Wired and tired: what is electrosensitivity?

Imagine this: you go to work at 8.30am, work seven hours at a computer in an office networked with wireless broadband. You go home, microwave a meal, surf the internet,  call a friend on your mobile. Just an average day. Now imagine that each time you use that mobile your face heats up, your ear starts buzzing, you feel agitated or wired. The wi-fi gives you a headache; your muscles hurt, you feel sick, dizzy, or can’t sleep. This cluster of symptoms is part of a little understood and controversial phenomenon known as ‘electro-sensitivity’ (ES), which sufferers claim is on the rise as a result of our daily exposure to electromagnetic radiation. According to its critics, electromagnetic fields (EMF) from sources such as phone masts, mobiles, wi-fi in homes, offices and schools, and WIMAX (a powerful wireless signal used by businesses that can cover a 30-mile radius) is creating an invisible blanket of ‘electrosmog’ and interfering with the way our cells, hormones and even DNA function.

Like others, I had heard rumours about the dangers of living near phone masts: people contracting cancer, women miscarrying, stillbirths amongst farm animals, but it wasn’t until I became ill myself that I gave these reports any credit. At the beginning of 2005 I began to experience crushing exhaustion, flu and dizziness that was eventually diagnosed as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS). Luckily I was able to sign off work temporarily, but during those weeks tying up loose ends on the computer, I began to feel worse. After an hour at my desk my eyes would become inflamed, my nose streamed and worst of all my legs ached unbearably, as if I was in the full grip of viral flu. I didn’t connect any of these symptoms with computers until a month later when I spent three solid days writing a research paper on my laptop. By the end of it I was a wreck: in tears with pain and misery. To my surprise after a weekend away from my computer, those symptoms virtually disappeared.

At the same time I became aware of a growing intolerance to my mobile phone: within five minutes the left side of my face would heat up and itch, making me feel inexplicably wired and unable to sleep. As part of an upgrade, my phone company sent me a new, more powerful phone. My reaction to the first call I made on it was so alarming I never used it again: within minutes my whole face turned hot and scarlet, almost as if I had been microwaved.

Intrigued, I began to amass a small cache of clinical papers, some linking what was then called ‘VDU sickness’ to Chronic Fatigue. Taking them along to my first consultation with a CFS specialist, I looked forward to some answers. But the appointment was a humiliating one: refusing to even glance at the research, the doctor suggested that my strange symptoms were psychological, a product of anxiety, and my interest in them 'counter-productive'.

Sadly my experience is a common one for ES sufferers, who are caught in a Catch-22. No diagnostic criteria or legislation currently exists to protect them since the government does not acknowledge that exposure to low-level electromagnetic radiation may have health effects. Since 2000, successive recommendations have been made to the government including the creation of 'corridors' around phone masts and overhead power lines near schools and new housing. In 2005, a Cross-Party Inquiry urged 'solid precautionary measures' in response to a study which showed a 70% increase in childhood leukaemia in families living within 200 metres of High Voltage power lines. The government's response was that such measures are not cost effective. The chairman of the Health Protection Agency (HPA), Sir William Stewart, has stated publicly that children under eight should not use mobile phones; in 2006 he told Radio Four: 'If there are risks, and we think that maybe there are- then the people who are going to be most affected are children, and the younger the children, the greater the danger.' He has also urged a 'timely review' of the roll-out of Wi-Fi in the classroom.

The difficulty is that public policy on this issue is based on international guidelines drawn up by the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP)  which only look at 'short-term, immediate health effects' including 'shocks and burns caused by touching conducting objects and elevated tissue temperatures.' In other words, says Dr David Dowson, a specialist in this area, ‘the research is based on those effects strong enough to cook you, which makes a nonsense of the fact our brains are delicate organs.’ The assumption that living cells only react to thermal effects derives from the findings of a German engineer, Herman Schwan, who allocated a safety margin by dividing the point at which tissue heating occurs by ten. After reports emerged in the US of sterility, cataracts and abnormal white blood cell counts amongst military workers, a group of researchers at Stamford directly tested the  'Schwan limit' by irradiating a group of pregnant squirrel monkeys. Of nine babies exposed either in the womb or shortly after birth, five died within six months. Numerous other studies have found harmful biological effects at exposure levels much lower than the international guidelines including breakages in DNA, reduced sperm count in men, miscarriages, and increased cell division, including malignant growths.

In 2005 this last observation was tested by Interphone: a widescale study conducted over 13 countries to examine the links between brain cancer and mobile phones. Initial press releases stated that there was no increased risk. However this year the results were finally released to the public, revealing a twofold risk after 10 years' of phone use, which is often the time it takes for such tumours to show up. The heaviest users showed an increased risk of gliomas (tumours of the 'helper' brain cells) on the side of the head where the phone was usually used. However, even this apparently statistically significant evidence was discredited. The HPA announced that the 'relatively strong association' between long-term mobile phone use and certain tumours might be explained by individuals 'over-reporting' which side of their head they used to make calls, 'because some of them may have thought that mobile phone use caused their tumour.' The ICNIRP went even further by suggesting that this high risk group reported 'highly improbable hours of use, presumably reflecting erroneous reports… Such recall is problematic particularly for brain tumour patients.'

Not every government shares this arguably anti-precautionary approach however: in Switzerland government funding protects ES patients from exposure and regulations exist to ensure that people are exposed to lower EMF emissions in the workplace than we are in the UK in our own homes. Happy news for the ES sufferer who can afford to relocate!

Whilst electro-sensitivity may seem to develop without warning, there are common health patterns which most sufferers share. Currently the only hospital in the UK to treat ES uses a combination of rotation diets and vaccines to 'desensitise' a patient's allergic response to foods or chemicals as well as the chelation (removal) of heavy metals. At first glance this seems to be a logical way forward, since ES patients show a limited ability to detoxify their lifetime's toxic load of mercury, lead and chemicals.

This situation certainly applied to several people I spoke to, who, unable to tolerate travelling on public transport, see friends or go shopping, had become virtual prisoners in their own homes. Anne*, a woman in her fifties, could not watch television, use a landline or even a kettle, and wore wrap-around glasses outdoors because she was so  sensitive to street lights. Although she'd had several rounds of chelation, it was not until an enormous dental post made from amalgam (mercury mixed with other metals) was removed from her mouth that she felt better. It appears that electromagnetic currents have the ability to conduct mercury further into the body, and even at low levels mercury can cause hormonal and neurological disruption.

Chemicals were also a common thread. One distressing case included Jackie*, a woman in her late forties whose neighbour had sprayed a toxic banned pesticide all over her garden whilst she was in it. The chemicals drenched her in a sticky film; despite washing it off immediately, the effects were devastating, leaving her unable to move for days. She is now so electrically sensitive that opening her own fridge gives her a headache. Graham*, 55, reported that his chemical and electrical sensitivities were getting 'increasingly worse. Even a whiff of solvent or a mouthful of something I'm allergic to will knock me out for days'. He now lives in self-imposed rural isolation in Wales, sleeps for 13 hours a day and has had severe CFS since 1991. Able only to eat a dozen or so foods, he has to follow a strict rotation diet in order not to develop any new allergies.

Recently a blood test has been developed for ES which shows that when exposed to an electrical signal, calcium leaks from cell membranes, creating 'holes' which can allow toxic chemicals and heavy metals to enter cells. The calcium forms compounds with these toxins, deranging normal cell function. Calcium is also used to regulate the permeability of various linings- in the gut, the stomach and the brain. Studies on rats by Swedish researchers have shown that two minutes of mobile phone radiation were enough to disable the blood-brain barrier, allowing chemicals to enter the brain from the bloodstream.

One theory is that ES sufferers have lower levels of calcium ions in the blood to begin with. Calcium regulation is controlled by the thyroid gland, which in many ES individuals seems to be sluggish as a result of the down-regulation of the immune system to conserve energy. According to Dr Lawrence Wilson, an expert in metabolic analysis, once the rate at which energy is expended slows down, such individuals become 'colder, more toxic and more prone to fungal infections'.

It was this last factor that proved to be the remarkable connection in every single case I encountered. Every individual confirmed gut problems, reporting constipation, food cravings, fungal infections and rashes, bloating and 'brain fog', symptoms consistent with yeast and bad bacterial overgrowth. As someone who had suffered from Candida yeast overgrowth for 25 years, I recognised the signs instantly.

The digestive tract is a delicate ecosystem and when colonies of yeasts and bad bacteria get the upper hand they can play havoc with our health. Fungal and bacterial growths can create a 'leaky gut' which allows undigested food proteins and foreign particles to pass into the bloodstream, setting up chronic inflammation and auto-immune reactions. Yeasts produce toxins that strengthen the effects of heavy metals such as mercury, and to make matters worse, mercury interferes with carbohydrate digestion in the gut, encouraging the growth of these bugs to ferment undigested food. Fermentation produces alcohols (a bit like a brewery), which enhance the effects of other chemicals and in turn, EMFs. Eventually these toxins poison liver function, preventing it from properly detoxing the chemicals and heavy metals that are making ES such a problem. Furthermore, as the largest mineral reserve in the body, calcium is also rapidly spent in buffering the acidic blood created by poor digestion. Some ES individuals tested positive for lactic acidosis, a consequence of poor starch digestion. Perhaps a diet based on wholefoods such as beans and grains (which is what many of these patients were eating) however carefully rotated, was only making matters worse?

Experts in metabolic nutrition suggest that when an individual begins to eat a correct diet for their metabolic type, then their ability to detoxify chemicals and heavy metals will start to improve. This must also be a diet kind and healing to the gut lining and flora, which is after all where 80% of immunity resides. Yet with each generation further damaging this ecosystem with antibiotics, painkillers, vaccinations, chemicals, pasteurised foods and sugar, unwelcome 'fringe' phenomena such as electrosensitivity may soon take centre stage. 

* All names have been changed.

More information

Elizabeth Wells is a natural nutritionist and health writer. Her website is www.naturallywells.com.



Case study: Mobile phones and tumours

Two years ago, Marina* discovered a pea-sized lump on the right side of her face where she held her mobile phone. Even though it was diagnosed as benign, she decided to have it removed after being warned it could grow. Given the location of the lump and the fact that she had spent almost 20 years of her life as a heavy mobile phone user, Marina questioned whether there was a connection, but the surgeon told her such lumps are ‘common in women over 40’, a claim for which she has found little evidence. Marina was an 'early adopter' of mobile phones: calls were cheap and it gave her the freedom to chat late at night or during weekends. Now she cannot use a mobile for more than two minutes without getting a headache, suggesting she is strongly affected by microwave radiation. Her history suggests gut dysbiosis: tests have confirmed intolerances to wheat, yeast and dairy, three common foods which can be difficult to digest without the right gut bacteria. She has also had years of difficult periods, bloating, and when she was young, chronic constipation. Reflecting on the price of her operation, Marina says: ‘I’ve lost all sensitivity in my earlobe and (that part of) my neck; the right side of my face feels completely different from my left and I keep banging my face to get some feeling from it. I’ve got that for life.’




Protective measures

Many products claim to be the answer to ES. These are my personal tried-and-tested recommendations.


  • The silver headnet (www.emfields.org) effectively screens microwave radiation such as wi-fi.
  • Avoid wireless routers if possible; don’t place it in a child’s room and turn it off at night.
  • An experienced engineer can network your house with Cat5 (Ethernet) cabling which doesn’t cost the earth. The connection speed is quicker too.
  • Earth yourself by touching unpainted metal objects and standing on the earth in bare feet.
  • Larger oily fish such as salmon and tuna can be high in mercury, so choose smaller species such as mackerel and sardines.
  • Eat foods high in cysteine and sulphur such as egg yolks and bathe in Epsom Salts (Magnesium sulfate) to clear lead and mercury.
  • Vitamin C, zinc and selenium displace mercury, as does the herb coriander and chlorella, a plant algae.
  • Colostrum from organic cows contains essential immune factors and feeds the beneficial flora.
  • If you think gut fermentation may be your problem, avoid grains and starches.
  • Increase your digestive ‘fire’ with spices, lacto-fermented foods and stomach acid supplements.
  • Oxygen products can discourage bad bacteria, yeasts and parasites: www.thefinchleyclinic.com
  • Liquid zeolite is a mineral that binds with heavy metals and pesticides, carrying them safely out of the urine. www.zeoliteuk.co.uk
  • Take probiotics with butyric acid (found in raw butter) to encourage colonisation. The amino acid L-Glutamine has been found to increase the healing of the gut's mucous membrane.
  • Coffee enemas aid the liver's own detoxification pathways.
  • FIR saunas speed up detoxification of chemicals and heavy metals through the skin.

Drink more water: most ES sufferers are chronically dehydrated.

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