Friday, November 2, 2007

Nutritional Programs for Allergies

The theories, problems, and treatments of allergies and hypersensitivities represent an enormous topic that could easily fill an entire book—in fact, many such books have been written by noted medical authors. This section discusses some of the basic concepts in the field of allergy, with an emphasis on new work related to this growing twentieth-century dilemma, particularly regarding the use of diet and supplements in treating both food and environmental allergies.

Allergies are a result of our physiological and biochemical interaction with the world around us and within us—with the foods, chemicals, and natural substances in our immediate environment that we ingest, inhale, or physically contact, and with various internal microbes and body tissues. Our body’s immune system is designed to correctly identify and differentiate between self and nonself—that is, between what our body needs and what is foreign to it—and when it encounters foreign substances, it reacts by making antibodies or releasing certain chemicals, such as histamines. Of course, it is appropriate for us to make protective antibodies against infectious organisms, chemicals, and other foreign substances; pollens, molds, animal hairs, dust, and foods all contain protein antigens that stimulate some antibody response. The problem arises when we have an inappropriate response, or "hyperresponse." Then the antibodies attach to the antigens, causing a variety of internal reactions. Histamine and other chemicals are released into the system, causing an inflammatory reaction. These antigen-antibody (Ag-Ab) reactions affect the tissues and organs, mainly the skin, mucous membranes, lungs, and gastrointestinal tract. Symptoms commonly produced include itchy and watery eyes, runny and congested nose and sinuses, skin reactions, and rapid heart rate. Less obvious but still common allergic symptoms include fatigue, headache, intestinal gas or pain, abdominal bloating, and mood changes.

These allergic manifestations often are the result of multiple stressors and biochemical reactions. I often describe this to patients as the "cup runneth over" theory. Certain people may be reactive to specific environmental and food products, as I myself am. However, if our diet is relatively clean, our stress level is low, and our normal eliminative functions are working well, we will exhibit minimal, if any, symptoms. On the other hand, if we have too many stressors going into our cup—a high-demand schedule; a few dinners out with more bread, cheese and wine; a few extra worries; less exercise; and a little constipation—our cup may "runneth over" and we may experience sinus or upper respiratory symptoms, a skin rash, or other "allergic" problems. From a naturopathic viewpoint, allergic symptoms represent detoxification of any overly congested body; the traditional Chinese viewpoint suggests an imbalance of energies and organs. Western medicine has its own theories, which I also present.

Allergy Relief

'tis the season to be sneezing. Is there ANYTHING I can do about my pollen allergies?
In general, the best way to escape the miserable effects of 'hay fever' and other reactions to airborne allergens is to avoid them. "Great... that's a big help," you're probably thinking to yourself. It is very difficult to avoid things that fly through your front door, through the car window, even into the bedroom. But all is not lost, and I'm not talking about resorting to antihistamines. If you work outside, such as construction work, you may want to consider wearing a light paper nose and mouth mask to filter out the bigger particles. Also, it may be well worth your money to invest in a home air filtration system. Many folks with dust allergies have discovered Rainbow vacum cleaners which work with a water filtration system and not a bag for collecting the house dust. Try to wash your hands frequently. If you're allergic to airborne pollens and/or dust you may also be sensitive to cat and dog dander. Don't pet the animal then rub your face. Anytime you touch a surface that is likely to be sprinkled with whatever ails you, wash your hands as soon as possible afterwards.

The fact of having allergies may signal a weakened immune system. You can never go wrong enhancing your immunity by minimizing toxic input (refined sugar, refined flour, caffeine, tobacco, alcohol, exposure to solvents, exposure to burning hydrocarbons, etc). Also, get the basics every day: fresh air, pure water, adequate rest, adequate exercise, and dark green vegetables.

Depending on your individual situation, if you suffer from allergies you may benefit from seasonal supplementation with extra Vitamin C (up to 10 grams daily), Vitamin B5 (up to 800 mg daily) and Zinc picolinate (up to 150 mg daily). Potent anti-inflammatory substances derived from food sources include bromelain from pineapple, papain from papaya and quercitin from the spice Turmeric. Turmeric (also known as curcumin) is a major ingredient in curry and used throughout Far Eastern cuisine not only for flavor, but for its medicinal properties. The agents of inflammation in your body (cytokines, leukotrienes, etc.) are derived largely from something called arachadonic acid which is generously supplied by red meat. While a small amount of arachadonic acid is crucial for life, it can be synthesized internally so it is best to eliminate red meat from your diet entirely if you are prone to hay fever or other allergies. There is a class of fats, called the Omega-3 oils, which are extremely beneficial in decreasing inflammation in the body. These oils are found in the pressed evening primrose flowers, in cold-pressed flax seeds, and in fish. Eat fish generously during hay fever season, and take one tablespoon of Flax oil or Evening Primrose oil daily all year around.

Some folks have been greatly helped by taking "desensitization" drops which are a very dilute mixture of whatever substances they are allergic to, taken under the tongue in dropper form during allergy season. This can be thought of as a kind of "vaccination" and is usually available through a natural health-care provider. Rainbow in downtown Juneau and Ron's Apothecary in Mendenhall Mall may carry some homeopathic anti-allergy remedies. Anti-histamines tend to make you drowsy and non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (such as aspirin, ibuprofen) MUST be avoided to combat allergic reactions because they will ultimately damage the mucous membranes of the gut and lungs, thus setting you up for chronic hypersensitivity to all sorts of things to which you are regularly exposed.

Childhood Allergies

An allergy is a hypersensitive reaction to a normally harmless substance. About one in every six children in the United States is allergic to one or more substances. There are a variety of substances, termed allergens, that may trouble your child. Common allergens include pollen, animal dander, house feathers, mites, chemicals, and a variety of foods. Some allergies primarily cause respiratory symptoms; others can cause such diverse symptoms as ache, fatigue, fever, diarrhea, stomachache, and vomiting. This entry add respiratory allergies, both chronic and seasonal (for a discussion of allergic reactions caused by foods, see Food Allergies.)

A child with a respiratory allergy may have a stuffy and/or runny nose, sneezing, itchy skin and eyes, and/or red, watery eyes. Needless to say, it can be very uncomfortable. Whether the condition is seasonal or chronic depends on the particular allergen involved. Seasonal allergies tend to be caused by pollen, so symptoms recur at about the same time every year, usually when the offending plant is in bloom. Hay fever is an example of a seasonal allergy. Spring hay fever is most often due to pollens from grass and trees, while hay fever in later summer and early fall is usually caused by sensitivity to ragweed pollen and molds.

Ongoing or chronic allergies are usually caused by factors that are present in the environment year-round, such as animal fur, dust, or feathers. Allergic rhinitis is a chronic inflammation of the mucous membrane lining the nasal passages that is caused by an allergic reaction. It is characterized by a stuffy, runny nose, frequent sneezing, and a tendency to breathe through the mouth A child's eyes may be red and watery. Headache, itchiness, nosebleeds, and fatigue may be secondary complications. Dark circles under the eyes (called "allergic shiners"), along with a puffy look to the face, are frequently seen. Infants with chronic rhinitis are frequently allergic to food, most often cow's milk Older children with constantly runny noses are often reacting to wool, molds, feathers, dust, animal dander, and/or pollen. In some cases, a chronic runny nose may not be the result of an allergic reaction, however, and should be distinguished from a more serious underlying illness, such as chronic sinusitis. This is a task best performed by a health care professional.

Whether symptoms occur seasonally or chronically, there is often a family history of allergies; many times a parent or grandparent of an allergy sufferer also had allergies. In the presence of an allergen, a child's immune system releases histamines and similar chemicals to fight what it perceives as an invader. These chemicals cause a string of reactions, including the swelling and congestion of nasal passages and increased mucus production. This is essentially a hypersensitive or overactive response by a child's body to an external stimulus. A growing child becomes more capable of fighting off infections as his immune system matures, and he may also outgrow allergies.

Allergies can also contribute to other chronic health problems, such as acne, asthma, bedwetting, chronic ear infections, eczema, irritability, and even difficulty maintaining concentration. Allergic reactions can occur immediately after exposure to the offending substance, or take days to surface. A delayed allergic reaction can make it more difficult to pinpoint the allergen.

Allergies are Nothing to Sneeze at

It is getting close to allergy season again, and to most allergy sufferers freedom from this dread condition is literally nothing to sneeze at. This freedom, however, is a distant dream for many allergy sufferers.

Allergies can be imprisoning. They can make it impossible to go for a walk in the country, and even make it difficult to go outside. Some allergy sufferers can't visit their friends who have pets, and many others can't eat their favorite foods.

Even the pleasures and benefits of exercise are difficult because some allergy sufferers' noses run more than they do. A runny or stuffy nose leads to mouth breathing, then a dry mouth, then less efficient breathing, and then less efficient overall functioning. A domino effect is set up, and the allergy sufferer is knocked down.

Conventional medical treatment for allergies usually consists of antihistamines, steroids, and desensitization shots. In obstinate cases, laser surgery may be utilized to vaporize mucus-forming nasal tissue. People with allergies know that these treatments don't work; at best, they provide temporary relief of symptoms, and at worst, they create side effects which can be worse than the allergies themselves.

Perhaps the greatest misunderstanding about allergies is the assumption that the allergen (the cat dander, the pollen, the housedust mite, or whatever) is the problem. Actually, the allergen is simply the trigger, while the allergic person's body is the loaded gun. Rather than just treating symptoms or avoiding the allergen, the best course is to take action to strengthen the body's own immune and defense system. Natural therapies which do this help empty the loaded gun or simply make it shoot blanks.

Homeopathy and Allergies
In the near future when homeopathic medicines are widely accepted by the majority of orthodox physicians, doctors will pretend that they have always been supporters of homeopathy and homeopathic principles. They will point to conventional allergy treatment as an example of this.

While it is partially true that conventional medical treatment of allergy uses small doses of a substance to which the person is actually allergic and even though this principle is the basis of homeopathy, homeopaths use considerably smaller doses than conventional allergy shots. Also, homeopaths find that using the same substance to which the person is allergic may relieve a person's symptoms, but it will not truly or deeply cure the person's allergy.

Homeopaths instead prescribe a "constitutional medicine," a remedy that is individually chosen to the totality of symptoms that the person is experiencing, not just the allergy symptoms. Finding a person's constitutional medicine requires the care of professional homeopath.

People can, however, use homeopathic medicines to treat the acute phase of their allergy. Although these natural medicines will not "cure" one's allergy, they will often provide effective relief and will do so without side effects.

Solid research have proven the effectiveness of homeopathic medicines in hayfever. Dr. David Taylor-Reilly, a professor and homeopath at the University of Glasgow in Scotland, published an important study in the Lancet (October 18, 1986) which showed that homeopathically prepared doses of 12 common flowers were very effective in reducing hayfever symptoms when compared with patients given a placebo.

Allergic to What?

Everybody's allergic to something. Cat hair, grass pollen, wheat bread by the slice, cow's milk and eggs. What about work?

According to Dorland, allergy is "a hypersensitive state." Often the subject of our reactivity is at first benign; it is only later that the obvious and sometimes very uncomfortable, even life-threatening reaction takes place. Sometimes we react most to things we find all around us--a rather unfortunate situation, at best. For instance it is said that people moved to Phoenix, a dry, clear, nearly pollen- and pollution-free environment, to get away from flowers and trees--the source of their misery. When enough people came to this desert oasis, they wanted it to look nice and began to plant lots of trees and flowers, until the city developed one of the highest pollen counts in the country, not to mention a fair amount of pollution.

Although many allergies can have a strong background of genetic disposition, seemingly unescapable, it is also known to be influenced by psychological and stress factors. And of course, diet and environmental substances, such as synthetic perfume also play a role.

There are three kinds of allergies usually mentioned when the subject is discussed.

1. Food allergies

The most common types of food allergies are due to foods that contain a good measure of protein, such as albumen in eggs, casein in milk, and gluten in wheat. Proteins are the substances in foods that are most indicative of the original organism--they contain the strongest measure of "self." In allergies, our "self" feels the intrusion of another self in the form of eggs and tries to eliminate it, mounting an immune reaction.

2. Allergies to air-borne contaminants

There are thousands of different kinds of pollen, those minute plant productions floating through the air looking for a good pistil to land on and fertilize. Instead, of a nice sticky stigma, it can be snuffed into our nose and attach itself to a nice moist mucous membrane. Once there, it can cause an immune reaction, as our immune cells try to rid us of it. A generalized immune reaction, with all the symptoms of the body's elimination attempt such as runny nose and watery eyes can follow.

3. Environmental allergies

With chemical companies producing more than 5,000 new chemical compounds every year, it is no wonder that our immune systems sometimes go a little nuts after even a brief exposure. This kind of allergy is tough to reverse, because our body is not really acting abnormally--it is probably doing us a favor by trying to eliminate these often harmful synthetic chemicals. However there is a way to work with out body and minimize unpleasant symptoms.

In this article we will focus on herbal programs for food allergies, and in the second part, air-born allergies (especially to pollen) and environmental allergies.

Herbal programs for Allergies

Most holistic health practitioners and herbalists consider two major systems when dealing with allergies--the immune system and adrenal-stress handling system. We all recognize that these two systems are under greater pressure than ever before in this world. Environmental changes, as well as the pace of modern living and working seem to work these system to the maximum.

Although not the focus of this present article, I must mention that maintaining a strong immune system is very much interconnected with handling stress in a non-stressfull way. There are many ways to nourish the immune system and lessen the impact of stress on body systems, including meditation, walking, breathing exercises, a diet of whole, organic foods and a network of loving relationships. Herbal remedies have been used since the dawn of time to help us to be in a state of health. The following herbal programs are ones that I have personally had experience with as a practicing herbalist over the past 20 years.

Food Allergies

All of us probably have a sensitivity to some food, although we may not notice any actual symptoms. This subtle food allergy places an additional stress on our immune system. For instance if a person is in the habit of eating pasturized cow diary products regularly, this may lead to symptoms such as a chronic post-nasal drip. An herbalist would say, "instead of taking an antihistamine, let's look at the cause." A trial elimination of at least 4-6 weeks can often pinpoint allergic foods, at which time a decision can be made to eliminate or reduce the amont of these foods in the diet.

Herbal remedies

I usually approach food allergies from several directions. First, if there are digestive symptoms I recommend bowel-soothing products, such as the following tea:

1 part marshmallow root

1/4 part licorice root

1/2 part peppermint

1/2 part camomile flowers

1/4 part fennel

Simmer the roots and seeds for 30 minutes, add the peppermint and camomile, remove from the heat and let steep for another 15 minutes. Strain and store the tea in quart jars. Make a fresh batch every 5 days. Drink 3-4 cups of the tea a day. Herbs such as marshmallow and licorice are soothing to the mucous membranes. Peppermint can relieve gas and intestinal spasms, camomile is relaxing to the bowels and contains proven antiinflammatory substances. Fennel helps remove gas and stimulate the production of digestive enzymes. Together, the herbs can help relieve symptoms such as diarrhea, gas and painful digestion. There are also a variety of encapsulated or tableted products that contain these herbs. Take 2 capsules of one or more of these herbs several times daily. Tinctures or liquid extracts work especially well for digestive herbs, because they are quickly absorbed, fast-acting, and extra concentrated. The usual way to take a tincture of one or more of these herbs is to place one dropperful (45 drops) of the tincture in a little water, herb tea or juice, and drinking it 3 or 4 times during the day. In the liquid form, the herbs can be taken any time (I prefer morning, afternoon and evening before meals), but I often recommend that capsules and tablets be taken with meals, when the digestive powers are fully activated and assimilation good.

Second, helping the liver to work efficiently is important. For this reason liver and bile herbs are traditionally recommended for food allergies. Herbs such as dandelion and burdock root or artichoke leaf can be blended with a little licorice and ginger root (fresh or dried) to make a tea, or take the individual herbs in capsule or tablet form. When the liver is working optimumly, potentially allergenic substances are more likely to be eliminated before they can become a major problem. For more information on liver health and allergies, see my book, Natural Liver Therapy, available in many health food stores.

Third, I have found bitter tonic formulas to be extremely beneficial for all kinds of allergies, including food allergies. Bitter tonics or "bitters" as they are now called are easy to make, or one can purchase a wide variety of high-quality products from a local natural foods store or herb shop. The main herbs are gentian, artichoke leaves, orange peel, cardamon seed, ginger and fennel. One can easily make their own bitter tonic by blending up 1/4 part gentian, with 1 part of the other herbs in some brandy or vodka. Let the herbs soak or macerate for 2 weeks, then strain off the liquid, which is bottled for use. Take 1 tsp before meals. Bitter tonics work to improve the vigor and function of all the digestive organs, and even the part of our immune system associated with the digestive tract--an ideal combination for people with food allergies. In Europe, bitters have a long history of use, and are recommended for a wide range of ailments, including most digestive problems. For instance, in Germany, 20 million doses of bitters are taken every day! Americans like their sweets and salt, but Europeans go crazy for bitters. If I'm not mistaken, they wouldn't shun a good sweet treat either.

Although food allergies can be discouraging, especially when the suspected food is one we really like, a program of herbal remedies and a little common sense can often bring excellent results. In some cases one can moderately indulge in the problem food or foods once in a while. As in everything, moderation is one of the important keys to feeling good.