by guest blogger Isaac Eliaz, MD, MS, LAc, integrative medicine pioneer
Allergies can be complicated conditions. On the one hand, most appear to be more nuisance than health threat. Symptoms like stuffiness, teary eyes, sneezing, and a runny nose are terribly inconvenient but hardly life-threatening. On other hand, food allergies, to peanuts, for example, can be deadly.
The problem is, allergies can be a sign of more serious long-term conditions such as a poorly functioning immune system or even digestive problems. In other words, there’s actually no such thing as “just an allergy.” Every system of the body is interconnected, and allergic flare-ups indicate an inflammatory imbalance somewhere that needs to be addressed.
What’s Causing the Problem?
More than 50 million Americans suffer from allergies, and the problem is getting worse. All too often, allergy patients and their practitioners address the condition by not addressing it at all—in other words, by ignoring the root causes while masking the symptoms. This conventional approach relies on suppressing allergic reactions, which can make them worse in the long run. Typical medications range from Claritin to ease a stuffy head to an EpiPen self-injection to control more serious reactions.
While treating symptoms is not a necessarily a bad thing, it can distract us from underlying problems. In integrative medicine, we strategically address root causes, while at the same time working to alleviate uncomfortable symptoms and boost overall health.
Allergies are often triggered by inappropriate immune and inflammatory responses. These malfunctions are also implicated in many other, more serious conditions. In addition, stress can aggravate allergies by releasing cortisol, adrenalin, glucagon, and other stress hormones that contribute to inflammation and, over time, can cause immune imbalances and other issues.
These stress hormones are a necessary part of our “fight or flight response”—intended for quick reactions to danger. When stress is sustained, however, the constant release of stress hormones can impair the immune system—either turning it up too high so that it overreacts or suppressing it so that pathogens are able to gain a foothold. An overactive or imbalanced immune system is what can lead to allergies and autoimmune disorders.
There’s also a strong connection between allergies and digestion. Intestinal inflammation, caused by any number of digestive imbalances, allows large food molecules to enter the circulation, which triggers an immune response. This allergic reaction initiates an inflammatory process that can fuel upper-respiratory symptoms, skin reactions, digestive discomfort, headaches, and other reactions.
Diet and Stress
Rather than focusing on the specific allergy itself, I recommend taking a more holistic approach. We should be asking what is happening with our internal and external health environments that may be impairing immunity and promoting inflammation. This line of inquiry can help us get to the root of the problem.
In the big picture, there are many things we can do to control inflammation, balance the immune response, and promote strong digestion. Top recommendations include regular exercise, an unprocessed-foods diet, targeted supplementation, healthy stress reduction, and adequate sleep.
Adjusting the diet can be tricky for allergy sufferers. My basic recommendations: high-quality protein sources such as wild cold-water fish, organic meats, sprouted legumes and grains, complemented by fruits and vegetables and plenty of filtered water. But there are also foods to omit. Two proteins that are increasingly being associated with allergies are gluten in breads, pastas, and other food items and casein in dairy. Lactose intolerance is a related problem, caused by an inability to digest lactose sugar found in dairy products. In addition to spurring inflammation, these aggravators have also been shown to impair digestion and cause sinus problems.
Though gluten and dairy are among the most common sensitivities, they are not the only foods people react to. If you suffer from regular allergies, it’s a good idea to work with a health practitioner who specializes in this area of treatment and can test you for specific food sensitivities.
Another concern is exposure to environmental toxins, which can either be air- or foodborne. Invest in a quality air purifier. Also, opt for organic foods. These two steps alone will reduce your exposure to allergens like household dust and pet dander, as well as factors that trigger inflammation and immune issues, such as heavy metals, antibiotics, and hormone-disrupting pesticides, among others.
Most important is to find a way to deeply relax. Granted, this easier is said than done. We are so conditioned to being busy, we hardly know any other way. However, there are a number of health-promoting relaxation techniques that can make significant differences for people with chronic inflammation, allergies, and immune issues, specifically, meditation, yoga, tai chi, and medical qigong. These time-honored practices have been shown to reduce cortisol and other hormones that trigger the inflammatory response and negatively impact immunity. These exercises are also great for cardiovascular health and emotional well-being.
There are a number of supplements that can help modulate how the body responds to allergens. Remember, to some degree allergies are perception issues—the body perceives a danger where none actually exists.
I highly recommend a well-studied Tibetan herbal formula containing Iceland moss, costus root, neem fruit, and other herbs. This ancient formula helps reduce inflammation, balance the immune response, and enhance circulation. It is also shown to be clinically effective against sinusitis, which is often linked to chronic allergies.
Medicinal mushrooms, such as reishi and cordyceps, reduce inflammation and support immunity. Importantly, medicinal mushrooms seem to act as immune optimizers—they don’t exclusively increase or decrease the immune response, but rather, train the immune system to react appropriately to pathogens and other invaders. In addition, mushrooms aid digestion, circulation, and numerous other aspects of health, including cognition and vital energy.
The bioflavonoids quercetin and hesperidin are also very helpful for allergies. They reduce inflammation and help modulate the histamine responses—central to addressing chronic allergies. Honokiol extract is an active ingredient that is gaining increased attention due to the amount of published research on it. Derived from magnolia bark, honokiol is a powerful aid in helping to control inflammation through various actions, as well as being a potent antioxidant and a gentle sleep aid.
Seasonal detoxification can also help to control allergies by reducing inflammation-causing toxins and promoting a healthy digestive environment. Many people report long-term allergy relief after a rejuvenating seasonal cleanse.
All too often, people “learn to live with” their allergies. But this may promote needless suffering. Relying on conventional allergy symptom suppressors is not a wise long-term approach because it ignores more serious underlying immune and inflammation issues. By taking a more proactive stance, through diet, stress reduction, and healthy supplementation, we can mitigate many allergic reactions and improve our overall health in the process. And that’s nothing to sneeze at!
Isaac Eliaz, MD, MS, LAc, integrates Western medicine with his extensive knowledge of traditional Chinese, Tibetan, Ayurvedic, homeopathic, and complementary medical systems. With more than 25 years of clinical experience and research, Dr. Eliaz has a unique holistic approach to the relationship between health and disease, immune enhancement, detoxification, and cancer prevention and treatment. For more information about his work, visit dreliaz.org.