Allergies affect millions of people worldwide. In the US alone, almost 50 million people have nasal allergies, and 26 million have hay fever—a type of allergy which occurs seasonally, especially when there is a lot of pollen in the air. Another 8.3 million have respiratory allergies. Unfortunately, many people with allergies suffer from multiple types.
You might be wondering, what is an allergy? An allergy results when the immune system cannot tolerate a certain food or other substance. Let’s take a closer look at the immune system and allergies and how they are interconnected.
What Happens in an Allergic Response in the Immune System?
When you have an allergy, even though a substance may be harmless, your immune system processes it as a pathogen—an invasive substance like a bacteria or virus. This causes your immune system to react. The reaction can cause a variety of symptoms including respiratory symptoms like sneezing, rhinitis, and asthma and skin symptoms like rashes and hives.
In extreme cases, allergies can cause the airways to close, a state called anaphylactic shock. These symptoms are caused by the release of histamine and IgE antibodies into the bloodstream. These represent some of your immune system’s defense mechanisms.
Do Food Allergies Always Trigger an Immune Response?
This short answer: yes. Atrue food allergy is a reaction of the body's immune system to a food or food ingredient, so every time you eat it you will have an immune response. However, keep in mind that the quantity of the food you consume will affect the severity of your symptoms, so if you begin to feel strange while eating something, take a few minutes and see if you feel all right before you finish it.
Symptoms of food allergies will usually occur within minutes of consuming the allergen. However, they can sometimes take a few hours to appear. Symptoms can include hives (which look like mosquito bites), vomiting, flushing and itching of the skin, diarrhea or abdominal cramping, and in severe cases, anaphylactic shock. Interestingly, people who are allergic to certain foods tend to have severe allergies. One example of this is peanuts: The majority of people who are allergic to peanuts will suffer from severe symptoms if they consume them.
How Can I Prevent Food Allergy Reactions?
The best way to prevent the symptoms of a food allergy is simply to avoid that food if possible. It can be frustrating! But don’t worry, in recent years, food providers have learned a lot about allergies. Now, they often have ingredient lists readily available.
If an allergic reaction that results in anaphylactic shock does occur, an injection of a medicine called epinephrine can help alleviate the symptoms. However, epinephrine isn’t enough to get rid of the symptoms in and of itself. Instead, it decreases the severity of the reaction just long enough for the individual to be transported to the hospital.
Are Food Allergies the Same as Food Intolerance?
Food allergies are not the same as food intolerances, though the symptoms can manifest in similar ways. For example, many people are intolerant to lactose, the sugar found in milk. When they consume foods with lactose, these people get symptoms like gas, abdominal pain, and diarrhea. However, unlike an allergic reaction, which occurs immediately after ingesting the food in question, symptoms of lactose and gluten intolerances appear gradually and settle over time. Most importantly, they do not affect the immune system.
If you struggle with food allergies, be cautious of foods that are high in histamine or tyramine such as fish, aged cheese, chocolate, and cured meats. Though this doesn’t always occur, these substances can accumulate in the body and cause symptoms that are similar to an allergic reaction. This reaction often occurs on the skin—you might develop eczema—or in the respiratory system.
Remember, although they might seem similar, having a reaction to a food high in histamine doesn’t necessarily mean that you are allergic to that food. Your body could be reacting to the histamine, so consider cutting back the quantity of that food before you jump to any conclusions.
Are Food Allergies an Immune Disorder?
Not exactly, though there are similarities. Autoimmune disorders involve a different type of T-cell than allergies. In an autoimmune response, tissue destruction occurs. In an allergic reaction, the immune system overreacts to harmless allergens. Interestingly, this is the same type of response that expels viruses, parasites, and bacteria from the body.
Do Food Allergies Weaken the Immune System?
You might remember from our blog on autoimmune diseases that food allergies inevitably cause some damage to the body’s tissue, and therefore to the immune system. Do allergies weaken the immune system as well, and are allergies a sign of a weak immune system?
This actually depends on the type of allergy, the frequency of the reactions, and the severity of the symptoms. Frequent and severe allergic reactions can cause immune damage by overtaxing the immune system and the body overall. However, very mild or infrequent reactions don’t have a long-term effect on the immune system.
Also, keep in mind that food allergies are not caused by any sort of immune deficiency. On the contrary, allergic reactions occur when the immune system becomes overactive and tries to defend you from a substance that isn’t actually harmful. So are allergies a sign of a strong immune system? It’s actually a matter of what the immune system responds to, not how weak or strong it is.
Can Vitamin C Help Allergies?
According to a2018 study on vitamin C in the treatment of allergies, vitamin C can help decrease symptoms. Allergies are often partially caused by oxidative stress. Vitamin C, a powerfulantioxidant and anti-inflammatory, can help reduce it. Researchers also reported that a deficiency in vitamin C might lead to an increase in allergy-related symptoms.
Can Allergies Be Cured?
Some allergies go away naturally. "These are mainly allergies to milk, wheat, and egg, and this usually occurs before the age of 5," says Dr. Lisa Giovannini-Chami, a pediatric allergist at the University Hospital of Nice. In contrast, other food allergies—peanuts, nuts, fish—often persist into adulthood and are sometimes lifelong. Respiratory allergies caused by pollen never go away. However, symptoms may subside overtime or become inactive if there’s little pollen in the air.
How Can I Strengthen My Immune System Against Allergies?
A recent study conducted by the Institut Pasteur and published in Science found that microbiota may play an important role in preventing allergies. Though allergies have a genetic component, environmental factors like gut microbiota are also involved. The study found that increased microbial diversity in infancy lowers the risk of developing allergies later in life.
Are Allergies More Common Today?
It’s notable that allergies have been on the rise in recent years. Though this has yet to be attributed to an exact cause, experts do have some theories. One is that the use of insecticides, germicides, and antibacterial substances has sanitized our environment too much, resulting in a lower number of microbiota in our intestines. This is referred to as the hygiene hypothesis, which states that a lack of exposure to parasites and other infectious agents during childhood can interfere with the development of the immune system. This raises the risk of developing allergies, particularly when combined with antibiotic overuse.
Even though the modern lifestyle may have a negative impact on your immune system and allergies, there are many things you can do to nurture you and your kids’ immune systems. To learn more, check out our blog on this topic, and remember to share what you learn with your family and friends!
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