Allergic rhinitis, a.k.a. hay-fever affects 10-30% of the population worldwide. Those are huge numbers in medicine. If you live in the Bay Area, it’s a pretty safe guess that you know at least several people suffering from allergies. Current over the counter and prescription drugs, unfortunately, offer only temporary relief from symptoms, often with unpleasant side-effects.
Allergies in America
According to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology, the rise in the prevalence of allergic diseases has continued in the industrialized world for more than 50 years. Sensitization rates to one or more common allergens among school children are currently approaching 40%-50% worldwide. 50 million Americans suffer from autoimmune diseases.
With advances in science, ecological awareness, and improvements to overall health and toxicity levels one would assume the trend of allergies would have decreased. With relatively recent findings though the tide finally seems to be turning. The picture of how immune problems can get triggered and treated slowly emerges more clearly.
Scientists have made astonishing discoveries on how our gut bacteria, diet, stress, and other environmental factors influence our immune systems. We now better understand epigenetics and the influence our gut bacteria have on our entire well-being. We also understand that living in symbiosis with our microbes is sometimes more helpful than seeing them as harmful threats. The press has been full of interesting articles about the microbiome. We know that it regulates many aspects of our body, and how it reacts to the environment, diet, stress, pharmaceuticals, and toxins like pesticides.
A Profound Discovery
One astonishing discovery that goes back almost 2 decades had not received the attention it deserves until recently. In 2000 Dr. Allesio Fasano discovered the protein zonulin. Since then he has written extensively about how this protein changes the permeability of the small intestines and how this affects our immune system. Zonulin is released when ingesting gluten and makes the small intestines more permeable. This allows molecules to slip into the bloodstream that simply do not belong there. These invaders cause immune responses, which over time pose a significant strain on the immune system. This can lead to systemic inflammation, allergies, food sensitivities, autoimmune disease, and other health problems.
Dr. Steven Gundry documented similar effects of lectins on the permeability of the small intestines. Lectins are a family of proteins found especially legumes and grains.
No recent scientific discovery had more impact on my everyday clinical practice then understanding how the permeability in the small intestines can be altered by foods, how this affects the immune system and essentially our entire body. I started noticing years ago that some of my patients clearly exhibited symptoms similar to the ones in the autoimmune disease rheumatoid arthritis. But when referred to a specialist they tested negative for autoimmunity. Yet, many of them would experience significant improvements when modifying their diet. I saw a similar phenomenon in some patients suffering from chronic inflammatory skin conditions. Almost all of my patients eat “fairly healthy”, exercise, and do not smoke. From a scientific point of view, it made no sense to me why these people should have so much inflammation without apparent cause. The answer for many of these patients was in their diet and stress levels.
Weight Loss and Inflammation
Some of the patients trying to lose weight were not able to achieve satisfactory outcomes although they were strictly adhering to my recommendations for caloric intake, diet modifications, and exercise. Weight loss has been another area of interest to me for many years. There are few topics in medicine that receive as much attention by the media and the general public. Magazines and blogs are full of newly invented diets and the total U.S. weight-loss market is a $72 billion industry. Weight Watchers, Atkins, South Beach, Bulletproof, The Whole 30, Paleo, you name it…. Why are there so many new diets each year if one of them would really work for the majority of people?
In my 24 years of practice, I have talked to people for which one or the other of these diets worked well. But I have talked to many more who were not able to achieve sufficient results with any of these. Clearly the topic of weight-loss is complex and complicated in the least. I do not want to say that avoiding certain foods will be the answer to achieving weight-loss for everyone. But I have seen plenty of patients throughout the years who were really adamant about following whatever was prescribed but were not able to shed more than a few pounds. For many of those avoiding foods that caused them systemic inflammation finally did the trick. One of my patients recently lost 14 lbs in two weeks and made no changes other than to avoid foods that can cause systemic inflammation.
Chinese Medicine and Inflammation
Chinese medicine calls inflammation ‘fire’ or ‘heat’. It’s a very old medical system with terminology that has not changed very much in the last 3000 years. It has always explained inflammatory conditions as mostly caused by faulty diets and stress. Those conditions were largely found in the West where people had poor diet and way too much stress.
For over 850 years Chinese medicine held the belief that the immune system is rooted in the digestive system. The root of immune-problems is addressed by healing the digestive system. I had seen great results in treating allergies and autoimmune conditions purely with Chinese medicine applying these very principles. I have always tried to explain everything I learned about Chinese medicine theory in the scientific model if possible. Maybe I feel this urge because I was first trained in Western medicine. But with this piece, I always struggled. There was really no literature talking about a direct link of the gut and the immune system that would satisfy me. This changed with the research of the gut microbiome.
Clarification at Last
It made me very happy when a few years ago I finally read the first article written by Justin Sonnenburg, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at the Stanford University School of Medicine, explaining how the gut microbiota in a way are really the core of our immune system. After almost 20 years of pondering I finally knew Chinese medicine was right :)
Healing allergies and helping people lose weight makes a huge difference in the lives of those suffering. Simple cases, like seasonal allergies or allergies to dust and animal dander, should not go untreated, with simple and quick solutions available. People who are really committed to losing weight should be able to do so. And allergy sufferers should not be locked into infinitely treating symptoms when there are ways to address the cause and bring lasting relief. The same holds true for many autoimmune diseases.