By the time Arik Hendrickson was 40 years old, he had suffered from asthma and moderate-to-severe allergic rhinitis — a fancy term for seasonal allergies like hay fever — for more than 35 years. That’s 35 sneeze-filled springs, 35 sniffly summers and 35 congested autumns.
It was only in winter, when the grasses and ragweed shrubs had receded, that Hendrickson, a funeral director in La Crescent, Minn., felt somewhat normal. The rest of the year was a long parade of irritating, energy-sucking symptoms: watery eyes, an itchy throat, a constantly runny nose and near-daily asthma episodes during which, he says, “I felt like I was trying to breathe through a straw.”
On top of all that, he had to endure the side effects of his allergy medications. Even though the pills and inhalers made it easier for him to get through the day, they carried their own downsides. “At one point I was using Advair, which is an inhaler with a black-box warning because it has some really serious side effects,” says Hendrickson. “But I really didn’t care about the risk. I was willing to do anything.”
What finally broke the cycle for him was a novel treatment called Specific Immunotherapy, or SIT. The treatment involves applying liquid drops of allergens under the tongue multiple times a day for at least three years, and up to a decade. Hendrickson, who’s been on the therapy for more than four years now, remains symptom-free.
“I don’t want to jinx myself and use the word ‘cured,’ but that’s what it’s like,” says Hendrickson, who is now thinking about phasing off of the drops. In fact, his symptoms have improved so much that he recently adopted a cat named Boots. He’s also an avid deer hunter and likes to take his tractor out onto his property to harvest firewood. “I’m doing things I never, ever dreamed I would be able to do,” he says.
Unfortunately, a happy ending remains out of reach for the millions of Americans — their numbers rising — who suffer from allergies. According to a report from Harvard Medical School, 40 to 50 million Americans suffer from some type of allergies, including food sensitivities. The American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology (AAAAI) puts the figure even higher, around 60 million. That means more Americans are suffering from allergies than from diabetes and high cholesterol — combined. And, most of these people rely not on alternative treatments but on prescription and over-the-counter drugs that not only do not treat the root causes of allergies, but also have a slate of negative side effects.
“Even the lowest figures indicate to us that allergies are at epidemic proportions,” says Diego Saporta, MD, an otolaryngologist in New Jersey who specializes in allergies.
One Syndrome Leads to Another
What doctors like Saporta mean by “allergies” is a family of related conditions that include food allergies, eczema, allergic conjunctivitis, asthma, rhinitis and a host of other maladies.
The official umbrella term is “allergic disease” or “atopic syndrome.” Sufferers of allergic disease tend to have more than one condition, or a progression of conditions, throughout their lives.
In particular, allergic infants and toddlers tend to first be diagnosed with a scaly, itchy skin rash called eczema. As these children grow older, the eczema transitions into allergic rhinitis. Then, the condition moves into asthma during school-age years.
“We call this the ‘allergic march,’ and it is very, very common,” says Linda Cox, MD, an allergist and immunologist in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
The allergic diseases are so interconnected, in fact, that immunologist Estelle Simons, MD, a past president of the AAAAI, proposed in a recent paper that the terms “allergic rhinitis” and “asthma” are confusing and should be done away with altogether. Her proposed name change for both conditions is rhinobronchitis.
“Each person expresses allergic disease differently, with an individual array of symptoms, but the underlying condition (a dysfunction of the immunological system) is the same,” Saporta says.
So how do allergies develop? They happen inside the body of a person with allergic disease when the immune system gets confused and identifies something very normal, or even good, as a threat.
It’s helpful to imagine your immune system — housed in your gut, your lymphatic system and many other tissues — as a vigilant administrative assistant tasked with manning the front desk in an office. The assistant’s job is to make sure that important clients (for example, nutritious food proteins) get right in to see the boss. When other innocuous but annoying particles, such as pet dander or pollen spores, come in and ask to use the bathroom or the phone, the assistant makes sure they get what they need and then move along. The assistant is supposed to call security only if some violent virus or bacteria charges into the lobby, vowing to do serious harm to the boss.
In an allergic person, the immune system gets confused and misidentifies an important client — like food — as a terrorist, or gets inexplicably frightened by some scruffy-but-harmless piece of pet dander.
Heeding the call of the immune system, the corporate rent-a-cops — a class of antibodies called immunoglobulin E (IgE) — race in and set a new, draconian corporate policy: All future pet danders or pollen spores or a certain food must be extracted from the building immediately. Then the tough-minded IgEs set up stakeout points on specialized histamine-filled cells called mast cells.
The next time that harmless pet dander comes sauntering in, the rent-a-cops are ready. The IgEs blow the whistle, which causes the mast cells to release a host of storm-trooper chemicals, including histamine, leukotriene C4 and interleukin-2. These chemicals trigger a physiological response that food- and nonfood-allergy sufferers know well: watery eyes, runny nose, wheezing and skin conditions.
Most of the time, this just makes people feel miserable. If this chemical response is, however, too powerful, it can send the body into a very scary whole-body state called anaphylaxis — a condition that may include hives, a swollen throat, vomiting, coronary spasms and even loss of consciousness. About 1,500 Americans die from anaphylaxis each year.
Malady of the Wealthy
Although researchers are still developing theories on why the immune system makes such a security error, they do know that allergic disease — even food-related allergic disease — is confined almost entirely to developed, wealthy nations. Beyond that, there seems to be little reason why it may be prevalent in one part of the world and not another.
The United States has high rates, but not nearly as high as Scotland, where one in three residents is affected by allergies at some point in their lives. In New Zealand and Australia, nearly 30 percent of the population suffers from at least one allergic condition.
Researchers have noted across-the-board increases in developed nations in recent years. According to a 2007 report from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), U.S. food allergies increased by 18 percent from 1997 to 2006. Also, according to the CDC, about 20 million Americans suffer from asthma today, compared with 10 million 20 years ago.
A separate study by researchers at the Jaffe Food Allergy Institute at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York found that the rate of peanut allergy in children tripled from 1997 to 2008.
Varied hypotheses about why this might be include diets low in immune-boosting vitamins and antioxidants, climate change, increasing pollution, modern landscaping practices that use predominately pollen-producing male trees and shrubs, the waning popularity of breastfeeding, building codes that emphasize air-tight structures, even genetic shifts.
The most prominent and accepted theory, according to allergist Linda Cox, is the hygiene hypothesis, which posits that we’re interfering with the natural development of the immune system with overly disinfected spaces, too much antibiotic use, and not enough exposure to farm animals and microbe-laden dirt. (For more on this, watch for our upcoming article in defense of dirt in our September issue.) “But on the whole,” Cox says, “my best guess is that it’s probably a little bit of everything.”
Accordingly, most alternative treatments focus on reducing exposure to allergens, or retraining the immune system to cope with them more successfully.
Most alternative therapies, including the immunotherapy approach Hendrickson embraced, also allow for simultaneous treatment with conventional drugs, including antihistamines, to manage symptoms.
But it’s important for allergy sufferers to remember that as long as their bodies are attempting to launch an all-out defense, ongoing exposure to allergens will place significant demands on their bodies’ resources — even if their outward symptoms like itching and sneezing are suppressed. And medications can impose additional toxic burdens of their own.
So if you suffer from allergies that aren’t being properly addressed at the source, it’s probably worth getting a consultation from an alternative-treatment provider. Whether you manage to ditch allergy meds altogether or just lessen your dependency on them, you’ll be taking good, proactive care of your body. And that’s nothing to sneeze at.
Alyssa Ford is a freelance writer in Minneapolis and is a frequent contributor to Experience Life.