Allergies and sensitivities — causes and solutions
by Marcelle Pick, OB/GYN NP
Allergies and sensitivities have increased radically in our lifetime — acute, chronic and subclinical allergies are all up — so much so that by some estimates over 60 million Americans now suffer from allergies, and millions more from sensitivities.
But conventional medicine doesn’t try to explain why. Instead, conventional diagnostics treat each allergy as an isolated issue. Women with chronic allergies are often put on drugs for years, and their conditions rarely improve. And the tens of millions with subclinical allergies and sensitivities are regularly misdiagnosed — even given antidepressants! — or dismissed by their doctors because their symptoms seem mysterious and unconnected.
The reality is that allergies and sensitivities almost never occur in isolation. They are usually accompanied by other health conditions and symptoms, typically appear as part of a broad pattern, and can be readily diagnosed by a skilled practitioner.
This is a very gratifying area of practice for Women to Women because our patients see such dramatic, lasting improvement in their allergies and sensitivities — without drugs! — through an integrative approach to diagnosis and treatment.
So let’s talk about how symptoms of allergies and sensitivities arise, their links to other health conditions, and how to find natural relief. I think you’ll be surprised, and perhaps inspired by how easy it is.
Before we begin: what is an allergy, anyway?
Seen in its simplest form, an allergy is an over-reaction of the immune system, the body’s natural defense system. In short, the body responds as though it’s under attack, releasing antibodies and triggering inflammation, even though the stimulus of the attack (the allergen) is normally harmless.
We view allergic responses in three categories:
- First is the acute allergic reaction, which may occur rarely or in response to a single allergen (such as peanuts) and can be quite dangerous. (One of my patients broke out in hives after a routine leg wax — it never happened before or thereafter, but was how she discovered she was pregnant!).
- The second category is chronic allergies, in which women regularly (perhaps in a seasonal cycle) or always show symptoms, sometimes in response to a specific allergen (e.g., dust mites or ragweed), or as the result of an overload of allergens (e.g., women with chemical sensitivities).
- In the third category, subclinical cases, women may suffer transient, seemingly disconnected symptoms that can be difficult to recognize as an allergic response.
The allergic response engages the body’s inflammatory cascade, and that’s one reason it has such serious health effects. Allergic reactions are recognized as one of the most important causes of illness and disease in America.
Allergies and sensitivities are at the root of many health problems, including respiratory ailments, skin conditions, mood disorders, and gastrointestinal symptoms. And the negative health effects resulting from the mechanism of inflammation can be profound. (For more on this, see our other articles on inflammation). In short, neither a chronic nor an acute allergic response is something you should ignore.
Type I allergies and anaphylactic shock
If a certain substance in your diet or environment consistently triggers an acute, measurable immune response, you have what is known as a type I, or immediate-response allergy. Type I allergic responses are what most people (and doctors) refer to when they talk about allergies. Elevated levels of antibodies called IgE’s in the bloodstream trigger a histamine reaction: itchy watery eyes, runny nose, hives, itchy rash, swelling, scratchy throat, wheezing and coughing. Hay fever and some food allergies are type I allergies. The conventional treatment protocol is to manage these symptoms with avoidance, steroids, or anti-allergy medications like Claritin and Allegra.
Another kind of type I reaction is anaphylaxis, which is a rapid, or sometimes delayed system-wide reaction to an allergen. People allergic to bee stings, medication, and common food allergens sometimes have this type of allergic response, with severity ranging from mild to life-threatening. An anaphylactic reaction can start with a tingling sensation, itching, or metallic taste in the mouth. Hives, flushing, wheezing, swelling of the mouth and throat, difficulty breathing, vomiting, diarrhea, cramping, a drop in blood pressure, and loss of consciousness are all characteristic of anaphylaxis or anaphylactic shock. If you experience any of the above symptoms, get help immediately — go to the emergency room or call 911. Anaphylaxis is a case where conventional medicine is your best option and can save your life.
Type I allergy symptoms usually recede with treatment or removal of the allergen. However, after an anaphylactic episode it is possible to have something called a biphasic reaction, in which symptoms recur two to three hours after the initial attack, which is why most ER doctors will keep you at the hospital for observation.
The problem with conventional medicine and allergy diagnosis
Conventional doctors may test the level of IgE antibodies in the blood during a type I allergic response. If you walk into your doctor’s office with hives, he or she will take the situation seriously and give you either a skin (intradermal) test or a blood test for IgE. Skin testing (scratch test, puncture test, or prick test) involves introducing a very small amount of a common allergen to the skin’s surface or just beneath, and waiting to observe and record any degree of reaction. Skin testing is convenient and results are quickly available, but, like blood testing, its accuracy is somewhat limited.
Once an allergy is clearly identified, most doctors tell people to avoid the allergen or take antihistamine medication for their symptoms. If the allergen can’t be avoided, a specialist may start an immunological protocol known as “desensitization” therapy: progressively higher amounts of the allergen(s) are injected into the bloodstream until the first sign of allergic reaction. The hope is that the body will learn to mitigate its inflammatory response to the allergen with slow but steady exposure.
The trouble with the conventional approach is that it only measures the IgE antibody response. This limits the diagnostics to screening for full-blown allergies, and misses many allergies and most sensitivities. It also treats everyone as if their biochemistry were the same, often offers no real long-term solutions, and skips over the most relevant question — what’s going on inside your body to cause the allergic response in the first place?
I have no problem with this paradigm when it comes to severe, life-threatening allergies (if I were allergic to peanuts, for example, I would never go anywhere without an EpiPen). But it ignores the less serious, but more widespread kinds of allergic response that affect the majority of sufferers — the chronic and the subclinical allergies and sensitivities.
Chronic allergies and the drug culture
The rise in diagnosed cases of chronic allergies has been accompanied by a rapid increase in sales of anti-allergy medications. Allegra, Claritin, Flonase, and a host of others now account for billions of dollars in annual sales.
For many women, these drugs are prescribed at the first sign of an allergy or sensitivity, and women come to depend solely on their pills, drops, or sprays for symptom management. They’re rarely if ever told that there are natural alternatives.
Importantly, women with chronic allergies are usually treated as though the allergen causing the allergic response were an isolated problem. By that I mean that a woman will typically be told that she has dust or airborne allergies, or perhaps a more specific allergic reaction (such as to animal dander), and that she should avoid the allergen and take the medication to control her symptoms. It is very unusual to find a conventional doctor who will explain that the allergen that appears to trigger symptoms is just the tip of the iceberg.
Hidden allergies and environmental sensitivities
If you begin to take note of how certain foods, substances, and environments affect you on a day-to-day basis, chances are you’ll notice a pattern — and increasingly so as you age. Some women find that keeping a wellness diary is a useful first step in “connecting the dots” between their allergens and their symptoms.
Conventional medicine dictates that unless we react to something with stereotypical allergy symptoms, we’re not allergic. When it comes to the inflammatory response underway in your body, this is patently untrue — whether the allergic response is an “allergy” or a “sensitivity” is a matter of degree. If your body is alerting you to a problem in the form of symptoms, you probably have some kind of sensitivity — even if your standard allergy tests keep coming back “normal.”
Hidden allergies and sensitivities are real. (See our more comprehensive list of allergy symptoms). Over time these allergic responses compromise your immune system, give inflammation the upper hand, and slowly erode your well-being. Sometimes classified as type IV or delayed-response allergies, these lurking health bombs are often (but not always) food- or additive-related. They are most often associated with different types of antibodies called IgG and IgM, and work on a subtle level, targeting specific organs or body functions. They can cause a ripple effect, with confusing symptoms occurring as much as 72 hours or more after exposure to the allergen. This delayed response is one reason they are more difficult to test for and identify.
Symptoms of sensitivities will sometimes follow a set course, sometimes be cyclical or cumulative, and at other times vary in presentation from person to person — what gives me a skin rash may give you a headache. Even time of onset varies among individuals. This variability has a confounding effect on two fronts: it leads sufferers to tune out the very symptoms they need to heed; and it leads most doctors to dismiss patients with transient symptoms that are hard to diagnose when they can’t detect a pattern.
If you don’t tune in and take measures to alleviate your body’s allergic response, it will eventually up the ante until you have full-blown chronic inflammation. Some may go on to develop multiple chemical sensitivities. The farther you travel down this path, the higher the climb back to wellness. So the first step is to understand what’s going on with your body right now. How big a load of allergens is your body dealing with? And how much support are you giving it?
Common allergens and the toxic load
Every substance on earth that can be eaten, inhaled, or touched is a potential allergen. Whether or not it negatively affects you depends on your individual genetic profile and how well your system is running.
Much is made of the genetic factors in allergies, but often your emotional inheritance, lifestyle, diet, and physical environment are more important, in part because they define the “body burden” your system must detoxify and process on a daily basis.
How allergic you are at any one time relates to how well you process this “body burden.” One reason we often see women come in with adult-onset food allergies is that the older we get, the greater this burden becomes and the less able our bodies are to deal with it.
Even if you eat well and live a healthy lifestyle, you may be inadvertently exposed to numerous chemicals and potential allergens. There are over 3000 chemicals added to our food supply, and more than 70,000 chemicals used for other purposes in North America.
That fresh scent you get from fabric softener or Febreze is all-chemical — when you sniff it, those particles go up your nose and into your lungs. There are dozens of heavy metals, lead among them, and chlorine in our water. Phthalates and VOC’s (volatile organic compounds) are dangerous substances used abundantly in construction and household products, fragrances, and plastics. (For more information on this topic, see our article on endocrine disruptors).
Over the course of many years, all this chemical exposure has a cumulative effect. If you add the other factors so prevalent in the modern woman’s life — poor diet, emotional stress, and hormonal imbalance — it’s a marvel our bodies can cope at all. No wonder the majority of my patients come in with chronic low-grade inflammation!
Because everyone is different, the range of potential allergens is huge. More than 11 million Americans have a diagnosed food allergy, but countless more have food sensitivities — often to a certain amino acid or food additive. For brevity’s sake, I’ve included the most common categories of allergens and the top contenders in each category in the chart below. But I encourage you to investigate possible allergens further if these don’t apply to you. (Please refer to further reading suggestions on this topic).
- Food and ingestants: dairy; wheat (and other gluten-containing grains); corn; soy; shellfish; eggs; nightshades; nuts; chocolate; caffeine; yeast, medications, sulfites, salicylates; MSG and other glutamates; xanthan and other gums; artificial food coloring and preservatives (BHA and BHT); sorbic and benzoic acid; pesticides.
- Inhalants: Mold, pollen, dust, dust mites, animal hair and dander, synthetic fiber off-gases, down, feathers, artificial chemicals, VOC’s, scented candles and cleaning products, perfumes.
- Contact substances: Latex; plastics; cleaning solvents; insect bites; chemicals in air, water, cosmetics, sunscreens, shampoos, and other personal care products.
To start lightening your load, the first most effective place to look is your diet. Everything you eat can be supportive or burdensome, depending on your unique profile. Many of my patients have seen marked improvement when they pay closer attention to their nutrition — even those with type I allergies. The idea is to better equip your body to process its toxic load by providing it with the right nutrients, and to minimize the toxic load by eliminating dietary allergens. That way, when a particularly sensitive substance gets introduced to your system, your body can handle it without causing allergic symptoms.
Before you start whittling away at all of the known allergens, let’s take a look at two food items that cause the majority of issues at my practice: sugar and wheat. Then we’ll give you some suggestions on how to start managing your allergenic burden.
Sugar and allergies: the secret saboteur
Sugar is not recognized by traditional doctors as an allergen — after all, goes the party line, our body breaks down all of our food into glucose, or blood sugar — so how can anyone be allergic to sugar?
Although sugar may not register on a standard allergy test, too much sugar (or carbohydrates with a high glycemic value) does invoke an inflammatory response similar to what the immune system mounts to an allergen. How? Well, too much sugar (or even worse, high-fructose corn syrup) places major demands on our digestive system, interfering with absorption of crucial vitamins and minerals. Too much sugar suppresses the immune system, wreaks havoc on the metabolism, and depletes valuable neurotransmitters. The energy rush and insulin spike that you get from sugar creates an imbalanced body chemistry that leads to weight gain, insulin resistance, and loss of appetite control. Confusion, forgetfulness, ADHD, and depression are symptoms that can occur as much as 48 hours after eating excess sugar. Muscle cramping, PMS, joint pain, and fatigue are more common symptoms of a sugar sensitivity that can go undiagnosed for years.
I would say that the bulk of the patients I see have issues that relate to excessive sugar consumption — it’s hard to avoid sugar in our culture. Those who try to avoid it often do so by consuming products sweetened with artificial substances like Splenda, which only adds to your toxic burden. Removing sugar from your diet — without replacing it with chemical sweeteners — can be a very powerful natural remedy for women with allergies.
Wheat, gluten sensitivities, and allergies
It’s estimated that over 90 million Americans have certain genetic variants that make them sensitive to gluten. Remember, hunting and gathering were around for two million years before the dawn of agriculture. And people who descend from cultures dependent on corn, potatoes, rice or other grains often do not possess the genetic snippet (SNP) required to process grains in the wheat tribe. Many of us don’t know we are gluten-sensitive because gluten can cause symptoms that don’t involve the gastrointestinal (GI) tract, like infertility and decreased cognitive function.
Gluten is actually an umbrella term for a family of proteins found within the seeds or grains of wheat, rye, barley, spelt, kamut, and triticale. Gluten sensitivity differs from celiac disease (a genetically inherited condition in which the lining of the small intestine suffers damage if gluten is eaten), but together they make up a large percentage of people who don’t do well with cereal products.
In such cases, the immune system responds to gluten as if it was an intruder in the body, not a food. If you are gluten-sensitive and continue to eat the recommended daily allowance of cereals and grains in the form of wheat and wheat relatives, your body will simmer on a low burn. This will eventually wear down the immune system and disrupt your metabolism, setting the stage for systemic inflammation, weight gain, chronic disease and a snowball effect of other sensitivities.
The irony in this is that our notion of “comfort food” often means a combination of wheat and sugar! Think about what donuts, sticky buns, and cake are made of. But why do we crave the very foods that make us sick?
The allergy–addiction connection
Often people feel better for a short time after they eat the foods to which they are sensitive or allergic. It’s possible that their bodies have grown used to this dysfunctional body chemistry and suffer withdrawal symptoms when deprived. Nature likes homeostasis.
Poor digestion can lead to build-up of a kind of digestive sludge (called ama in Ayurvedic medicine) that interferes with all of your body’s functions. The mental fog and sluggishness that result have an anesthetizing effect: it literally wipes you out and distracts you from your present (now you know what’s behind comfort food). This kind of “food coma” can itself be addictive, like alcohol. And if the sludge isn’t eventually cleared, most people reach a tipping point and have to deal with allergic symptoms.
I also want to mention the emotional connection to food addiction and sensitivities. This is not a proven area of medical theory, but I have seen it over and over in my patients. Perhaps as a child you were prone to spilling your milk. Each time it happened you were yelled at or spanked and your body reacted in kind. Guess what happens when you get older? A glass of milk may put your system in revolt.
In contrast, perhaps the only time you ever felt cared for by your mother was when she set down cookies and milk for you after school. Your feelings of safety and comfort are deeply imbedded in that ritual. We know that emotional pathways can be hard-wired, like grooves in a record, so that these rituals express an unresolved experience — if we can just understand their origin. But that doesn’t mean they’re good for you. (Please see our articles on emotions and health for more on this topic).
So how do you know what’s happening inside you? Let’s talk about our approach.
Women to Women’s approach to allergies
At our practice, we try to understand all the factors in your life that contribute to your “body burden” and your ability to process it: your diet, your emotional history, your lifestyle habits, your physical environment, and your digestion. This comprehensive approach help us see not just the tip of the iceberg but what’s hidden beneath the waterline as well.
We may begin with allergy testing. As described above, there is the conventional scratch test for IgE antibody response. The radioallergosorbent test, or RAST, is a blood panel that measures IgE directly. While these tests are good at detecting acute allergies involving IgE antibodies, they are not when it comes to allergens that trigger IgG, IgM, IgA or IgC antibodies such as food sensitivities and other non-acute allergic reactions. Certain enzyme-linked immunosorbent assays, or ELISA tests, are better at detecting these sensitivities, as they measure both IgE and IgG antibodies.
But in addition to the above tests, we sometimes use a family of blood tests known as ALCAT, which directly measure the allergic response of white blood cells to various panels of allergens. We’ve found ALCAT tests to be excellent indicators of the broad range of antibodies involved in sensitivities that produce delayed allergic responses.
While we pay close attention to the ALCAT test results, we are just as interested in how a patient feels. To really get at the root problem, you have to look at the entire health picture, not just one aspect. Food issues can be a major factor in that picture, but we may need to treat the adrenals or hormonal imbalance as well. Every woman is different, and we customize our approach to her individual needs.
That said, we can say with confidence that almost everyone feels much better when they take steps to decrease their overall body burden — even if they have severe allergies. When my son was younger, we moved into a new house. Within days, he was wheezing and had ulcerations on his eyes. His pediatrician, a practitioner of functional medicine, told me he had asthma. We took up all the carpeting in our new house and replaced it with wood floors. Guess what? His symptoms went away. Now, if he’s careful with his diet and avoids chemical off-gassing, he rarely has an asthma attack or needs to use an inhaler.
Natural allergy relief
Diet. You may be groaning inwardly at the thought of pulling up your carpets. Don’t worry! The first step toward allergy relief is easy — just look at your diet. For a week, keep track of what you eat and how you feel after eating it.
Many of my patients dread being put on a low-allergen diet. If you do, too, try this easy elimination diet: Avoid a particular food entirely for two weeks, then eat a lot of it in one day and look for a reaction. At first many women feel worse when they go off a certain food (especially if they’re allergic or addicted), but if you stick with it for a few days you may be surprised how good you feel. If you are unsure what to cut out, try eating only vegetables and fruit for a few days and gauge how you feel, then reintroduce dairy, wheat, sugar, and other food types one at a time. Many Eastern cultures practice fasting or eating lightly for a few days each month to ward off potential food sensitivities.
Sensitivities can indicate an underlying digestive issue or imbalance. When people are sensitive to certain foods, it’s usually because their GI tracts can’t fully digest the proteins in their food. The undigested proteins pass into the bloodstream and trigger an immune reaction — otherwise known as “leaky gut” syndrome.
A rich multivitamin–mineral complex with adequate essential fatty acids is the cornerstone of our treatment for food sensitivities — this is often enough to correct imbalances and soothe diet-related inflammation. In some cases targeted therapeutic use of supplements is required, as determined on a case-by-case basis.
Digestive enzymes and probiotics can alleviate intestinal inflammation and help restore intestinal function. Overuse of antibiotics, hypersensitivities, and other imbalances will undermine a healthy digestive tract. Replacing valuable enzymes and beneficial bacteria improves the body’s ability to fully break down and down absorb your food. Recent science also supports the value of probiotic supplements that contain “prebiotics” — in effect, food for our good bacteria — for reducing the allergic response. (See our article on probiotics for more information.)
Additionally, a gentle detox program can rejuvenate your GI system and soothe inflammation. If you don’t see results, you may need more guidance on how to cleanse your system of inflammatory molecules and restore optimal detox function. (Please refer to our detoxification section for specific suggestions).
Environmental sensitivities. Another effective way to decrease your overall body load is to clean house. Invest in a good vacuum cleaner with a HEPA filter. Go through your cabinets and throw out cleansers, creams, soaps, and cosmetics with irritating synthetic chemicals. Buy green building materials, furnishings, cleaners, and laundry detergents. Encase your bedding and choose all-natural fabrics and bed linens. Some natural products, like soy and aloe, can be allergenic — and don’t overlook houseplants. (See our article on green cleaning for more information.)
Chemical sensitivities. If you are becoming more and more sensitive to noxious fumes, air fresheners, perfumes, chemical odors, and other synthetic off-gassing, it’s usually a good sign that your system is on overload. Headaches, dry mouth, sore throat, dizziness, nausea, coughing, and rashes are common symptoms of chemical sensitivity. NAET (Nambudripad’s Allergy Elimination Techniques) is an effective, noninvasive way to eliminate many sensitivities and allergies. Using a combination of therapies, including nutrition, acupuncture/acupressure, allopathy, chiropraction, and kinesiology, practitioners have successfully desensitized patients so that they can tolerate the offending substances without symptoms.
Emotional burdens. These are often the trickiest to clear. Talk therapy and energy work may help you connect an allergic response with any emotional underpinnings it may have. At the very least, you can determine the areas in your life that add the most emotional stress and limit them, just as you would an offending food. The important thing to remember is that our bodies don’t function in a vacuum. If there’s a symptom, there is usually some sort of emotional root — and vice versa.
The key is balance
We talk a lot about balance at Women to Women, and it is especially apt when it comes to allergies and sensitivities. The key is to know your body well enough that you’re able to read its signals and respond with support.
If you suffer now from allergies or sensitivities, I want to encourage you to follow the natural anti-inflammatory approach outlined above. So many women have come back to see me completely transformed and revitalized, with renewed energy and stamina, a clear head, healthy digestion, and beautiful skin. You can too!