Allergies 101

Taking a deep breath in, and out, not only relaxes me, it allows me to be mindful of the air I breathe–the interdependence, the relationship I hold with my environment. As a nurse and mother of an allergic child, teaching my son to be respectfully aware of his environment and his relationship to it, as well as to be diligently alert to his allergic triggers, keeps him in the best possible place of prevention to manage his sensitivity.

Understanding allergies Grass, food, dust, pets — common allergy triggers hide innocently around us everyday. Why is it some of us suffer while others remain completely immune? For severe allergy sufferers, like my son Sam, these type of substances affect his every action and his total health and well-being. For Sam, this ordinarily harmless “stuff” becomes silent, secret, and perhaps even deadly invaders. When these “invaders” come into contact with my son, they are capable of triggering a dangerous explosion within his immune system, which can produce an outbreak of uncomfortable, potentially severe, symptoms. These blameless culprits, often hidden from view, are a mine field of triggers for Sam to walk through every day.

Our body’s intricate and complex defense system The word allergy means “an altered reactivity”, and the antibody known as IgE (one of many our bodies produce) was discovered to be the main culprit in classic allergic conditions. An antibody is literally a personal bodyguard, a soldier cell produced naturally by the body to protect it from diseases or allergens. When these antibodies band together and attack, this is referred to as an “immune cell response.” When the response is activated, the IgE antibody (fighter cell) attaches itself to a mast cell. A mast cell’s job is to act like a bomb, causing an explosion. The newly produced IgE antibody becomes the “trip-wire” attached to the bomb, and when it is disturbed, it explodes.

Histamine bomb The explosion releases histamine into the bloodstream, which is what causes the sneezing, post-nasal drip, itchy, watering eyes. In asthma, it is the histamine’s effect on the smooth muscles of the bronchi (vital tubes that carry air to the lungs) that go into spasm, causing the classic “wheezing.”

False Alarm Most of us have walked past a blaring car alarm; when we do, we know that most likely the triggered alarm was set off by an innocent event, such as a strong wind or an accidental bump. This same scenario is often true with an allergic response. The mast cell, acting as the alarm, is triggered by an innocent substance (such as pollen, grass, or dust) yet nevertheless trips the alarm to sound. The malfunctioning gene of an allergy-sensitive body thinks the harmless substance is an unwanted invader. Though it’s misinformation, our body is trying only to protect us. Unfortunately, our system is activated and our body responds to the false alarm, releasing its histamine explosion along with its annoying repercussions that we experience as allergy symptoms.

Does anyone in your family suffer with allergies? Removing triggers from your environment—dust mites, mold, pollen, animal dander, can lead to big improvements. Ordinary substances you may not realize—body care items, cleaning products, and some of the food you eat–are some of the culprits that hold chemicals and can set off an allergic alarm.

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Published on: September 24, 2009
About the Author
Photo of Elizabeth Irvine

Through her experience as an ICU nurse, mother of three, yoga instructor and author, Elizabeth believes we can create a healthier, happier way of being from the inside out and raise families who care—about themselves, about each other, and about the world around them.

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