Allergies - is your bucket full?
Allergies- is your bucket full?
Spring has finally sprung! All the beautiful new growth and promise of warmer days ahead can be joyous for some and downright miserable for others. Runny nose, sneezing, itchy, swollen and watery eyes are telltale signs that the body’s immune system is imbalanced and needs support. What causes allergies anyway, and is there anything you can do to help it, other than staying inside with a stockpile of antihistamines, nasal sprays and eye drops? This article explains how keeping the immune system strong starts with decreasing immune stressors while boosting barrier systems, gut health and detoxification ability. We will also explore how to support the immune system with food, lifestyle practices and supplements to help you get back to enjoying being outside again.
The body’s immune system is responsible for helping us fight off infection, viruses, bacteria, cancer cells, environmental allergens or anything foreign that comes in contact with the body. There are three different layers of our immune system that help protect us: the outer and inner “skins” and then the innate and adaptive immune systems. Once the first layer is compromised, there is a sequence of events in the second and third layers that lead to an allergic response.
The outer and inner skins are considered the first physical barriers of our immune system. Our outer skin is the outer layer, while the wet tissues that surround the eyes, lungs, reproductive and digestive systems are the inner layers or “skins.” The mucous membranes that line these organs are what protects us from foreign invaders and are our first line of defense. As 70-80% of our immune system is located in the gut, it is critical to keep the gut barrier (inner skin) strong. The gut lining, in addition to the other wet tissue areas, is most susceptible to breaking down from such things as aspirin, ibuprofen, alcohol and stress. This is one of the reasons why, after an extended period of stress, we often get sick. Add a night of drinking to that (and Motrin for the hangover) and you may be more susceptible to a cold, flu, allergen or intestinal bug. The classic line I hear from patients is, “I made it through [fill in the blank stressful time], went on vacation and suddenly got sick.” Keeping the mucous membranes healthy is important to improving immune health and preventing allergies.
If foreign invaders get through the first line of defense, then the innate immune system, the second line of defense, needs to step up its game. The innate system gets a little more complex, because it involves the lymphatic system along with certain blood cells, primarily the white blood cells. Among these white blood cells are the lymphocytes, monocytes, neutrophils, eosinophils and basophils. With allergies, either to food or environment, you may see an elevation in the eosinophils and/or the basophils. It’s the basophils that form the mast cells, which have the ability to release histamine and fight off the invader. The mast cells lie waiting, beneath the membrane surfaces, ready to release their histamine. When this happens, fluid from the blood vessels leaks into the tissues and causes hives, redness or swelling of the eyes, throat and tongue. This is why antihistamine medications help with allergies, to a certain extent, as they help to block the histamine response.
If the innate immune system is not handling the threat well enough, then the adaptive immune system is called into action. The adaptive immune system is how your body adapts to your environment. It has the ability to remember things you are allergic to and is able to target a specific allergen. At this level, both the innate and the adaptive immune systems work together through a complex system of communications to thwart the allergen’s attack on the body. Here is where antibodies or immunoglobulins come into play. An antibody is a protein that can fight against a particular invader or antigen. The IgE antibodies become elevated in allergic reactions and are found in the mucous membranes, skin and lungs.
What is an allergy?
An allergy is a heightened or inappropriate response by the body’s adaptive immune system to a substance that’s not normally harmful. Allergies are an overproduction of the IgE antibodies in reaction to an allergen. The immune system tags this allergen to be killed. The IgE antibodies and the mast cells work together to attack an antigen or foreign invader. After continued exposure to the invader, the body is trained to release mast cells the next time that allergen is encountered. When your allergist does a skin prick test, he or she is testing for the response of IgE antibodies to a particular allergen.
Anaphylaxis is an extreme and potentially life-threatening form of allergic reaction, often times to food, medications, latex or insect stings. It can cause swelling of the lips, tongue and throat, breathing problems, low blood pressure, collapse and loss of consciousness. This is a serious condition that may require use of epinephrine and immediate medical attention.
Keep your bucket from overflowing
The body fights both inflammation and allergies along the same pathways in the immune and lymphatic systems.
If your body is busy fighting inflammation from a gut infection or food sensitivity, it simply can’t fight off other insults to the body such as environmental allergens.
This is where your bucket may “overflow,” so to speak, and cause you to develop more allergy symptoms as the body’s inflammatory and allergen stress load reaches a breaking point. Breakdowns in the physical barriers, with activation of the innate and/or adaptive systems, can result in immediate or chronic allergies. The patients I see with chronic allergies often have a leaky gut (a breakdown in the first barrier system) from stress, food sensitivities, infection or lifestyle, which causes an over-activation in the innate and adaptive immune systems. On a personal note, since removing the foods I’m sensitive to and improving my gut health, I no longer have any environmental allergies.
The goal is to lower the inflammatory stressors to keep the barrier systems strong, by doing things such as cleaning up the diet and lifestyle and supporting the immune system.
All of the byproducts of inflammation and allergens must then pass through the liver to be filtered. If the liver is not functioning well, and this volume becomes too great, then the liver will have a difficult time keeping up with the detoxification demands of the body. This overload may cause an increase in symptoms. It’s important to keep the liver and all detoxification pathways open and functioning well. This means having good bowel movements, hydration and sweating to help reduce the toxic load on the body.
Why are allergies on the rise?
Hygiene and gut diversity theory - One of the reasons that allergies, and especially food allergies, may be on the rise is that our obsession with cleanliness, along with lack of exposure to environmental bacteria, may actually be robbing us of our innate ability to achieve normal immune development. Several studies have shown that children who grow up on farms and consume raw milk are less likely to develop allergies. (1) “Studies of the immune-biology of farm living point to an activation and modulation of the innate and adaptive immune responses by intense microbial exposures and possibly xenogeneic signals delivered before or soon after birth.” (2) Early disruption of the development of the microbiota (gut bacteria) from antibiotic use (including the mother’s use during pregnancy), C-sections and formula feeding have all been associated with increased susceptibility to allergies and asthma. (3, 4) Exposures to fungi/mold in early life have also been shown to increase risk of allergic disease. (4)
What’s the problem with antihistamines?
We often rely on antihistamines to get through the allergy season, but, used long term, antihistamines can actually make the immune system weaker and less able to fight allergens. When you take an antihistamine medication to block histamines you also block histamine in the stomach, which reduces stomach acid. Why is this important? Sufficient stomach acid is critical to help the body kill anything harmful that we may ingest, but it also helps us to absorb important nutrients like vitamin C, zinc and protein, some of the building blocks for our immune system. In the long run, taking antihistamines is actually weakening your ability to combat seasonal allergies. Although you may require the support of an antihistamine from time to time, you can lessen the need to rely on them, and perhaps altogether, by reducing stressors and bolstering the immune barriers.
Immune system stressors
How can we reduce stressors, so that our buckets don’t overflow? Do you drink too much coffee, alcohol or do you have or need some type of sugar every day? Are you chronically stressed? These stressors, and some of the others listed below, can tip the scales, making you more prone to allergies. Even working on one of these areas can help to make a positive shift for your immune system.
● Sugar and blood sugar swings
● Food sensitivities such as gluten and dairy
● Pathogenic bacteria
● Cancer cells
● Fried foods
● Lack of nutrients
● Lack of sleep
● Chronic stress—mental, physical and emotional
● Poor relationships
Of these, one of the biggest stressors I am seeing in my practice now is exposure to mold. Mold creates inflammatory stress, which further compromises the immune system as well as the detoxification system. Mold exposure can easily make your bucket overflow, especially when combined with other immune stressors. Make sure that your home and place of work are free of mold.
Immune system heroes
When we incorporate some of the following nutrients, lifestyle factors and foods, we can support a healthy gut barrier and immune response to reduce allergy symptoms.
Some of the key foundational nutrients to help support our immune system include vitamins A, D, E, C, and zinc. Vitamin C in particular is a considered a mast cell stabilizer that helps to keep the cell from releasing too much histamine. We also need ample quantities of high quality protein as well as essential fatty acids from fish or fish oil to help support the immune system. Probiotics and prebiotics help strengthen that first line of defense, the gut lining.
Lifestyle factors are important—and perhaps most important—to immune health. We need to get adequate sleep (at least 7-8 hours), hydrate well with clean water (at least half your body weight), exercise but don’t over-exercise and manage our stress levels. Our gut physiology is particularly vulnerable to chronic stress, which results in a breakdown of the gut lining and a change in our gut bacteria. (5) If we don’t manage stress, our immune system will continually be compromised and less able to fight allergens. Incorporating stress reduction techniques, such as meditation, yoga, tai chi, deep breathing or Heart Math, into our daily routine can help mitigate the effects of chronic stress and keep barrier systems strong.
Immune boosting superfoods
Here are some of the most potent superfoods for immune health. Try adding a few of these foods to your daily diet for an immune system boost.
● Camu camu
● Medicinal mushrooms
● Black elderberry
● Brightly colored fruits and vegetables
● Green tea
● Local bee pollen and honey
● Bone broth to help heal gut lining
Supplemental treatments to consider for acute allergies
For extra support with acute allergies, these supplements can be effective in the right doses. It’s best to work with your functional medicine or functional nutrition practitioner to find the right combination and dosage for you.
● Vitamin C
● Stinging nettle leaf (in food—smoothies, pesto, tea or freeze dried)
Take home message for allergy support
1. Lower immune stressors, especially food sensitivities and mold; work with your practitioner to help identify sensitivities.
2. Support your immune system with foundational nutrients.
3. Support a good lifestyle by managing stress, getting adequate sleep, appropriate exercise and ample water.
4. Incorporate immune boosting superfoods.
5. Supplement as necessary.
In conclusion, allergies don’t exist in a vacuum, but occur when there is a breakdown in the barrier systems, the guards of our immune system, coupled with a triggering of the innate and adaptive immune systems. As our gut houses the largest area of immunity in the body, creating strong gut barriers by minimizing inflammatory stressors is imperative to keeping allergies at bay. When we identify and remove food sensitivities, create healthy home and work environments, support healthy lifestyle practices and include immune boosting foods and nutrients, we can tackle seasonal allergies at their root cause to once again rekindle our love of being outside in nature.
1. Genuneit, J., (2012) Exposure to farming environments in childhood and asthma and wheeze in rural populations: a systematic review with meta-analysis. Pediatric Allergy Immunology. Sep; 23(6):509-18. doi: 10.1111/j.1399-3038.2012.01312.x. Epub 2012 May 25.
3. Heli, Vieira Brandão, et al. (2016) Increased risk of allergic rhinitis among children delivered by cesarean section: a cross-sectional study nested in a birth cohort. BMC Pediatrics.16: 57. Published online 2016 Apr 27. doi: 10.1186/s12887-016-0594-x
4. Johnson, C. C, et al. (2017) The Infant Gut Bacterial Microbiota and Risk of Pediatric Asthma and Allergic Diseases. Translational Research. Jan; 179: 60–70. Published online 2016 Jul 9. doi: 10.1016/j.trsl.2016.06.010
5. Konturek, P.C. et al. (2011) Stress and the gut: pathophysiology, clinical consequences, diagnostic approach and treatment options. Journal of Physiology and Pharmacology. 62, 6, 591-599 www.jpp.krakow.pl