Our own body has a sophisticated inbuilt protection system. We have defenders called "antibodies" in our bloodstream, which constantly search for and destroy any harmful materials (antigens) before they cause any harm. Unfortunately, in this distressing medical version of the bumbling movie detective inspector Clouzot, in the case of allergies, these antigens wrongly detect a harmless substance as a threat to the body and attack it - causing a great deal of damage to the system in the process.
Allergies are often very specific. For example, I know a woman who is highly allergic to cat fur, although she has no problems living with dogs or other furry animals. Whenever she is exposed to our feline friends, the released antibodies in her system immediately bind onto the mast cells of her upper respiratory tract, triggering a release of a substance called histamine. Her nose soon becomes irritated, resulting in an increase in nasal secretions, congestion, itchiness and sneezing, as well as inflammation and redness in her eyes. And her life becomes miserable!
Allergies can also affect the digestive system and the skin. The author Kalem Montgomery, (Allergies, The Immune System and Boundaries, Acupuncture Today, Dec.2006) gives the example of the condition athlete's foot. As she explains, "The fungus that causes athlete's foot does not harm us at all; it only feeds on dead skin. The problem is that our immune system recognizes that fungus as a foreign substance and mobilizes its resources, creating the red itchy immune reaction that is athlete's foot."
Allergic reactions come in all shapes and sizes. They have a wide range of symptoms, ranging from respiratory and skin problems to acute cardiac and digestive reactions. In the worst cases, if the person is allergic to a fungus that grows on peanuts or to a bee sting, the immune reaction can be so severe that the person will die.
The Western medical treatment is aimed at stopping the release of the irritating chemical agent histamine in the body. There are many types of antihistamine medications available over the counter or by prescription.
Depending on the symptoms, one can receive the treatments in the forms of pills, inhalers, sprays, eye drops, skin creams or, in the most serious cases, through intradermic injections. Unfortunately, as in most forms of medication, there is always the potential risk of harmful side effects. So it is important to have a good relationship with your doctor to find which medication is best suited to your condition. A very good source of information on the topic is the excellent website of the American Mayo Foundation for Medical Information and Research www.mayoclinic.org
But the original question remains: Why have we become so susceptible to allergies? Until about 20 years, I can't recall having met many people with allergies to gluten, wheat or dairy products. Now they seem to be everywhere. Could it be that our modern lifestyle is actually much too clean for our own good?
In 2000, the medical journal Medline published a Norwegian study named "Increased occurrence of allergy: Is modern lifestyle the cause?" (Medline 2000 Nov 10; 120(27):3287-91) It reviewed three international research papers from Germany, Switzerland and Sweden investigating "the increase in the occurrence of allergic diseases that have taken place in industrialised countries over the last decades".
The German study reported that early attendance (before one year of age) at day care centres reduced the risk of allergy development in children. In turn, the Swiss and Swedish papers concluded that children of farmers, or students attending Steiner schools had less allergic manifestations than their peers in the same local communities.
The authors concluded that groups practising a somewhat simple, "old-fashioned" lifestyle within a modern community had a reduced risk of developing allergic diseases. "Proper microbial stimulation of the immune system, possibly via the bacterial flora on the mucosal surfaces of the upper airways and the gut, may act to reduce the risk of becoming allergic," it suggested.
Of course, there is always the possibility that in the tough old days, many people were living with allergies without making any fuss about it. But I have the suspicion that there might be other causes for this dramatic increase. I will investigate this topic further in our next issue, and look at alternative treatments other than chemical drugs.
Olivier Lejus MHSc.BHSc. is a registered acupuncturist practising in Sydney.
Olivier Lejus BHSc.MHSc. is a registered acupuncturist and Chinese herbalist practising in Sydney. A former casual university lecturer and tutor in Oriental medicine with over 15 years experience in clinical practice, Olivier specialises in Japanese- style acupuncture for the treatment of male and female infertility, migraine, pain, and insomnia.www.olejusacupuncture.com