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IF YOU'RE READING THIS BOOK, CHANCES ARE THAT YOU or your loved ones suffer from allergies, asthma, or both.
And chances are, you think that it's impossible to get through a day without taking over-the-counter or prescription drugs, particularly during allergy season. Some of you may worry that you are becoming overly dependent on strong medicines. You may even have tried to incorporate alternative therapies, such as vitamins, herbs, and other supplements, into your treatment regimen, but when you went to the pharmacy or natural food store to purchase them, you were overwhelmed by the volume of products on the shelves, and you didn't know how to select the right ones. If you are already using alternative therapies, you may not be sure that you are using them correctly, or that you are taking the best supplements for your problem. I am writing this book for you.
I am a pharmacist, master herbalist, and longtime student of alternative medicine. I am not against drugs, but believe in using them only when absolutely necessary. I believe that many cases of allergy and asthma can be managed successfully by making changes in lifestyle and diet, and by the judicious use of natural supplements. It is my goal to help you live as full, healthy, and drug-free a life as possible. Many of you with mild allergic symptoms will find that by following the advice in this book, you will be able to significantly reduce your need for drugs, or may no longer require them. Those of you with more serious forms of allergy and asthma may still need conventional medication, but you should see an improvement in your symptoms. At the very least, you will be taking charge of your health, and doing positive things that will not only relieve your asthma and allergy, but reduce your risk of developing many chronic diseases.
I have a personal stake in this book. Both my wife and son suffer from severe allergies, which are now being successfully treated with supplements and other alternative therapies. I know that these remedies can work if you know how to use them safely and effectively.
YOU'RE NOT ALONE
First, I'd like to tell you a bit about what allergy is, and why it has become one of the fastest-growing epidemics in history. If you lived one hundred years ago, chances are you would not be allergic, and, in fact, there would be no need for this book! At the dawn of the twentieth century, allergy was a mysterious and rare condition that affected only a tiny minority of people. Just a few generations later, allergy has become as common as the common cold. Despite the growing attempts of health-care professionals to control the allergy epidemic, it's growing worse. About 30 percent of all adults and 40 percent of all children in the United States have hay fever, an allergy to plant pollen that torments sufferers from March through November. The incidence of asthma, a potentially serious lung condition most often triggered by allergy, has more than doubled since the 1980s, afflicting more than 15 million Americans.
About 5 percent of the population are allergic to common foods, such as peanuts, shellfish, milk, and even soy products. For some food allergy sufferers, exposure to even a microscopic amount of an offending substance can cause anaphylactic shock and even death.
Once rare, indoor allergies are on the rise, including allergies to dust mites, molds, and pets. No wonder! Today, people spend 90 percent of their time indoors. Allergies are rampant in the workplace. The proliferation of new chemicals and poorly ventilated "sick buildings" have triggered new allergies. A case in point: Nearly 12 percent of all medical workers who wear latex gloves (to prevent the spread of HIV and other infections) have developed serious allergies to latex!
New drugs are spawning new allergies. About 3 percent of all hospitalized patients will experience a severe allergic reaction to a new medication.
More than 50 million Americans are allergic to something. What exactly is allergy? And why is it on the rise? First, there are a great many misconceptions about allergy that I would like to clear up. The primary one is that most people confuse their symptoms with their allergies. For example, if you have a runny, itchy nose, you may think your allergy is related to your respiratory system. Or, if you have hives, you may think that you have a skin condition, or if you have food allergies, you may think that your symptoms are due to a weak gastrointestinal system. In reality, regardless of where or how allergies may strike, all allergies stem from one system-your immune system. If you have an allergy, you have an immune problem.
ALLERGY IS AN IMMUNE SYSTEM PROBLEM
An allergy is an overreaction of the body's immune system to a normally harmless substance, such as plant pollen, wheat, animal dander, or a chemical. The offending substance can be inhaled through the mouth or nose, or can be swallowed, or can make contact with the skin. Unlike infection, allergy is not contagious and is not spread from person to person.
Where is your immune system, and why is it allergy prone? Your immune system is unique in that it isn't quickly identified with a particular organ as, for example, your heart is linked to your cardiovascular system or your brain to your nervous system. That's because your immune system is not confined to any one site in the body- it is everywhere. Your immune system is an assortment of billions of specialized cells that protect your body in many different ways. Immune cells are in the skin, the lungs, the eyes, the nostrils, and the lining of internal organs, like your gut. An allergic reaction can strike at any of these points.
The job of the immune system is to protect the body from toxins and pathogens that could cause disease. Your immune cells are supposed to distinguish between benign substances and foreign substances that can do the body significant harm. In the case of allergy, your immune cells get confused.
When your immune cells are exposed to a foreign substance, called an antigen, such as a bacterium or virus, they produce specific proteins called antibodies (or immunoglobulins), which tag the protein so that other immune cells know that they should attack it. Once an antibody is produced against a particular antigen, the immune cells are forever on guard against that antigen. The next time you are exposed to that antigen, your body will attack it. That's why once you get chicken pox or measles you don't get it again, because your body is ready to pounce the minute it reappears.
The antibody/antigen response works really well when dealing with real enemies, like the chicken pox virus, but if you're allergic, it works against you. In the case of allergy, your immune cells produce antibodies against substances that mean you no harm. In fact, it's your body's reaction to the substance that is causing you trouble, not the substance itself. For example, if you're allergic to pollen, every time you are exposed to pollen, your immune system begins producing a particular antibody called IgE, which is involved in all allergic reactions. IgE stimulates special cells called mast cells to release histamine, a chemical that is important for digestion and the dilation of small blood vessels, but that in excess can cause allergic symptoms. The release of histamine is what causes your runny nose, itchy, watery eyes, and general feelings of misery (it also stimulates pain receptors). But your allergic reaction doesn't end there. During an allergic attack, your immune system revs up production of other cells called leukotrienes and prostaglandins and other allergy mediators, which cause inflammation. Constant exposure to inflammation can cause damage to healthy tissues and organs, and in fact, can do particular harm to your lungs in the case of asthma. To add to your woes, inflammation promotes the formation of troublesome chemicals in the body called free radicals, which can cause further damage throughout your body.
Although we often say allergy and asthma in the same breath, they are not the same problem. Although it may be triggered by an allergy, asthma is a chronic inflammatory condition of the respiratory system. It is characterized by obstructed airways caused when bronchial tubes become inflamed, constricted, and clogged with mucus. During an asthma attack, the airways can become so constricted that the sufferer is literally gasping for breath. Although it can be managed successfully, asthma can be life-threatening, and medical attention is always required. As noted earlier, an asthma attack can be caused by an allergen, like pollen, or it can be triggered by exercise, cold air, or chemicals such as cigarette smoke or pollution, or by an allergic reaction to a food additive.
WHAT ALLERGY IS NOT
There's another misconception about allergy that I would like to clear up-an allergy is not an intolerance. For example, millions of people, myself included, cannot tolerate dairy products because we lack an enzyme to digest it properly. The condition is called lactose intolerance. Millions more can't eat grains because they cannot digest a protein in most grains called gluten-the condition is called gluten intolerance. Although the symptoms may be similar, neither of these problems is a true allergy. In reality, an allergy is a very specific immune reaction involving production of the IgE antibody.
Although most allergies are not life-threatening, allergy is not a trivial problem. First and foremost, allergies can make people miserable. In fact, allergic symptoms account for 3.8 million missed work and school days each year. And allergies exact a steep financial toll on the economy. We spend $4.5 billion annually in doctors' visits and medication. In addition, allergies may threaten our health in ways that are not quite fully understood. For example, some studies suggest that unrecognized food allergies may be linked to numerous medical conditions such as Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (chronic bronchitis and emphysema), rheumatoid arthritis, an autoimmune disease in which the body's immune cells attack the joints, Attention Deficit Disorder in children, and even migraine headaches. Allergic rhinitis (a fancy name for the stuffy, itchy nose caused by hay fever) is a leading cause of recurrent sinusitis or sinus infections, an inflammation of the sinus membranes that plagues tens of millions of people and often leads to sinus surgery, which often doesn't solve the problem. I'm not telling you this to scare you, but to show you why it's important to get your allergies under control.
WHY THE INCREASE IN ALLERGY?
Although there is no doubt that the incidence of allergy is increasing dramatically, the nature of allergies remains a medical mystery. No one knows why some people get allergies and other people don't. Genetics clearly plays a role. Some allergies, especially food allergies, tend to run in families. If you have one allergic parent, you stand a 20 to 50 percent chance of developing an allergy, but not necessarily the same allergy as your parent. If you have two allergic parents, there's up to a 75 percent chance that you too will be allergic to something.
Genetics alone, however, cannot explain the rapid and unprecedented increase in allergy over the past hundred years. Our genes haven't changed, yet our susceptibility to allergy has increased. Scientists blame the allergy epidemic on everything from changing weather trends due to global warming, which increases exposure to pollen, to air pollution, which weakens the respiratory system, to the dumping of thousands of chemical additives into the food supply, which poses a serious challenge to the immune system. The true cause of the increase in allergy is probably a combination of several factors.
Increased exposure to chemicals is high on my list of probable culprits. The amount of new chemicals introduced into the environment is mind boggling. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, in just one year (1994), more than 2.2 billion pounds of toxic chemicals were released into the environment in the United States. What happens when those chemicals enter our bodies? The body has an elaborate system to detoxify dangerous chemicals, but the body can become overwhelmed, which will have a negative impact on every system, including the immune system. In fact, some scientists speculate that the constant exposure to toxins can shift the immune system into overdrive, triggering allergic reactions and autoimmune diseases.
Moreover, because a disproportionate number of affluent people suffer from allergies, many researchers believe that the same practices that have dramatically extended life span, such as improved hygiene and childhood vaccinations, may inadvertently have disrupted normal immune function so that immune cells overreact to normally harmless substances.
Overexposure to antibiotics is another potential allergy trigger. If overused, antibiotics may harm immune function, interfering with the ability of immune cells to communicate with each other, which can lead to the kind of confusion that results in cells attacking harmless substances. In addition, antibiotics not only kill bad bacteria, they kill good bacteria that live in the intestines and help to normalize immune function. Many studies have shown that people with autoimmune diseases (in which the immune system mistakenly attacks the tissues of the body) typically have low levels of good bacteria in their gut.
The allergy epidemic has spawned a multi-billion-dollar industry consisting of drugs, supplements, and other cutting-edge products designed to control allergy symptoms. The standard treatments for allergy-allergy shots and antihistamine medications and nasal sprays-do work, but only up to a point. As any allergy sufferer knows, these treatments have their downside. First, many commonly used antihistamines can have nasty side effects such as dry mouth and heart palpitations, and may not be safe for people with heart disease, high blood pressure, or diabetes. The primary problem with antihistamines, however, is that they make users sleepy and less alert. In fact, a recent study reported in Annals of Internal Medicine noted that one common over-the-counter antihistamine, Benadryl, so seriously impaired the ability of drivers to operate a car that the drivers might as well have been driving drunk. Although the newest generation of allergy drugs, such as Claritin and Allegra, are less likely to cause drowsiness, they are expensive, are not covered by many health plans, and have side effects-such as dizziness and sleep disorders- of their own.
Allergy shots or immunotherapy work well for many but not all people. Allergy shots are given primarily for airborne allergies, such as pollen.
Excerpted from Earl Mindell's Allergy Bible by Earl Mindell Copyright © 2003 by Earl Mindell R.Ph., Ph.D., and Carol Colman
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.