The theories, problems, and treatments of allergies and hypersensitivities represent an enormous topic that could easily fill an entire book—in fact, many such books have been written by noted medical authors. This section discusses some of the basic concepts in the field of allergy, with an emphasis on new work related to this growing twentieth-century dilemma, particularly regarding the use of diet and supplements in treating both food and environmental allergies.
Allergies are a result of our physiological and biochemical interaction with the world around us and within us—with the foods, chemicals, and natural substances in our immediate environment that we ingest, inhale, or physically contact, and with various internal microbes and body tissues. Our body’s immune system is designed to correctly identify and differentiate between self and nonself—that is, between what our body needs and what is foreign to it—and when it encounters foreign substances, it reacts by making antibodies or releasing certain chemicals, such as histamines. Of course, it is appropriate for us to make protective antibodies against infectious organisms, chemicals, and other foreign substances; pollens, molds, animal hairs, dust, and foods all contain protein antigens that stimulate some antibody response. The problem arises when we have an inappropriate response, or "hyperresponse." Then the antibodies attach to the antigens, causing a variety of internal reactions. Histamine and other chemicals are released into the system, causing an inflammatory reaction. These antigen-antibody (Ag-Ab) reactions affect the tissues and organs, mainly the skin, mucous membranes, lungs, and gastrointestinal tract. Symptoms commonly produced include itchy and watery eyes, runny and congested nose and sinuses, skin reactions, and rapid heart rate. Less obvious but still common allergic symptoms include fatigue, headache, intestinal gas or pain, abdominal bloating, and mood changes.
These allergic manifestations often are the result of multiple stressors and biochemical reactions. I often describe this to patients as the "cup runneth over" theory. Certain people may be reactive to specific environmental and food products, as I myself am. However, if our diet is relatively clean, our stress level is low, and our normal eliminative functions are working well, we will exhibit minimal, if any, symptoms. On the other hand, if we have too many stressors going into our cup—a high-demand schedule; a few dinners out with more bread, cheese and wine; a few extra worries; less exercise; and a little constipation—our cup may "runneth over" and we may experience sinus or upper respiratory symptoms, a skin rash, or other "allergic" problems. From a naturopathic viewpoint, allergic symptoms represent detoxification of any overly congested body; the traditional Chinese viewpoint suggests an imbalance of energies and organs. Western medicine has its own theories, which I also present.
Related to allergies are hypersensitivities, allergylike reactions that result from the repeated sensitizing of our body by certain substances, usually a protein antigen of foods or specific chemicals. Hypersensitivities are distinguished from immediate allergies by the fact that hypersensitivity reactions are usually delayed, with symptoms appearing several hours or longer after exposure, even up to one or two days later. They are mediated through T lymphocytes of the cellular immune system and delayed-type IgG antibodies rather than the IgE/mast cell/histamine system of rapid allergic responses. In regard to other allergic-type reactions, the term "hypersusceptibility" should be used to describe the rapid symptoms associated with environmental illness or exposure to environmental chemicals. This is likely a neuro-endocrine interaction rather than a true allergy.
- Natural environmental substances—mold spores, pollens from trees and grasses, dust (actually dust mites), animal hairs, and insects. These commonly produce upper respiratory symptoms in sensitive individuals. Itching, redness, and fluid (water and mucus) may affect the eyes, nose, sinuses, throat, bronchial tubes, and lungs.
- Foods—any food may be allergenic. Common ones include wheat, milk, eggs, corn, yeast, coffee, and chocolate. Even herbs and teas may lead to allergic symptoms. Food allergies may affect most body systems, with the gastrointestinal, nervous, respiratory, and skin areas affected the most.
- Chemicals—both environmental chemicals and food additives may create sensitivity. There are literally thousands of possibilities, including sprays, resins, hydrocarbons, pesticides, and so on. Some may weaken our immunity and allow further allergies to develop. Tobacco is a common allergen containing substance to which many people are both addicted and allergic, a common duo according to our new understanding of allergies.
- Nose—inhalation of environmental allergens.
- Mouth—ingestion of food and chemicals found in foods, water, and medicines.
- Skin—contact with various agents and injections of drugs and other substances.
*Depending on a variety of factors, some individuals are more sensitve to allergies that enter through a particular area.
We may also have internal "allergies," where our immune system reacts to our body’s tissues as protein antigens, and actually forms specific antibodies to them. These antibodies then latch onto the antigen-coded organ tissues, where they may interfere with proper function and produce a wide variety of inflammatory symptoms and diseases. More common areas affected include the thyroid gland, blood vessels, and joints, causing problems such as Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, polyarteritis nodosa, and rheumatoid arthritis. These abnormal responses to normal tissues are termed autoimmune diseases. They are increasing in frequency and becoming one of the greater mysteries of modern medicine.
Common allergic problems include hay fever, eczema, contact dermatitis, and bronchial asthma. Hay fever, or allergic rhinitis, is characterized by sneezing, runny nose, itchy eyes, and postnasal drip. It is caused by reactions to pollens such as ragweed, trees, dust, grasses, molds, animals, and foods. It can be diagnosed by skin testing or blood antibody levels. Treatment may include avoidance of, or desensitization to, the allergens, or drugs such as antihistamines, decongestants, cortisone sprays or tablets, and cromolyn sodium nasal spray. Hay fever tends to run in families and is usually seasonal.
Hives, or urticaria, is characterized by red, itchy, and possibly painful wheals (bumps) on the skin. This condition may be caused by reactions to insect bites, chemicals (such as sulfites or food colors), drugs (such as aspirin or penicillin), or foods. Common foods causing hives are shellfish, nuts, citrus fruits, tomatoes, strawberries, chocolate, beef, pork, and mangoes. Avoidance is the key to treatment; antihistamines may relieve symptoms. When reactions are caused by drugs, more acute treatment may be needed. Genetics may play a role in this type of allergy, and prior sensitization to the specific agent is necessary for the reaction, as for most allergies.
Eczema (dermatitis) is characterized by dry, itchy skin, especially on the arms and legs. It is often hereditary, and it may be worsened by stress, sweating, or food allergies. Treatment involves lowering stress, avoiding soaps and detergents, use of cortisone creams and drugs, an elimination diet with avoidance of allergenic foods. Desensitization is usually not very helpful for this problem.
Contact dermatitis is characterized by an itchy, red, raised rash that may blister. It can occur anywhere on the body where contact to the allergen has been made. Common allergenic agents are poison oak or ivy, chemicals such as nail polish or soaps, plastics, metals, and fabrics. Medical treatment involves avoidance of known allergens and the use of antihistamine and cortisone drugs to reduce symptoms.
Asthma is characterized by difficulty in breathing, wheezing, coughing, and production of bronchial mucus. It is caused by a combination of genetic, allergic, and stress factors. It is commonly treated with drugs, avoidance and desensitization, and stress management. (This complex illness will be discussed in my next book, Staying Healthy with Modern Medicine.)
Headaches, alcoholism, and cigarette smoking may also involve allergy factors. Pain in the head, neckaches, and painful sensitivity to light, while they may be a result of stress or muscle tension, may also be caused by reactions to chemicals and foods. In such cases, the treatment would include rest, relaxation, pain relievers, and clearing of allergenic agents. Alcoholism often involves an allergic component with an addiction to grains and/or yeast (intestinal or vaginal yeast, skin fungus, or internal parasites or worms may also act as allergens as well as tissue irritants); it may also be a psychological disease with possible genetic predisposition, and may be related to a deficiency of trace mineral chromium (see Chapter 6), which is a key component of glucose tolerance factor. Treatment involves avoidance and therapy, possibly with the use of drugs or counseling. Cigarette smoking often involves an allergic addiction to either tobacco or the chemicals added to cigarettes. Treatment of nicotine addiction incorporates the elimination of the addiction, which may require counseling, will power, detoxification, and a change of lifestyle.
While there are a great many types of allergic reactions, almost all result from elevated levels of two different antibodies—immunoglobulin E (IgE) and immunoglobulin G (IgG), which occurs more with foods. IgE stimulates the release of histamine, causing immediate physiological activities. The common histamine response includes swelling, redness, itching, and possibly pain. The IgG antibody causes more delayed and long-term reactions. Some of the problems caused by the IgE reaction are hay fever, or pollen reactions, insect sting reactions, urticaria (hives) from ingested substances, such as foods or drugs, and atopic (hereditary allergy-mediated IgE) dermatitis or eczema. Many of these are fairly easy to observe and diagnose; however, reactions such as a change in energy level, decreased mental clarity, or digestive symptoms may be more difficult to acknowledge and to understand as allergic responses. IgG-mediated delayed types of reactions include many drug side effects; problems from exposure to chemicals, including tobacco; and most food allergies (that is why skin testing is not very useful for such allergies—it measures only IgE responses). Most allergy problems are a mixture of these different immunoglobulin-medicated reactions.