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My Fragrance Sensitivity Part 1: Where it Began

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From Gluten Free to Fragrance Free

I first recognized that I had a fragrance sensitivity around the time I was diagnosed with celiac, which was in September of 2000. I honestly cannot recall if my sensitivities began before or after my celiac diagnosis, but it was within a couple years either way. 

That was such a busy time in my life that I was just too focused on putting one foot in front of the other. I lost both my mom and my mother-in-law in 1997. My health never was optimal, but it definitely took a downward turn through the following few years. I didn’t give it much attention until it was demanded of me when I was diagnosed with severe osteoporosis a year later.  

A celiac diagnosis and a gluten-free diet transformed my life in many wonderful ways. My effort was to put my focus on the benefits that transpired. It was a lot of work, however, and created a big change for both me and my family. As the family cook, I needed to find ways to make all meals gluten free. I didn’t want any gluten in the house. I had a need to be the healthiest I could be while providing my family with meals that everyone enjoyed. 

Life took another turn a couple years later when a 20-year marriage ended. Besides everything else that comes with divorce, I found myself back in school trying to create a career and a new life and financial plan for myself.

Limbic System Impairment

Understanding limbic system impairment, I now recognize that any one of the things I had faced through that time period could have created my brain’s maladapted stress response, thus triggering my response to fragrance chemicals (and more).

*Again, I’m not suggesting that fragrance sensitivity is in our heads or that we don’t need to rid our planet of the overwhelming amount of pervasive fragrance chemicals. I am seeing, however, that it is the brain’s over-active protective response that has created the disabling reactions I’ve been trying unsuccessfully to run away from. 

Fragrance Sensitivity: That Day

I’ll never forget that day when I discovered what was causing the less-than-pleasant way I’d been feeling. My brain zeroed in on two, small, navy blue votive candles I used to enjoy. I was starting to experience a brain fog type feeling, overall body aches, and simply feeling yucky. I know–nice vocabulary usage, Deb–but I have yet to come up with a better word. Yucky describes it pretty well. Actually, super yucky is better. 

My brain started to slowly and gradually connect that yucky feeling to those two candles. They no longer smelled nice. Instead of the pleasant scent I was used to, all I noticed was a noxious chemical smell. 

Were these candles really behind my physical, emotional, and cognitive discomfort? In order to solve the mystery, I put both candles into a zip bag and into a drawer. I felt better through the next days. Magic. 

I took the candles out of the bag and that brain fog, muscle pain, and general malaise came back pretty quickly. I still wasn’t convinced enough. Seriously–how could a scent from two small candles be causing my body to feel so horrible? Something so common sense to me now just wouldn’t click in my brain back then. It took a few trials over several days before I knew without a doubt, These candles are making me sick.

A Gradual Connection

While I knew those navy blue votive candles were now a big no-no, I don’t recall recognizing a general fragrance sensitivity at that time. First, I’d never heard of it; it wasn’t something that was even on my radar. I just thought it was those candles. I don’t think I thought about it much past that. 

Honestly, I was in the middle of some major life changes that required my deep attention. In the span of just six years I lost my mom and my mother-in-law, was diagnosed with severe osteoporosis, had to relearn how to shop and cook, got divorced and started back to school in order to create a new life for myself. I had enough on my plate. It took some time, but my fragrance sensitivity finally wouldn’t allow me to ignore it any longer. 

Those first several years became more about avoidance of some things, not everything. I switched to a fragrance-free laundry detergent but still used dryer sheets. Aren’t we supposed to use dryer sheets? It was just a fact of life, like washing hands after using the restroom. It didn’t occur to me that they were toxic and that they weren’t even necessary. 

(I’ve been using white vinegar in my rinse cycle and wool dryer balls in my dryer for several years now. Safe, non-toxic, and Bonus: we have saved a lot of money and waste over the years!)

Fragrance Free Transitions

The more I recognized the impact products were having on my state of being, the more energy I had to put into product choices. 

I started sniffing shampoos and conditioners, soaps and lotions. There’s an image for you: Debbie in the cleaning aisle of Walmart cautiously looking around with shady eyes before secretly opening a bottle to take a whiff. I envision people behind the security cameras laughing at that woman getting a hit off the shampoo. But I could tell with one sniff if a product was safe for me to use. And let me tell you, just like gluten-free at that time, there were very few product options for the person with a fragrance sensitivity. I also wasn’t shopping online at that time. I had to search for the products that I reacted to the least in the stores I physically shopped at, the old fashioned way. 

Unlike gluten, where I had to remove it all–completely–no crumbs or occasional cheats, fragrance was more vague. I didn’t know exactly what my body was reacting to. It was trial by error (or sniff). I gradually transitioned from products that my body rebelled to, but I had no clue that my body would start becoming more vocal about its needs.

Fragrance Sensitivity Part 2

I will share the impact products started having on me in my next post. It was so hard for me to comprehend how an air freshener could have a cognitive impact on me or that a hair conditioner could create depression, but these truly were my reactions. It certainly wasn’t fun and sure made life more challenging, but I am so very grateful for discovering the cause–and more–I’m grateful to be able to share my story and hopefully help others along the way. 

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