Allergies & Asthma: The Naturopath's Point of View
“Allergies” are the immune system overreacting to benign substances. Individuals who suffer from allergies do so as a result of a genetic susceptibility combined with nutritional and environmental influences. While heredity has been emphasized in the past, it is clear that genetics alone cannot account for the worldwide increase in asthma and allergy prevalence. The International Study of Asthma and Allergies in Childhood and the European Community Respiratory Health Surveys have shown some striking patterns. Asthma is more common in Western countries than developing countries, more prevalent in English speaking countries, and has increased in incidence in developing countries as they become more “Westernized.” This is definitely telling us that the environment and lifestyle in Westernized countries play a role in the production of allergies in the population.
Our bodies are exposed to a virtual barrage of chemicals each year in the form of air pollution, pesticides, toxic household cleaners, and industrial contaminants. It is not surprising that at times our immune system is overwhelmed and confused by this toxic load. Epidemiological studies have shown that all types of allergic diseases are more common in polluted areas than in unpolluted ones.
While many of these exposures are beyond our control, a number of them are not. By working to decrease pollution inside and outside of the home as well as pollution within our foods, we will be treating one of the major root causes of disease and practicing truly preventative health care.
From a naturopathic viewpoint, removing and/or decreasing exposure to the cause is the first step to treating allergies and asthma. The next step is identifying any and all food sensitivities. Most people have some food sensitivities, and when we decrease the immune reactivity in one area of the body, it can decrease in other areas as well. In other words, any decrease in the overall allergenic load will decrease full body symptom expression. Since we can control what we put in our mouths, this is the first place to start after removing evident toxic chemicals from our foods.
The next step is to address general nutritional considerations that will help allergic symptoms. Our goal through nutrition is to decrease histamine, decrease inflammation, and increase anti-allergic substances in our diet. Foods high in histamine which should be avoided are cheese, some wines, and certain kinds of fish such as tuna and mackerel. Foods rich in tryptophan should also be reduced because tryptophan encourages histamine production. These include cottage cheese, liver, peanuts, turkey, lamb, tuna, beef, salmon and cashews. Animal fats (especially grain fed beef, pork and lamb) generally increase inflammatory prostaglandins and should therefore be kept to a minimum. Wild (as long as they are not eating crops) and grass fed animals would be the best choice. Foods that should be included in your diet are anti-oxidant rich foods and essential fatty acids. Anti-oxidants are high in green, red and yellow vegetables, sunflower seeds, wheat germ oil, and Brazil nuts. Essential fatty acids are present in flaxseed oil, borage oil, evening primrose oil, grass fed animals, and cold water fish. Onion and garlic are particularly antiallergenic because they inhibit inflammatory enzymes.
After addressing the nutritional considerations, we want to address the three main organs that play a role in allergies: the bowels, the liver and the adrenal glands. We want to make sure the allergic patient has a high population of the good gut bacteria and is having regular bowel movements at least 1–2 times per day. A history of constipation is a red flag for cause of allergies because of the inefficient removal of toxic waste.
The liver is responsible for detoxification. It removes hormones, drugs and chemicals, filters all blood coming from the digestive tract, and makes toxins water soluble for excretion. The liver is commonly overwhelmed by environmental pollution and can be supported through herbs and supplements to make it more efficient. Common supplements include milk thistle, an herb that promotes liver cell regeneration, and N-Acetyl Cysteine (NAC), an amino acid and precursor to glutathione that supports the central antioxidant and detoxification pathway of the liver. Oral NAC is also a great “mucolytic” or mucous thinning agent for upper respiratory mucous as well as excessive GI mucous.
The adrenal glands release the stress hormone cortisol and are therefore worn out often by our high stress lives that we all lead. Cortisol also plays an important role in regulating the immune system. In fact, a conventional pharmaceutical approach to allergies and asthma is prednisone, an artificial high dose form of cortisol. So it makes complete sense to say that stress and weakened adrenals can make us susceptible to “allergies” and allergic symptoms.
The last step in a naturopathic approach is symptom management and suppression. Suppression of symptoms in some cases is not always a bad approach because it can provide relief, if we are working on the underlying causes at the same time. Relief will mean better sleep and less stress which will in turn help in the process of treating the causes. Supplements that decrease histamine release by stabilizing the mast cells are vitamin C, vitamin E and bioflavonoids, especially quercitin, which has an affinity for the lungs and upper respiratory tract. These are the nutrients that are the best of both worlds—they fight the symptoms AND the underlying cause.