Problem with Allergies - Could the health of your gut hold the key?
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The Wide Variety of Allergies
As the days begin to lengthen many people start looking forward to spending more time outside - hurray, summer is on the way! Yet for many people this is a very uncomfortable time of year – sneezing, sniffling and prickly eyes – yes, spring & summer also means allergies and constantly reaching for the eyes drops and antihistamines in the hope of some relief. However, for a few very unfortunate people every day is allergy day and for them, their allergies can be life-threatening if they eat the wrong food, then a very dangerous episode called anaphylaxis could ensue. Their allergies could dominate their life and avoidance of all foods known to cause such immune reactions is paramount.
These reactions are termed hypersensitivity, the name given to the over-reaction or inappropriate response of the immune system to harmless substances (let’s face it, peanuts, grass pollens, and cat hair should be considered harmless) and an allergy is used to describe a certain type of immune hypersensitivity, referred to as immediate or type I hypersensitivity. Hay fever (referred to as allergic rhinitis by immunologists), is an example of a type I hypersensitivity reaction, as is an anaphylaxis or anaphylactic shock.
The immune system is our primary defence against infection and disease, serving to protect us from the constant bombardment of potential invaders (referred to as pathogens) that we are exposed to on a daily basis. It is necessarily sophisticated, complex and very effective at fighting infections; it is highly integrated into all body systems and has taken millions of centuries to develop and evolve. However, modern 21st-century living is a very different environment to the world of our ancestors - the world in which the immune system developed. Consequently (and very unfortunately) it can often respond to modern day dangers much like a blunt instrument. Therefore, if the immune system is acting inappropriately, then in the quest to solve the conundrum of allergies to harmless substances, the question should be asked - what is causing this overreaction and, if the response could be addressed, could the allergy be reduced or even potentially resolved?
The Gut and the Immune System
It may sound strange that gut health would affect sinuses but, in fact, the two systems are directly related. The respiratory tract and the digestive tract are immune barriers, meaning it is their job to protect the body from outside invaders.
It starts to become clear when we understand that approximately 80% of the immune system is located in the gut – no surprise really, food can be a major source of invaders. Therefore, it seems when gut health suffers so does the rest of the body and the result for many people Disclaimer: Nutritional Immunology does not claim to treat or diagnose medical conditions. Nutritional Immunology is never intended to replace medical advice. Nutritional Immunology works alongside conventional medicine. If you have a medical condition, you must contact your GP are allergy symptoms that flare up each spring.
A common culprit in allergy symptoms is leaky gut, also known as intestinal hyperpermeability. Leaky gut is a condition in which the lining of the digestive tract becomes porous, allowing undigested foods, bacteria, yeasts and other toxins into the bloodstream. This triggers the immune system to do its job and launch an attack on these toxins, which, if the gut remains leaky, can cause chronic low-grade inflammation throughout the body.
Exposure to the same food magnifies the response which can lead to symptoms of discomfort, abdominal pain, gas and bloating (IBS symptoms!) and, for many people, this happens every time they eat1. Leaky gut has been associated with food hypersensitivity and, in fact, in one clinical study, the severity of symptoms was related to increased intestinal permeability.
There is also a very influential third party involved and that is our gut flora, often referred to as microbiota. The research on their impact on our health and their relationship with our immune system is growing exponentially by the day. It seems they are in constant communication with our immune system and if they become disturbed so can our immune response3. Reasons for disturbed microbiota are varied; however, if you have ever been on a course of antibiotics then your flora would have been affected and the more courses during your lifetime, the greater the potential effect.
Nutrition and Immunology
There is ever-growing evidence that function of the immune system is modulated by an individual’s nutritional status and it makes sense to realise that the immune system cannot function optimally if it does not receive the right nutrition.
Many nutrients are required for a balanced immune response; however, some may be more important than others. For example, even mild zinc deficiency can depress immunity 5 so increasing food high in zinc, such as shellfish, particularly oysters and seeds such as pumpkin and sunflower may be a good idea. Studies have also shown that zinc supplementation can reduce inflammation.
Another important nutrient is vitamin D - the sunshine vitamin. Deficiency has been associated with allergies including peanut allergy 7. It may seem paradoxical that one might be afraid to walk in the park for fear of an allergic reaction, yet the sunshine exposure could be just what your body requires.
Feeding the body with good bacteria should also be part of the solution. If you enjoy cooking then including home fermented foods, such as sauerkraut or kefir would be a great place to start. For non-chefs, probiotic supplementation may be the more convenient alternative - although a note of caution, not all probiotics are created equal, so always seek professional advice as to the best strains and dosage for you.