The Riddle of Allergies

By Ron Hunninghake, M.D.

The immune system is our great internal sentinel. It is ever watchful against unwelcome invaders that could cause infection, cancer, heart disease, ulcers, allergies, and even accelerated aging. Without its careful monitoring of all foreign and potentially hostile substances to the body, we would fall prey to unscrupulous bacteria, viruses, parasites, endotoxins, drugs, chemicals, pollens, danders, molds, or even incompletely digested particles of food. All parts of us that come in contact with the outside world–our skin, the linings of our air passages, our digestive and genitourinary tracts-are guarded by our magnificent immune system.

… over 100 million Americans suffer from immune dysfunction.

Yet much to our dismay, we are confronted with a startling statistic: over 100 million Americans suffer from immune dysfunction. Asthma, allergies, hives, atopic dermatitis, and a plethora of immune disorders account for growing legions of antihistamine users, school lockers full of inhalant bronchodilators, billions of annual allergy shots, growing steroid use, and a shocking rise in the number of asthma related deaths nationwide.

What is going on here? Why is our “magnificent” immune system failing us so dramatically? This is a profound (and expensive) riddle. Part of the problem may be due to a chronic overload on two small (1/8 of an ounce each!) glands that sit on top of our kidneys. A striking experiment was done on a group of dogs. Their adrenal , glands were surgically removed. All the animals died, but only after developing a wide variety of immune dysfunction disorders: asthma, hay fever, eczema, and arthritic pain and stiffness. So what does this have to do with human allergies? Allergy sufferers seem to have a significantly lowered threshold to stress. Why? Because, as was demonstrated by Dr. Hans Selye, the famous stress physiologist, chronic over stimulation of our adrenals due to excessive physiologic and psychologic demands, results in eventual of the adrenal glands.  Insufficient adrenal responsiveness appears to be major component of this riddle of allergies.

But everyone in modern times must contend with crippling stress, and yet not everyone suffers from debilitating allergies.  Stress is one piece of the puzzle.  What are other components?

Most of us think of allergies in reference to the respiratory system only.  Stuffy nose, sinus congestion, and wheezing are common manifestations of inhalant allergies.  Hives, eczema, and other forms of atopic dermatitis comprise the skin’s manifestations of allergies.  Indeed, skin testing is the most common form of allergy testing done in this country.  While these two organ systems are the conventional targets of allergies, there remains one huge organ system that is commonly overlooked when it comes to allergies…and yet may represent the key to understanding our modern epidemic of allergy/immune disorders.

The modern American diet has several characteristics that promote maldigestion. Over half of our calories come from non-whole foods. Fiber has been removed. Sugar and hydrogenated fats have been added. Chemical preservatives, pesticide and hormonal residues, and various colorings are commonly present in foods. Monotony abounds. The typical fast food cuisine consists of various combinations of about 18 basic foods. And then, to top it off, we eat in haste, with very poor chewing habits.

Whereas inhalants trigger IgE antibody formation, maldigested foods, in the form of small peptides, trigger IgA antibody formation. These secretory IgA molecules protect the gut lining from adverse food reactions.

However, there is a limit to the gut’s capacity to secrete adequate protection. Once overwhelmed, one of the consequences is an overproduction of powerful chemical mediators: histamine, inflammatory prostaglandins, leukotrienes, serotonin, and many more.  One result of this barrage, in addition to a stuffy nose and other systemic allergic symptoms, is the slow loss of the stomach’s ability to secrete hydrochloric acid. From this, proteins aren’t completely broken down and food is inadequately sterilized of pathologic bacteria and parasites. The partially digested food passes into the small intestine and, paradoxically, does not trigger the production of pancreatic bicarbonate and digestive enzymes properly … further disrupting the digestive process.

The picture emerging here is one of what could be described as dys-orchestration of the digestive process. Poor quality foods, overly processed, nutrient deficient, under-chewed, inadequately broken down, possibly infected … entering the gut and overwhelming an already stressed adrenal system. This is a picture of the immune system simply being overwhelmed! Allergies may represent an overworked, underpaid immune system!

This suggests that the proper treatment of allergies goes a lot further than simply taking an antihistamine. The entire system needs attention. Taping the hole in the radiator hose is not the proper treatment for an overheated engine! A more holistic systemic treatment plan is needed to address the multiple factors contributing to the dysfunction of the immune system. This view treats our immune system more ecologically. Specific problems are addressed with the aim of restoring better function to the system as a whole.

The riddle of allergies must then be solved on the level of the individual. Understanding food sensitivities, poor digestion, abnormal gut flora, adrenal dysfunction, dietary choices, micronutrient status, and a host of individualized factors will reveal that unique character of allergy in that individual.