In my practice I see many people who suffer from allergies. Runny nose, itchy eyes, sneezing, hives, and feeling run down—all of these symptoms can disrupt quality of life significantly, from taking drowsy allergy medications to avoiding the outdoors when a particular plant is in season. For chronic conditions such as allergies, naturopathic medicine can make a lot of difference in reducing the inconvenient symptoms and working on the root cause of the issue.
What causes allergies?
An allergic response arises from the immune system reacting to normally benign particles in the environment, such as pollen, dust or food. The immune system will create IgE antibodies (immune cells), which then signal mast cells to trigger a histamine response. It is histamine that is responsible for local inflammation, itchy watery eyes, runny nose, sneezing and skin reactions that so many of us are so familiar with at that horrible time of year.
Most allergy prevention begins early in life. New mom take note: breastfeeding is shown in research to decrease the incidence of allergies in childhood. Furthermore, many people once believed that delaying the introduction of popular allergenic foods when introducing solids in infants would prevent allergy. In fact, the research says the opposite is true. The “hygiene hypothesis” tells us that exposing our immune systems to many different substances and challenges during infancy and childhood helps to prevent hypersensitivity, or allergies, later in life.
In the case of anaphylactic allergy or allergy-induced asthma, there is a place for rescue medication. Please keep epi-pens and puffers on hand and use as prescribed by a medical doctor even when working with a naturopathic doctor.
Adrenal function and allergy
There is an entire fascinating field of research called psychoneuroimmunology that studies the effect of stress on our immune systems. Researchers have even correlated mother’s stress levels while pregnant to her baby’s potential to develop allergies in childhood. Stress, and the stress hormone cortisol, is an inflammatory factor, and allergies are an inflammatory condition, so high-stress situations can make a bad allergic situation worse. However, too little cortisol is also problematic, and I see the majority of my patients with allergies to be in some state of burnout where they are not producing the right amount of cortisol. The causes and treatments of burnout, or “adrenal fatigue” as some call it, is an entire discussion in itself, but when I am looking to help heal the root cause of allergies, I am looking at both the immune system and at the adrenal glands.
Remedies for allergies
Fortunately, naturopathic medicine provides solutions that help manage symptoms and address the underlying immune dysfunction of allergies.
Vitamins E and C – known for reducing the duration of colds and flu, vitamin C is an antioxidant that can decrease histamine. I have seen it reduce itchy and watery eyes in patients with allergies. Vitamin E has been shown to stop leukotriene release – another chemical implicated in allergy symptoms, and was effective in a scientific study in reducing symptoms of allergies.
Herbs – many herbs can reduce allergy symptoms and have varying degrees of scientific evidence and clinical use. Nettle – yes, the very same unpleasant stinging plant in your backyard – has shown to be effective in reducing hayfever symptoms such as sneezing and itching. The same can be said for pine bark extract. Euphrasia, or Eyebright as it is known, is an herb that has historical use in eye health and can reduce sneezing, runny nose and itchy eyes, especially when combined with immune modulating herbs such as Goldenseal and Echinacea. Herbal medicine can be part of a management plan, but please consult a medical professional such as a licensed naturopathic doctor who can help you safely and effectively combine and dose herbs.
Probiotics – I explain to my patients daily that the heart of the immune system is in the gut. Research is constantly arising showing the incredible effects that our little gut bacteria have on our immune systems, including allergies, by reducing inflammatory chemicals in the body. Many rigorous scientific studies have shown probiotics can reduce environmental allergy symptoms in both adults and children.
Diet – while there are many other nutritional and herbal possibilities for allergies, diet is always a factor in overall health. A diet high in antioxidants such as colourful fruits and vegetables, along with fatty fish consumption that supplies crucial omega-3 fatty acids, can help lower allergy symptoms and a host of other conditions as well.
Allergy symptoms do not have to drag you down this spring. Start by reducing inflammation through a high nutrient diet and stress management strategies, and see a naturopathic doctor to help take care of the rest. NDs can help effectively and sustainably manage chronic conditions and help you breathe easily through ragweed season.