Right at the outset it must be said that for many people there are multiple factors that contribute to the development of an allergy or sensitivity to a substance. Please see the blog post “Allergies – An Introduction” for the definitions of allergies, sensitivities and intolerances. The causes described below are not mutually exclusive and often one or more are involved for any one person. It must also be said that while we can see some of the reasons that allergies develop, how these factors, and likely some yet to be discovered, interact is still being explored. It should also be noted that allergies can develop at any time in life, not just childhood, and that a pollen, food or drug that used to be okay now causes a reaction.
Genetics – We know that allergic tendencies can run in families and inherited genetic traits are major players here. Having a familial history of certain types of allergy can make you more susceptible to developing allergies but it does not always happen. Some of the causes discussed below can have an additive affect on one’s risk for actually developing an allergy or sensitivity. Likewise, modification of these other factors may reduce the risk of allergy occurrence.
Epigenetics – This is the effect of one’s environment on how genes express themselves. In other words, how the environment (nutrient availability, disease, stress, etc.) affects what the genes actually do. This can affect individuals during their lifetime and it can be passed down through generations. The implications of this go far beyond allergies to affect risk for diabetes, cancer, heart disease and many others. Some of the factors discussed below contribute to this in addition to their direct effects on the functions of the immune and other systems.
GI Microbes – The fancy term for this is the “gut microbiome”. This is a hot area right now as research is showing how the balance of bacteria and other microbes in the GI tract can affect many aspects of physiology including immune function, digestion, mood, cognitive ability, weight gain, and risk for heart disease, diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease and many other conditions. An imbalance of microbes is called dysbiosis. The balance of beneficial, neutral and potentially harmful organisms may come to favor those that adversely affect the GI tract and other organs and systems. Causes of this include diet, stress, lack of exercise, antibiotics, lack of sleep, drugs and alcohol, and contaminated food and water to name some of the most common contributors.
Stress – Severe stressful events, such as major accidents, deaths in the family, job loss, etc. can affect the immune system and promote the development of allergies, especially those linked to food. Prolonged (chronic) stress can also promote allergies as it alters the function of the immune, nervous, endocrine and GI systems over time and weakens the body with ongoing increases in adrenal hormone production. Finding resources to cope with stress, acute or chronic, can help to prevent both psychological and physical problems from developing. These can include yoga, Qigong, meditation, mindfulness, counseling and exercise among others.
Diet – There is probably no such thing as the “perfect diet” for everyone due to our differences in genetics, epigenetics and environment. Still, there is no question that modern diet patterns in the US and many developed countries have too many calories and lack adequate vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, detoxifying agents and other nutrients required for good health. Add in lots of deep frying, too much sugar and processed foods and it is a chronic health disaster in the making. In addition to all of the risk for heart disease, stroke and cancer, this increases the risk for allergies and autoimmune diseases (where the body attacks its own tissues). Repeatedly eating the same foods over time can increase the risk for developing allergies to them. As mentioned above, poor or imbalanced diets can disrupt the normal GI bacteria leading to allergies and many other problems.
Lifestyle – As a society we are not very good at taking care of ourselves. We prioritize constantly being busy and many of us don’t often take the time we need to relax, decompress and nourish ourselves. This is manifested in the diet with lots of “fast food” and not taking the time to eat slowly in a relaxed setting with friends or family. This creates an ongoing stress response in the body. Lots of research supports the role of regular exercise in supporting healthy immune function and digestion among many other benefits. Getting enough sleep, 7-9 hours per night is optimal for most people; both more and less can be harmful. Take steps to address acute and chronic stressors in your life. Finding a good balance with time for work, play, relaxation and personal growth is part of our life journey and will benefit our health and well-being.
Environmental Toxins – Sadly, they are everywhere. They are in our air, water, food, soil, oceans, lakes, breast milk, etc. Please don’t let this depress you, but it is important to understand the extent of the problem in order to reduce its impact on our health and to make personal and societal decisions on how to address this. Most of us have relatively low levels of a variety of organic chemicals, heavy metals and microbial toxins in our systems, but they can have a cumulative effect. Some people have much higher levels of one or more based on their work, where they live, food and water they consume, travel and airborne exposure. People can develop allergies to these substances in addition to their inherent toxicity and they may disrupt immune function and promote allergies to other substances. Detoxification may be necessary.
A Final Word – It should be clear by now that the causative factors discussed above can have a synergistic effect in promoting the development of allergies. Other than those individuals with a known family history of allergies, it can be difficult to predict who will develop them or when. None the less, taking steps to improve our diet, lifestyle and environment can reduce our risk for allergies along with many other problems.
This is Part 2 of a four part allergy series by Soaring Crane Acupuncture: