Dealing with allergies
What is an allergy?
Allergies are commonplace in our modern lifestyles and the severity can range from a mild reaction all the way to a fatal outcome. At least 1 in 4 of us will have an allergy at some point in our life but that statistic is on the rise.
Allergies are historically more common in childhood and can disappear as children get older, but adults can also react to something with which they weren’t previously allergic to. A good example of that is a food allergy or hay fever.
So, what exactly is an allergy? Well, it’s an adverse (incorrect) reaction to something we have come into contact with which is ordinarily harmless. The offending item that caused an allergic reaction is called an allergen.
What are the most common allergies?
The most common form of an allergy tends to be:
- Food – triggered by either a specific food or groups of food (as in the case of Coeliac disease)
- Hay Fever (allergic rhinitis) – triggered by grass or pollen
- Dust – triggered by dust mites
- Pet hair – triggered by tiny flakes of skin in pet hair or fur
- Insect bites
Why do people get an allergy?
Now we’ve all experienced an allergy either directly or through a friend or family member and it’s not pleasant.
The reaction is just the tip of the iceberg – it’s the visible manifestation of a more-involved process. By understanding what this process is, we can be better equipped to manage an allergy. It all starts with our immune system…
A quick overview of the immune system
We can consider our immune system as made up of two parts:
Innate immune system: This is what we’re born with (it’s based on our parents’ immunity and environmental factors at the time)
Acquired immune system: This is what we develop as we age through the creation of antibodies which are a response to threats to our normal biological operation
The two parts of our immune system work together to keep our defences strong. The two parts keep themselves in balance through proteins called ‘cytokines’ that are released by our immune cells, such as T-cells.
Our body decides which part of our immune system is best placed to deal with a threat to our health. If one side takes the lead, the other drops back in dealing with that threat. As we can see then, the healthy functioning of our cells is critical to a healthy immune system.
Our constitution (body type) plays a major role in how strong our immune system is – some of us naturally have a stronger immune system than others.
The key to having the best possible immunity for our body type is keeping our body in its natural balance. When this isn’t the case and we move out of balance, then our immunity can drop.
Our constitution and lifestyle mean some of us have a lower defence level than others – so it takes less for us to tip out of balance which increases the chances of getting allergies.
1 in 4 of us will suffer from an allergy at some point in our life
What causes an allergy?
The biggest disruptor to normal functioning of our cells is…stress!
Whether the source of stress is mental or physical, the result is a breakdown in normal operations at a cellular level involving cytokines. This lowers immunity.
Our body will react to stress in distinct ways depending on the scale of it and our natural constitution.
If we know what to look for in terms of its response, it can help us stay well, including avoiding or minimising the impact of allergies. So, let’s look at how stress affects allergies specifically.
How does stress lead to allergies?
Stress impacts our digestive system which in turn impacts our immune system (70% of our immune cells are created in our gut). This impacts our ability to deal with allergens.
Stress causes our adrenals to work harder. They produce adrenaline to deal with the stress and the longer that goes on for, the more fatigued they become, slowing down our response to managing threats.
The process of stress pushes our body out of balance and our body is always working to rebalance itself – it will always give us the absolute best it can, even if that looks like it’s not doing you any favours at the time!
The three stages of stress on our body
There are three phases of how the body responds to stress:
- Phase 1 – Reaction
body produces adrenaline to power through the situation
- Phase 2 – Adaption
body continues to produce adrenaline to manage the ongoing situation
- Phase 3 – Exhaustion
adrenal fatigue sets in causing the body to be more susceptible to allergies due to the weakened adrenal response
Generally, the adrenal glands will stop allergic reactions. This is why adrenaline is given for an acute allergic reaction, known as anaphylaxis, and why those at risk of anaphylactic shock (from eating peanuts for example) carry an EpiPen around with them.
To a much lesser degree, the lack of adrenal support also contributes to milder allergies such as Hayfever and allergies to pet fur.
A food allergy is an example of the body adapting to stress. An intolerance to a specific food can result in an initial (mild) reaction which you may not notice or connect to a food item. Although this has stressed your body, your body will learn to adapt to that food – but this will slowly push it out of balance, increasingly depleting your energy.
Since stress is a trigger for allergies and our adrenals are responsible for managing stress, the health of our adrenals is important for managing allergies. If you’re continually stressed, you may be suffering from burnout and your adrenals could be overworked as a result.
The relationship between stress and allergies
Stress triggers adrenaline which results in more cortisol being produced (the stress hormone). This affects our cellular electrolyte balance, which in turn increases our blood sugar level (for more energy) and dehydrates us. Dehydration causes a number of health issues including allergic responses.
Mental or physical stress increases the chances of an allergy
From stress to allergy in 10 steps
- Stress results in our body producing more cortisol and in doing so changes our cellular status quo
- Potassium and magnesium levels (inside the cell) become depleted resulting in our cells holding on to more sodium and calcium (which are generally kept predominantly outside the cell)
- This cell mineral imbalance results in a drop in our blood sugar level
- Stress is a diuretic, and so water is lost from the body, together with potassium and magnesium. This leads to dehydration and increased acidity in the body
- Our body realises its dehydrated and, to correct the cellular imbalance, it takes water from wherever it can afford. This might be the bowel (leading to constipation), muscles (aches and pains) or digestive tract (heartburn) depending on our natural weak spots (determined by our body type). The neurotransmitter which regulates water balance in the body is histamine. Therefore, a loss of water from stress will lead to increased levels of histamine as the body tries to compensate.
- The falling blood sugar level resulting from the electrolyte imbalances trigger a craving for sweet foods, caffeine etc and makes the body more acidic
- This creates an environment for bad bacteria to breed in our gut, leading to a toxin build up which creates more work for the organs that are designed to eliminate toxins – like our liver, kidneys, lungs, colon and skin
- If our body is not as healthy as it should be, stress can cause ‘leaky gut’. This results in toxins getting into our bloodstream faster, requiring more effort from our body to get rid of them. This extra burden further lowers our immunity
- The more dehydrated we become, the more histamine our body produces
- The more histamine we produce, the bigger our allergic response
What are the symptoms of an allergy?
You may have experienced some or all of the symptoms of an allergy, but you may not have connected the dots to other health conditions which can actually be a consequence of an ongoing allergy (immunity) problem.
The immediate signs of an allergy tend to fall into these camps:
- Respiratory issues – sneezing, wheezing, breathing difficulties
- Skin and eye complaints – itching, weeping skin, water eyes
- Swelling – eyes, lips, tongue, face
- Digestion problems – upset stomach, constipation
- Shock – a severe allergic reaction can result in anaphylactic shock which can be life-threatening
The knock-on effects of an allergy to look out for are:
- Weakness – fatigue, exhaustion
- Aches and pains (due to dehydration)
- Heartburn (due to dehydration)
- Candida (due to increased acidity in the gut)
Can multiple allergies be connected?
The short answer is yes!
The greater the burden on our body (i.e., stress), and/or the poorer our digestive system, the lower our immunity and so the lower our tolerance threshold for allergens. The longer that goes on, the more things we become vulnerable to.
So, if you’ve suffered from an allergy and you haven’t manged your stress levels, or diet and lifestyle, the chances are you will develop more than one allergy.
Given that our elimination organs (liver, kidneys, lungs, colon and skin) play such a big part in allergies, if they’re not functioning properly, our ability to deal with allergens will be compromised.
A healthy liver is especially important here and is a common factor in having multiple allergies. That becomes a challenge because our modern lifestyle habits aren’t the best support for our liver!
What role does medication play in treating allergies?
Prescription or over-the-counter medication is plentiful and can help reduce allergy symptoms, but they are a temporary solution.
For example, antihistamine medication for hay fever may reduce your symptoms but they’re masking an underlying problem which can increase if left unchecked.
Allergy symptoms are actually your body telling you it’s out of balance and needs help. Relying on medications as a temporary fix ignores the underlying condition and can actually make the situation worse.
Steroids for example (whether topical or oral) push the toxins that your body is trying to eliminate back in! It’s like having rotting food in your kitchen and applying fly spray to keep the flies at bay!
Self-care tips for managing allergies
Make lifestyle changesStress is a major contributing factor to allergies so it’s vital to get a better work/life balance. Your immunity depends on it! And don’t forget that physical stress is still a form of stress – so if you are over-exercising and have a weak constitution, that can also be a factor
Improve your digestionOur brain and gut is connected so our digestion can easily be a victim of stress. Keep your digestion strong with a diet suited to your body type and needs. As a rule of thumb, less processed foods and more veg (especially bitter leafy greens) is key. Remember bitter tasting foods are a great support for your liver
Stay hydratedDehydration sets off a chain reaction that results in impaired biological functions that pushes us out of our natural balance. The solution is simple – increase your water intake, especially when you’re stressed BUT that doesn’t necessarily mean drinking more water. Studies show that water can be better absorbed through water-rich foods like many fruits and vegetables than drinking it alone
Drink less tea and coffeeWhen we get stressed, we tend to reach for a cuppa, especially if we’re feeling exhausted! Both coffee and tea are stimulants, causing our adrenals to produce cortisol. Because they are diuretics (i.e. make us wee), they can actually dehydrate us and encourage more histamine production – meaning bigger allergic reactions!
Identifying and removing any food triggersCommon food triggers include wheat, potatoes, eggs, nuts, soya, shellfish and anything that contains gluten. You may have an intolerance to one or more of these items so it’s good to test each one. You can download and use the food sensitivity chart here
Important foods to minimise allergies
Being smart with a healthy diet is critical when you suffer from an allergy, even if it’s not a food related allergy. Eating to maintain your body’s natural balance is your best bet and to do this, the first step is to eat for your specific body type
If you don’t know what your body type is, you can either take the Superfied body type assessment or eat a diverse range of natural foods (of all colours and groups) as a general insurance policy.
Foods that contain all of the B vitamins but in particular, vitamins B5, B9 and B12 are especially useful for helping manage allergies. These include food like meats and fish and grains.
Vitamin B12 and folic acid (vitamin B9) are especially useful in a biochemical process that supports a number of functions in our body including liver function, histamine metabolism and energy production, all of which help manage allergies. Vitamin B5 is particularly helpful for good adrenal function.
Eating foods which contain naturally occurring antihistamine are also beneficial. These include foods with high levels of vitamin C (such as citrus fruits, berries and peppers), quercetin (such as onions), or bromelain (such as pineapples).
As you can see, there’s more to allergies than meets the eye. If your allergy issues persist despite taking these steps or if you have long-standing allergy issues that are getting worse as you get older, you may benefit from speaking with a qualified expert to help you eleminate the root cause of the issue, professional food sensitivity testing may also be helpful as part of that.
This self-care health hack is from Superfied expert nutritionist Mary Sharma
Find out more about the Superfied Way