A lot of people have quite a narrow and simplistic view of allergy. They look only for the obvious symptoms, or dismiss allergic symptoms because their child is exclusively breastfed. Many people simply do not understand how allergy symptoms manifest themselves, and are unaware of the permanence of allergy.
I have always been fascinated by allergy and intolerance. They affect me and my family personally, but recently I was privileged to hear the wonderful Maureen Minchin - international authority on the subject of immune disorders and allergy and the author of Milk Matters. Most people are well aware that we are what we eat, but there is very little understanding of what that means practically.
Let's start with a basic explanation of what allergy is: your body's immune system mounting a response to a perceived threat - the allergen.
You can be allergic to anything with a foreign protein - from eggs to bee stings, and strawberries to house dust mite.
Essentially, your body will recognise millions of different of proteins every day, but not all of them are deemed to be a threat. For example, pollen should not really cause your immune system to react, but for some people, this foreign protein is identified and an immune response is mounted by your body.
For most people, allergy requires some repeated exposure - this is called sensitisation. For example, you may have been stung by a bee when you were 4, and apart form an unpleasant puncture wound and some discomfort, there was no further apparent reaction. But your body will have silently 'remembered' that foreign protein and will have developed an antibody to the allergen. If you subsequently get stung 20 years later then your body recognises that allergen instantly and you have a more pronounced immune response - which is usually characterised by inflammation.
You probably already know that most of your immune system is in your gut. We are particularly susceptible to sensitisation in the period from conception to 6 months, when the human gut is vulnerable and immature. Until this time, the gut is 'leaky' and foreign proteins enter the gut lining, causing an inflammatory response. So anything other than human milk in this time will contain a foreign protein, which your body will form an antibody to.
So, the order of events is:
- Exposure to allergen
- Antibody develops
- Repeat exposure causes more pronounced allergic response
Some common symptoms of allergy:
- Respiratory symptoms
- chronic coughs and colds
- Skin symptoms
- dry skin
- cradle cap
- grey shadows under the eyes
- Gut symptoms
- irritable bowel syndrome
- coeliac disease
- blood or mucous in stool
- Mood and behaviour
- Sleep problems
- frequent night waking
- bed wetting
The most common allergens:
- Cows milk
The reason cows milk is the most common allergen is probably 2-fold - Firstly, the earliest form of nutrition for infants with their leaky gut is milk. If breastfeeding has not been possible, or even if a baby has had one small supplement in the early days, then the supplement is likely to have been a cows-milk based formula, which causes a sensitisation. Secondly, cows milk has become a very prevalent component of the human diet in the last 60-70 years. Despite the fact that there are much better quality sources of calcium (such as nuts dark green leafy vegetables etc), it is culturally normal to have a lot of cows milk and cows milk products in our diet. We are the only mammal who routinely drinks the milk from another mammal, and we were never designed to tolerate a milk that is not specific to our species.
Why are some people 'more allergic' than others?
Well, there is a complicated answer to this question, but I'll try to explain it simply. Essentially, this is to do with your genes. Your genes are determined at the time of conception, when genetic material from your mother and father mix. You inherit some maternal DNA, and some paternal DNA. With me so far?!
So, the genes themselves cannot be altered, but how the gene is expressed CAN be altered. For example, you may inherit the gene for blue eyes, but how strongly that gene is expressed is influenced by a number of variables. Similarly, there may be a genetic tendency to allergy, but how strongly that gene is expressed depends on several factors.
So what influences the expression of our genetic code?
- Early nutrition
- In utero sensitisation
So, this explains why allergies, and the manifestation of allergies are getting more common. We are more exposed than ever to sub-optimal nutrition, ever-increasing stress levels, more weird substances and toxins than our bodies actually know how to handle, and there is only so much our bodies can take!
And it all starts before we are born.
For example, many of the clients I work with are exclusively breastfeeding their babies, which is absolutely wonderful, and provides optimal nutrition to their child. Yet people become confused about why their exclusively breastfed child is experiencing so many serious and long lasting symptoms of allergy. They wonder if their child is allergic to their milk. Or whether their child would be better off on a specialised hypoallergenic formula. The answer is NO! To both! But breastfeeding cannot be expected to un-do previous genetic alterations caused by earlier generations. Because we inherit our DNA, we are not only what we eat, but what our parents and grandparents ate. So we may be providing species specific food to our babies, but if we did not receive that same benefit, or even if our parents or grandparents did not, then unfortunately, the allergic gene has been altered and then passed from generation to generation. It takes several generations of sub-optimal nutrition to alter our genetic code, and several generations to correct it.
You can download an allergy questionnaire from my website to see how much allergy affects you or your child.
My own journey with allergies;
So, let me tell you personally in the hope of explaining this better. I exclusively breastfed both my children for several years, adding in solids at about 6 months. Both of them experience several symptoms of allergy - including:
hives, itchy mouths, diarrhoea, constipation, bed wetting, long term cradle cap (3 years +), eczema and bloating. Both of my children are better off on a cows milk free diet, which relieves all their symptoms.
I myself was breastfed for a long time, but I have chronic sinusitis, eczema, and I am intolerant to cows milk and some other substances.
However, my mother was formula fed from birth. She has several health problems associated with allergy including eczema and asthma.
My point is that in our family, the alteration of our gene pool happened nearly 60 years ago. So despite 2 generations of optimal nutrition, we continue to experience the fall-out of early sensitisation to cows milk.
So - what can be done? Well, it should be obvious by now that it is likely that most of us experience some symptoms of allergy. This makes a lot of sense, because unless there are several generations of optimal nutrition on both sides of your family, it is likely that there has been an exposure to cows milk, soy or other foods earlier than 6 months.
Allergies cause numerous problems because most of your immune system is in your gut, and therefore damage to the wall of the gut caused by your body's inflammatory response reduces your immune system's ability to cope with other problems and infections. Similarly, if you have gut damage caused by one allergen, and substitute it for another known allergen, then because your gut is not in great shape, it is likely that you will not react well to that food either. This is why cows milk allergy and soy allergy often go hand in hand.
Will I or my child ever outgrow allergy?
Well, the short answer is - no. Once you have the antibody to an allergen in your body, it is there for life. You can get better at tolerating it, and inf act, humans are remarkably adept at tolerating sub-optimal nutrition. We tolerate processed foods, toxins, chemicals and other nasties on a daily basis - but that doesn't mean they have no negative impact on our body, or our genetic code.
So, what frequently happens is that your allergy symptoms will change and evolve over time. They may start off as gut symptoms - like the baby with reflux, diarrhoea and eczema. Then in toddlerhood they may appear as wheeze, asthma and chronic runny nose. In middle childhood it may manifest itself as hay fever, and irritability. In the teenage years it could be that the primary symptom is irritable bowel syndrome. In later adulthood you may be diagnosed with coeliac disease or Crohns.
The trouble is, people do not commonly link up symptoms in infancy with symptoms later in life, especially as they are often not the same. People also do not link up early nutrition with symptoms that on the face of it have nothing to do with the gut.
We need to spread the word about the far-reaching impact of allergy on our overall health, and take better care of our bodies, to the best of our ability. Share this post as much as you can to educate those who may be suffering with allergies, and those who are in positions to assess and identify allergy, because the professionals who usually get involved with allergy are usually gastroenterologists and dieticians. But most of their training is provided by the artificial milk industry - hardly a reputable and evidence based source of information!
You can watch my information video on allergy, as well as the video on the interaction between foods and sleep from the Information Videos section of my website.
Finally, I heartily recommend Milk Matters to you for further reading!