Chronic allergy is a hypersensitivity caused by exposure to an allergen resulting in a marked increase in immune system reactivity upon subsequent exposure. A patient once told me that since she arrived on US soil, it seemed to her everyone in America had chronic allergy problems, while no one did in her home country of Korea. This simple observation is simply an acknowledgement of the massive increase of allergens we now are forced to cope with in our industrial society. Allergy symptoms can range from a simple rash to life-threatening anaphylactic shock, requiring emergency treatment. In addition, allergy is often (very often) a contributing factor to numerous other disease processes. Dr. Jonathan V. Wright estimates that hundreds of common health problems are related to allergy, and lots of us blame environmental degradation – a massive problem that we are all paying for dearly.
We have already discussed single cell immune response to foreign antigens in the immune system players article. The whole process is that antigen processing cells present the antigen to T-cells, which then help B-cells to change form into IgE-secreting cells (called plasma cells). The newly formed IgE attaches itself to mast cells, which are found in large quantities in the respiratory tract, sinus, GI tract and skin. This is why allergy occurs mostly in these locations. When the antigen gets into your system again, it links to the mast cells, which then release histamine, leukotrienes and other irritating cytokine chemicals, which cause the initial allergy symptoms to occur. The later reactions occur because Th2 cells are activated by the processed allergen, then release interleukins, which cause eosinophils, basophils and neutrophils to release more allergy-causing cytokines.
The classic respiratory symptoms are sneezing, secretion of watery mucus, and membrane swelling that blocks the nasal passageways. In chronic cases dark circles develop under the eyes, as well as fatigue and hacking due to an itching sensation in the roof of the mouth. Over time, respiratory allergy and sinusitis moves toward asthma, discussed in another section of this website.
• Gastrointestinal symptoms develop from allergens in foods. This can cause itching and burning in the mouth, nausea, vomiting, intestinal inflammation and increased permeability, gas and bloating, and diarrhea or constipation. In severe cases anaphylaxis can develop, with lowered blood pressure, tracheal edema and cardio-respiratory distress. In infants and children, food allergies can cause projectile vomiting, eczema or failure to thrive.
• Cutaneous symptoms can develop from external sources such as chemical or insect venom. If the allergen is strong, it can lead to anaphylaxis. More often, there is a late-phase redness and swelling at the site of injury or bite.
• When allergens or secondary by-products of intestinal allergy are absorbed into the blood, it can lead to hives, fatigue, heat sensations, chronic inflammatory diseases, depression, emotional imbalance, itching skin, edema, headaches, joint pain and swelling, smooth muscle contraction etc. These are more common as patients increase in age.
• Acute symptoms occur within minutes of exposure to an allergen and typically recede over the next 30-90 minutes. Symptoms can recur a few hours later and last for several hours. If exposure to the allergen is continuous, such as with food allergies or pollutants in the home or work environment, late phase reactions occur. Over time, tissue damage can occur.
Allergy is a difficult nut to crack. Originally it was enough to keep people away from triggering substances, such as chemical, bacteria, parasites, dust, mold, foods and pollen spores. Think of my friend, the caveman Og. Og lives a few miles from a sulfur pit surrounded by a giant fungus. One day Og walked close to the pit, and the sulfur/fungus fumes got into his eyes, which began to burn and itch. Of course, Og got out of there. Unbeknownst to him, however, his B-cells were releasing signals that created sulfur and/or fungal remembering mast cells that lay in wait for the next appearance of the chemicals. Next week, OG takes his wife Mrs. OG out for a walk. About a mile from the pit, Og begins to sniffle, itch and burn, rubbing his eyes. He say, “Air bad. Go this way,” as he turns and leaves the area. Mrs. Og says, “Air not bad. Og crazy.” Mrs. Og did not react because she had not developed reactivity.
Og had it easy, all he had to do was stay away from the sulfur pit. Today, however, we face the problem of inundation of thousands and thousands of invisible chemicals, many undetectable until an allergy develops and we have symptoms. It is difficult if not impossible to completely turn off allergies without incapacitating the immune system. This is what happens when immunosuppressant drugs are used. Antihistamines are a bit better because they have fewer side effects, but they tend to wear off. This is because they do not extinguish the causes, and the immune system will simply find another way to do what it thinks it should to cope.
Our best approach is to try to take advantage of three facts:
• Reactions depend upon exposure and we can modify our environment
• The strength of our barrier defenses can limit entry even when exposed
• We can modify our immune response can be modified with herbs and nutrients
I employ several approaches:
• Purify the home atmosphere to reduce exposure to allergen triggers. This works even though all triggers cannot be avoided, because when the total allergy load is decreased, the response is often far less. This is especially true for food allergies.
• Test for and reduce exposure to food allergies. The method for doing this, as well as strengthening the intestinal membranes (to reduce allergen absorption) is covered in the section on hidden food allergies. Although many allergists limit identification to IgE antibodies, holistic physicians include IgG, IgM and sometimes IgA (Marinkovich, 1996). It may be important to have your health care provider test for elevated IgG antibodies if you are having trouble with identification.
• Prescribe specific herbs and nutrients to tone down the allergy response and make it less aggressive.
Treatment of Allergies
• The severity of the general inflammatory response can be decreased by using healthy fats and oils, and supplementing with borage oil, fish oils etc.
• Some herbs that have specific anti-allergy effects are listed under the antibody, IgG, IgE, eosinophil, basophil and mast cell headings in
the immune system articles. Choose based on signs and symptoms.
• TCM herbs with anti-allergy effects include scute root, chrysanthemum flowers, schisandra berries, er bu shir tsao herb (Centipeda minima), magnolia flower, honeysuckle flower, and forsythia fruit. Most of these are contained in Pe Min Kan Wan pills or Bi Yan Pian pills, commercially available (see safety section). If there are signs of mucus, add pinellia tuber, tangerine peel and ginger root.
• Ayurvedic herbs with anti-allergy effects include neem leaves, turmeric root, eclipta, tulsi, boswellia gum, aguru wood, karchura root (Curcuma zedoaria), tamalaki (Phyllanthus nururi), karkatashingi gall (Pistacia intergerrima), katphalam bark (Myrica nagi), coleus (C. forskohlii), Malabar nut (Vasaka or Adhatoda vasica) and anthrapachaka leaf (Tylophora indica).
• Western herbs used for allergy include lobelia, feverfew, echinacea, eyebright flowering herb (Euphrasia officinalis), stinging nettle, ginkgo leaf, and garlic bulb. The combination of the flavonoid quercetin with bromelain is also useful.