Do you suffer from an allergy? With the incidence of allergies doubling in western countries during the past 25 years, you are not alone. Whether it’s to peanuts or pollen, allergies affect one in three New Zealanders at some time in their lives.
The immune system – our microscopic defense force Our immune system is really quite amazing. Like a well-trained military unit, our immune cells identify and destroy foreign invaders, even remembering past invaders for decades in case they call again. When it functions properly, the immune system monitors the entire body seeking out and destroying bacteria, viruses and toxins, it can even identify cells that may be destined to become tumours.
As incredible as this is, our immune system can make mistakes. An allergic immune system mis-identifies a substance like pollen, or gluten, as harmful when it’s actually quite innocuous. It then attacks that perceived threat with such ferocity that you may experience hives, eczema, asthma or in extreme cases, life threatening anaphylaxis. All this caused by the same immune system that is actually trying to protect us.
How allergies work
Allergies are essentially when the immune system causes damage to the body trying to ‘fight’ off an otherwise harmless substance. The first time the immune system encounters the allergen, no symptoms occur, but unbeknown to you, sensitsation is happening. Sensitisation involves a complicated cascade of immune cell activities that eventually lead to the production of antibodies to this allergen. At the next encounter, the immune system is primed to react with histamine and other inflammatory chemicals, leading to the symptoms of allergy.
Why are you allergic? The biggest risk factor for allergies is one we can’t control: heredity. If your mother, father or sibling suffers from an allergy, you have a greater risk. If both parents are allergy sufferers, unfortunately your chances of being allergy free are pretty slim. Additionally, babies born in spring months are more likely to have hayfever later in life. I know, crazy right? Possibly something to consider when planning a family?!
Types of allergies
Breathing is something most of us take for granted. We take over 20,000 breaths every day, to breath is to live. But for many allergy sufferers, breathing is a struggle, through constricted lungs or congested sinuses. The respiratory system and lungs are in constant contact with the outside environment, coming across airborne allergens with every breath. No wonder then, that our body keeps a lot of immune cells in this area, ready to respond in the case of emergency. For those with allergic immune systems this means hayfever and asthma in response to pollens, animal fur or mould, otherwise harmless substances.
‘Let your food be your medicine and your medicine be your food’. What about when food becomes your body’s worst enemy? The consequences of food allergies range in severity from life threatening to annoying, and the range of food one can be allergic to is huge. Figuring out what you or your baby is allergic to can be difficult because we hardly ever eat one food on it’s own. The most common food allergies are: Eggs, Milk, Peanuts, Shellfish, Soy, Treenuts, and Wheat. Food allergies frequently start in young children and may be outgrown by the age of 5, but peanut, shellfish and treenut allergies tend to stick around for the long haul. Many people believe they have food allergies when in fact they have a food intolerance. Differentiating between the two can be difficult but usually a food allergy in much more severe.
Hives are weal like swellings anywhere from a mosquito bite to a dinner plate in size. They frequently come up after contact with animals or certain plants, after eating certain foods or taking medication. Hives generally last a few days to a few weeks and usually resolve on their own. Avoidance of the offending substance is the only cure, and unfortunately sometimes the offending substance remains a mystery. Spicy food, heat, aspirin and alcohol tend to aggravate hives.
Some people are so sensitive to a substance that their body has a life threatening reaction when it comes into contact with it. This is called anaphylaxis. The symptoms range from difficulty swallowing and breathing, to stomach cramps and dizziness, generally always causing anxiety and panic in the sufferer. Their blood pressure often drops dangerously low, causing fainting. Common causes include food allergies, drug allergies and insect bites and stings. Those who know they have anaphylaxis should always carry medication (usually epinephrine) in case of emergency. If you are around someone having an anaphylactic reaction help them take their medication and call emergency services. Don’t assume the medication is enough. Children in daycare or school should always have access to medication. Peanut free schools, although unpopular with some parents are a godsend to parents of severely allergic children. Imagine taking your child to kindy, school, or even just to a friends place and being terrified they might come across their allergen, and end up in hospital.
Once we have allergies, they can be hard to get rid of. Avoidance of your allergen, such as shellfish or strawberries is the best prevention. The alarming rise in allergies has prompted research into the area of prevention and a few things have been identified. Of course these are not a cure, but should be considered if you have an infant who may be at risk.
- Try to delay the introduction of solids until at least 4 months of age. This gives the immune system longer to develop, before being challenged with potentially reactive foods.
- Try to avoid using cow’s milk or soy formula before 4 months of age. Breast milk is best for at risk babies, although this is not always possible, of course.
These are both well-accepted guidelines for all infants, but especially important in a child with allergic parents or siblings.
Children and allergies
Up to 40% of children in New Zealand will be affected by allergies at some time in their lives. Eczema, hives, asthma and food allergies are the most common; I see them in the clinic every day. Extensive weeping eczema in a precious wee baby can simply break your heart. Some mothers feel so helpless in the face of their child’s allergies they start to feel like a bad parent. But, with a bit of help, these children can lead relatively normal lives, although they may be restricted from some activities or food. The good news is that a lot of children grow out of their allergies, particularly eczema, by 3-5 years of age. But those that go on to have allergies in adulthood live with constant frustration about their condition. Endless amounts of prescribed medications, meticulous food avoidance and often having to avoid outdoor sports due to pollens and grasses can get them down. Some people have suffered for so long, they cry telling their story. Allergies may not (usually) be life threatening, but they make a lot of people quite miserable.
Treat the cause or just the symptoms?
In my field of naturopathic medicine, our mantra is treat the cause not the symptoms. In the case of allergy, I tend to disagree and instead believe in treating the cause AND the symptoms. Also, the benefits of combining orthodox and complimentary protocols to get better results are clear.
Some natural approaches
Everyone’s allergy is different, and the way their body manifests that allergy is different. Thus, treatments are individualized and specific. There are however a few things that most allergy sufferers will benefit from. Be sure to consult with a registered naturopath or your doctor before embarking on any treatment.
Fish oils and vitamin C are a good place to start. These nutrients have great natural anti-inflammatory properties, and the Vitamin C acts as an anti–oxidant too. In particular, fish oil seems to benefit asthma sufferers, although long-term treatment (up to one year) maybe needed to see effects.
Flavonoids are a class of anti-oxidants that seem to have an inhibiting effect on the release of histamine. This makes them a type of natural anti-histamine, benefitting all forms of allergies. Quercetin would be a good flavonoid option for most people.
Zinc is an essential mineral for immune health and one which most of us are lacking. Although zinc is contained in a number of foods, soil levels vary and the processing of grains, and cooking methods can lead to significant losses of zinc. It is particularly important for the health of mucus membranes (therefore vital for digestive and respiratory allergies), as well as being necessary for the healing and integrity of the skin (eczema, skin allergies).
There are many more strategies including herbal medicine treatments and dietary changes which are worth investigating. Whatever you do, don’t give up on your allergies. Although they may be genetic, you may not have to suffer as much as you are.
By Annaliese Jones