Ever Wondered How You Develop An Allergy?


Danny T. Siegenthaler

Allergies are becoming more and more common. In fact about thirty percent of people suffer from one or more allergies. Why? What exactly is an allergy anyway? And how do allergies develop?

Before we go much further, we need to define what an allergy is. A simple definition is: An allergic reaction (hypersensitivity reaction) is an inappropriate immune responses to a normally harmless substance.

This can be almost any substance natural or otherwise, for example pollens in the air may cause sneezing, runny eyes and/or nose and in severe cases an allergic response can actually result in a medical emergency and be potentially fatal.

So why do we get these allergies?

Normally, the immune system, which includes antibodies, white blood cells, mast cells, complement proteins, and other substances, defends the body against foreign substances known as antigens (substances that are antagonistic). However, in susceptible people, the immune system can overreact to certain antigens (called allergens), which are harmless in most people. The result is an allergic reaction (Merck, 2008).

Simply put, an allergic reaction is basically an over-reaction by your immune system to an otherwise benign substance.

Some people are allergic to only one substance, whilst others are allergic to many. So how do we become allergic to a substance that in the past we have not been allergic to?

The Mechanism of an Allergic Reaction

That's a good question worth pondering, because almost nobody will be able to give you a concrete answer. However, the medical profession sees this in the following way:

While the exact cause for a person's proneness to allergies is unknown, there has been significant evidence to show that it is an inherited characteristic.

In other words:

  • Unknown cause, but suspected to have a genetic component; that is you may be able to inherit an allergic tendency.

Many people are born with the capacity to become allergic to certain allergens. When genes are acquired from the person's parents and enough exposure to a particular allergen has occurred, it's likely that an allergic sensitivity will develop. While this scientific information can be helpful in determining a person's likelihood to develop specific allergies, it's not the only way a person can develop an allergy. Certain allergies (like poison ivy) aren't caused by a person's hereditary background. Age can also play a part in the development of an allergy.

The development of an allergy occurs in two phases. The first phase is known as primary exposure. Primary exposure occurs when an allergen is introduced into the body. A person's immune system (specifically, a person's white blood cells) will respond accordingly. A person's T-cells (specialized cells which are part of the immune system) will recognize the allergen as foreign material and release chemicals as a response.

These chemicals travel through the blood and instruct B-cells to produce millions of antibodies (antibodies are molecules in the blood and other fluids that tag, destroy or neutralize bacteria, viruses or other harmful toxins).

Some of the antibodies will attach themselves to mast cells, which is a type of white blood cell that is scattered throughout the skin and respiratory tract. The job of mast cells is to assist in mediating the immune system's inflammatory response.

In other words:

  • T-cells, B-cells & Mast cells combine to instigate the body's immune system response to an allergen.

The second phase of an allergy's development occurs when a person is re-exposed to an allergen. When the same allergen enters the body, it attaches itself to antibodies that are stuck outside the mast cells. This causes the mast cells to release chemical mediators. Chemical mediators (like histamine) are chemicals that immune cells use to communicate with each other.

Histamine is primarily responsible for causing asthma and other allergy-related symptoms. Histamine opens up small blood vessels and causes them to leak fluid. The result is inflammation, sneezing, and/or increased mucous production in the nasal cavity. Histamines also cause wheezing and shortness of breath.

Histamines are also responsible for skin reactions to allergens such as poison ivy and many chemicals commonly found in make-up and off-the-self skin and personal care products.

The Alternative Medical View Point

In natural medicine, we also believe that diet, lack of exercise (general fitness) and stress can lead to a weakness in our body generally and as a result the immune system may 'over-react' to various allergens.

Life changes such as moving from one continent to another, for example coming to Australia from Europe, can trigger allergies because the immune system may be used to the pollens, grasses, etc. (allergens) in Europe, but is unfamiliar with allergens here in Australia.

Many pollens and grasses for instance are foreign to our immune systems and as we have no immunity to them, our systems may well over-react and result in us developing allergies to one or more of these allergens.

Other factors that put our immune system to the test when relocating from one continent to another is that the food, drinking water, heck even the air is different and these differences have to be assimilated by our body and the immune system has to re-adjust to the new conditions.

Additional Considerations

We all know that from time to time we overexert ourselves physically, mentally, emotionally, etc., and if this overexertion continues, there are likely to be more serious consequences.

Sustained stress for example will cause us to get run down, feel tired and undertaking any activity is a chore. Heck, even to get up and get started can be a major effort.

If this continues for an extended period of time, there is a price to pay. Your health will slowly start to fail - it might not be obvious at the beginning but this is the stage at which we can develop allergies, are more susceptible to 'catching' colds and feel generally run down and tired.

The body is weakened, there's a distinct lack of energy and bingo, the immune system, being weak also, will over-react to an allergen. Once this pattern is established it is much more difficult to rectify it.

Natural medicine recognises allergies as a weakness of the immune system and will advise patients as to their lifestyle and the possible changes that need to be made in order to bring some balance back to their lives.

In addition, herbs and diet will play a major role in the re-strengthening of the immune system and the general health of the body.

What You Can Do to Take the Pressure Off the Immune System

Firstly, remove as many non-natural chemicals from your life - this includes non-natural washing powders, soaps, skin and body care products, make-up and try to identify as many known allergens and other toxic substances in your daily life. Remove as many of them as possible and replace them by using natural products. Why?

Because our bodies are not designed to deal with synthetic, man-made chemicals, rather it is designed to handle natural substances.

Secondly, make sure you keep you foods simple. That is, use unprocessed foods wherever possible. Pre-made foods will contain preservatives, possibly artificial colouring, flavouring and other frequently used chemicals. Whilst these chemicals may not of them selves cause allergies, they do demand extra work from your immune system and thus potentially weakening it.

Drink more than 2 litres of water a day. I cannot stress this enough. Our body requires at least 2 litres of water each and every day just to maintain normal metabolic processes. By depriving our bodies from sufficient water, we are stressing it and slowly but surely causing our body to become dehydrated. This is not what you want.

Last but by no means least - relax. You must make time in your day to let your body re-charge and repair itself. This means getting enough sleep, doing regular physical exercise and find a hobby that you can't wait to get to. This is not just a good idea, fad or what ever, but there are powerful physical and chemical reasons for doing this. Why?

Because the endorphins and other chemicals that are released and come into play when we relax and de-stress are very important to maintaining good health for the long term.

Relaxation, for example, provides the following positive health benefits:

  • Slows heart rate,
  • Reduces blood pressure,
  • Slows the rate of breathing, which reduces the need for oxygen,
  • Increases blood flow to the muscles, and
  • Decreases muscle tension.

As a result, many people experience:

  • More energy,
  • Better sleep,
  • Enhanced immunity,
  • Increased concentration,
  • Better problem-solving abilities,
  • Greater efficiency,
  • Less anger, crying, anxiety, frustration, and
  • Less headaches and pain.

That's just for starters. The positive health impact that relaxation alone has on the body is priceless and cannot be underestimated.

Sufferers from allergies will positively benefit from the above suggestions. It won't be immediate, but over time, your body will become more resilient to allergens; the immune system will become stronger and react more appropriately and yes, your overall health will also improve.

© Copyright: Wildcrafted Herbal Products™, 2008

Author's Bio: 

Danny Siegenthaler is a doctor of traditional Chinese medicine and together with his wife Susan, a medical herbalist and Aromatherapist, they have created Natural Skin Care Products by Wildcrafted Herbal Products to share their 40 years of combined expertise with you.

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© Wildcrafted Herbal Products 2008