For many seasonal allergy sufferers, this spring has been particularly brutal. It’s the usual onslaught of symptoms: sneezing, runny nose, watery eyes, itchiness, post-nasal drip, congestion and head pressure, but with much more ferocity.
Where people can usually find relief in their medications, of late, no relief can be found. The drugs just don’t work like they used to.
So what can you do to find relief?
The symptoms associated with seasonal allergies are the product of an over-zealous immune system. If you have allergies, your body triggers the natural inflammatory response at unnaturally high levels.
Your body is over-producing histamines and cytokines (inflammatory agents) in an attempt to flush the perceived danger (aka pollen) from the body.
Over-the-counter and prescription anti-histamines work by stopping histamine production…..so why don’t they work like they should?
There are a few theories as to why allergy medications stop working, and atop the list is drug resistance. Meaning your body has adapted to the drug and no longer responds as it should.
Other reasons cited are the development of a new allergy (but that doesn’t really explain why the medication doesn’t work, anti-histamines target the allergic response, NOT the allergen).
Or, another far flung theory is that allergy season is longer. Again, I’m not sure how that explains why allergy medications stop working.
After countless hours digging through the research on inflammation and allergies, I have come up with informed conclusions as to why allergy medications stop working and what you can do about it …let’s connect the dots!
First, allergy medications probably stop working due to resistance, and the drug resistance develops because 1) adaptation is part and parcel to biology and 2) the body is stressed to-the-max.
Normal healing responses diminish as the body’s immune system sustains ever increasing levels of stress; so much so, not even drugs can return it to homeostasis.
The Greek physician Hippocrates said that all diseases begin in the gut. With the recent explosion of research on the gut microbiome and immunity, we are only beginning to understand how true this statement is.
The immune system cells that live in the gut are central command to immune cells in other tissues of the body. As soon as an “invader” is detected in the gut, a rapid response team is sent throughout the entire system.
If the gut misinterprets a foreign body as a serious “danger” or threat, the immune system may react too fast and vigorously.
The results: immune cells taking action against harmless things (pollen, dust, etc).
The symptoms that cause far too many people far too much misery are the result of this rapid-fire, (yet, in the case of pollen, totally unnecessary) reaction.
I know this is getting technical, but stick with me….
The gut is essentially a hollow tube. The nutrients we need get absorbed and the rest is eliminated as waste.
The gut-barrier decides what passes through and what doesn’t. This process should work just fine, that is, until the gut barrier becomes permeable; also known as “leaky gut”.
Chronic inflammation in the gut can damage the gut-barrier integrity and allow undigested protein molecules and bacterial toxins to pass into the blood stream when they shouldn’t.
When this happens, the immune system reacts because these particles are considered foreign invaders.
Remember, a foreign invader being detected in the gut can trigger an immunological response at other tissue sites (ie, nose, throat, ears, eyes) in the body because the gut is the command-control center.
Inflammation is a mechanism for healing, however, when there is an over-production of inflammation or over-stimulation of the immune system, localized tissue damage ensues.
While the inflammatory response is necessary to promote a healing response, it can also cause problems if left unchecked.
What causes a “leaky” gut?
There are several factors that can damage the gut-barrier integrity. Diet, small intestine bacterial overgrowth, chronic stress, infections, excess alcohol, medications (NSAIDs, aspirin, proton pump inhibitors, antibiotics), and environmental toxins like BPA and other plasticizers.
Since diet is the easiest factor to control for, my first guideline for treating seasonal allergies in conjunction with acupuncture is to make dietary changes.
Many of you already my schtick: begin with eliminating gluten.
Plants and animals are similar in that their survival is imperative to the continuation of the species. Because plants have no mechanism for fighting off predators, they have evolved other mechanisms for protection.
Plants protect themselves by producing toxins that:
- damage the lining of the gut (cause inflammation)
- bind essential nutrients and minerals, rendering them unavailable to the body
Gluten, found in wheat, rye and barley, is one of those proteins that produces toxic effects.
Poo-poo-ed by medical professionals as theoretical hogwash, recent studies estimate that about 1in 10 or 30 million Americans have a sensitivity or intolerance to this protein.
Unfortunately for us all, the vast majority of medical doctors have little to no training in nutrition and therefore disregard the latest research on nutrition, instead preferring to focus their attention on the latest drug studies and surgical procedures.
When it comes to dietary advice, mainstream medicine tends to stick with the broad strokes : “eat a balanced diet, reduce fat intake, less salt, more fiber, reduce sugar…blah blah blah”.
As the mainstream view goes, gluten is a black or white issue: either you have an auto-immune response to it (celiac disease) or you don’t.
Time and again this type of thinking lacks perspective and understanding of the complexities and nuances of health and healing.
Celiac disease is an auto-immune condition characterized by an inflammatory response to gluten and damage to the small intestine. Gluten intolerance or non-celiac gluten sensitivity sits along a spectrum between celiac disease and gluten tolerance.
Testing for gluten sensitivity is flawed which is why I recommend eliminating it completely for a minimum of 30 days (three months is better) and then reintroducing it to see if you have a reaction.
For seasonal allergy sufferers, this reaction will be of the sneezy, itchy, cranky, drippy type.
For people with other inflammatory conditions, gluten may trigger symptoms like digestive upset, numbness, eczema, fatigue, anemia, muscle pain and depression. (I advise gluten elimination for any of my patients who have an inflammatory condition).
If you sufferer from allergies, I cannot emphasize enough the importance of down-regulating stress.
Allergies trigger the over-production of cortisol, a stress hormone. Emotional stress also stimulates cortisol production, so if you are stressed out and allergic, then you have two strikes against you.
Over time, the over-production of cortisol will cause a cascade of chronic conditions, from hypothyroidism to cardiovascular diseases.
I encourage you to take a multi-faceted approach to allergies!
Exercise, do yoga, meditate, get acupuncture, improve your diet and create a lifestyle that is both enjoyable and sustainable.
You should be able to enjoy nature, not spend your life holed up indoors; because that is certain to lead to other problems like Vitamin D deficiency, depression and disconnection from the very pulse of life!