You’ve been living your life as usual, generally active and healthy, when suddenly you find yourself sneezing all the time, battling a constant runny nose and streaming, itchy eyes. “What’s going on?” you wonder. Congratulations: you probably have developed allergies. “But how?” you argue. “I eat healthy, exercise regularly, and have a pretty good immune system.”
Whether you’ve suffered from allergies your whole life, or just developed some symptoms in the last month, allergies can make you miserable. So should you accept your fate, stock up on Zyrtec and Claritin, and resign yourself to a life of nasal suffering?
The type of allergy we are referring to here is also known as allergic rhinitis, and may be seasonal (referred to as “hayfever”) or non-seasonal. Common irritants include pollen, dust, animal dander, cat saliva, or mold. These irritants attach to special immune cells in the nasal mucosa that then, due to a hyperactive immune response, release an “explosion” of a chemical called histamine. It is histamine that causes swelling, the over-production of mucus, sneezing, and in some cases intense itching.
Western treatment of allergic rhinitis includes antihistamines, decongestants, and inhaled steroids. These medications--although they can provide substantial immediate relief--offer no long-term solutions. In fact, some European studies have shown that the long-term use of immunosuppressive medications such as these can cause the development of other, more serious conditions later in life, including asthma, skin rashes, arthritis, and autoimmune disease.
Fortunately, there are long-term solutions to overcoming allergic rhinitis that are entirely natural and highly effective. These solutions have to do with addressing the root of the allergy (what is causing the allergy) rather than the branch (the symptoms). They answer our question also as to why the body developed an allergic response in the first place. These include:
Detox Your Liver
“The liver? I’m talking about my nose!” Allergies are often the result of a liver overloaded with toxins. The liver is our primary organ for detoxification and cleansing. This amazing organ is single-handedly responsible for over 500 detoxification functions, and works tirelessly to inactivate and excrete toxic substances from the body, including drugs, hormones, chemicals, and dead or damaged cells.
However, over time our daily toxic load can overburden the liver. Especially with a diet high in processed or fast food, in environments high in exposure to toxic chemicals or mold, or in cases of weakened liver function due to disease or genetic disorders, the toxic burden can quickly override the liver's daily capabilities. So what will the liver do?
The liver's first line of defense is to store the toxins. As it stores the toxins the immune system will launch a histamine response to the toxins being stored. Later, toxic substances may leach into the blood and body, causing hyperactive immune responses that may lead to a number of autoimmune illnesses--including rheumatoid arthritis or Hashimoto's Thyroiditis. The development of hayfever or non-seasonal allergic rhinitis is often a first indication of liver toxicity with a resulting overactive immune response.
Regular detoxification of the liver can help to reduce the toxic overload, so that the liver can again function normally, and the body can quiet it's histamine response. Ways to detoxify the liver include:
Cleansing the liver through food, herbs and seasonal dietary cleanses . In Chinese medicine, the best time to cleanse the Liver is in the spring. Foods that support the liver include: beets and beet greens, dark leafy greens, dandelion greens, burdock root, garlic, grapefruit juice, lemon juice, apples, avocadoes and avocado oil, olive oil, and organic sources of liver.
Periodically taking supplements that support liver detoxification pathways. The most important ingredient in these liver detoxification formulas is glutathione, a complex amino acid. This critical molecule binds with toxins in the liver, which then carry them into the bile and stool, and out of the body. Foods and herbs high in glutathione include: garlic, onions, cruciferous vegetables (kale, broccoli, cabbage), and milk thistle. Vitamins and other nutrients that support glutathione production include folic acid, B6 and B12, vitamins C and E, Alpha Lipoic Acid, and N-acetyl-cysteine.
Turmeric root , which can be consumed in its whole root form, or in capsules, contains high amounts of curcumin, which has been the subject of a number of clinical trials recently, revealing profound effects on liver health.
Regular use of saunas or farinfrared saunas helps to detoxify the body from heavy metals and other environmental toxins.
2. Cleanse Your Gut
A little known fact, is that 70% of the body's immune system resides in the gut! In our current American epidemic of leaky gut syndrome, due to factors such as the overuse of antibiotics, NSAIDS and oral birth control and our chronically poor diet, our immune system may start to "tag" proteins (which are larger molecules) in certain foods as "invaders" and launch an attack. This attack leads to inflammation in the digestive track which over time can lead to bloating, gas, acid reflux, abdominal discomfort, diarrhea or constipation when these particular foods are consumed.
"So what does this have to do with my allergies?" you may ask. Individuals who are prone to food "allergies" or sensitivities (a lower level immune reaction) are typically more prone to environmental allergies. When the immune system starts to mount an allergic response to certain foods, it is more likely that it will simultaneously react to inhaled substances as well. Cleansing the gut will help to soothe and heal this overactive immune response, and at the same time will calm down the response to inhalants.
Ways to cleanse the gut include:
Exploring a food elimination diet, either guided or on your own, to discover which foods you are reacting to. These foods are then eliminated, calming down the immune response, and allowing the body to heal. The most common foods implicated in food sensitivities include dairy, wheat, eggs, sugar, soy, and tree nuts. The foods should be eliminated entirely for at least 6 weeks, and then re-introduced one by one with several days in between while watching for an exacerbation of symptoms.
Cutting out dairy and sugar, which both stimulate the body to produce a large amount of mucus. These foods should always be eliminated during times when allergies are acting up.
Taking a high potency probiotic, such as the Vital-10 we carry at DCA, or Ultimate Flora by Renew Life, for several months. If you have had a round of antibiotics, some studies show you should take a good probiotic for up to 6 months. You can also add fermented vegetables, such as sauerkraut or kimchi, on a regular basis to your diet. Avoid yogurt, as it is dairy-based.
Adding bone broths to your diet. Bone broths are high in gelatin, which soothes and heals the gut lining. You can either make your own, or increasingly you can find quality bone broths at your local health food stores. You can also purchase Great Lakes Gelatin from Whole Foods.
Adding in a broad spectrum digestive enzyme for a while, such as Digestzymes or Vitalzymes that we supply at Denver Community Acupuncture. These enzymes help to break down food molecules more completely, which will decrease immune response.
3. Strengthen Your Immune System
I have repeatedly been asked by concerned patients if it is counter-productive to use acupuncture to support the immune system for allergies, since allergies are the result of an over-responsive rather than an under-responsive immune system. This is a very good question!
My rational answer: I don't know! My clinical answer: time and again acupuncture relieves allergy symptoms and provides days, weeks, and sometimes even months of relief.
The beauty of acupuncture is that it is a marriage between the use of certain acupuncture points--in this case those that are "tried and true" for boosting immune health--and your amazing body. It is your body that takes the needle stimulation and does what it needs to in order to balance itself out. This means that the same point that might one day boost an immune response, will the next day calm it down! Did your acupuncturist do this? We could say partly--if they are well-trained, they will recognize that allergies are an "Excess" condition in Chinese medicine, and that they need to use points that clear Heat and clear inflammation in the liver. But mostly--your body is able to use the acupuncture stimulation to self-regulate!
If you are suffering through a bout of allergies, we recommend coming in weekly until the symptoms subside. In some cases, this means during an entire season. In others, all that seems to be required is a few treatments.
You can also add in immune-boosting supplements with high doses of vitamin C and D, as well as vitamin A, which supports respiratory health.
4. Take Chinese Herbal Remedies & Natural Antihistamines
The great news is that while you are detoxing your liver and cleansing your gut and you STILL have allergy symptoms: you don't need to take meds! We have highly effective Chinese herbal formulas that, on their own or in combination with antihistamine supplements, can manage your "branch" symptoms beautifully while you work on a deeper level to heal your liver, gut and immune health. Your acupuncturist will guide you toward the formula or formulas that work best for your symptoms. In some cases, it may take a few trial runs to discern the right formula for you.
One Chinese herbal formula that has been gaining a lot of attentiontion lately is "Wu Mei Wan", a formula traditionally used for intestinal parasites. Dr Xiu-Min Li, who is both a Western immunologist and a doctor of Chinese medicine, has taken this classical formula, adapted it to a new formula she refers to as FAFH-2, and is having great success in clinical trials treating individuals with food allergies. Studies are still underway, and an approved product is not yet on the market. For more information about FAFH-2, click here.
There are also natural antihistamine products that some patients find very helpful. Our in-house product D-Hist contains vitamin C, quercitin, bromelain, and N-acetyl-L-cysteine.
A special note on sinus infections:
Are sinus infections the same as allergies? The answer is no. Allergic rhinitis is not sinusitis, although allergic rhinitis may be the cause of the development of a sinus infection. Allergic rhinitis produces watery, profuse and white or clear mucus with frequent sneezing, whereas sinusitis will manifest as thick, yellow to green mucus with little to no sneezing. Sinus infections, however, are also very responsive to Chinese herbal medicine and acupuncture--even at relatively advanced stages.