I am genetically blessed with the worst in terms of allergies. My entire family suffers terribly from atopy, mostly a combination of allergies and eczema. Growing up, there was never a shortage of anti-histamines in the house.
In college, I was a pre-med who always knew when the pharmacy went on sale. I would buy hundreds of dollar’s worth of over the counter cold, painkiller, acne, and allergy medications at a time. I had become completely dependent on these medications and eventually… they stopped working and I was prescribed a steroid nasal spray to help with the flu-like symptoms that just wouldn’t go away.
Fast forward a few years, my worst eczema breakout forced me to really understand allergies. I dug into the science, and found that there are evidences supporting that healthier living can really help with allergies (duh!). I got to test the hypothesis that perhaps I was just eating and living in ways that wasn’t compatible with my genes and boy was that correct.
Today, I’m completely allergy free. I have no medication in my possession and I’m not taking allergic shots. Needless to say, I’m pretty passionate about this topic.
Contrary to what you’re thinking (or what I used to think), allergies are not just the nuisance that could be rid of just by subscribing to anti-histamines or allergic shots. It is an anomaly of immune functions where one branch of the immune system (Th2) is dominant over the other branch (Th1) (reference). The Th1 dominant branch is more responsible for intracellular pathogens like bacterial and viral infections, while Th2 is more responsible for extracellular pathogens like parasites. The true allergy remedy is to fix this anomaly.
When either branch of the immune system is on high gear, it uses up the nutrients and resources in your body. Consequently, you may suffer from weakened immune system, fatigue and hormone imbalances. Allergies can result in fatigue just as you become very fatigued and need to rest when you have a cold. When allergies or Th2 activation depletes the nutrients and resources, it doesn’t leave much left for Th1. That means you catch colds and other infections easily and your wounds could take longer to heal. If you workout, that could also mean your body will take much longer to recover from your workouts.
When I was at the full swing of this, I caught colds every few weeks and each would last about two weeks. It was just outright miserable and I didn’t even know it. Not only that, allergies is also linked to blunted stress response or low cortisol (reference), which can contribute to HPA axis dysfunction or adrenal fatigue and hormone imbalances.
Antihistamines, like over the counter allergy medications, work by preventing histamines from binding to the receptors on cells such as in the nasal passages and eyes. Natural allergy remedies like quercetin and pygnogenol can block immune cells like mast cells from releasing histamine, which is one step up. While these solutions work to suppress the symptoms, they don’t actually deal with the imbalances in the immune system.
If you live on antihistamines, you may still have fatigue, imbalances in the immune system, and consequences of the inflammation on the rest of the body. So, here, I share things that really work on the whole person.
1. Using immune-balancing herbs and antioxidants as natural allergy remedies.
Some herbs and antioxidants have been shown to support the Th1 immune system (can help with allergies), while others push the Th2 (makes allergies worse). Therefore, people with problems with the immune system, be it allergies or autoimmune diseases, need to be careful with introducing herbs at therapeutic doses. These include some adaptogens because many adaptogens stimulate the immune system.
For example, substances that stimulate the Th2 include green tea extract, plant sterols like resveratrol, pygnogenol, and anything that ends with ‘ol’, curcumin, quercetin, and genistein.
Herbs that stimulate Th1 include echinacea, astragalus, licorice, ashwaganda, panax ginseng, reishi mushrooms
I’ve personally had great results with using St. Francis DeepImmune for 6 weeks to re-balance the immune system. It is a professional brand that is recommended by naturopathic doctors and herbalists. Given that there’s potential harm from just blindly introducing herbs and supplements, I usually recommend that people get full workups with their practitioners who are trained in herbalism, and also understand their full health history before adding herbs.
2. Re-balancing the gut bacteria
Having well-balanced gut bacteria is extremely important, especially for the immune system. The gut immune system closely interacts with the bacteria in the gut and this influences immune tolerance. However, there’s a lot more to balancing the gut bacteria than taking probiotics, as several other factors affect the gut bacteria. It is still important to introduce good bacteria, both in the forms of supplements and fermented foods, if tolerated.
3. Getting the sleep and stress management
Lack of sleep and poor stress management can throw off the immune system, as well as increasing inflammation levels. If you have severe allergies, especially to environmental allergens in your home, it is even more important to resolve this problem so you can get the rest your body needs. Consider having your home inspected for mold or allergen levels and getting an air purifier to reduce airborne allergens. For sleep and stress management hacks, check out my ebooks: Ancestral Sleep ($27) and Stress management 2.0 (Free).
4. Eating a diet that works for you
Because everyone is biochemically different, there’s no one diet that will fix everyone’s allergy. In fact, diet alone will not fix allergies, no matter how perfect the diet is.
A good tenet for a healthy diet involves an organic, whole food-based, nutrient dense diet with lots of vegetables.
Some people do better with more carbohydrates in their diet than others. Some people are okay with grains and dairy. Therefore, experimentation is key.
I often help my clients first to identify foods that may cause problems, as temporarily eliminate them and re-introducing is the gold standard to determine if such foods are problematic. For some people, their environmental allergies can also cross-react with some foods, so I would also check for reactions to these foods as well.
5. Make sure you are not nutrient deficient.
The immune system requires nutrients to function well. People with immune system problems need more nutrients than people who are not. While many people I work with already eat a good, whole foods-based diet, I often find that they are deficient of several nutrients based on lab tests such as Organic Acids Tests. These can be because of digestive problems or other issues that increase their needs for such nutrients.
In most cases, I’m not one to recommend a multivitamin, because food-based sources of nutrients are better absorbed and the synergy between nutrients in foods are more powerful.
To ensure that you are not nutrient deficient, it is important to make sure that the eating hygiene and the digestive function are conducive to nutrient absorption. Secondly, selecting nutrient-dense foods from the right sources are important to get these nutrients. Lastly, certain aspects of a person, like stress levels, genetic predisposition and allergies may warrant it beneficial to emphasize certain nutrients, either through whole foods or supplementation.
6. Eliminating toxic substances from your life.
A Chinese study found that environmental toxins increase incidences of allergies and worsen allergic symptoms. This study demonstrated that environmental toxins like endocrine-disrupting chemicals, heavy metals and pesticides are bad for you. They mess up your hormones and immune system.
Unfortunately, nowadays, it is not possible to remove all toxic exposures, but it makes sense to remove toxic exposure from your life as much as possible. This means: not inhaling car exhaust, switching to nontoxic home care and body care products, and eating organic foods.
Many people with severe allergies have accumulated toxic stuff in their bodies over their lifetime. Therefore, some deeper investigations, like testing for heavy metal levels, nutrient status, potential gut infections or dysbiosis are warranted. Once these root causes are handled, there are very reasonable expectations that the allergies will improve 90 – 100%.
In conventional medicine (that is covered by insurance), allergies remain a disease with no cure. There are only ways to control symptoms of allergies. In fact, there are underlying malfunctions. Once we shift the focus from treating the symptoms or treating the histamine levels, it can improve from 90% to 100%.
There may be time and place for allergic shots, epi-pens and antihistamines, especially for those whose allergies may be life threatening. However, examining these aspects, as well as living a healthier lifestyle should be the first line of therapy before medications.