Allergies are the immune system’s response to normally harmless substances causing a reaction as if the substance is actually harmful. Substances that cause allergies are called ‘allergens’.
Common allergens include but are not limited to, pollen, mould, dust mites, latex, animal dander, insect venoms, medications, cosmetics, fabrics and certain foods such as shellfish, peanuts and tree nuts, milk, eggs, soy, wheat, salicylates, amines, food colourings, flavourings and preservatives such as tartrazine and MSG.
The terms ‘allergies’, ‘sensitivities’ or ‘intolerances’ are often used interchangeably but are not the same. A food intolerance is an adverse food-induced reaction that does not involve the immune system. For example lactose intolerance is where a person lacks an enzyme that is needed to digest milk sugar. When the person eats milk products, symptoms such as gas, bloating and abdominal pain may occur.
Allergy symptoms can be categorised as mild, moderate or severe.
Mild reactions include local symptoms such as a rash, hives or itchy, watery eyes. These reactions are confined to one part of your body and do not spread.
Moderate reactions include symptoms that spread to other parts of your body. Symptoms may include itchiness in more than one body part or difficulty breathing.
A severe allergic reaction is known as anaphylaxis. It’s very serious and is a medical emergency. Your body’s response to the allergen is sudden and affects the whole body. Anaphylaxis may begin with tingling, severe itching of the eyes or face, a metallic taste in the mouth and can progress to more serious symptoms including swelling causing difficulty swallowing and breathing, abdominal pain, cramps, vomiting, diarrhoea, and hives. Blood pressure drops quickly, which can cause mental confusion or dizziness.
These symptoms may begin within five to 15 minutes to up to two hours after exposure to the allergen. Some individuals have a bi-phasic reaction where the symptoms disappear and return two to six hours later.
Common physical signs of allergies include:
- Dark circles and puffiness under the eyes
- Horizontal creases in the lower eyelid
- Chronic swollen glands and/or fluid retention
Why it happens?
An allergic reaction is the result of how your body reacts to the allergen.
‘Mast cells’ are found throughout your body but most reside in the skin, tongue, linings of the nose, intestinal tract and lungs.
Immunoglobulin E (IgE) is an antibody made by the immune system to fight harmful substances. IgE coats the surface of the mast cells in tissues. The IgE antibodies cause the release of inflammatory chemicals mediators such as histamine and other chemicals from the mast cell that causes allergy symptoms. Some of these chemicals also attract white blood cells known as eosinophils resulting in additional inflammation.
A family history of allergies is the most important factor that predisposes a person to develop allergies. If one or both parents have allergies, there is an increased risk of the child developing allergies.
Being exposed to allergens at certain times when your body’s defences are low, such as after an illness, may contribute to the development of allergies.
Poor intestinal function and liver detoxification can contribute allergic reactions.
What natural therapies can help?
Probiotics – ensures intestinal bacteria are in balance. Normal flora also helps absorb nutrients. Naturopaths believe if the digestive system isn’t in balance this can lead to food sensitivities and decrease your body’s ability to heal.
Milk thistle – helps supports liver function and elimination of toxins.
Albizza lebbeck and scutellari baicalensis are herbs often used by naturopaths for allergic conditions such as hay fever, asthma, urticaria (an itchy skin rash due to the release of histamine) and eczema.
Bioflavonoids – inhibits the release of histamine and results in minimised reactions.
Did you know?
- Making changes in your environment can limit your exposure to certain allergens and reduce your symptoms. If you are sensitive to dust consider the following tips
- Wear a filter mask when cleaning
- Clean the room thoroughly once a week
- Clean floors, furniture etc, with a damp cloth or mop
- Vacuum carpet and upholstery regularly using a good filter that will trap the dust and stop it from being sprayed across the room
- Wash curtains and bed linen regularly in hot water to kill dust mites
- Hang doonas and pillow out in the sun at least once a week
- Air the house everyday
- Read ingredient labels for all foods. If a product doesn’t have a label, allergic individuals should not eat that food. If a label contains unfamiliar terms, call the manufacturer and ask for a definition or avoid eating that food.
- ALWAYS check ingredients, even on products you purchase regularly. The manufacturer may change the ingredients.
- Allergies should not stop you from socialising. When you are eating out always check with the restaurant or friends/family if the food/beverages contain any of the allergens you should avoid. Also check that any utensils or equipment that is used to prepare or cook the food has not come into contact with the allergens.
- If you suspect a food allergy keep a food diary, for 1 to 2 weeks, of everything you eat. Record the symptoms you experience, and how long after eating they occur. Give this information to your healthcare professional. Your food diary, combined with other lab tests such as a skin prink test or RAST test that requires a blood sample, will help to determine what is causing your symptoms.
- An elimination diet involves removing specific foods or ingredients that may be a suspected allergen, from your diet for a short period, then gradually re-introducing them. Before embarking on any changes to your diet, always seek the advice from your healthcare practitioner. If you remove ingredients or food groups from your diet, this may result in a nutritionally unbalanced diet, which can lead to further health problems.
- If you’ve had a severe (anaphylactic) reaction to certain foods, the elimination diet should not be used.
- If you’ve had a severe reaction to a food, insect sting, medication etc your doctor may prescribe a self-injectable epinephrine (EpiPen®) to help you in an emergency before medical assistance arrives. Carry this at all times and teach yourself and others how to use it in an emergency.