Recently, one of my patients remarked on the growing number of allergies amongst her friends and acquaintances.
She had put her finger on one of the symptoms of the world we live in. Everything from the food we eat, the clothes we wear, to the medicines we take – even the very air we breathe contains man-made substances that are new and often harmful to us. For our bodies to evolve natural defenses to these things will take hundreds or thousands of years- if ever. Meantime, more and more of us are suffering allergic reactions.
So, exactly what is an allergy? It can be defined simply as a hypersensitivity to one or more substances. The reaction is normally peculiar to individuals, affecting only a small minority of the population. Most of us, for example, eat nuts or swallow an aspirin without a second thought. But for a few people, consuming either can be fatal.
We tend to think of allergies as annoying but minor complaints like hay fever from pollen, or skin rashes from plants such as poison ivy. It all seems very simple: we come into contact with an allergen and the immune system mounts a defense which results in sinus congestion, a runny nose and sneezing. Unfortunately, both cause and effect are much more complex.
Allergies, we now know, are one of the root causes of a long list of medical conditions, many of them serious. These include autoimmune diseases such as arthritis; gastrointestinal problems, among them hiatal hernias, colitis and Crohn’s disease; cancer; and mental disorders such as chronic depression.
The causes are similarly diverse. Foods, alcohol, jewelry, chemicals, vitamins, herbs, drugs, animals – almost anything we come into contact with can cause an allergic reaction. Yes, I would have to answer my patient, allergies are more common than ever.
But they are treatable and, better still, preventable.
First, we have to go beyond merely easing symptoms with antihistamines and decongestants. While these pharmaceuticals lend relief, they mask the real problem and, if overused, actually damage resistance to allergies.
Real and effective action begins with testing to identify the allergen and eliminate it from the body. Just as important, however, is an analysis of the patient’s lifestyle, diet and overall health, followed by a course of treatment to build up the immune system against future allergies and diseases.
©Dr. Ashely Gordon, 2004.