Digestive Health In Early Life Linked To Allergies

dandelionAs a naturopathic physician, I’m always paying close attention to the connection between intestinal health and systemic complaints.  Allergies in particular are something that our profession has recognized as having strong ties to the digestive tract.  When people present to my office complaining of allergies, one of the first things I ask about is whether or not they’re having any digestive symptoms.  I also want to know about their history of antibiotic use, their diet, if they were breastfed as an infant, and whether or not they were born via Caesarean section.  So, what do these birth-related issues have to do with someone’s current allergy symptoms?  Well, we know that allergies are symptoms that result from antibody responses to antigens (dust mites, pollens, mold, etc.) that our body recognizes as foreign. But what your doctors don’t often discuss is why this occurs in the first place.

A recent study done at Henry Ford Health Center suggests that babies born by C-section are five times more likely to develop environmental allergies by age two than children who are born vaginally.  This mainly has to do with the bacterial exposure that occurs when babies pass through the birth canal, vs. if they’re removed via C-section.  Starting in the womb, the intestinal tract of babies is essentially sterile.  As they pass through the birth canal, they are exposed to the entire population of bacteria that resides within their mother’s vaginal and gastrointestinal tract.  This allows their immune system to learn the difference between “good” and “bad” bacteria.  A C-section prevents this critical exposure to bacteria, allowing the body to develop a sensitivity to allergens before the intestinal microbes have a chance to fully develop.

Of course, by the time most of us manifest allergy symptoms, it’s too late to do anything about how we were born!  However, there are still a number of intestinal-related factors that play a role in immune function, and how the immune system may recognize everyday substances as foreign.  But for expecting mothers, if you know you’ll be having a C-section, one of the best measures you can take to protect your child is by breastfeeding.  This will also help to pass on important bacteria that they won’t otherwise be exposed to with formula alone.  You can also supplement with probiotics, which are often formulated as powders with strains that are specific for infants.

For the rest of us, it’s still important to take steps to normalize the microbial environment of the intestines as much as possible when trying to minimize the body’s allergy response.  Ways to do this include consuming more sources of fermented foods, such as yogurt and kefir, and supplementing with mixed strains of probiotics (bifidobacter, lactobacillus, etc.).  You can also look at stool tests to measure the amount of healthy bacteria within your intestinal tract, along with making sure that unwanted microorganisms aren’t present.  The bottom line is that there is much more we can do when it comes to allergies than just loading up with anti-histamines and allergy shots.  The immune system is extremely intelligent and sophisticated, so let’s start giving it a little more credit!

Mold: Not Just an Allergy

It’s not an uncommon scenario.  Someone comes to my office complaining of headaches, recurring sinus issues, a nagging cough, “brain fog”, and other chronic symptoms.  They’ve already had complete medical work-ups, and were most likely prescribed multiple rounds of antibiotics, to no avail.  “My allergist said that all of my test results were normal”.  The first thing that comes to mind for me?  Mold toxicity.

It’s not at all uncommon for patients to present with this cluster of symptoms after prolonged mold exposure, even when they test negative for a true mold allergy.  This is because the real culprits are mycotoxins, which are toxic metabolites that are formed in the presence of mold growth.  These mycotoxins are inhaled or ingested by individuals that are exposed to them.  With repeated exposure, our body’s typical methods of metabolizing and detoxifying these mycotoxins are eventually broken down, wreaking havoc on the immune system, causing inflammatory and sensitivity reactions that become increasingly difficult for the body to overcome, especially if exposure continues.  The toxic and allergenic effects are independent of the typical IgE antibody reactions that doctors use to identify allergies, leading to the dismissal of this patient population by a majority of doctors.

I would agree that obtaining objective data to confirm mold toxicity can often be challenging.  If someone is living or working in an area that they suspect to be problematic, there are kits that can be obtained for sampling the air quality, and measuring the concentration of mycotoxins.  This can at least raise the index of suspicion that mold exposure needs to be taken seriously as a potential culprit.  The sophistication of being able to measure different immune responses that are affected by mold exposure has also come a long way in the last couple of years, also making it easier to identify illnesses related to mycotoxins.  These tests aren’t necessarily mainstream knowledge, but are readily available through most of the laboratories that are typically used by physicians.  Being aware of your surroundings, and the history of your illness, is really the best information for any physician to have, especially if there has been visible mold growth, or mold levels have tested very high.

Treating mycotoxin illness is highly individualized, and can take many months to get under control.  Since much of the problem is related to irregular immune responses and an inability of the body to break down these toxins, the main goal is to help the liver metabolize mycotoxins more effectively, along with stabilizing the immune response.  Of course, the first and foremost step is to avoid exposure!  As long as people continue to be exposed to elevated mycotoxin levels, they will not get well.  There are methods that can be implemented for effective cleanup, but in some cases this could mean quitting your job, or even selling your house.  Once the exposure is removed, both nutritional and pharmaceutical treatment methods can be used to help your body bind and excrete the mycotoxins that are causing so much harm.

A perfect example of this problem is a patient I saw who came to me after having multiple upper respiratory infections in less than a year’s time.  This patient had no known history of allergies or asthma, and had been previously healthy, without any significant medical history.  Each time she went to her doctor, they just chalked it up to an infection, and placed her on antibiotics with each consecutive bout.  Upon extracting her medical history, it was discovered that the patient had moved to a new office within the building she had already been working in.  After thinking about it some more, she realized that other people within her new location had also been sick with similar complaints.  I prompted her to look more closely at the area she was working in, around the walls and ceiling, to see if she could visualize any mold, as her symptoms may be consistent with ongoing exposure to mold.

Upon the patient’s return office visit, she informed me that she had asked her supervisors to look into the matter a little more closely.  She then proceeded to show me pictures from her phone that revealed a massive area around her desk where they had peeled the wallpaper back-completely covered with mold!  Needless to say, the structural issues responsible for the mold were properly remediated, and the patient hasn’t had any symptoms since!

Again, I want to reiterate that mold toxicity is not always this black and white, but it is indeed a real cause of illness!  If this is something you think you’re suffering from, especially if you work in a building that has suffered from water damage, don’t be afraid to seek help.  Your doctors may tell you that you don’t have any allergies, and that nothing is wrong, so don’t get discouraged.  Continue to seek help until you find the answers and treatment solutions you deserve!

Allergies-Understanding Causes and Risks

The incidence of allergic rhinitis seems to be increasing every year, among both infants and adults. Most doctors will simply treat the symptoms, but it’s important to look more closely at some of the underlying causes, and how you can prevent allergies from affecting your quality of life.

Benefits of pets, siblings, and farms

To look at this question, researchers questioned 8,486 adults, aged 20 to 40, from 13 countries, about their childhoods and their current respiratory health. After nine years, the study participants completed these questionnaires again and also were asked whether and when they developed nasal allergies or hay fever.

After taking into account other things that may affect allergies, including family history of allergies and whether their parents smoked, the researchers identified several childhood factors linked with later developing allergies:

  • Contact with children, either siblings or in daycare, decreased the risk of developing allergies.
  • The more siblings a person had, the lower his or her likelihood of developing rhinitis.
  • Sharing a bedroom with an older sibling was protective against developing allergies.
  • Having pets in the home or living on a farm as a child significantly decreased the likelihood of developing allergies.
  • Having a mother who smoked while they were in utero and when they were a child increased allergy risk.
  • Women had fewer allergies than men as kids, but more allergies as adults.

The balance between clean and not-so-clean

Some of these results may be surprising because they suggest that childhood exposure to more “dirt and germs” can keep allergies at bay. On the other hand, other studies suggest that for children growing up in urban environments, being exposed to urban pests such as cockroaches may increase allergy and asthma risk. Read on for tips on finding the right “balance of clean” to keep your family healthy.

  • If your child has been begging for a pet, don’t let the “dirt and germ factor” dissuade you. Of course, only consider adding a pet to your family if you know you can care for it properly, and pick one that fits your lifestyle. For example, cats tend to be lower maintenance than dogs.
  • Periodically taking your child out to a farm to see where our food comes from is a terrific learning experience, and it may just offer the added benefit of reducing your child’s risk of developing allergies.
  • Some parents of kids who have to share bedrooms feel they aren’t giving their kids the best of everything. But having siblings share a bedroom may be one of the best ways to allergy-proof your little ones.
I also recommend blood testing to identify potential environmental and food allergies, as this can also help to narrow down treatment options, making it more likely that you’ll experience longer term relief from hay fever symptoms.

Understanding Chronic Sinusitis

Once again, time has proven naturopathic medicine to be way ahead of the game when it comes to effectively treating a condition before modern medicine finally acknowledges the truth. In this case, we’re talking about chronic sinusitis. As long as I’ve been practicing, we’ve always addressed this largely as an inflammatory condition. By removing underlying triggers of inflammation (food and environmental allergens in particular), and using natural anti-inflammatory treatments, along with treatments to help facilitate sinus drainage, patients almost universally have long-lasting relief. Now, modern medicine is recognizing that chronic sinusitis is indeed an inflammatory issue, rather than having a whole lot to do with infectious causes. If you’re stuck in a cycle of repeated antibiotics for recurring sinus infections, definitely consult with a naturopath for treatment advice. 

As a reference, please visit the following article: http://www.nytimes.com/ref/health/healthguide/esn-sinusitis-ess.html

Food Allergies-More Common Than You Think!

A study published in the October issue of the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology estimated that nearly 2.5 percent of Americans have at least one food allergy. The study, which is believed to be the largest food allergy study to date, showed that the allergies were more common in children 5 years old or younger. 

“This study is comprehensive in its scope and is the first to use specific blood serum levels and look at food allergies across the whole life spectrum,” says study senior investigator Darryl Zeldin, M.D., acting clinical director at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS). 

In the study, children under the age of 5 were more than twice as likely as those older than 20 to have a food allergy and black people were three times as likely as white people to have one, while men were nearly 1.9 times more likely than women to be affected. Black boys were more than four times as likely as white women over 20 to have a food allergy. 

The findings also show that food allergies were more common in those with asthma. While the researchers did not study cause and effect between food allergies and asthma, having a food allergy appeared to compound the risk for asthma and vice versa. 

Those with asthma had nearly four times the risk of having a food allergy than those without it. Overall, people with food allergies were nearly seven times more likely than those without them to have required ER treatment for their asthma in the 12 months leading up to the study. 

“Our findings confirm a long-suspected interplay between food allergies and asthma, and that people with one of the conditions are at higher risk for the other,” says investigator Robert Wood, M.D., director of Allergy and Immunology at Hopkins Children’s. 

Wood notes that many children experience an “allergic march,” developing a food allergy first and getting asthma and hay fever later. 

While people with food allergies were somewhat more likely to be diagnosed with hay fever, the link between the two was not particularly strong, and they did not appear to have higher risk for eczema, the investigators found. 

If you or your child are suffering from asthma or other allergy-related conditions, you should definitely consider pursuing food allergy testing from a licensed naturopathic physician.