In simple terms, an allergy refers to a situation where the immune system overreacts to a normally harmless substance, causing an exaggerated sensitivity to that substance. Allergies, intolerances and sensitivities are all common terms used to explain reactions to common allergens, which include foods, chemicals, environmental factors and many other sources of irritation, but they differ somewhat in how the immune system is triggered.
A true allergy is a reaction that causes an immune response in the body and activates antibodies. Symptoms can occur within minutes or hours of exposure and can be life-threatening – particularly if anaphylaxis results. Intolerances and sensitivities are different in that they do not cause an immune response but instead trigger other processes in the body, causing varied symptom patterns and levels of discomfort. Intolerances can build over time, and with repeated exposures – even at a low level, especially if the body is stressed by infections, stresses or toxins. Hormonal changes, such as those associated with pregnancy, and the presence of other immune illnesses, such as asthma or eczema, may also be associated with increased allergen sensitivity.
For many people, allergies can limit the daily enjoyment of life and help from a professional health practitioner can improve management of symptoms through appropriate testing to isolate precise triggers, and natural and pharmacological medications to provide relief from some of the typical symptoms such as coughing, wheezing, sneezing, runny nose, swelling, itching and so on.
In an integrative model of healthcare the emphasis for any health problem is on cause and not just symptom. Integrative Medicine has much to offer allergy sufferers as it addresses many contributing factors, providing strategies that support the body to heal the source of allergen sensitivities, and address lifestyle factors that extend beyond the ‘avoid all triggers’ approach. Healing the body is understood to be even more vital when we consider that allergies can lead to many other diseases in the body. Heavy metal toxicities presenting as allergies in the body may also be behind other conditions such as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, autoimmune conditions, autism, infertility and various endocrine and neurodegenerative diseases.
Although a predisposition to allergies may be inherited genetically and can start in a baby before birth, there are many lifestyle factors that can be addressed to avoid susceptibility, and the good news is these factors also contribute to optimal health and disease prevention.
Start building resistance in babies and children – A low-allergen and varied food diet in pregnant women, and breastfeeding can develop an infant’s resistance for later years. The ‘hygiene hypothesis’ is currently receiving a great deal of attention. It suggests that our obsession with avoiding bacteria has resulted in compromised or underdeveloped immune systems in children and that allowing children to ‘get dirty’ is vital for building resistance. Recent research also indicated that infants living in homes with dogs and cats are less likely to develop allergies to these animals.
Enhance and repair gut health – Mucous membranes line our intestines, respiratory passages and skin and inflammation of these membranes has been shown to contribute to allergies. Intestinal or gut health, through supporting the presence of healthy bacteria, is being studied extensively for its role in controlling inflammation and enhancing immunity – links are even being found to cancer. A prebiotic and probiotic supplement can be very helpful. A prebiotic is a food that can enhance growth of friendly bacteria – for example, onions, honey and bananas – and a probiotic is friendly bacteria which can be taken as a supplement or found in yoghurt.
Reduce the chemical load in your household – Have you ever thought about how many chemicals you are exposed to every morning in the bathroom? Research has shown that on average a woman uses a dozen personal care products containing 168 chemical ingredients every day. Replace chemical-based cleaning and household products with natural alternatives, seek natural personal care products and avoid chemical additives in foods by becoming an avid label reader and avoiding processed foods. Preservatives, colours and flavours, and many other chemicals in foods, can be triggers and add unnecessarily to the toxic burden our body has to process.
Limit environmental pollutant exposure – outdoors and indoors – People can have allergic responses to just about anything. Contaminants in the water supply (including fluoride and disinfectants), cigarette smoke, dust, pollen, animal dander, petrochemical-based products, toxins in sprays and pesticides, heavy metals and fumes are all causes of allergies and affect the body’s functioning and resistance. Exhaust fumes, metals (such as lead), volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and thousands of other airborne chemicals present us with a chemical cocktail, consumed daily. Research shows that even at ‘supposedly safe levels’ pollutants can be harmful in unexpected ways. For the chemically sensitive, exposure to even very small amounts of a trigger can send the body into response overdrive.
In the home, limit or avoid chemical exposure where possible. Although air quality is monitored by the Environmental Protection Authority (EPA), once inside your own home, the amount of toxic exposure you are subjected to is up to you. Although we spend a great deal of time at home indoors, consider also what you can do to ensure a healthy environment in your workplace, at school or other public places visited frequently.
Avoid stress – Stress, which increases cortisol levels, has a major effect in the body. Its oxidating action cases inflammation and compromises cell functioning and immunity, which weakens the body’s defences and compromises how the body processes toxins and allergens.
Eat a balanced healthy diet including Essential Fatty Acids (EFAs) and Vitamin D – The anti-inflammatory effects of EFAs help repair damage and rebuild the all-important mucous membranes in the body. Optimal nutrition will support the body in healing damage caused by, and contributing to, allergic response, so is an essential and long-term strategy for integrative allergy treatment and prevention. Vitamin D is an immune modulator and can also be helpful. Consider supplements for nutritional deficiencies with a health practitioner.
Given the life-threatening nature of some severe allergies it is important to seek help in how to manage allergic responses. There are many diagnostic tests available and several ‘desensitising’ treatments that fall under the conventional umbrella of ways to manage symptoms. The Integrative Medicine model is extremely useful in its focus on the unique set of individual circumstances that are contributing to sensitivities. The assessment of total lifestyle, with particular reference to nutrition, environment and stress levels, ensures a treatment plan that has, at its highest priority, the healing of the body and the cause of symptoms. For this reason, allergies can be approached from a preventative perspective, making a significant improvement to quality of life for sufferers and helping people enjoy life, regardless of the season.
Professor Avni Sali is Founding Director of the National Institute of Integrative Medicine (NIIM).
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