergistic effect of different heavy metals on the body. When I consider EMFs as another form of “toxin” that our bodies are exposed to, my own theory is that EMF’s, when combined with other types of toxins or chemicals (which we are likely ALL exposed to regularly) initiate a bigger and more detrimental immune and mast cell response in patients who are already more susceptible to invisible triggers in their environments.
Tips to Reduce Radiation from EMFs
There are a number of products that claim to reduce the EMF exposure from your electronic devices. There are stickers that you slip between your cell phone and the case or put on the back of your laptop, and specially designed cell phone cases. There are “grounding” practices, stones and jewelry that may play a role in cancelling out some of the negative effects. Some of these may be hoaxes, so it’s definitely wise to do some homework if you’re thinking of purchasing EMF-blocking products. And keep in mind that they don’t block ALL frequencies, because then your device would not work!
In terms of some of the easier changes to make, most experts recommend 1) avoiding energy saving smart meters for your home, 2) turning off the Wifi signal at night, 3) utilizing a special cell phone case, 4) avoiding placing the phone in your pocket or on your body, 5) using special EMF-free headphones for phone conversations instead of placing the phone by your head, 6) putting your phone away from you and on airplane mode at night, 7) avoiding using the cell phone while in a vehicle, 8) avoiding using the phone as an alarm clock, and 9) generally reducing the amount of time you spend using the phone. Reducing the number of apps or wifi-based programs running on a given device may be helpful too.
Radiation from medical tests like x-rays and CT scans is a little more difficult to avoid, depending on the situation, but it should always be factored into part of the decision process, as this form of radiation is typically in higher doses than you would be led to believe.
If you’re unable to remove a smart meter from your home, you may be able to set up the device to transmit information less often (such as once per day as opposed to every minute). This may be something that you and your neighbors can set up with your utility company.
For me, all of this reaffirms my feelings that “less is more” and the more I connect with nature, the better I feel. Patients with MCAS who already have an abundance of inflammatory processes occurring in the “background” may very well benefit from making some of the above changes.
2) Somers Suzanne. Tox-sick: From Toxic to Not Sick – The Toxins in your Body, The Diseases They Cause, The Doctors Who Can Help. Harmony Books. New York. 2015.
3) Federica L. Self-reporting of symptom development from exposure to radiofrequency fields of wireless smart meters in Victoria, Australia: a case series. Alt Ther Health Med 2014;6:28-39.
Carpenter, D. Excessive exposure to radiofrequency electromagnetic fields may cause the development of hypersensitivity. Alt Ther Health Med 2014;6:40-42.
4) Khurana VG, Teo C, Kundi M, Hardell L, Carlberg M. Cell phones and brain tumors: a review including the long-term epidemiological data. Surgical Neurology 2009;72:205-214.
Kesari KK, Siddiqui MH, Meena R, Verma HN, Kumar S. Cell phone radiation and exposure on brain and associated biological systems. Ind J Exp Biol 2013;51:187-200.
5) O. Johansson, Disturbance of the immune system by electromagnetic fields—A potentially under-lying cause for cellular damage and tissue repair reduction which could lead to disease and impairment, Pathophysiology (2009), doi:10.1016/j.pathophys.2009.03.004
Johansson O, Gangi S, Liu P. Human cutaneous mast cells are altered in normal health volunteers sitting in front of ordinary TVs/PCs – Results from open-field provocation experiments. J Cutaneous Pathol 2001;28:513-519.
Sandstrom M, Lyskov E, Berglund A, Medvedev S, Mild KH. Neurophysiological effects of flickering light in patients with perceived electical hypersensitivity. JOEM 1997;39:15-22.
Rajkovic V, Matavulj M, Johannson O. Histological characteristics of cutaneous and thyroid mast cell populations in male rats exposed to power-frequency electromagnetic fields. Int J Radiat Biol 2005;81:491-499.
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Gangi S, Johannson O. A theoretical model based upon mast cells and histamine to explain the recently proclaimed sensitivity to electric and/or magnetic fields in humans. Medical Hypotheses 2000;54:663-671.
Johansson O, Hilliges M, Han S-W. A screening of skin changes, with special emphasis on neurochemical marker antibody evaluation, in patients claiming to suffer from ‘screen dermatitis’ as compared to normal healthy controls. Exp Dermatol 1996; 5: 279-285.
Gangi S, Johansson O. Skin changes in ‘screen dermatitis’ versus classical UV-and ionizing irradiation-related damage- similarities and differences. Exp Dermatol 1997;6:283-291.
Donnellan M, McKenzie DR, French PW. Effects of exposure to electromagnetic radiation at 835 MHz on growth, morphology and secretory characteristics of a mast cell analogue, RBL-2H3. Cell Biol Internat 1997;21:427-439.
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Nakamura H, Nagase K, Ogino K, Hatta I, Matsuzaki I. Uteroplacental circulatory disturbance mediated by prostaglandin F(2alpha) in rats exposed to microwaves. Reprod Toxicol 2000;14:235-240.
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