Take a common sense approach to allergies
By Dr. Martin Gleixner, MSc, ND
Changing seasons is an integral part of being a Canadian. For many, seasonal allergies can take away from this experience. Symptoms can be very unpleasant: chronic runny nose, sneezing, itchy or watery eyes and even fatigue or headaches. It can also worsen existing respiratory conditions such as asthma.
In my practice, patients commonly ask the following questions: why are some of us prone to seasonal allergies while others are not? How can pollen, a seemingly harmless substance released from trees, grass, flowers, and other plants create so much irritation in the upper respiratory system? Are there alternative options to treat allergies?
In this column, let's explore these and other questions that will help you feel healthier and more comfortable through this season (and even the next season).
Step 1 - Understand why allergies occur
An allergy response is determined not only by our exposure to allergens, but also our bodies' reaction to those allergens. Our response is determined by many factors such as nutritional status, stress, and current state of the immune system. In other words, it depends how full our bucket is!
In previous articles, I used the bucket analogy to explain detoxification, immune system health and a smoke cessation program (see previous columns). This same concept can help us understand the notion of "total allergic load" and also explain why a whole-body approach is recommended to treat allergies.
Click here to view 'bucket diagram'.
Let me review this analogy again. Let's think of our body as a bucket. Generally we are born in a state of health - our bucket is empty. As we go through life, a number of factors can interfere with our health. Perhaps it's a lack of exercise, a stressful job or poor dietary choices that can contribute to increasing the level in our bucket. The level in our bucket represents our health status. Declining health comes with rising levels.
We are also exposed to a great number of toxins during the course of our lifetime. Our lung, kidneys, digestive tract, and liver can normally remove most toxins on a daily basis, but sometimes these detox mechanisms become inefficient or overwhelmed.
In addition, key systems in the body (such as the immune system) can become imbalanced or hypersensitive which can put the squeeze' on the bucket, thereby significantly contributing to raising the level in the bucket and therefore causing a worsening of allergy symptoms.
Eventually, our bucket can become overfilled and begins to overflow. Depending on each person's unique predispositions (i.e. weak spot), symptoms appear letting us know that something is out of balance in the body. For many, it can lead to allergic symptoms because the lining of the respiratory system (also called mucous membrane) becomes irritated. Other common symptoms of a full bucket' include fatigue, skin reactions, muscle aches and pains, unexplained weight gain, insomnia and changes in our mood. Because our mucous membrane is directly exposed to the external environment, it can easily be triggered by allergens. Microbes (e.g. virus or bacteria) and allergens (e.g. pollen) alike enter the body via the mouth and nose, and begin irritating the mucous membrane. To prevent invaders from penetrating deeper into the body, the mucous membrane produces mucous which forms a thick, protective coat. The immune system also becomes involved by recognizing and mounting a response against the allergens. Histamine and other inflammatory substances are released. Fluid and immune cells rush in to the area causing unpleasant itching and congestion in the eyes, nose, throat and sinuses.
Step 2 - Understand the concept of "total allergic load"
The immune system is a strong mediator in how the body will react to a given allergen. For many people with seasonal allergies, the immune system is hypersensitive. That is, it can over-react to seemingly minor threats (e.g. pollen). Others notice that an allergen may bother them at one time, but not at other times. These observations can be due to the accumulation of allergy exposure or "total allergic load."
Let's look at the following example. On a given day you find yourself mowing your grass or gardening outdoors. For the moment, you are pleased that your allergy symptoms aren't kicking in.' You come inside for lunch and decide to snuggle with your cat or dog. You observe dust bunnies' travelling on the floor, but tell yourself that it's been too nice outside to clean the house. As you hear your stomach grumble, you decide to order in pizza. In the past, you've noticed that eating dairy can cause indigestion, but on this day, you decide the pizza is too hard to resist. You now decide to finish off the job of tending the backyard, only this time, the allergy symptoms come on stronger.
The more combined allergens you are exposed to on a given day, the greater the chance that you will hit your total allergic load. Once the threshold is reached, an exaggerated immune and inflammatory response in the body can occur to even relatively minor triggers.
So what can one do to address an overfilled bucket? How can we decrease our total allergic load? We don't want to put a lid on the bucket by suppressing symptoms. Such quick fixes or band-aid solutions rarely work for the long-term and do not enhance overall health status. Rather, the most long-lasted way to prevent allergic reactions is to identify and avoid your allergens while addressing all aspects that are causing the bucket to overfill.
Step 3 - Decrease exposure to allergens
Get a referral from your MD for a skin prick test performed by an allergy specialist. This test uses a minute amount of a potential allergen that is injected under the skin and the area is observed for any reaction. This test identifies immediate reaction allergies and can be helpful in determining which airborne allergens are triggers.
As already discussed, the presence of underlying food allergies can worsen seasonal reactivity to airborne allergens. Talk to your naturopathic doctor about different options to determine your food allergies. An elimination/challenge assessment or a blood test for IgG antibodies against many common foods are some of the methods that can be used.
There are also many simple tips that reduce exposure on a daily basis:
- Clean your mucous membranes regularly. Wash your nose every morning and evening and soon after vacuuming, yard work or exposure to dust. A "Neti pot" or a sinus rinse removes pollen and dust, and opens congested airways.
- Keep your bedroom a sanctuary of sorts. Use an air purifier such as HEPA filters for the bedroom. Air filters can also be added to central heating systems. If possible, aim to keep the bedroom pet free.
- After you vacuum, leave the house to let the air (and dust) settle. Built in vacuums are best as they take the dust filled air out of the house.
- The hair is a wonderful pollen collector and should therefore be washed daily before bed. Imagine a day full of pollen collecting, then rubbing your hair on the pillow case and sticking your nose in it all night!
Step 4 - Address an imbalanced immune system
As discussed, allergies are a sign that your immune system is over-responding to allergens from our external environment. The immune system is affected by many factors such as chronic stress (leading to inappropriate cortisol production and nervous system over-activation), diet, and sleep.
There are several natural treatment options to help balance or modulate the immune system and decrease seasonal allergic symptoms. Talk to your naturopathic doctor about options that are specific for your needs.
Step 5 - Support your adrenal glands
Periods of stress can cause excess cortisol (a stress hormone made by our adrenal glands) production in the body. Due to its anti-inflammatory and anti-allergic properties, cortisol production is often increased in those with seasonal allergies.
After periods of prolonged stress and chronic allergies, cortisol levels can become suboptimal or imbalanced thereby contributing to increased allergic reactions. Assessing adrenal function can be done through salivary cortisol testing enabling your naturopathic doctors to recommend a personalized treatment protocol to restore stress hormone balance.
Addressing the root cause of the stress and learning adaptation techniques that suit each individual is paramount. Exercising, taking breaks, socializing, going on vacation more often (somewhere without pollens!) and finding a better work-life balance are all great ways to decompress. Choose whatever way works best for you.
Step 6 - Give relief while addressing causes
Because of the unpleasant nature of allergy symptoms, providing relief is also important. Naturopathic medicine has options to help minimize and manage the symptoms giving you time to empty your bucket' and decrease your total allergic load.'
As always, a combination of naturopathic approaches tailored to each individual provides the best clinical results. Stabilizing the mucus membrane to become less sensitive by allergies is important. The use of specific vitamins or minerals in medicinal doses (antioxidants for example) and individualized herbal or homeopathic combinations can address inflammation, histamine release and can help control allergy symptoms. As always, adopting nutritional changes complements the healing process. Incorporating copious amounts of foods high in antioxidants such as berries and leafy greens is recommended.
Treating allergies is a whole body approach. By addressing factors that aim to decrease both the level in our bucket and total allergic load, we can resolve allergies and other symptoms.
Published by Dr. Gleixner on Wednesday June 2nd, 2010 in Times & Transcript.
Back to Dr. Gleixner’s full list of articles.
Interested in learning more about other unique concepts?
See Dr. Gleixner’s bio.
Ready to book an appointment?