by Karen Vaughan, L.Ac. RH (AHG)
Allergies, especially food allergies and sensitivities are not well understood in any form of medicine. Western medicine distinguishes between allergies and sensitivities, with imunoglobulin E (IgE) being the hallmark of allergy and IgG being the hallmark of sensitivity. There may be Igs that we have not yet discovered. Either or both can cause virtually any symptom ranging from itchy skin, rashes, and minor pains to complex problems such as obesity, schizophrenia, depression, ADD/ADHD, arthritis and autoimmune disease. In fact even the RAST test and IgG tests have huge error rates, approaching 30%, with both false positives and false negatives. The only reliable way of identifying food allergens is elimination for a number of weeks and rechallenge.
Food intolerances, where a person has no enzymatic capacity to deal with foods such as dairy or beans are different than allergies, and result primarily in gastrointestinal disturbance. These foods can also be identified with the elimination and rechallenge, but are not distinguished by that procedure.
I grew up in a home where two family members had asthma and food allergies. One major way we dealt with it was allowing low exposure of the allergen. Although they managed living in a house with cats for years (not in bedrooms), after a prolonged period without cats they had vivid reactions when we went to pick up a new pair of cats, with pouring tears and initial stages of asthma. After they habituated themselves to the cats, they did not exhibit those extreme reactions and they were able to negotiate a world with cats in it.
It brings to mind an old TCM adage that we should not live a life that is too pure, that we need exposure to the messy stuff of life in order to be able to deal with it. Or like herbalists who use a pre-pollen tincture of ragweed to desensitize people with ragweed allergies, we may need a form of innoculation.
Nutritionist and herbalist Paul Bergner described a similar large reaction after food elimination and rechallenge. His strategy was to remove the rechallenged food altogether, and he has had some dramatic improvements doing so. I have a doctor friend whose patient lost 30 pounds in a few weeks by dropping milk from her diet, but not reducing calories.
Yet I have several asthenic, allergic patients who have gone down the elimination route with problems. They end up with so few foods, that they get sensitized to the remaining foods because they play too large a part in their diets. It seems they face an ever dwindling food supply that continues to shrink as new allergies come up. I believe it also exacerbates psychological issues, by adding a fear of foods and a concentration on themselves and their plumbing. It doesn’t seem very useful as a life strategy.
Psychological issues seem to be involved in allergies. Stress makes them worse and often new allergens are discovered in times of stress. Highly sensitized people often find that they can tolerate several of the foods that give them reactions if they are blindfolded. Psych-physical treatment like EFT (Emotional Freedom Technique)can sometimes help, and other times it can be supressive, causing a serious rebound reaction or a deeper autoimmune response. This can also be seen with NAET (Nambudripad Allergy Elimination Technique) where symptoms can be relieved, but in other people serious delayed reactions can cause hospitalization. I cannot say whether these were due to poor practitioners or inherent weaknesses in the technique, but there is no magic bullet.
Some people seem to do well by just reducing a problematic food below a certain threshold and others need to eliminate microscopic amounts in order to respond to an elimination diet. I can tolerate milk, but if I go on a fresh mozzarella or ricotta binge my skin will break out. Below the binge threshold it doesn’t bother me. In a dairy elimination diet I haven’t seen much effect (but I did not have dramatic symptoms to begin with.) My friend can’t take a gluten free communion host that has merely touched the adjacent wheat hosts or she gets migraines.
Microrganisms seem to play a role, along with enzymes. I drink a Body Ecology fermented coconut kefir drink that has some gluten in its production, but the final fermented product has been tested at gluten free at extremely high levels. I found research showing that lactobaccili and other microorganisms reduce casein and lactose in milk. I wonder if shen qu, massa fermentata, which uses fermented barley sprouts is a problem for the gluten sensitive, especially since it was developed as a cure for digestive issues. Serapeptase seems to help people with allergies, especially for mopping up trivial amounts of dietary allergens.
Allergies also come and go. My sister was allergic to eggs as a child, manifested as eczema. After puberty she had no trouble eating them, and did so a couple times a week. When she was in her 40s during a time of home construction and stress, she went into anaphalaptic shock which she traced to one egg in a meatloaf (after further post-egg visits to the ER) and now cannot eat them. The egg seems have gone from a sensitivity to no problem to an outright serious allergy.
Similarly my grandmother developed a serious allergy to crabs which she loved. She would occasionally take them and sometimes would puff up with running eyes and other times have no reaction. (Possible explanation: crab allergy was confused with the plankton the crabs were feeding on- it may have been a plankton allergy and the crabs didn’t feed on the same organisms all of the time. But I don’t know.) Might be comparable to cows milk being more allergenic when the cows are feed on an industrial grain diet in barns, then milk is pasteurized and homogenized, compared to grass-fed raw milk.
And then we also see eczema and asthma alternating through a lifetime. Or we also see cases where allergies clean up when the person gets benign worms. Or when the gut bacteria are reestablished. Or the immune system is otherwise balanced and lifestyle issues are improved.
I don’t hear people talking about the rotation diet much any more. Intuitively it makes sense to me that one can break an addiction to a food allergen, physically recover and then allow small amounts now and then so long as they do not become a major part of the diet.
I am willing to believe that certain foods are too toxic for allergic people to ever consume. It may well be that gluten is so gluey that it sticks for months to the intestinal villi, creating ongoing allergenic response. But is elimination a good overall strategy for allergens? And if not, clinically how might we know if a person is ready to rotate in an allergen occasionally?
Unfortunately there is no clear evidence one way or the other, either in mainstream Western medicine or in alternative medicine.
Acupuncture and Herbs by Karen Vaughan, L.Ac.
253 Garfield Place 1R
Brooklyn, NY 11215 US
Jan 7, 2008 © Karen Vaughan
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