Middlebury man learns to deal with his body’s sensitivity
MIDDLEBURY — Larry Plesent grew up in a suburb of New York City surrounded by chemicals. His parents were cigarette smokers and he can remember insect foggers being set off in the area that produced clouds of toxins. Plesent become a window cleaner to earn some extra money while he was in college and worked for seven years cleaning high-rise commercial buildings, exposing himself to even more toxic cleaning compounds.
He constantly had dry, itchy skin, but, generally, everything was fine.
Then, suddenly, it wasn’t.
“In 1991 my body went through a breakdown of sorts,” Plesent writes in his book “The Reactive Body Handbook.” “I became highly sensitized or intolerant to most artificial scents, many artificial colors, propylene glycol, and many aromatic and petrochemical products, including most plastics.”
“By the time I realized that the window cleaning chemicals were hurting me I had already become intolerant of everything in the cleaning mix,” Plesent recalls. “I could not use ANY personal care product in the store without an asthmatic or dermatitis reaction. It took me 10 years to fully return to health. I still have to avoid those molecules.”
Plesent, now a successful Middlebury businessman, went to see medical specialists and was given allergy tests. They found he was allergic to dust mites and was asthmatic, but did not validate his chemical sensitivities.
For over 20 years, Plesent has struggled to cope with this hyper-awareness of the chemical influences around him. Over that time, he has developed a philosophy and a term for this condition, which he calls the Reactive Body.
“Reactive Bodies feel and perceive the world more intensely than most,” the handbook reads. “This hyped up sensitivity increases the risk of becoming over stimulated and exhausted.”
Perfumes and colognes, air fresheners, cleaners and solvents, artificial flavorings and skin products can each have profoundly uncomfortable effects on a person with a Reactive Body, and can lead to what Plesent calls a flare-up.
Flare-ups can manifest as a physical rash, achiness, swelling or excessive sweating. Much like a panic attack, one might experience nausea, dizziness, anxiety and forgetfulness. Flare-ups are brought on by a series of triggers and are usually magnified by an external stressor that triggers the immune system.
For example, one might be traveling in a new place with interruptions of their diet and typical routine. With these environmental changes having brought down their immune system buffer, even average exposure to pesticides or construction zones might be enough to tip them over the edge.
“Learning to live with a Reactive Body and the Reactive Mind that goes with it is all about achieving balance,” Plesent writes. “And balance requires awareness. You have to be strong and centered every day so you can pay attention. You need to hear and interpret the signals your body is giving you.”
Self-awareness and trust in your own instincts and feelings will help each person be their own Sherlock Holmes, Plesent says. Each person must follow the chain of reactions to figure out what particular sensitivities they have and how to best address them.
For Plesent, life took a drastic turn once he became aware of his Reactive Body.
Comfortable with chemistry and molecular science, but uncomfortable with most mainstream products, Plesent decided to start his own company — Vermont Soap.
Vermont Soap was inspired by Plesent’s desire to create a product that he could comfortably use without the itchy rash that he was used to. To make his soap he used natural, organic supplies and a handmade process that didn’t require chemical agents. Instantly, his irritated skin stopped bothering him.
Motivated by both his own relieved symptoms as well as his capacity to introduce his product to others with Reactive Bodies, Plesent pushed Vermont Soap into developing other products and increased the scale of production.
Founded in 1992, Vermont Soap now can be found internationally and is one of the largest producers of organic, non-toxic products in the country.
“I like to say ‘Solve a problem, gain a customer,’” Plesent said about his success in the industry.
With respect to his Reactive Body, Plesent built a non-toxic home and is careful about knowing his triggers and his tonics and antidotes for relief.
“The Reactive Body Handbook” was published this past September, and Plesent supplies a downloadable version on a website he maintains, reactivebody.org. He published it to try to help provide information about a condition that he knows by experience is “real,” despite the difficulty to prove it in lab studies as more than a psychiatric or psychosomatic disorder.
Slowly, Plesent says, people are coming out of the woodwork to learn more about his philosophy and seek advice about living with a Reactive Body.
“Sure, I believe everyone has a Reactive Body to a degree,” Plesent says, “but some people have this significantly exaggerated experience. Rather than dismiss it as crazy or psychosomatic (as some do) I try to give it credit and validation.”
In the handbook, Plesent refers to the old practice of bringing canaries down into coal mines to help illustrate why it might be wise to pay closer attention to these molecularly sensitive people.
“Mining (coal mining especially) can release a large amount of the natural gas methane,” he explains. “Methane displaces the air we breathe. Without necessary amounts of oxygen from that air, humans are toast in a matter of minutes. The canaries, brought down to sing as the miners worked, are more sensitive to the drop in oxygen level than humans. They would be the first to suffer from the lack of oxygen, and stop singing. This gave the miners a couple of minutes’ notice to get the heck out of Dodge and possibly save their coal mining lives.”
“Reactive Body people are like those sleeping canaries,” Plesent continued. “They notice molecules before other people do.”