Allergy – what Allergies?

Filed in Articles and Presentations on May 23, 2014

What AllergiesWhat’s in a name?  Allergy is a very fashionable word, much exploited by medicine and marketing in North America.   For some, it is a very real expression of unpleasant physical symptoms for others an emotional excuse. Spring and fall are the most common time for patient allergies due to the high levels of  triggers such as pollen, dust, etc., in the atmosphere. So let us go back to basics.  In medical speak the word allergy means a disorder in which the body becomes hypersensitive to particular substances called allergens or antigens.  It can affect all tissues and organs.  Normally our inherent antibodies in our bloodstream and tissues detect these allergens and dispose of them without our knowledge with no noticeable effects.  In allergic patients, these allergens provoke a class of antibodies ( IGE ) that bind to mast cells in the body.  The subsequent reaction of the allergen with the antibody provides the symptoms of cell damage, itching, redness, the release of histamine and serotonin, and other symptoms dependant on the individual affected.  There are four types of hypersensitivity reactions. Reactions can be many and varied ranging from mild sniffles to asthma to dermatitis to shock.

Allergens themselves come in a wide spectrum of sources associated with daily living, gluten, pollen, fur, feathers, hair, dust mites, moulds, cosmetics, dyes, drugs, and so on.   There is a test to identify noxious substances for each individual.  Typically they are administered by pin prick on the upper arm or patch on the back.  Left for 48 hours and then reviewed and if necessary left for another 48hours.  This cannot be done over the internet as per some advertising I have seen.  If the substances provoke the antibodies there is usually an eczematous reaction.  Nickel in women is one of the most common (cheap jewellery) and chromium in men.  The tests are not 100% accurate, as many years ago, I discovered, when our local family doctor tested my daughter for an allergen likely to cause spontaneous asthma.  Cats and cat fur was on the verboten list.  My daughter, for 21 years was never parted from her cat and we, over time, showed this was not a causative factor.

There are five classes of immunoglobulins which make the antibodies which inter react with the allergens.  GAMED is a nice mnemonic for students to remember them by.  Each class of immunoglobulin has a specific function within the body and they provide the defence mechanisms of the body.  By identifying if one is raised out of proportion to normal levels, it is possible to identify the cause of the problem.  Not always the precise virus, bacteria or other pathogen but sufficient of a type to be able to apply appropriate remedies. This identification is of course very expensive and not commonly done.

The common drugs provided by the family doctor to combat perceived allergies is usually a corticosteroid or epinephrine pen.  Corticosteroids must never be taken for more than six weeks as they can cause severe side effects such as hypertension, diabetes and other nasties. Any one on a corticosteroid must always taper off consumption and never stop at once.  The function of the corticosteroid is to depress the inflammatory reaction i.e. symptom relief.

So, from a medical herbalist point of view what does one do?   Firstly if your allergies only seem to appear in the Fall and Spring then it is a pretty good indicator that pollen, grasses, moulds etc. are the triggers.  If your allergies persist throughout the year then the first step is to identify them.  There is virtually no gluten test that is relevant so dietary modification is the key for testing here but with other triggers such as pet dander then it is appropriate to get a patch test done under proper clinical conditions. The next step is obvious, if the primary cause is feathers then make sure your home is feather free! I.e. take practical steps to ameliorate the environment which contains the allergens.  Allergies most frequently arise in patients with poor immune systems or as a result of taking drugs for a long time.  So it is necessary to rebuild the immune system.  Diet and exercise are good starting points.  Lots of veggies, be ALIVE :





ELIMINATE SUGAR FROM YOUR DIET.   Eggs and cows products are common culprits for allergens so switch to goat’s products and hormone/antibiotic free eggs.  Rice is not known to cause any allergies. There are a large number of very effective plants for allergies but you do need to go to a professional to check the right one for you and in the right format, dose etc. One of the most common families of plants – the compositae – are themselves known allergens; so please do not attempt to treat yourself – leave it to the professional.   At the same time this is an opportunity to rebuild the immune system through plant medicine.  There extremely effective plant equivalents to the Epi pen and corticosteroids with no side effects but these are not available over the counter.

Immunodeficiency states can arise from a primary source and are genetic in origin (e.g. Cystic fibrosis ) or from a secondary source such as infection, malnutrition and drugs e.g. HIV/AIDS. It is the secondary type which is possible to ameliorate even if you have a diagnosed immunodeficiency such as malaria or rheumatoid arthritis.  In the past Spring was a time when people traditionally took tonics as a result of poor food supplies of the winter ( close to malnutrition in the winter was bad ).  Thus the word was associated with herbal tonics to revive and re tonify the body.  One of the most frequently used plants for this purpose was the common nettle.  It is ubiquitously found in the Western world wherever soils are enriched.  It does not like poor soils.  There is a very good reason why, as nettles will give you all your basic minerals in a food form which allergy prone people are often deficient in.  It contains chlorophyll, vitamin C, serotonin, histamine, iron, calcium, silica, acetyl choline.  No wonder it is anti-inflammatory and anti-itch!  The Scots have an excellent tradition of making nettle soup in the Spring from the new shoots which is delicious.  I think Fiddleheads consumed in modest proportions but not grown near industrial sites would be our Canadian equivalent.  They are high in vitamins and minerals, iron and fibre so enjoy the spring!

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