There has been a significant increase in allergies over the past few decades which can’t be explained by genetics alone. The prevalence of allergies has grown each year for almost 50 years. The American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology estimates that more than 40% of the worldwide population have some form of allergy.
Allergies are essentially a dysfunctional immune system that overreacts to normally harmless environmental exposures. There are several common allergic diseases, including food allergies, allergic asthma, atopic dermatitis (eczema) and allergic rhinitis (hay fever).
There is a plethora of information about signs and symptoms for the common allergic diseases on the internet. Put simply, allergies often, but not always, affect the respiratory system and the skin and can often result in fatigue. Therefore, if you have any of these conditions on a regular basis you should discuss it with your health practitioner. This includes adults because allergies can develop at any age. If left untreated, allergic reactions can be life threatening at worst (anaphylaxis) and make you feel pretty lousy at best. Anaphylaxis is an extreme allergic reaction and often involves multiple body systems. It is life threatening and requires immediate medical attention.
Although some people are genetically more susceptible to allergies, genetics alone cannot explain the global increase in its prevalence. Scientists have come up with a number of theories as to what could be causing the increase, including epigenetics, lifestyle and environmental exposures. We know that there is a strong link between the health of the gastrointestinal system and the immune system. Changes in diet, environmental exposures, poor lifestyle, antibiotics and an overly hygienic environment can have negative impacts on our microbiome. This may include a reduction in microbial diversity and/or an increase in pathogenic species. Antibiotics are particularly damaging to the microbiome because they have the potential to completely destroy certain strains of bacteria in the gut. Once bacterial strains are lost from a female prior to her having children, they may be lost from her family lineage forever. The health of the microbiome and overall gastrointestinal system are key factors to consider in addressing allergies. As one example, certain strains of probiotics have been shown to assist in the prevention and treatment of allergies. Given the importance of developing a heathy microbiome, supplementation with certain strains of probiotics is recommended right through from preconception and into infancy.
The mechanisms involved in the different types of common allergic diseases may be similar. This is evident in the often natural progression from eczema to food allergies to asthma and finally to hay fever, termed the Allergic March. Eczema often develops in early childhood and is estimated to affect about 28% of Australian children. Up to 80% of infants with eczema have been shown to have food allergies. About two-thirds of people with eczema develop hay fever and about one-third develop asthma. This suggests that people with eczema should be assessed for allergies. Not all children who have eczema have food allergies and not all children will follow the Allergic March trend so it’s important to treat individually.
Avoiding potential allergens is recommended, however if you have signs or symptoms of an allergic disease you need to be tested. Testing will indicate the severity of your reaction which can be used to guide current and future treatment, including the need for an Epinephrine Auto-Injector (EpiPen). There are several methods for assessing allergies so you should discuss these with your health practitioner. Remember that if you have an intolerance to a food it will not show up on allergy testing. Intolerances are due to an issue in metabolising a substance and does not involve the immune system. Intolerances should also be discussed with your health practitioner.
Treating a dysfunctional immune system requires an in depth case history for potential immune disruptor involvement. These may include nutrition, poor lifestyle habits, environmental contaminants, dysfunctional detoxification pathways, infections and other factors.
There are also some promising non-drug treatments, particularly for environmental and microbial allergens, such as Lyme disease, mould, chemicals and pollens. Two examples are Sublingual Immunotherapy (SLIT) and Low Dose Immunotherapy (LDI). These treatments aim to down-regulate the body’s immune response to an offending antigen by orally ingesting very low doses of the antigen over a period of weeks to months. However, these treatments are not widely used and finding a practitioner can be difficult.
We believe allergic diseases are best treated with involvement from suitably qualified conventional and naturopathic medicine practitioners. Conventional medicine practitioners are best qualified to assess allergies, develop Anaphylaxis Plans etc. Naturopathic practitioners are more likely to assess and treat contributing factors that down-regulate the immune system.
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