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Understanding How Allergies Work and How to Treat Them Naturally



Seasonal allergy suffering relief with a natural, holistic approach

Seasonal allergies affect millions of people around the world and the Portland area is notorious for how brutal our allergy season is.


What exactly triggers allergies, what is happening inside our body when we get allergies and why do some people seem more susceptible than others?


The answers to these questions lie in the delicate interplay between nature and nurture - a combination of genetic predisposition and environmental influences that shape our body's immune responses.


Understanding the immune system is key to understanding seasonal allergies. Our immune system is a complex network of cells and tissues that defend against harmful invaders like bacteria, viruses, and parasites. They do this by causing localized inflammation in the body wherever invaders are found with the explicit goal of killing them.


In individuals prone to allergies, these defense mechanisms can become hypersensitive, reacting to harmless substances like pollen, dust mites, or pet dander as if they were a dangerous pathogen like a virus or parasite.


So, what leads to this hypersensitivity?


This is a question that researchers have been exploring for decades, and the answer is multifaceted. Genetic factors play a significant role, predisposing some individuals to have immune systems that are more prone to allergic sensitization. In essence, these folks’ immune systems have a hard time putting the breaks on once a reaction has started.

But genetics alone don't tell the whole story. Environmental influences also play a crucial role in shaping our immune responses and determining our susceptibility to allergies. Early life exposures (like living in a household with a smoker or growing up on a farm), lifestyle factors, diet, and environmental pollutants all contribute to the complex mix of factors that determine who is going to have allergies and how bad they are going to be.


Let’s begin by tracking what happens in the body when a seasonal allergy is triggered.

 

How do allergies work? Can understanding this help us understand how to naturally treat them?

 

Understanding and naturally treating allergies is not complicated.

Let's start with an example. Imagine this:


You are having lunch with your friend Susan. There is a lovely bouquet of fresh flowers on your table and within five minutes of sitting down, Susan sneezes. She mentions she has seasonal pollen allergies. The pollen from the flowers at the table has become airborne (as pollen will do) and has made its way to the mucus membranes on Susan’s face- her nose, her mouth, her ears and her eyes.


As the pollen particles come into contact with these sensitive areas, Susan begins to experience a range of symptoms, including sneezing, nasal congestion, itching, and watery eyes.


Inside Susan, a deep biological misunderstanding is beginning to take place.


Within seconds of exposure, mast cells (special non-specific immune cells) located in Susan's mucus membranes detect the presence of a substance they deem dangerous “the allergen” and release a substance called histamine.


Histamine triggers a cascade of inflammatory reactions, causing blood vessels to dilate (to get more blood and immune cells to the area) and tissues to swell, leading to the familiar symptoms of allergies.


Other immune cells, such as eosinophils and T cells, join the fight to eliminate the perceived threat. In addition, other circulating mast cells that sense the release of histamine will secrete more histamine into the system increasing the severity of the symptoms.


This process of flagging an invader and creating an inflammatory immune reaction is consistent for all people experiencing allergies (though severity may vary).


At this point in the process is when genetic and lifestyle factors begin to make a difference.


If Susan is genetically predisposed to have a more reactive immune system that has a more difficult time slowing down a reaction once it has begun, her symptoms will be more difficult to control and resolve.


Furthermore, if she has more systemic inflammation (from stress or a poor diet high in sugar refined foods and alcohol for example) or has a liver that is not detoxing effectively then her symptoms will be more extreme and last for longer.


Another factor that is often overlooked that plays a major role in how severe allergies will be is the health of the microbiome. A robust and healthy microbiome helps to regulate the immune system because seventy to eighty percent of the body’s immune cells are found in the digestive tract.


So if Susan is a smoker, just finished a round of antibiotics, is under lots of work stress and has been stress eating ice-cream and drinking alcohol daily, her allergies are going to be a lot worse than if she just got back from a detox spa retreat.


What needs to happen for allergy symptoms to get better?

Once allergies have been triggered, in order for an immune reaction to settle down a few things need to happen.


The immune system needs to employ it’s brakes system – a form of chemical communication that tells the rest of the system that the threat has been neutralized and that it needs to start shifting into anti-inflammatory mode.


In addition, the body needs to clear out the histamine and other inflammatory substances that were secreted. This needs to be done by the liver.


If new allergic triggers outpace the body's ability to shift into anti-inflammatory mode and clear histamine and other inflammatory chemicals out of the body then allergy symptoms can build and persist for a prolonged period of time and the system can even become more sensitized to allergens or become allergic to more substances.


Understanding the process of how allergies start and are resolved helps us to navigate the ways that we can mediate how severe our allergies will be.


How can we naturally treat allergies?


There are active interventions that support our immune systems all along the journey of dealing with allergies.

  • We can try to limit our exposure to allergens by using masks and air filters. Showering, changing clothes, eye drops, gargling and nasal rinsing can all also be helpful for clearing allergens from the mucus membranes to stop the allergic exposure.

  • We can support our mast cells with substances like Quercetin, Luteolin and GABA that are known as mast cell stabilizers. These substances (found in foods and in supplements) make it so that mast cells dump histamine with less gusto. When mast cell membranes are more stable it takes more exposure to histamine or perceived pathogens before they become activated and release more histamine into the system. In essence, mast cell stabilizers help mast cells to be more reserved and less trigger happy.

  • Generalized nutritional support of healthy immune function also helps to support a more balanced immune reaction. Research has shown that in addition to mast cell stabilizers, vitamin C, vitamin D3, bromelain and probiotics can all decrease symptoms of allergies. Again, these can be sourced through food or nutritional supplements.

  • Managing your general inflammation is also helpful for making your suffering during allergy season less extreme. You can do this primarily by eating a less inflammatory diet, getting adequate sleep, staying hydrated and managing your stress. Stress is a major exacerbator of allergies because mast cells like to congregate along nerve pathways and can become more excitable when the nervous system is in a state of fight or flight. Increasing the amount of Omega three fatty acids is another great inflammation strategy. Turmeric or curcumin has also been shown to be a powerful strategy for bringing down inflammation.

  • Supporting your liver detox is also an effective intervention because effective liver detox is necessary for clearing the inflammatory substances secreted into the body when allergies are activated. We can support our livers by managing our blood sugar, making sure we eat sufficient fiber and green leafy vegetables and staying hydrated. Drinking green tea can also be supportive to liver detox. In terms of supplementation, we can consider stinging nettles, NAC or liposomal glutathione.

  • Acupuncture paired with conventional treatments is an effective strategy for reducing the symptoms of allergies. Acupuncture has an immediate effect on both the nervous system and the immune system and can help to balance these systems as part of a holistic approach to treating allergies.


By utilizing these holistic strategies that interrupt the allergy cycle, we can start to address not just the symptoms of allergies but the underlying root causes that are behind our symptoms.


There is nothing wrong with taking OTC allergy meds like Zyrtec or Allegra but it is helpful to remember that these medications just shut down our symptoms without addressing the causes of why we are having the symptoms in the first place.


A combined approach of treating symptoms while also addressing underlying physiology is more effective than just pharmaceuticals for long term allergy management.


If you suffer from allergies, feel free to reach out to learn more about how an individualized holistic allergy management plan can help you minimize your seasonal allergy symptoms.


You can also check out a list of our favorite products for managing allergies in our online pharmacy.



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