When we hear the word allergy what springs to mind is a seasonal reaction to pollen, grasses and weeds, or we associate allergies with year-round reactions to dust, mold and dander from our furry loved ones. These have a similar underlying physiological mechanism that is also to blame for the common food allergy, notably the anaphylactic, life-threatening response to peanuts or penicillin. Less commonly known are food sensitivities that arise from our immune system’s overproduction of immunoglobulin G antibodies in response to foods such as wheat, dairy, soy and yeast.
An environmental or food allergy causes symptoms ranging from wheezing and shortness of breath, to an itchy, swollen tongue or eyes and involves mast cells (immune cells) releasing histamine which creates a cascade of inflammatory reactions leading to fluid collection, itchiness, and swelling. Over-the-counter antihistamines such as Benadryl and Claritin are conventionally recommended to halt the histamine release. I like to dig deeper and treat the root cause.
The following issues need to be assessed and treated in order to procure a lasting, drug-free resolution to allergies:
• Toxin overload
It’s undeniable. We live in a toxic soup. It’s only getting worse as 2,000 new synthetic chemicals are added to our environment ever year (most of them significantly lacking in long-term safety data!) Now, add to that: air pollution, BPA, lauryl sulfites, heavy metals, drinking water contaminants, PCBs, dioxins, pesticides, parabens, phthalates, alcohol, pharmaceutical medications, cigarette smoke, and exogenous sources of hormones such as bovine growth hormone, hormone replacement therapy, and oral contraceptives (this list is practically never-ending!)
Toxic buildup in the body alters the immune system’s sensitivity. In other words, the immune system becomes hyper-reactive and more likely to create a pathological response to environmental or food antigens. A great first step for anyone deciding to take the natural approach to treatment is to do a three week liver, bowel, blood and kidney detoxification program. I find this extremely effective as we head out of winter and into the spring and summer allergy season. Naturopathic doctors tend to use a comprehensive approach that entails some or all of the following: a clean diet, nutritional and herbal support, meditation and stress reduction, infrared saunas, exercise and sweating, and colon hydrotherapy.
• Digestive dysbiosis & food sensitivities
An imbalanced flora (protective bacteria that live in our small and large intestines) can contribute to self-intoxication as they metabolize the food we eat and produce toxic by-products that are absorbed through the walls of our intestines. These put our immune systems into a state of defense – reproducing and attacking and creating inflammatory cascades with positive feedback loops which keep the cell engaged in battle. Also, there is an overgrowth of pathogenic strains of bacteria, yeast and/or parasites; they maintain an environment in our gut which makes it difficult for our natural, protective flora to flourish. In a healthy digestive tract, the acidophilus and bifidobacteria outnumber the dysbiotic flora and are essential for maintaining a balanced immune system. Food sensitivities contribute to gut dysbiosis, inflammation in the walls of the intestines, and a permeable intestinal barrier, creating the perfect storm to rev up the immune system’s reactivity. I recommend assessing for food sensitivities, either by using an elimination and challenge diet, or a simple, non-invasive, in-office procedure (performed by most naturopathic doctors), and then eliminating the foods for a period of time while a “gut-healing” protocol is performed.
• Adrenal fatigue
You may be wondering, what the heck do the adrenal glands have to do with allergies? Actually, quite a bit! These small, triangular, endocrine glands sit atop the kidneys and maintain much of our normalcy as we deal with chronic stress throughout our lives. Stress to the body doesn’t just come in the form of mental, emotional and psychological stress, but can be from blood sugar issues, toxins, cancer, physical activity, high blood pressure, viruses and bacteria. Some common symptoms that arise when the adrenal glands are fatigued are new or worsening allergies, feeling of “burnout”, inability to exercise (exhausted), easily overwhelmed and emotional, decreased sex drive and a feeling of faintness upon moving from a sitting to standing position.
What are some methods to protect the adrenal glands from further burnout and support our body through stress? My favorites are: adaptogenic herbs (withania, rhodiola, ginseng and holy basil), nutrients which are quickly depleted during stress (such as vitamin C, vitamin B complex and zinc); reduction or abstaining from alcohol; caffeine; sugar and processed white flour products; plenty of sleep; moderate amounts of exercise; and lots of laughter and joy.
• Nutrient deficiencies
Common nutrient deficiencies are inadequate vitamin D and an imbalanced omega 3 to 6 ratio. Let’s start with the vitamin D. Seventy-five percent of American adults have a vitamin D deficiency (diagnosed through blood tests) and certainly, with our reduced sun exposure in Canada, you can assume the same or worse. As the research continues to roll out on vitamin D, we’re learning about its role in immune modulation and as a cancer-fighting hormone. I recommend patients take between 2,000 – 10,000 IUs of vitamin D for varying lengths of time depending on their state of deficiency and health concerns.
Fish oils contain omega 3 oils, which have a tendency to reduce inflammation in the body. The omega 6 oils tend to be pro-inflammatory and thus, a ratio of 1:1 or 2:1 omega 3 to 6 is the ideal state to keep the immune system from over-reacting and preventing chronic degenerative illnesses with inflammation as the underlying process. We obtain a heavy amount of omega 6’s through vegetable oils – namely salad dressing, deep fried foods, and processed goods (muffins, cakes, crackers, etc.) I recommend a reduction of these types of foods and an increase in wild salmon, walnuts, flax seeds and flax oil, and fish oils (all rich in omega 3’s) to help modulate the immune system and reduce allergenicity.
Of course, there are many specific nutrients and herbs that we use to treat the symptoms of allergies – my top 5 list is below – however, as a naturopathic doctor, my philosophy is to treat the root cause, remove obstructions to healing, and allow the body to naturally regain balance.
1. Vitamin C with bioflavonoids
4. Mushroom formula (including shiitake, maitake, reishi mushrooms)
5. Astragalus membranaceus
As we head toward the thick of allergy season, detoxify, support and strengthen your adrenal glands, and ensure adequate nutrient levels through food and supplementation to rebalance your immune system and eliminate allergies once and for all.