What are allergies?

About 10% of the population of the United States suffers from what we physicians term atopic allergy. This broad category includes hay fever (the runny nose, itchy eyes, and sneezing that come from exposure to pollens and molds), allergic eczema (the inflamed, red, scaling skin condition that accompanies food and pollen allergies), allergic asthma (restriction of the breathing passages in the lungs as a consequence of inhaling substances to which you are sensitive), and anaphylaxis (the life-threatening condition of immediate and extreme reaction to an allergic substance complete with hives, swelling, restricted breathing, and finally "shock," which in the true medical sense means not emotional crisis but circulatory collapse: a state in which you cannot maintain a blood pressure sufficient to support life).

AllergiesAllergies occur because of a misidentification on the part of your immune defenses. Those defense systems function normally by protecting us from anything that is not us. By that we mean anything foreign, whether it be a bacterium, virus, or fungus trying to infect us, one of our own cells gone haywire and trying to become cancerous, or a substance of truly foreign origin, such as a medication, pollen grain, or mold spore.
Most of us have an immune system that has in a sense "made peace" with our environment, and we, therefore, do not react to the things around us with weepy eyes, runny noses, or hives when the pollen flies or the cat hair floats. Some of us, however, have an immune defense that does raise up and fight when these "foreign" substances invade. And in the wake of the battle, the allergy sufferer—the battleground—pays the price in symptoms.

The main culprit in initiating the symptoms is a substance released by a certain type of immune fighter—the mast cell—called histamine. That is why antihistamines—or other substances that prevent the mast cells from releasing their histamines—help to curb allergy symptoms. There are also nutrients that help to decrease your sensitivities to the world around you. Let's take a look at these.

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