Just about every body knows someone who suffers from allergy. It is estimated that 33% or more of the American population have allergies of some kind. And yet these figures do not even include food allergy and chemical sensitivity! Asthma in children has increased over 200% in the past twenty years.
It is our opinion that this increase in allergy seen today is the result of the assault on our immune systems from today’s chemically laden environment. Particularly the refining of foods, the use of food additives, the use of infant formula, the widespread use of and contamination of our food and water with pesticides and insecticides, heavy metal accumulation in our body’s tissues, the constant and daily exposure to volatile organic solvent type chemicals (VOC’s) in our homes, schools and offices, and societal stress all play a role in the development of allergy and environmental sensitivity. Our modern “21st Century” environment essentially bathes us in a sea of chemicals and the resultant effect is environmental illness.
VOC’s deserve special mention as one of the prime contributors to environmental illness. VOC’s are solvent-type chemicals that are toxic to life, some extremely so. VOC’s are very commonly present at high levels in indoor air of buildings. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has designated this problem as the Sick Building Syndrome. The causes are two fold: first, there has been a massive increase in commercial production of VOC’s, and second, the energy efficient building codes adopted following the Arabian oil embargo in the 1970’s which has resulted in little or no ventilation of buildings with outdoor air.
VOC’s are fat soluble and therefore have a special affinity for the fatty tissues of the body, especially the brain. VOC effects on the brain are responsible for the majority of the mental and emotional symptoms seen in the environmentally ill patient. Additionally, reports have demonstrated that they damage the lining of the nose and respiratory tract causing increased susceptability to inhalant (pollen, dust, mold, dander) allergy symptoms. Common sources of VOC’s include new buildings which have high air levels of formaldehyde, plastic vapors, glues, adhesives, and paints. New wall to wall carpets may out gas a number of harmful VOC’s.
Others on this nemesis list of VOC’s include pesticides (which may remain in indoor air for up to 21 days after spraying), tobacco smoke, recent renovations such as indoor painting, heavy use of disinfectants, air fresheners, and new mattresses which may exude toxic fire-retardant fumes.
There is also a genetic component to developing allergies. It appears that those with the hereditary pre-disposition to develop allergy will manifest symptoms to the degree of environmental insult they happen to incur. For instance, someone born with a mild predisposition to develop allergy will need a higher dose of environmental triggers than one who is born with a large predisposition to develop allergy.
It is important to understand this concept so we can best modify our environment to meet our unique genetic influences. We are all dealt a personal genetic “deck of cards” to be used our entire life. Although we cannot obtain a different deck, we can alter our lifestyle and behavior, thus shuffling our deck to find the best possible hand it allows; the better our hand, the better our health! Our center specializes in finding ways to shuffle your deck and modify your environment and health behaviors to maximize your personal strengths and minimize your hereditary weakness. This approach best describes Environmental Medicine.
Environmental medicine is the practice of directly correcting or improving environmentally triggered problems with the minimal use of drugs and toxic therapies. Environmental medicine takes of two-pronged approach: find and then reduce your particular harmful environmental exposures while at the same time building up your body’s natural ability to deal with these exposures. This is best understood as the total load concept. Our immune and detoxification systems can be compared to a barrel. The larger our barrel, the more environmental insults it can hold and the less symptoms and reactions we incur.
However, once our individual threshold is reached our barrel then overflows and we manifest symptoms. The smaller our barrel, the quicker it can overflow when environmental triggers (exposures) are poured into it and the sooner we develop symptoms. We thus see the importance of reducing our exposures and environmental triggers (keeping our barrel as empty as possible) while at the same time trying to support and strengthening our immune and detoxification systems (increase the size of our barrel).
As we review the types of allergy and sensitivity, the many different testing methods and treatment modalities, keep in mind this barrel and total load concept to best understand the concept of environmental illness.
What Is Allergy?
Much confusion and misunderstanding centers around the word “allergy”. The word allergy is derived from two Greek words meaning “altered reaction”. The substance which provokes a reaction in an individual is called and “allergen” or “antigen”. This can be dust, mold, pollen, food or other substances. When medicine began to scientifically understand allergy in the 1930’s, they discovered a biochemical pathway in the body that caused the typical Hayfever symptoms we all know so well. This involved an immune compound in our blood and tissues called Ig E which was responsible for an immediate allergy reaction: exposure to ragweed caused sneezing, itching and watery nose.
It is this definition of allergy that became accepted by the medical community. As time and medicine progressed, it was discovered that other pathways in the body also lead to specific symptoms and could produce delayed reactions. Whereas immediate reactions occur within minutes to several hours after exposure to an allergen, delayed reactions can occur anywhere from 12 to 72 hours after exposure to an allergenic substance. These delayed pathways are still not well understood and are probably the mechanism by which chemicals and other substances produce physical symptoms.
Unfortunately, this does not fit into the classic example of “immediate type Ig E allergy” and thus the concept of chemical allergy has been very difficult for the medical community to accept. Consequently, we prefer the word “sensitivity” to describe any reaction to a chemical, food or other substance that does not fit the classic “immediate type Ig E allergy” mechanism.
There are many clinical pictures of the person with allergy and sensitivity. We can, however, list five basic categories:
Those that have essentially nose, eye, respiratory, and skin allergy symptoms to common airborne substances such as dust, dust mites, molds, animal dander and pollen. Pollens include grasses, trees, and weeds. The symptoms may be all year long or just at certain seasons (ie., spring and fall). Hayfever is an allergy to ragweed and is the classic example of an Ig E inhalant allergy. It is this type of allergy that most people think of when they say “My allergies are acting up!” Measures to help avoid common inhalant allergies are listed at the end of this article.
Those that have predominately food allergy. They usually do not have seasonal variations in their symptoms but the symptoms vary depending upon their exposure to the foods that cause reactions. Food reactions and symptoms may be immediately apparent or be delayed for up to 3-4 days after eating the particular offending food. Refer to our separate handout that explains food allergy in detail.
Those who have a variety of both physical and mental symptoms upon exposure to chemicals such as perfume, gasoline, tobacco smoke, cleaning products, pesticides, detergents and many other chemical compounds. They may not have inhalant or food allergy. Some of these patients may even be sensitive to electromagnetic fields. It is important to understand that chemicals can cause both injury (toxic) reactions and at the same time cause sensitivity reactions in our bodies. Most chemically sensitive individuals also have some degree of chemical injury. This may have occurred from a single large exposure or from a long term low level exposure to one or many chemicals. Chemicals that have such disrupting effects on the body’s hormones and metabolism are called “xenobiotics”; “xeno” meaning chemical and “biotic” meaning biological action. In our extensive experience in this field, we have found that nearly all individuals with significant chemical sensitivity have other concomitant allergies, weak digestive function and hormonal imbalances, especially the adrenal. This leads us to the next category.
Multiple Allergy and Sensitivity:
Those who have a combination of inhalant, food and chemical sensitivities. There are in infinite number of these combinations, varying in degree and severity, and largely dependent on the genetic makeup of the individual (size of their barrel) and the amount of exposures they have incurred. The majority of those with environmental illness fall into this category of multiple allergies and sensitivities.
Those with such severe allergies and environmental sensitivities that they seem to react to “everything”. This condition is the deterioration of the above person who has multiple allergies and sensitivities. They usually have many health problems and are often labeled as “crazy” or “depressed” by their doctors and peers. They often need to take extreme avoidance measures to stay well and require the best that environmental medicine can offer them.
We can now see that environmental illness is the result of adverse reactions to substances in the air we breathe, the food we eat, the water we drink, the medications we take and to substances found in our everyday home and office. These reactions can be mild, moderate, or severe, and can involve just about any organ or system in the body.
This includes the eyes, nose and throat, respiratory system, nervous system and brain, immune system, endocrine (hormonal) system, reproductive system, urinary system, gastrointestinal system, system and musculoskeletal system. Those organs that show symptoms upon allergen or chemical exposure are known as “target organ(s)”. Your target organs may stay the same over time or change as your condition changes.
Environmental illness can also be the underlying factor in many diseases and medical syndromes seen today such as depression, anxiety, high blood pressure, diabetes, autoimmune disorders like rheumatoid arthritis and lupus, asthma, bronchitis, frequent ear infections and sinus infections, attention deficit, hyperactivity and learning problems in children, colitis, irritable bowel syndrome and many other conditions. Because environmental illness often masquerades as other types of diseases it is often undiagnosed or misdiagnosed. Herein lies the critical need for an environmentally trained practitioner.