Allergy 101: A Naturopathic Approach

An allergy is an adverse immune system reaction—sometimes mild, sometimes severe—to a substance that other people find harmless.

Quite often, an allergen (a substance provoking allergy symptoms) is a protein that the body judges to be foreign and dangerous and thus attacks it.  The adverse reaction that follows is called an allergic response or sensitivity.

In susceptible individuals, this hypersensitivity response occurs after exposure to allergens from 3 primary categories:

  • Food- Wheat, Dairy, Corn, Soy, Egg, Food Additives and Preservatives
  • Environmental- Dust, Dust mites, Pollen, Ragweed, Grasses, Trees, Molds
  • Chemical- Inhalants, Fumes, Exhaust, Solvents, Herbicides, Pesticides, Plastics

Allergies are important to eliminate because they can affect so many aspects of our overall health!

Allergy Symptoms

Seasonal allergy sufferers know the misery of these symptoms:

  • Sniffling, sneezing, runny nose, nasal congestion, sinus pressure, itchy, red, or watery eyes, scratchy throat, post nasal drip, ear aches, coughing, etc.

But did you know that allergies can also contribute to the following conditions and day-to-day health concerns?

  • Asthma
  • Weight Gain
  • Digestive Disturbance
  • Eczema
  • Fatigue
  • Sleep disturbance
  • Mental focus and concentration problems
  • Emotional concerns like anxiety and depression

Naturopathic Care for Allergies

Comprehensive Naturopathic Care is integral to eliminating allergies by healing the whole body:

  • Allergy is a complex condition that involves many systems of the body.
  • For this reason, addressing allergies requires a comprehensive understanding of the interaction of the immune system, digestive system, diet, lifestyle, and even hormones and genetics.
  • Learning how to eat a healthy diet and use the correct supplementation to support body systems is essential to maximizing the benefits of allergy elimination.
  • It is therefore very important that a personalized and comprehensive approach is taken!

Underlying Causes of Allergies

In the most basic sense, an allergy is an over-reaction of the body to a normally benign substance.  This hypersensitivity then causes the body to respond by producing symptoms (sneezing, itching, wheezing, etc).

This is a typical stress –> response mechanism.  A person is stressed by an allergen, and the body over-responds to it.  This is an important concept, because it means we have a target for treatment… first by identifying the allergens (the stress) and secondly by desensitizing to those particular allergens (the response).

Additionally important to the naturopathic approach to allergies, we must consider the tremendous impact of the overall health of the allergy sufferer.

A holistic approach to health understands that allergy is a susceptibility that an individual has based on a multitude of factors.  The best news is that this susceptibility is changeable!

Suffering from allergy is not something that you have to endure!  By understanding and identifying the underlying causes of allergy in the first place, we can make individualized recommendations to change your response to allergens permanently.

Definitions of Allergic Responses:

  • Allergy:  In the classical sense, an allergy is an adverse immune system reaction that causes the body to produce protein antibodies (IgE- Immunoglobulin E) when exposed to an allergen.  IgE antibody mediated responses are often very significant to the person and can result from environmental or food allergies.  Dust mites, animal dander, and pollen are common environmental allergens.  A classic IgE food allergy is seen with peanuts or shell fish–symptoms often occur within minutes of exposure to an allergen in this scenario and may be quite severe.  This is the type of allergy you hear about when a child’s throat closes off simply by being in the same room with peanuts.
  • Sensitivity:  In a broader sense, a sensitivity reaction is a non-antibody mediated response of the body to a substance.  In other words, your body can experience symptoms after exposure to a substance even though your immune system has not produced any antibodies.  Sensitivity reactions can range from mild to severe, and are more commonly seen in response to foods or chemicals.  Important to understand is that this type of reaction can take several days to manifest.  Food sensitivities often cause symptoms days after consumption.  For this reason, it is often difficult to identify food sensitivities- if you feel bad on a Wednesday, the reason may have been a food eaten for breakfast on Monday.  Also important to understand is that sensitivities are far more common.  Addressing sensitivities incorporates healing the whole body, and not just addressing the immune system.  Conventional allergy testing and treatment do not recognize sensitivities as an allergy and are not able to address these types of reactions.
  • Intolerance:  Intolerance primarily helps to define a particular reaction to certain foods.  An intolerance is a lack of a specific digestive enzyme to a particular food.  Gluten intolerance and Lactose intolerance are the two most common intolerances.  Without the presence of these enzymes, the digestive system is not able to fully digest these foods.  Gluten is a protein in wheat, rye, barley, and spelt.  Lactose is a sugar in dairy foods.  Intolerance reactions often produce localized, inflammatory responses in the digestive system.  Significant to realize for intolerances is the fact that reactions may also be systemic.  An intolerance reaction may produce a wide array of symptoms that affect the physical, mental, and even emotional body.  While allergy desensitization and naturopathic remedies may reduce symptoms of intolerance, avoidance is often necessary in the case of intolerance.
  • Adverse Reaction“:  Due to the wide range of allergic reactions, I commonly will use the term “adverse reaction.”  I feel this is a good catch-all term for allergy.  “Adverse reaction” captures the essence of the stress –> response mechanism present in all three situations:  classical allergy, sensitivity, and intolerance.

Total Body Burden, & Adaptation and Frequency of Exposure

The field of Clinical Ecology helped to pioneer a holistic understanding of allergy as a distinct science and medical specialty. Concepts such as Total Body Burden and Adaptation and Frequency of Exposure to substances help to describe the underlying causes of allergies.

Clinical Ecology

Clinical Ecology is a practical model for understanding allergy.  It mirrors naturopathic philosophy.  I incorporate clinical ecology because it takes a comprehensive approach to allergy and pays close attention to detail.

In her book Clinical Ecology, Iris Bell, MD writes “Clinical ecologists propose that chronic exposure to common foods, environmental chemicals, and natural inhalants- in addition to physical and psychosocial stressors- can trigger a wide range of mental, emotional, and physical disorders in susceptible individuals… At present, the data suggest that environmental illnesses may be initiated by chronic exposure to low doses of multiple substances.  Classical allergic mechanisms (i.e., antibody IgE) are not necessarily involved, but other dysfunctions of the immune system have been implicated.”

This quote underscores an important distinction between several kinds of allergic responses.  Defining particular types of hypersensitivity responses is significant.  Essentially, the body has several ways in which it may express symptoms in response to an allergen.  One mechanism is a classically defined allergy.  However, conventional allergists often fail to recognize or ignore other more common, non-classical reactions.  These reactions are significant to recognize because they give valuable information of the health of the whole body and they are at the root of many allergy sufferer’s symptoms.

Total Body Burden

Total Body Burden is an important concept to understand and helps explain why such seemingly small substances may make a big impact on your overall health.

Think of your body as a bucket that slowly fills with increasing exposure to allergens, toxins, and stressors.  Every time you make a poor food choice, you breathe in pollution, or you are exposed to toxic chemicals, it goes in your bucket.  Other things that go in your bucket are emotional and mental stresses—worry, sleepless nights, anxiety, depression, anger—all of these are dumped in your bucket as well.

You were born with a pretty big bucket.  And it may take a while to fill up.

This is why you may not instantly become ill the second you eat a candy bar, or why you can drive down the highway exposed to diesel fuel and not become violently ill.  You may be able to handle the day-to-day stress in your life and not become incapacitated.

If the only stress in your life was an intolerance to milk, for example, it would most likely be tolerable.  Most people, however, have multiple stressors at the same time.  So drinking that milk while eating a meal with 10 other food sensitivities, then driving in traffic with automobile exhaust while feeling upset by financial stress all while running late for an important meeting… now there is a recipe for adverse reactions due to total body burden!

Our bodies (specifically the liver, kidneys, digestive system, and other organs of detoxification) are constantly trying to drain the bucket and reduce the overall toxic burden.  But sometimes it’s hard to keep up, and the level rises.

You may find that stresses that you used to be able to handle now seem to bother you much more than before.  The chemicals in your skin cream never used to bother you, but now they are causing a rash.  That ice cream used to be just fine, but now it hurts your stomach.  Insomnia that used to be just a minor annoyance now knocks you to the ground.  It’s why the smallest thing may suddenly become the straw that breaks the camel’s back.

When too much is put in your bucket, it may eventually start to overflow.

If the bucket starts to overflow, it may manifest as health conditions such as allergies, asthma, digestive problems, muscle and joint pain, mental/emotional issues, autoimmune diseases, or even heart disease and cancer.

The solution is to first reduce the amount of substances being put into your bucket, and second, to assist the drain at the bottom to lower the level.

Otherwise, these stressors start to accumulate in the body faster than the body can remove them!

Individuals become susceptible to allergy symptoms (and other health conditions) when the total stress load exceeds some threshold for them.

Fortunately, this means the reverse is also true–recovery occurs when the total load is reduced below that threshold.  If you can get the level of your bucket back down to a normal level, you will start to feel good again!

This, in a nutshell, is why we have designed our Allergy Elimination Program—to help lower the levels in your bucket, your total body burden of environmental toxins.

Adaptation and Frequency of Exposure

Along with Total Body Burden, these are important concepts to understand the overall process involved with allergies.

The first time you are exposed to an allergen (whether food, environmental, or chemical), you may have a sudden and immediate response.  If this same stressor is repeated often enough, the body may adapt by progressively dampening its immediate response to each subsequent exposure.

Eventually, your body may have adapted enough that you appear completely normal after exposure.

A good example of this concept is with adverse food reactions.  The first time a child eats a certain food, they may immediately develop a rash.

The irritation and itching may be quite intolerable and as a result mom and child may consciously avoid the food for the foreseeable time.  Later, after the initial irritation recedes and time passes, the food may be introduced again and again, with no notice of any immediate aggravation of the rash.

No connection is made as the body has temporarily adapted to the stress of the food sensitivity.  However, the child in fact is still sensitive to this food but now is being exposed more frequently without the symptoms to tell him to avoid it!  This is a recipe for developing chronic allergies, asthma, or eczema, insidious allergic responses without a clear trigger (since the trigger no longer produced marked acute allergic symptoms!).

As Iris Bell explains:  “Recurrent exposures to non-tolerated items may induce adaptation that would mask the acute worsening of symptoms after any given exposure, while still permitting chronic damage, with low-grade, dampened symptoms.  Clinically, this adaptation process means that patients and physicians may fail to suspect some environmental substances in the etiology of various chronic syndromes.”

This concept of adaptation is the reason why it is sometimes necessary to avoid particular offending substances or foods.  Flowing from the concept of adaptation, frequency of exposure can induce or increase sensitivity to a substance, while avoidance or lessened frequency of exposure can reduce the degree of sensitivity.  Thus, elimination of an adverse food reaction often demonstrates a profound change in your health.  Sometimes, this is evident within days.  However, be aware- symptomatic improvement may take weeks of avoidance to achieve.

Reintroduction of an offending food or substance can be tricky.

Remember how the greatest reaction to an allergen may be evoked by the initial exposure?  Well, this also applies to the first re-exposure after elimination.  Again, time is necessary for healing to occur to the point where an allergen may be tolerated (drain the bucket!).

Clinical experience demonstrates that allergen avoidance in the range of 6, 9, or 12 months is often sufficient to tolerate the substance.  Clinical experience also demonstrates that many individuals choose to avoid certain food sensitivities because they simply feel better without them.

Sometimes it’s just not worth it.

Barrier Function

Maintaining proper barrier function is the key to preventing allergies.

The Underlying Causes of Allergy and Sensitivity

The first tenant of the Naturopathic Therapeutic Order is to Identify and Remove the Causes of Disease.  Symptoms will persist for an individual unless the root cause of their illness is identified and removed.  This is a simple, yet complex, concept, and when dealing with allergies, this concept is critical.

A naturopathic approach to allergies recognizes the complexity of each individual’s circumstances while recognizing that many common features are shared by all allergy sufferers.

In general, making improvements in an individual’s barrier function, digestion, nutrition, and elimination are possible solutions that can reduce or eliminate one’s susceptibility to allergy.

One of our mentor physicians, Dr. Konrad Kail, ND created another model for relieving allergies naturally.  His work has shown that addressing allergies involves a complex balance between diet, digestive function, hormones, immune system health, genetics, and lifestyle.

The important features to consider for improving allergies are:

  • Correcting barrier function defaults (see below)
  • Improving nutrition and digestive function (see below)
  • Reducing inflammation
  • Improving hormonal function
  • Reducing total body burden of environmental toxins
  • Finding and balancing energetic disturbances related to immune health

Barrier Function Default

Barrier function is an important concept in understanding and treating allergy/sensitivity.  Barrier functions are those things that keep a person from becoming sensitized to substances.  There are three major barriers to consider:

  • Digestive Tract
  • Mucus membranes of the sinuses and respiratory passages
  • Skin

When healthy, these three barriers prevent potentially harmful substances from affecting our health.  When any or all barrier functions are impaired, foreign molecules are able to pass through the barriers, enter the bloodstream, and impact our immune system.  Causes of barrier function default include:

  • Poor diet and protein metabolism
  • Enzyme deficiency
  • Pathogenic bacteria overgrowth
  • Toxic burden
  • Dysfunctional hormonal support from adrenal, thyroid, and other endocrine glands

Here at Lewis Family Natural Health, we have taken Dr. Kail’s work and integrated it with our unique naturopathic philosophy to shape our Natural Elimination of Allergy Technique.  It is a safe, effective, and non-invasive way to become allergy free, naturally!