Exploring the Causes and Cures of Allergies and Sensitivities
We are seeing more people, especially children, with allergies these days. There are several thoughts about why this is happening, but overall it’s generally described as a hypersensitivity or oversensitivity of the body to external stimuli. There is also a lot of confusion around what an allergy is and how it differs from a sensitivity.
Allergy vs. sensitivity
Allergy: a hypersensitivity or oversensitivity of the body to external stimuli. It's typified by the Ig E response, a reaction that occurs within seconds to minutes. In the worst-case scenario: anaphylaxis(inability to breath).
Sensitivity: a hyperactive or oversensitive response by the body to external stimuli. It's typified by the IgG or other immunoglobulin response, the reaction occurs within hours to days.
In the US, one in five people have either allergy or asthma symptoms, and 55% of the population tests positive for one or more allergens.
Internationally, the prevalence of asthma in different countries varies widely, but the disparity is narrowing due to rising prevalence in low and middle-income countries and plateauing in high-income countries.
- Postnasal drip
- Dark circles under eyes (allergic shiners)
- Puffiness beneath the eyes
- Poor sleep
- Behavioural problems such as irritability, hyperactivity, poor concentration, whining, and pickiness about food
Chronic allergies, especially those that cause allergic rhinitis/sinusitis, lead to a persistent inflammation of the mucous membranes lining the nasal passages. This can cause constant head congestion, decreased hearing ability, reduced concentration, and difficulty remaining alert. Children with allergies may frequently feel tired and irritable.
Hyperactive behaviour may also emerge as a result of allergies, due to nervous irritability from the chronic inflammatory response or the need to keep moving to stimulate endogenous adrenaline supplies. While a tendency towards allergies may be inherited, the extent to which they manifest may have more to do with dietary, emotional and environmental factors than genetic factors.
Why are allergies and sensitivities becoming more common?
There is no one theory that currently accounts for the rise in allergies/sensitivities. Some of the proposed causes are as follows:
This theory proposes that many children do not get sufficient exposure to a wide variety of microbes, and as result of growing up in an extremely clean environment devoid of microbes, the body does not learn how to modulate the immune response effectively. There seems to be some credibility for this theory since the significant increase in individuals suffering from allergies has been in the western hemisphere, and we have not seen a corresponding increase in other parts of the globe at the same rate.
Due to chronic inflammation in the body, the gut lining is unable to heal and permits certain food particles to pass through and interact with the immune system. These particles are tagged as ‘non-self’ by the immune system, and it will react to the presence of these particles every time they are re-introduced to the system. This leads to a cycle of continuous inflammation and slow (or no) healing of the gut lining.
Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs)/packaged foods
We have altered certain foods in our food supply so much that our bodies have difficulty recognizing them and breaking them down as ‘food.’ There is also a corresponding increase in exposure to preservatives and pesticides that are mixed in or put on these foods.
What Can We Do?
Remove environmental irritants: Rid the home of common irritants such as dust, perfumes and scented products.
- Improve immune response: There are many things that can be done to help optimize the immune system, such as eating a balanced diet of whole foods, including sources of omega 3s and fermented foods for probiotics.
- Promote rest and relaxation: Learning to relax can help decrease tension, and getting to sleep at a reasonable and consistent hour each night can help promote better immune function.
- Identify food sensitivities: Food allergens (e.g. peanuts or diary), and chemicals, additives, or oils in processed foods can cause allergies to be worse.
- Foods rich in Vitamin A and Beta-carotene: Orange and yellow vegetables and fruits tend to be the richest sources.
- Essential Fatty Acids (EFAs): Fish, flaxseeds, eggs, and evening primrose oil all contain EFAs which are essential to the health of cells and decreasing allergic symptoms.
Zinc, Vitamin C and Vitamin B complex can all improve allergy problems by boosting immunity, reducing inflammation, and enhancing intestinal health.
- Astragalus is an immune-system-enhancing herb that is a tonic for the upper respiratory passages. It can be directly beneficial for those with a tendency towards atopic conditions such as eczema or psoriasis, commonly occurring in those with allergy problems.
- Nettle stimulates lymphatic function, decreasing swollen lymph nodes. In its freeze-dried form, nettle is used to stabilize the inflammatory substance histamine produced by our bodies, thus decreasing allergic response.
- Elder has a flower rich in flavonoids, which are anti-inflammatory, anti-oxidant, and immune-stimulating. This combination helps reduce allergic response and improve immune function.
Asian medicine and acupuncture
Chinese medicine considers an allergic reaction to be a manifestation of the body's failure to adjust to its environment. According to the concept of the organs and their functions, weaknesses of the "Lung” or "Liver” could explain these allergic reactions. By stimulating the energy of the "Lung" and by regulating the "Liver" the acupuncture treatment aims to calm the exaggerated response. This can be done both preventatively as well as acutely.
Suffering from allergies can be a very irritating experience. If you or your child is suffering from allergies, it is best to take them to a naturopathic doctor who can perform a proper assessment and form a treatment plan that will address your/your child’s needs. Always speak to your health care provider before beginning any new medications or supplements.
- WebMD’s Allergy Statistics and Facts
- The American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology’s Asthma Statistics
- Naturally Healthy Babies and Children: A Commonsense Guide to Herbal Remedies, Nutrition, and Health,by Aviva Jill Romm and William Sears