Allergies – An Introduction

Allergies can be mild annoyances that occur only occasionally or they can be severe, even life threatening, and dominate our daily lives. And just to make it more interesting, some allergies cause chronic problems that are not always easy to connect with the offending substance(s).

Let’s understand the terminology.

Allergy: The body mounts an immune response targeting a specific component, called an antigen, of a substance. This is often a molecule containing a protein, polysaccharide (complex sugar) or a combination. As the immune system learns to recognize the antigen it begins to make antibodies, which are proteins, that cause an inflammatory reaction when they interact with and attempt to eliminate it. This is great if you are targeting harmful bacteria or viruses. This is not so good when the immune system gets disordered and starts responding to common airborne particles such as pollens, dust mites and animal dander, or foods that we eat, and leads to allergy symptoms. These substances are not harmful by themselves, but with an allergy, the immune system becomes sensitized to them and responds as if they were dangerous. The inflammation that results makes you feel bad. The goal of course is to desensitize a person, but more about that in another blog post.

Allergen: This is any substance that causes an allergy. They are often classified based on how the body is exposed.

Airborne allergens are inhaled and enter the eyes as well. Common examples include pollen, dust mites, animal dander and airborne chemicals. Examples of the latter include perfumes and solvents (solvents are also often toxic and irritating).

Contact allergens cause skin reactions when they come in contact with a person. Think of those earrings or bracelets made with nickel as well as poison ivy and various chemicals that cause a rash and sometimes itch.

Foods are common allergens and can cause immediate, delayed and/or chronic symptoms. They may affect not only the GI tract but also the skin, nervous system, mood, concentration, memory, sleep, and just about any system in the body.

Drugs can cause allergies as many people know given how all of the drug ads on TV constantly remind us to tell our doctor if we are allergic to them. Also many chemicals are good at being allergens and/or irritants and/or toxic.

Irritant: This is any substance that can cause, you guessed it, irritation to the body. This is important here because sometime the symptoms caused by irritants are the same as those the result from allergies. As an example, if you are caught in a cloud of dust while cleaning your attic you may sneeze and cough and your eyes will water and feel gritty, just like hay fever. It could be that taco with extra habañero pepper sauce causing heartburn or the dreaded double burn (just what you think). This is due to physical or chemical irritation, but is not due to a specific immune response. Of course, if the dust cloud contains substances to which you are allergic, you get a double whammy (yes that is the proper medical term).

Important Note: The terms “food allergy”, food sensitivity” and “food intolerance” are often used loosely and somewhat interchangeably by non-medical people and sometimes even by those with medical backgrounds. Allergies are defined above, and below are good working definitions of the other two.

Food Sensitivity: People may react adversely to foods even when they don’t have a true allergic reaction or food intolerance (see below). The causes for this are varied and depend upon the individual and the specific situation. It may be tied to imbalanced GI bacteria (Dysbiosis), emotional responses, stress, how the food is prepared, contaminants, the environment in which one eats (eg relaxed at home vs while driving) and physical or chemical irritation. Symptoms may be caused by poor digestion/absorption as well as physical or chemical irritation and/or non-specific immune response to the food leading to inflammation. Reactions may occur repeatedly with certain foods or only occasionally. Symptoms may be similar to those of true food allergies but conventional food allergy testing will not reveal the problem as it does not involve an immune response targeting a specific antigen in the food.

Food Intolerance: With this a person has an adverse reaction to a food based on an inability to properly digest and/or absorb it. As an example, lactose intolerance affects the ability to digest lactose, a sugar in milk, which leads to gas, bloating, diarrhea and possible malabsorption depending upon the severity. Fat intolerance may occur in people with disorders affecting bile production which aids fat digestion.

This is Part 1 of a four part allergy series by Soaring Crane Acupuncture;

  1. Allergies – An Introduction
  2. Allergies – Why Do We Get Them?
  3. Allergies – How Are They Diagnosed?
  4. Allergies – What Are Your Treatment Options?