The transition from winter to spring is a beautiful time of year as the trees and plants begin to bloom. But for millions of people, this seasonal change brings on relentless sniffles, along with itchy eyes, a scratchy throat, wheezing and sneezing fits. These are all symptoms of allergic rhinitis, commonly known as hay fever or seasonal allergies.
Seasonal allergies occur when the body is exposed to airborne substances, such as pollens and grasses, that appear only during certain times of the year. Allergy seasons vary from one individual to the next depending on what they are allergic to. It can occur for short periods at varying times of the year and in some individuals can start in the early spring and last right through to the onset of winter.
All allergies, whether food or seasonal, begin when the immune system mistakes a harmless substance from the environment as a harmful invader in the body. Exposure to this substance (known as an allergen) triggers the immune system to kick into gear. This complex immune process involves the production of protective proteins called immunoglobulin E (IgE) antibodies, which circulate in the bloodstream and bind to specific immune cells. With repeat exposure to the allergen, these cells react by releasing chemicals such as histamine which cause the symptoms of an allergic reaction.
This physiological process is all part of the body’s main role in maintaining balance by protecting itself from invaders that may cause illness. Although the science behind allergic reactions is well established on a cellular and physiological level, the underlying cause of allergies is not well understood. Why would the body mistake otherwise harmless substances for potential dangers that cause such unpleasant, and sometimes even life-threatening (as in anaphylaxis) allergic reactions? What’s even more unclear is why there are increasing rates of people developing both food and seasonal allergies worldwide. Allergies are on the rise and becoming one of the most common chronic conditions in the western world. According to Asthma Canada, respiratory allergies such as hay fever, or seasonal allergic rhinitis affects 1 in 5 Canadians.
Although it is unclear why the world is becoming more allergic, research suggests that the increasing prevalence of allergies may be multifactorial, including genetic, environmental, toxicological and socioeconomic factors. One proposed theory is the “hygiene hypothesis”, which was introduced in the late 1980s by David P. Strachan, a professor of epidemiology, in the British Medical Journal. This theory, which has been supported by research, suggests that childhood exposure to germs trains the immune system to develop resistance by distinguishing between harmful and harmless irritants. It further explains that we now live in a world where living conditions might be too clean and that kids are having less exposure to germs early on in life leading to a weaker immune system that is more susceptible to developing allergic diseases.
Although the hygiene hypothesis is theorized to play a role, other research is pointing towards genetic predisposition and the effects of environmental toxins and chemicals. We have been conditioned to think that allergies are inescapable and simply something we are born with. Even though studies have identified a genetic link, sometimes allergies don’t develop until adulthood. For this reason, environmental and toxicological factors must also be explored.
Now that we have a good understanding of how hard the body works to maintain balance and protect itself from harmful substances, let’s consider the fact that we live in a world where our immune system is being bombarded with environmental toxins including pesticides, herbicides, air pollution, heavy metals, preservatives, artificial colours and flavours, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), chemicals in cosmetics, plastics and medications. According to statistics, it is estimated that 8 to 15 pounds of these chemicals are taken into the body each year.
Even though the immune system and our organs of detoxification (such as the liver, lungs, bowels, kidneys, lymphatic system and skin) are well equipped to detoxify and eliminate toxic waste from the body, when the system gets overwhelmed it eventually won’t be able to keep up. At this point, the organs of detoxification and the immune system become exhausted and less able to defend against foreign substances. This concept can be compared to pouring something through a funnel. If too much enters before it can funnel through, it will either clog or start to overflow. This overflow is also known as allergic load, or toxic load, which is the total amount of chemicals, pathogens, food allergens, inhalant allergens and pollutants that the body can be exposed to before reaching the tipping point when allergic symptoms appear.
Based on this concept, a fundamental approach to treating the underlying cause of allergies, whether there’s a genetic predisposition or not, is to begin reducing the toxic load on the body. Since everyone has a different genetic and physiological makeup, the toxic load will vary greatly from one individual to the next. For this reason, it is important to work with a licensed Naturopathic Physician or trained medical professional to first measure toxic load through various testing methods, and then follow guided detoxification protocols that are specifically designed based on individual needs.
- Bateson-Kock, C. (1994). Allergies: Diseases in Disguise. Books Alive. Summerton, TN. Pp. 27-32.