Spring is a wonderful time of year. Temperatures warm, snow melts, and flowers bloom. The world is reborn. But for those who suffer from allergies, this natural beauty comes at a cost. Pollen, mold, dust, and other allergens can make the rise of spring a descent into misery.
But allergies can have more serious consequences than congestion, headaches, or an itchy nose. For an ever-growing number of people, food reactions—such as peanut or other serious food allergies—can be deadly. Allergies of all types have spiked sharply in the last 10 years, and recent studies link susceptibility to allergies with blood cancers like leukemia.
These statistics are cause for concern, partly since increased allergy rates point to underlying changes in our environment. Allergies and related autoimmune conditions don’t increase for no reason. While we don’t have enough information to definitively determine why allergies are increasing, there are some reasonable suspects like increasing stress levels, environmental toxins, and harmful food additives. We need to address these issues, not just for allergies but for the prevention of chronic, life-threatening conditions like heart disease, cancer, and dementia.
Stress and immunity
Allergies are related to autoimmune diseases to some degree because both are caused by an overactive immune response. Though not as serious as an autoimmune disorder like lupus or rheumatoid arthritis, allergies cause the immune system to overreact to relatively minor dangers such as pollen.
There are many factors that can combine to create allergies. Let’s start with stress. A part of the brain known as the amygdala reacts to stress by sending out chemical signals. Unfortunately, the amygdala isn’t particularly good at differentiating between a perceived threat and an actual one. The amygdala modulates the inflammatory hormone cortisol—putting the body into full survival mode—and chronic stress can keep it there. This chronic state of stress and the resulting inflammation can put our defenses into overdrive, resulting in an overactive immune response. Just like we may get snappy when stressed out or exhausted, when the immune system is dealing with an overload of inflammatory signals, it lashes out inappropriately.
Leaky gut syndrome
Another area that can generate allergies is the gastrointestinal tract. This is our first line of defense against pathogens, and a large number of immune cells and friendly bacteria reside there, ready to fight harmful invaders.
Unfortunately, some people suffer from chronic inflammatory conditions that make the gut more porous—we call this “leaky gut syndrome.” As a result, undigested food, bacteria, and other foreign particles enter the circulation. The immune system attacks and releases histamine, a “repair chemical.” Histamine triggers swelling and inflammation and causes allergy symptoms if the levels get high enough.
Leaky gut syndrome has been linked in many cases to both seasonal allergies and specific food sensitivities. When patients with seasonal allergies reduce inflammation in the gut through the elimination of proinflammatory foods (like gluten, dairy, sugar, and trans fats) and the addition of anti-inflammatory foods and nutrients, allergy symptoms are often reduced or reversed altogether.
The role of gluten
Made up of two proteins named gliadin and glutenin, gluten can generate adverse reactions in a significant portion of the population. In severe cases, gluten sensitivity can cause celiac disease, a serious autoimmune condition causing extreme inflammatory reactions to gluten.
While many people only have a mild sensitivity to gluten, the protein can still generate inflammatory reactions. In addition to intestinal discomfort, the inflammation caused by gluten sensitivity can strain the immune system, compromise the function of the GI tract, and affect many other organ systems, including the brain. Similar to addressing leaky gut, many people with seasonal allergies find relief when they eliminate gluten from their diets.
Stress, leaky gut, and food sensitivities have at least one thing in common—they fuel chronic inflammation which in turn causes these conditions to flare, a vicious cycle indeed. This brings consequences far beyond the discomfort caused by most allergies. Chronic inflammation can play a role in numerous life-threatening conditions.
My first recommendation to address chronic inflammation is to control stress. As noted, anxiety generates inflammatory hormones, but there are ways to alleviate this. Meditation is an ancient discipline that calms both mind and body. Numerous studies have shown the practice can dramatically influence the brain, putting our fight-or-flight reflex at bay and reducing inflammation.
For those who like to take a more active role in stress reduction, exercise can also help. Simply taking a brisk 30 minute walk each day can work wonders for stress control, inflammation, and overall health.
Gluten is far from being the only food that can generate inflammation, as many people react poorly to dairy, soy, eggs, and other common foods. Processed foods are a more insidious enemy than either of these, however, as they are often both inflammatory and nearly devoid of nutritional value. A few other foods best avoided are factory-farmed meat, alcohol, and the overuse of caffeine. If you’d like to determine your individual food sensitivities, the best way to do so is with an elimination diet under the guidance of an experienced nutritionist.
Enough of the bad foods—now let’s focus on the nutrient-dense whole foods that can reduce inflammation and support a healthy immune response. My advice is to emphasize organic lean proteins, fruits, vegetables, sprouted whole grains, nuts, seeds, and healthy fats. There are a number of gluten-free grains that are high in nutrition, such as rice, amaranth, millet, and quinoa. These are most anti-inflammatory and nutrient-dense when soaked, sprouted, or fermented. Choose brightly colored fruits and vegetables rich in anti-inflammatory phytonutrients. Also drink lots of filtered or spring water, as chronic dehydration can hamper immunity and increase inflammation, aggravating allergies.
People with allergies or any immune-related issue should emphasize foods rich in flavonoids, a powerful class of health-promoting phytonutrients. The flavonoid quercetin is particularly helpful for allergies, reducing inflammation and controlling histamine. A number of foods are rich in quercetin, such as red onion, dill, kale, apples, berries, and capers.
I also recommend foods with omega-3 fatty acids, including wild salmon, flax, walnuts, and sardines. These contain healthy fats that support immunity as well as reducing inflammation.
Whenever discussing immunity, we must also address the wealth of probiotic bacteria that live in our digestive tract. Called our “individual microbiota,” this complex ecosystem plays a critical role in our immune response. This microbiota supports digestion, nutrition, and overall gastrointestinal health with complex metabolic actions. New research also shows our microbiota can assist in the assimilation of flavonoids and other polyphenols, contributing to the benefits received by these important phytonutrients. Cultured probiotic foods like yogurt, kefir, and sauerkraut—as well as “prebiotic” supplements and foods such as chicory root, dandelion greens, and garlic—enhance the health of our microbiota.
Mushrooms deserve their own section because they are more than just food. In addition to being rich in complex vitamins and minerals, mushrooms contain carbohydrates like betaglucans that have a powerful impact on immunity. They are particularly useful when fighting allergies because they don’t simply boost the immune system, they modulate it. This means they can either energize immune cells or rein in their response, depending on the need. By balancing immunity, they keep the body from either overreacting or underreacting to pathogens and other threats.
There are numerous medicinal mushrooms that can provide support. I particularly recommend the varieties reishi, Cordyceps, Coriolus versicolor, Polyporous umbellatus, Agaricus blazei Murill, and maitake, which are specially cultivated in a substrate of immune-supporting herbs for increased benefits.
When supplementing to fight allergies, I recommend a three-pronged approach. First, reduce inflammation directly. Second, modulate immunity. Lastly, help the body detoxify to further reduce inflammation and remove harmful invaders.
Perhaps the most comprehensive supplement for dealing with allergies is called Tibetan Herbal Formula. It has been shown in a number of studies to help address issues associated with inflammation, immunity, and circulation. Ingredients such as Iceland moss, neem fruit, and others help to reduce inflammation, balance immunity, and enhance circulation. This ancient formula has also been proven effective against sinusitis, a common problem with ongoing allergies.
There are hundreds of toxins in our environment that find their way into our bodies. While the relationship between toxicity and allergies has not been clearly proven, there is alarming evidence accumulating regarding the links between environmental toxins like pesticides and heavy metals and the development of autoimmune diseases. We do know that these environmental poisons generate inflammation and can wreak havoc on our finely tuned neuroendocrine and immune systems.
For anyone suffering from allergies, I strongly recommend periodic detoxification and an organic diet/lifestyle. In addition to incorporating anti-inflammatory foods and other recommendations, gentle detoxifying agents like modified citrus pectin and alginates actively remove heavy metals, pesticides, and even radioactive isotopes. Gentle detoxification is a key practice that can help eliminate harmful substances, reduce inflammation, and help restore the body’s balance.
There may be a number of reasons for the increase we’re seeing in allergies including climate change, environmental pollutants, GMOs, food additives, stress, and more. Other conditions related to inflammation and overactive immunity are also on the rise. By taking holistic measures to address these issues, many people are finding significant relief, while supporting overall health and vitality in the process. And that’s nothing to sneeze at!
Isaac Eliaz, MD, MS, LAc, is a licensed acupuncturist, physician, and homeopath, has a MS in traditional Chinese medicine, and has done graduate studies in herbology. Visit him online at dreliaz.org.