A Natural Approach to Spring Allergies - Try Thinking with Your Stomach
Updated: Oct 7
Spring has sprung! With the return of migrating blackbirds, blossoming daffodils, and the cacophony of frogs awakening from their vernal pools, allergy season will soon be upon us.
What are Seasonal Allergies?
“Allergy” refers to the harmful effects of hypersensitivity to environmental triggers or antigens. There are many types of hypersensitivity responses, where an altered immunologic reaction to an antigen results in damage to the host. To classify them as “hypersensitivity” is a misnomer because the reaction is not characterized by an overreaction so much as a reaction that you don’t want, usually because it is accompanied by pathology of some kind. Hypersensitivity reactions result from and are linked to immune responses which are essential to combat disease. However, not all antigens are products of invading microbes. Ragweed and poison ivy are not dangerous infectious pathogens but the immune response to antigens in these plants can be as vigorous as it is to pathogenic bacteria or viruses. Anyone who suffers from hay fever or allergies knows how inappropriate this type of immune response can be.
Allergies, as well as asthma, hives and other conditions, have been grouped into a category of hypersensitivity reactions called ‘Type I hypersensitivity’. These reactions can be quite immediate, with symptoms typically developing between minutes to hours from exposure. They involve immunoglobulin E (IgE) mediated release of antibodies and may result in local or systemic anaphylaxis. Systemic anaphylaxis is a potentially lethal reaction.
Type I hypersensitivity responses are caused by certain types of antigens, that are referred to as ‘allergens’. It isn't fully understood what makes a protein like ragweed pollen (for example) just an antigen to one person and a potent allergen to another, although genetic predisposition is one known important determinant. What distinguishes Type I hypersensitivity from other antigen-induced antibody responses are generally thought to be the stimulation of IgE production (instead of immunoglobulin G production). However, IgE can contribute to some auto-immune diseases and many common allergies are not mediated by IgE, like poison ivy.
We will examine some of the more specific mechanisms of allergies in a subsequent blog article. For now, let’s set the stage and consider ways to decrease the hypersensitive inflammatory response overall, as part of our way of getting toward the root cause of bothersome seasonal allergies.
Why gut health for seasonal allergies?
Much of your health begins in the gut, even with regard to allergies. Supporting proper gastrointestinal (GI) function is essential to many inflammatory conditions, for boosting immune function, and decreasing reactive symptoms such as seasonal allergies. In fact, 70-80% our immune system lies in our digestive tract. This is because our body triages a wide variety of compounds, nutrients, pathogens, and possible disturbances at this site. Upset the gut's natural mix of helpful bacteria and fungi, and allergies and asthma may develop.
To see if assaults on gut flora could result in inflammatory conditions, some researchers tested on mice. First, the mice drank water laced with antibiotics for a few days, which disrupted their GI microflora (the beneficial bacteria in the GI tract) and resulted in the mice getting increasing numbers of fungal inhabitants. Specifically, they had increased amounts of the yeast called Candida, which is commonly seen after taking antibiotics and a known pathogen. Then when these mice were later exposed to antigens that had the potential to be allergens, they promptly showed signs of allergic airway disease similar to asthma. Meanwhile, a control group of mice that weren't dosed with antibiotics were not bothered by the same potential allergen. Their microflora had been left alone. That suggests that allergies and related breathing problems could start, or at least be influenced by, the health of microflora in our gut.
A different study revealed people who have seasonal allergies have a different gut microbiome than those who don’t suffer from allergies. More specifically, a low diversity of bacteria in the gut along with reduced amounts of clostridiales and increased amounts of bacteroidales, both types of bacteria found in the gut. Dysbiosis, the alteration of the gut microbiome and imbalance of bacteria, increases the risk for all sorts of conditions, which includes allergies. In this case, the alteration is the imbalance and lack of diversity of gut bacteria. Think about it. An allergy is an immune system response in which it responds to something otherwise harmless, as harmful. Since the majority of our immune system is in the gut, it makes sense if there is an imbalance here, it could cause or contribute to this reaction.
What can you do to improve Seasonal Allergies and Gut Health?
I’m glad you asked. Check our next blog to find out.
McCance, K. & Huether, S. Pathophysiology The Biologic Basis for Disease in Adults and Children. Fifth Edition. Mosby, Inc. 2006.
Noverr, M. et al. Development of Allergic Airway Disease in Mice following Antibiotic Therapy and Fungal Microbiota Increase: Role of Host Genetics, Antigen, and Interleukin-13. Infection and Immunity, January 2005. News release, University of Michigan.
The content and any recommendations in this article are for informational purposes only. They are not intended to replace the advice of the reader's own licensed healthcare professional or physician and are not intended to be taken as direct diagnostic or treatment directives. Any treatments described in this article may have known and unknown side effects and/or health hazards. Each reader is solely responsible for his or her own healthcare choices and decisions. The author advises the reader to discuss these ideas with a licensed naturopathic physician.