Mast cell activation syndrome (MCAS) describes a condition in which a type of white blood cell (mast cells) releases chemicals into the body. These chemicals have a variety of effects, including increasing the permeability of blood vessels. This increased permeability leads to swelling, congestion, inflammation, and pruritus (itching).
Chemicals from mast cells can also increase mucus production. When histamine is released, it stimulates mucus production leading to problems with sneezing, congestion, sinus blockage, and post-nasal drip.
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Another set of chemicals released by mast cells are called cytokines. Interleukins are a type of cytokines that can be either pro-inflammatory or anti-inflammatory. Some interleukins stimulate the contraction of smooth muscle. One of the possible results of the muscle contraction is cramping pain in the digestive tract. It can also lead to problems with the bowels or bladder. Due to the discomfort caused by the smooth muscle contraction, some people mistakenly believe they must have a gut bug. They are worried about Candida or parasites when, in fact, it is MCAS causing their problem.
Other typical signs and symptoms of mast cell activation syndrome include the following:
- Skin rash and hives (very common)
- Swelling and edema
- Flushing, itching, and prickling of the skin
- Abdominal pain and cramping
- Irritable bowel syndrome
- Wheezing and shortness of breath
- Heart palpitations and tachycardia
- Poor concentration
- Low blood pressure
- Low blood pressure
- Dizziness, fainting
- Red eyes
The large number of symptoms associated with MCAS means that it can be easy to confuse it with other health conditions. I recall thinking that a patient had adrenal fatigue, when in fact is was MCAS.
Treatment of MCAS often requires a change to both the diet and the physical environment. I discuss MCAS treatment in greater detail in a subsequent article.