It’s no secret that allergies and environment go hand in hand. Dust in the air may make you sneeze. Peanuts in your trail mix could send you into anaphylactic shock. Everything we come in contact with is a possible threat — a chance for our bodies to rebel.
But increasingly, evidence shows that environmental exposure is more than just an allergy trigger: It can also help the body develop its own protective barrier.
“[Studies] highlight the importance of environment, beginning, it seems, in the womb,” writes Moises Velasquez-Manoff, a science writer and the author of “An Epidemic of Absence” in the New York Times. “Microbes are one intriguing protective factor. Certain ones seem to stimulate a mother’s immune system during pregnancy, preventing allergic disease in children.”
Velasquez also points to Indiana’s Amish people — “remarkably free of allergies and asthma” despite their proximity to tree pollens and other allergens — as an example of a community where protective microbes occurred “spontaneously.”
“This invulnerability isn’t likely to be genetic … The working hypothesis is that innocuous cowshed microbes, plant material and raw milk protect farming children by favorably stimulating their immune systems throughout life, particularly early on,” Velasquez-Manoff writes.
Other interesting tidbits from the essay:
- “Farms with the greatest array of microbes, including fungi, appear to be the most protective against asthma.”
- “In one study, they showed that an infant’s risk of eczema was inverse to the microbial load in her mother’s mattress.”
- “Children born to mothers who work with livestock while pregnant, and who lug their newborns along during chores, seem the most invulnerable to allergic disease later.”
- “[Research] suggests that farming mothers might benefit from a naturally occurring immunotherapy, one that preprograms the developing fetus against allergic disease.”
- “Some studies indicate that if you grow up in an urban environment, occasional visits to the farm may exacerbate allergic propensities.”
- “Young adults who began farming (with livestock) were less likely to develop new allergic sensitivities than rural peers who chose other professions. Existing allergies didn’t disappear. Rather, the farming environment seemed to prevent new sensitizations.”
- “In Europe, the consumption of unpasteurized milk has repeatedly correlated with protection against allergic disease.”
While the writer doesn’t recommend that anyone run off to the nearest farm or begin drinking raw milk, the new research does signal hope for a cure.
Tell us: Do you suffer from allergies? Do you see a link between your environmental exposure and your allergies? Leave a comment below or tweet us @experiencelife.
A Better Way to Treat Allergies
Motto: When you’re sick of treating symptoms, go for the cure.
How it works: Put drops of allergen extracts under your tongue three times a day, for three to five years. You may experience initial results within months, and, over time, your body becomes tolerant of the allergen. The treatment is also available as a doctor-administered injection.
Good for: Allergic rhinitis and asthma. Some doctors are using the under-the-tongue method to treat food allergies, as well.
Does it work? Numerous studies have shown injection-based immunotherapy — around for more than 100 years — to be an effective treatment for allergies. Physicians began using the drops method about 30 years ago. Various studies have confirmed its effectiveness, but not to the same indisputable degree as injection-based immunotherapy. A couple of important notes: Many people never finish immunotherapy because the treatment takes so many years to complete. Insurance usually covers office visits and testing; the drops, while not expensive, are generally not covered by insurance. (For more on immunotherapy, see the Web Extra section below.)
Motto: When you’re sneezing and wheezing, give your house a good cleaning.
How it works: Make adjustments to your home environment that attend to your particular sensitivities. For instance, if you’re allergic to dust mites, replace the carpet in your home with hard-surface flooring. If you’re sensitive to mold, get rid of likely lurking spots like musty shower curtains. If you’re sensitive to pollen, plant only female trees in your yard, and grow cacti in your house.
Good for: People who know which allergens are giving them trouble and are aware of likely sources.
Does it work? Depends on what you’re allergic to, but most allergy experts have seen positive outcomes from patients who have made simple changes to their environments. If you’re lucky, the changes will be minor. But it’s possible that you’ll need to take significant steps and make significant investments, potentially including replacing your bedding, getting a new vacuum-cleaning system, saying goodbye to a pet, remodeling, or perhaps (in the event your house has a moldy basement or other intractable problems) even changing homes.Food Sleuthing
Motto: When your body is sputtering, take a look in the gas tank.
How it works: For two weeks, eat a completely allergen-free “elimination” diet, one without any eggs, milk, gluten, corn, soy, tree nuts, peanuts (legumes), shellfish or fish. Then, after the two-week period has elapsed, eat one (but only one) of the allergen-prone foods in as pure a form as you can manage: a tall glass of milk, a packet of peanuts, a pile of crab legs or a plate of pasta. Observe and record your physiological reaction for 48 hours. Then, after two days, try another allergen-prone food. Work your way through the list, and by the end of five weeks, you’ll know if there’s a food that is locking horns with your immune system.
Good for: People who suspect that a food sensitivity might be at the root of things.
Does it work? Most integrative docs agree that food-elimination diets are the gold standard when it comes to detecting a food allergy (even more so than the most sophisticated blood or skin-prick tests). But because common allergens are so widely used in so many food products, it can be somewhat challenging to complete an elimination diet without some professional consultation and oversight.
Motto: When your immune system is hurting, give it some TLC.
How it works: Take quercetin, vitamins E and C, and probiotic supplements (available at your favorite health-food store or co-op).
Good for: People who don’t eat as many fruits and vegetables as they should. Does it work? Many doctors have written extensively about the value of vitamins E and C, as well as the plant-based flavonoid quercetin, for boosting immunity. Quercetin helps to stabilize the membranes of mast cells, the cells that release histamine, which, as Andrew Weil, MD, puts it, is “the mediator of allergic reactions.” Yet, real, whole foods are going to be even more effective. So if you pick up supplements, be sure to load up on dark leafy greens; cruciferous veggies like broccoli; plus berries, legumes, and other fiber- and phytonutrient-rich goodies, too.
Traditional Chinese Herbs
Motto: When Western medicine wears you out, look East.
How it works: Alternative medicine companies and practitioners dispense traditional Chinese herbs to allergy sufferers. These include GanCao, KuShen and LingZhi.
Good for: People who suffer from allergic rhinitis, or hay-fever-like symptoms.
Does it work? Three teams of researchers at Mount Sinai School of Medicine are actually trying to figure that out. And preliminary research is encouraging. Patients who took a three-herb blend called ASHMI saw a significant drop in IgE levels — as much as 95 percent in some cases. Those who tried a nine-herb blend dubbed FAHF-2 experienced a significant drop in interleukin-5 levels. For best results, work with a qualified Chinese medicine professional or another health pro well versed in Chinese herb treatments.
Motto: When your schnoz is clogged up, flush it out.
How it works: Fill this little teapot-shaped device (available at most natural markets and health-food stores) with a solution made of lukewarm water and salt. Pour the saline mixture up one nostril and let it flow in such a way that it comes out the other nostril. Good for: People who feel discomfort or fullness in their sinus passages and who can handle the counterintuitive challenge of pouring water up their stuffy nose.
Does it work? The Mayo Clinic and other major medical institutions roundly endorse the simple neti pot for its ease and efficacy. The mechanism is basic: When you flush your sinuses, you reduce the presence of allergens, such as pet dander, dust mites and pollen. One 2009 study of children with allergies found that nasal irrigation with saline decreased the need for steroidal sprays.