By Jacqui Frasca
Seasonal allergies can be a tricky game—one day of unseasonably warm weather and your head becomes a mess of pressure and other unpleasant symptoms, while the day before you were functioning just fine. Judith Newman, in her article “Allergies, Misery for All Seasons,” published in the May 2006 issue of National Geographic, called allergy a modern epidemic—one which more than half the population of Americans experience. The wheezing, itching, sneezing and rashes of common non-food allergens like dust mites, pollen, ragweed and even grass have become more common in more people as we constantly push ahead to keep up with our modern lifestyles; industrialization has us overly concerned with sterilization and not concerned enough with spending time outside. “Allergies, like obesity, are essentially an epidemic of modernity,” Newman wrote. “As countries become more industrialized, the percentage of population afflicted tends to grow higher. There are remote areas of South America or Africa, for example, where allergies are virtually nonexistent.”
Living with seasonal, environmental and food allergies can significantly detract from your quality of life, especially when symptoms make it difficult to focus on work or unbearable to be out in nature. In May 2012, Mark Kinver reported for BBC News that our lack of contact with nature may actually be the cause of increasing allergies. Reports from Finnish scientists concluded that certain bacteria beneficial for human health were found in greater abundance in non-urban surroundings; these microbiota have an important role in human immunity. The study, found in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, analyzed data from samples collected from 118 Finnish teenagers. Those living on farms or near forests displayed lower sensitivity to major allergens and hosted a more diverse population of bacteria on their skin.
While a lack of exposure to natural materials may be responsible for the increase in allergic reactions, society’s hyper-hygienic tendency toward excessive cleanliness should also be taken into consideration. According to a study funded by the National Insitutes of Health and published in June 2012 in Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, Johns Hopkins Children’s Center found that exposure to common antibacterial chemicals and preservatives found in soaps, toothpaste, mouthwash and other personal care products made children more prone to food and environmental allergies. The tendency to over-clean and sanitize is also a modern phenomenon—one that may be creating more problems than it solves, starting with allergies. While most would perhaps prefer not to experience these symptoms, it is important to recognize that they are the body’s natural responses and trust the body’s natural process.
Immune System Meltdown
When the immune system is compromised—be it by stress or imbalances in bacteria—natural allergens like dust and pollen put our systems on the defense. The Johns Hopkins’ research used existing data from a national health survey of 860 children ages 6 to 18. It examined the relationship between a child’s urinary levels of preservatives often found in many personal hygiene products and the presence of IgE antibodies in the child’s blood. IgE antibodies are cells that become alert in response to an allergen, and are notably elevated in people with allergies. The link suggests that these agents play a role in immune system development. Disrupting the delicate balance of natural bacteria in the body can lead to immune system irregularity, which then increases the risk of allergies.
“Over the years I have stressed to my students and patients that ‘allergy’ is not a single entity, but rather a complex series of physiological events that are intimately tied to autoimmune disorders and gastrointestinal diseases,” says Paul Goldberg, D.C., who has taught the topic of allergy and autoimmune disease for more than 30 years at Life University and at continuing education seminars. Since 1977, he has worked with thousands of patients with allergies (both food and environmental) and autoimmune disorders. “The increase in allergies over the past 20 years reflects our ever-increasing disconnection from the earth and its resources. The Western way of life deprives the immune system exposure to infectious agents that condition the immune system to react to invaders in a balanced fashion,” he says. “Modern lifestyles limiting microbial exposure have created biological repercussions manifested by rapidly escalating immune and allergic disorders.”
David Jockers, D.C., who has studied the influences of environment on immune function for 10 years and worked with more than 1,000 clients with varying forms of allergies, agrees that our modern lifestyle is the culprit for our weakened immune systems. “The typical diet and lifestyle in America does not favor good gut bacteria,” says Jockers. “The vast majority of society has a bad bacterial balance—a condition called dysbiosis. The dysbiotic state causes the immune system to be on edge and have a tendency to over-inflame, causing allergenic and chronic inflammatory conditions.”
In addition to a lack of microbial exposure, Goldberg attributes the blame for our immune system imbalances to the over-prescribing of antibiotics, antacids and other drugs, which, when combined with the stress associated with modern life, keeps us in survival mode. “These multiple assaults on the microbial world in an attempt to make our environment more germ-free have played a significant role in unbalancing our immune systems and making them over-reactive to allergens,” he says.
Treating Causes, Not Symptoms
To balance out, or perhaps attempt to undo, the overabundance of drugs typically prescribed in the medical community to subdue allergy symptoms, natural remedies have gained popularity. Foods and herbs such as raw honey, butterbur and probiotics have been passed down for generations as ways to ease the suffering from allergy symptoms. Local raw honey, for example, contains bits of pollen and enzymes, so in the process of consuming the pollen from local plants that may be causing allergy symptoms, your immunity may be strengthened.
While many herbal, at-home remedies for allergy symptoms exist, relief-seekers should consider the causes of autoimmune disorders. “The dramatic rise in allergies over the past 20 years was not caused by a deficiency or lack of home remedies, herbs, honey or other treatments,” says Goldberg. “We are therefore much better served by addressing causes rather than symptoms. There are commercial interests (e.g., supplement companies) that would naturally like practitioners to utilize their products, but that is for economic reasons rather than based on an in-depth understanding of the causes of these health issues.”
To address imbalances in gut bacteria, Jockers recommends that his patients add a probiotic element into their diets. “We have 10 times more microorganisms in our body than we have cells in our body,” he says. “Without these microorganisms, we wouldn’t be able to assimilate any nutrients or form a healthy immune response. The inclusion of fermented foods and quality probiotic supplements is very important to re-coordinate the immune system.”
Goldberg notes that, when used appropriately, specific nutraceuticals [a portmanteau of “nutrition” and “pharmaceutical”] can provide short-term relief of symptoms, although he warns that they will not eliminate the problem since they do not directly address the cause. The best scenario for those who suffer from allergies, according to Goldberg, is to improve digestive efficiency and overall health and vitality prior to pollen season. “Seventy-five percent of the immune system is located in the intestines,” he notes. “When patients are healthy, with good digestion, good diets, sufficient rest and sleep and stress levels have been reduced to tolerable levels, they will do much better during the pollen season.” Similarly to communicable diseases like the flu, lack of sleep and proper nutrition lead to a compromised immune system, which can make it more difficult to recover once you are exposed.
Goldberg believes people need to be better educated on their health issues, so that short-term solutions can make way for long-term solutions. “We are best served by using the original and rational approaches to health care as taught by Hippocrates, which was to identify and address causes, not symptoms,” advises Goldberg. As allergy symptoms are our bodies’ natural responses to becoming well again, we must trust the process, even if it involves some sniffles and sneezing.
So go for hikes on the weekends, go to the park with your dog and a Frisbee or finally start (and tend to) that garden you have always wanted. Don’t stress about being too clean—trust that your body knows how to handle what it comes up against. Being more active out of doors this spring will help to alleviate the stresses of our indoor, working lives and, in turn, these interactions with Mother Nature will help keep allergy symptoms at bay. Relief will come, and it starts with exposing yourself to your environment more often and working to remove stresses of modern-day life.