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For the 35 million Americans who suffer from seasonal allergies, spring is a double-edged sword: beautiful flowering plants and trees, budding after spring rains, are harbingers of runny noses, watery eyes, endless sneezing and sniffling, and myriad other unpleasant symptoms. Summer has its own challenges, as the grasses continue to release their pollen, followed by the weeds in late summer and early fall.
Ragweed, ryegrass, maple, elm, mulberry, oak, and Russian thistle are among the most allergenic plants and trees in North America. Their pollen can provoke the allergic reactions that are collectively called “allergic rhinitis” or “hay fever.
In this interview, PPNF Vice President David J. Getoff, CCN, CTN, FAAIM, explains why seasonal allergies affect us and whether there is a difference between true allergic reactions and intolerances or sensitivities. He discusses the most effective means of testing for allergies and suggests ways that we can minimize their effects without resorting to over-the-counter drugs.
Judd Handler: What are the most common seasonal allergies you see in your patients?
David Getoff: One of the questions on my health questionnaire for new patients is “Do you have any allergies? If so, to what and how severe?” For some people, the trigger is cats, and for others, it’s dogs, while still others react to wool or penicillin. Several of my patients are allergic to mold or dust mites. And, in springtime, a lot of people report pollen allergies. Seasonal allergens are, by definition, windborne, and pollen obviously belongs in that category.
I’ve found that some of my patients think they are allergic to one substance, when they are actually reacting to something else. It might not be the exact plant or flower they suspect that is causing their seasonal allergies. Also, a good percentage of my patients with allergies don’t realize that a particular substance they are regularly exposed to is the reason they can’t breathe well.
JH: Why are so many people allergic to pollens today?
DG: The biochemical pathway of an allergy is a reaction to a protein, and pollens are loaded with proteins and amino acids. This reaction is caused by a person’s immune system not working as well as it was designed to. The body believes it’s being attacked by an intruder and sneezes or manifests other symptoms in an attempt to get rid of it.
If we are deficient in various nutrients – specifically, antioxidants, and anti-inflammatory compounds found in vegetables – a protein that might not otherwise cause inflammation could do so because the immune system is unable to provide proper protection. Excessive dietary sugars also reduce overall immune function and may make a person more likely to react. In the case of someone with a severely compromised immune system, exposure to an allergen could provoke a condition called anaphylaxis, whereby instead of minor swelling, the person experiences an inflammatory cascade that overwhelms the body, and they might die if they don’t get an epinephrine shot immediately. Anaphylaxis, then, is an exaggerated sensitivity to a foreign protein.
Seasonal allergies seem to be getting worse year after year, decade after decade, as we are exposed to more environmental pollutants and other toxins. Today, there are well over 100,000 of these toxic substances, and thousands of new ones are introduced every year. Factoring in these pollutants and the standard American diet (SAD), which is far too low in essential nutrients, it’s no wonder that seasonal allergies have exploded over the last few decades.
JH: Did the traditional societies studied by Dr. Weston A. Price suffer from allergies?
DG: These traditional societies did not experience, for the most part, a breakdown of the body’s innate healing system such as we find today in seasonal allergies. They didn’t have our modern environmental pollutants; nobody was spraying Roundup or malathion. There was no chlorine or fluoride added to their water, and they weren’t using Clorox bleach or ammonia to clean their homes. Nobody was using shampoos and soaps with ingredients such as methyl paraben, propyl paraben, and sodium laurel sulfate. These chemicals did not exist during the time that Dr. Price travelled the world, documenting traditional societies.
JH: Will a diet rich in traditional foods loaded with phytonutrients and antioxidants protect a person from allergic responses?
DG: I would say that someone with sufficient levels of omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants would likely have a less severe allergic reaction than if they had deficiencies in these nutrients. Omega-3 fatty acids are among the strongest anti-inflammatories that have been studied, and most people today are deficient in them. According to the research, the ratio of pro-inflammatory omega-6s to omega-3s should be between 1:1 and 4:1. However, in the U.S., the ratio can be as high as 25:1. That being said, unless somebody has had a blood test to analyze their essential fatty acid levels, they have no idea what their ratio is.
JH: What exactly is an allergy? Does it differ from a sensitivity or intolerance?
DG: If you look up allergy in a medical dictionary, you’ll find that it’s an immunoglobulin E (IgE) histamine response to a substance. This is part of the immune response and is what causes allergic reactions to many triggers.
If you give someone Benadryl or another antihistamine and their symptoms go away, that would be classifiable as an allergy. But some people with similar symptoms might not have a true allergy according to the medical definition. Take someone who has a seasonal allergy to juniper pollen and who gets stuffed up, has a runny nose, or breaks outs in a rash during allergy season. That person might have a true, medically defined histamine response. However, other people might experience the same symptoms after they eat a specific food, or they might get diarrhea, become constipated, find themselves unable to think straight, or manifest any of the dozens of other symptoms that a conventional doctor would not, according to the classic definition, consider an allergy.
The mainstream medical industry, therefore, has had to create a new classification for these symptoms that are not caused by a true histamine response: intolerance. Everything other than the IgE histamine reaction is a food or chemical intolerance or sensitivity. IgG immunoglobulin responses can cause symptoms similar to IgE reactions, but medically they would be considered intolerances. The most important difference is that IgG reactions are more delayed and can take up to three days after exposure or ingestion to produce a symptom. So, with seasonal allergies or IgE-mediated food allergies, symptoms often manifest immediately after exposure, while food intolerances can take a few hours to a few days to appear.
As far as I’m concerned, any inappropriate reaction to a substance is the result of an allergy. For example, I have a patient who reports feeling “spacey” when she goes over to her friend’s house and the friend runs the clothes dryer, using a specific brand of dryer sheets. That’s not an allergy as defined by medicine, but I certainly would call it an allergy. On the other hand, if she is actually being poisoned by, or is unable to properly process, the chemical agents in the dryer sheets, we might be more correct to say she is being poisoned than that she is having an allergic reaction.
JH: Would you briefly discuss the relationship between inhalation allergies and asthma?
DG: If a person has asthma, it’s very likely that inhalation allergies will have a much more severe effect than they would in somebody who does not have asthma. Allergies may also lead to some questionable diagnoses of asthma. Let’s take this example: a person who has been diagnosed for several years with asthma finds out they are allergic to dust mites. They replace their carpeting with hardwood flooring and their asthma goes away. Their doctor would say, “Asthma can’t go away. You still have it. You just don’t have any symptoms now.”
JH: Is there a relationship between seasonal allergies and food allergies?
DG: In a way, seasonal allergies are similar to dietary ones because breathing in a protein is a form of consumption. Most people feel the most common food allergens include wheat, corn, soy, dairy, eggs, and shellfish.
Some food allergies may increase the individual’s state of inflammation, which could possibly make the person more reactive or sensitive to other allergens. It’s quite possible that food allergens could make respiratory symptoms worse during the spring, and that grasses, flowers, trees, or shrubs could exacerbate food-derived allergies.
Allergic reactions to dairy, wheat, and sugar are sometimes expressed more strongly in the spring. If someone’s dairy allergy is worse in spring, I would think it to be due to their immune system working harder because of the assault it receives from seasonal allergens. For my patients who produce excessive phlegm, get stuffed up, or have runny noses after consuming dairy, one thing I recommend is switching from butter to ghee, which is pure dairy fat with the protein removed. I’ve never once had a patient who was allergic to ghee. Many times, they will not react to butter from grassfed cows, either.
JH: What’s the best way to test for allergies?
DG: The standard test for inhalant allergies, which has been administered for decades, is the “checkerboard test.” This involves irritating small areas of the back by exposing them to different substances, including various pollens. It still seems to be the gold standard and is very effective. My favorite test for sensitivities, including inhalant allergies, is ELISA/ACT Biotechnologies’ blood panel.
The checkerboard test is not effective for food allergies. For these, I again highly recommend ELISA/ACT Biotechnologies, which offers a comprehensive food allergy panel, testing everything from spices and seasonings to a myriad of different foods and chemicals. I also recommend Cyrex Labs for its wheat/gluten allergy test. Cyrex also tests for about 20 other foods in their gluten-associated cross-reactivity panel.
The type of testing a person receives can make quite a difference. For example, a lot of people end up getting allergy shots for things to which they are not allergic, because the allergist isn’t always using the most accurate testing method.
JH: When people are suffering from a seasonal allergy, what can they do rather than take an over-the-counter antihistamine?
DG: In some cases, natural supplements have been shown to modulate or stop the histamine reaction – for example, helping us to not feel stuffed up. For some people, 1000 mg of vitamin C taken four to five times a day does wonders, because this vitamin is a natural antihistamine. I’ve seen vitamin C alone make a huge difference. I prefer a mixed ascorbate blend, as this will help the vitamin get transported into the cells more effectively. In fact, I like to see mixed ascorbates for all minerals as well, whether they are magnesium ascorbate, calcium ascorbate, potassium ascorbate, manganese ascorbate, zinc ascorbate, or copper ascorbate. Ultimate Ascorbate is my favorite vitamin C tablet (by Source Naturals). For those who can’t swallow tablets, my favorite powder is Vitality-C from American Nutriceuticals (both available via PPNF’s Amazon Store affiliation).
Quercetin, a plant-derived antioxidant, when used with stinging nettle and bromelain (derived from pineapple extracts), may also be very helpful. I recommend a product called D-Hist (available via PPNF’s Amazon Store affiliation), which is a combination of vitamin C, stinging nettle, quercetin, bromelain, and N-acetyl-cysteine. In many cases, however, vitamins and herbs, including D-Hist, simply don’t work fast enough. So, I suggest that people who suffer from seasonal allergies start taking the supplements at least two weeks before allergy season begins. I’ve had people report to me that after taking D-Hist in this way, they had “the best allergy season,” meaning they experienced few or no symptoms. D-Hist doesn’t seem to be effective with food-related allergies, but can do miraculous things with inhalant allergies. Obviously, there are massive differences in the way the body reacts when it inhales something versus when it digests something.
JH: What other measures do you recommend for people who suffer from severe seasonal allergies?
DG: First, I would recommend severely restricting sugars, starches, and alcohol, because these can suppress the immune system and promote inflammation. Next, I would address environmental illness (EI) and multiple-chemical sensitivity (MCS). People with EI/MCS have detoxification pathways that aren’t working properly. Their systems are overloaded with toxins, far more than the human body was meant to handle, and they are not effectively purging them. If they walk through a supermarket, they have to be extra cautious and avoid the aisles containing products such as pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers, soaps, and detergents. They can get very sick just from the chemicals in the air when walking through those aisles. For people struggling to detoxify, it’s imperative to reduce – or better yet, avoid – contact with those products, and to not use them in their homes.
JH: Are there specific liver and kidney support products you recommend for people with seasonal allergies?
DG: Yes, and these will help support the detoxification pathways, as the liver and kidneys are major eliminatory organs. But let me say this first: the kidney and liver products that I recommend should be taken starting a full six to eight weeks in advance of allergy season, so the body can build up its defenses.
One of the products available to the public is a tablet called Liver Balance Plus. Another tablet I recommend is Kidney Rescue. These contain a blend of Chinese and Western herbs, and are manufactured by the Pure Body Institute in Ventura, California. Another reputable company that has good liver and kidney support products is Herbalist and Alchemist. These are available as tinctures.
Kidney and liver support can be extremely important for people with severe seasonal allergies. Sometimes, these people will not even be able to tolerate a children’s multivitamin formula, even though tests show that their vitamin and mineral levels are low. That’s because their liver is doing a poor job of metabolizing the nutrients. It’s essential to start these people on one to four months of kidney and liver support.
It’s possible that if somebody takes a kidney or liver support product, they may experience what I call a detoxification reaction, with symptoms such as headaches, fatigue, asthma outbreaks, or skin problems. This happens because the product is helping clear those organs out more rapidly than the body can handle. If this occurs, the person needs to stop the support until the symptoms go away. Then they can start taking it again at a much lower dose, and very gradually increase the dose over a period of weeks.
JH: Do you recommend cleanses for those who have experienced severe allergy symptoms in the past?
DG: I do not advocate cleanses or flushes. For many people, they are too fast and severe; the body can’t handle it. In fact, cleanses and flushes can make people with EI/MCS much worse in just one day. Instead, these people should start using herbal or homeopathic liver and kidney support. This is not a three-day fix; it’s something that should be continued for six to 18 months. For those with EI/MCS, the initial dose should be very small – for example, just one drop per day, even if the bottle says 15 drops, three times per day – and then gradually increased.
JH: In addition to liver and kidney support, should those who suffer from seasonal allergies take an adrenal support product?
DG: Yes, because the adrenal glands are the body’s chief mechanism of reacting to stresses. If your adrenal glands are not working correctly (and in most people, they are not), your body is not able to handle stresses as well as it should, so you can end up feeling far worse from your allergy than someone whose adrenals are functioning better. The product I like best for adrenal support is Vital Adapt, which is a combination of many adaptogenic herbs in a liquid tincture. Adaptogens can really help the body react to stress, and therefore they positively affect the endocrine system, the immune system, and emotional health.
Like liver and kidney support, adrenal support products won’t immediately reduce reactions to a seasonal allergen. If the period of reactivity will last for months, more than likely these products will help, even if you start taking them when symptoms begin. However, if the allergen will only cause problems for a couple of weeks, such as cottonwood particulates, the support products should be started well in advance.
JH: Can homeopathy be effective in treating allergies?
DG: Homeopathy can be very effective. The largest problem with it is that most people who try it don’t do it correctly. They go to the store and buy some homeopathic remedy for allergies, but it isn’t the right one for them. Homeopathy is extremely individualized, and a specific remedy might work for one person and not work for another. Often, in order for homeopathy to be most effective, you need to go to a professional homeopath and have an extensive case history taken, so that the homeopath can address your exact situation and prescribe the correct remedy. If the homeopath determines your “constitutional remedy,” taking that remedy will sometimes help mitigate allergic symptoms. Self-medicating with homeopathic remedies can help some people, but unless you have sufficient knowledge about the subject, you will not be able to derive as much benefit as you could from going to a homeopath.
It’s rare for homeopathic remedies to immediately relieve allergy symptoms unless correctly prescribed by a good homeopath. They will take longer to work than an over-the-counter medicine such as Benadryl in 95 percent of cases. For this reason, they should not be used by someone who is in the throes of an advanced or extreme allergic reaction.
JH: Do you recommend any means to improve the air quality of the home?
DG: There’s no question that a HEPA filtration system, which can trap small particles such as pollen, dust, and mold, is often very helpful if there are indoor allergens. Having an air purifier with a HEPA filter can make a big difference for people with seasonal allergies.
Ozone generators can also be very helpful for people with allergies, if they are properly used at the right settings, so the ozone level is not too high. However, they can be harmful if used incorrectly.
JH: Are there any special precautions for people who have pets?
DG: Sometimes, pet owners end up getting severe allergy attacks because their cat or dog walked on a neighboring lawn treated with fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, and other chemicals, and then tracked those toxins back into the house. People can track in chemicals such as these as well, so people with allergies should keep their homes “shoe free,” as is done in Japan. As soon as you walk into the house, the shoes are removed and put to the side. You can have indoor-only shoes or walk around in socks. That way, you have less potential allergens being tracked into the house. In some cases, washing your pet more often and wiping off its paws after it has been outdoors can help. The problem is getting your cats and dogs to take their shoes off!
David J. Getoff is a board-certified clinical nutritionist, traditional naturopath, and fellow of the American Association of Integrative Medicine. He maintains a private practice in San Diego, California, and has contributed numerous articles in past issues of the Price-Pottenger Journal of Health and Healing. David’s Website
About the Author
Judd Handler is a Certified Metabolic Typing Advisor and a graduate of the Functional Diagnostic Nutrition program. A health writer for the enviro-website MNN.com, Handler is the author of the ebook Living Healthy: 10 Steps to Looking Younger, Losing Weight and Feeling Great, available on Amazon.
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Published in the Price-Pottenger Journal of Health and Healing
Spring 2013 Volume 37 Number 1
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