Post No.: 0579
A common misconception concerning allergies is that the immune system is too weak – but the problem during an allergic reaction is that the immune system is being hypersensitive and is unnecessarily reacting to otherwise innocuous external agents, or allergens, such as pollen, nickel or cat dander. Meow.
Whereas certain external agents are the triggers regarding allergies – autoimmunity is when an organism’s immune system attacks cells, organs or other structures from the organism’s own body due to mistaking them for foreign and harmful elements, such as in the case of the autoimmune disease rheumatoid arthritis.
Immune responses thus require a well orchestrated and tightly timed initiation and termination to avoid the defence reactions being too feeble or alternatively excessive, in which either outcome may result in harm being caused to the organism itself. The histories of discovering allergies, treating infections, developing vaccines and trying to solve adverse drug hypersensitivities are all related because they are all about the immune system.
Natural as well as synthetic substances can cause allergies. Genetics are implicated, but there’s also ample evidence that nutrition in the form of breastfeeding, or the early introduction of particular foods, can influence the development of allergies in children.
A gradual systematic process of hyposensitisation/desensitisation can treat some allergies like hay fever. The current advice with peanut allergies is to introduce peanuts to children from 6 months of age onwards in order to reduce the likelihood of them developing an allergy to peanuts. This has so far only been based on correlational data though. And note that there is currently no cure for peanut allergies – people who have the allergy can in effect (under careful medical supervision) train their own bodies to accept a kernel or two over time so that accidental exposures are less dangerous, but this exercise must be kept up otherwise this effect will be lost. Notwithstanding, please seek professional medical advice before trying anything like this.
Food intolerances are different to allergies – they are not triggered by an immune reaction. Lactose intolerance, for instance, is caused by an acquired deficiency of the enzyme lactase in the gut, thus the ingested lactose is digested by intestinal bacteria instead, which generate water and gas by-products that lead to the feeling of indigestion, bloating, nausea, abdominal pain and diarrhoea. The greater the intake of the food that one is intolerant to, the proportionally more severe the symptoms. Food tolerances don’t directly lead to life-threatening reactions like anaphylaxis, and particular foods can be avoided with adequate food labelling. Food intolerances can still potentially impact upon a person’s quality of life however. Carbohydrates such as lactose or fructose are typical culprits.
Food poisoning is different again. Food poisoning symptoms are far less immediate and usually take several hours to present. Symptoms include nausea, vomiting, acute abdominal pain, diarrhoea and sometimes fever.
Traits like lactose intolerance are more prevalent within some ethnic groups than others, and can develop with age, disease or injury. Well it could actually be a milk allergy, intolerance or because of a certain strain of bacteria present in one’s gut. So if you have or suspect you have any allergies or intolerances then you should see your doctor about it rather than jump to conclusions. Cutting out one or a few things from your diet (through the advice of your doctor), such as dairy, won’t mean that you won’t be able to sustain a fully nutritious diet if the substitutes are adequate though.
Note that coeliac disease is a real and serious disease, and should not be confused with a relatively less serious non-coeliac gluten sensitivity, even though they both involve gluten. If you merely feel ‘a little off’ after eating some gluten – don’t cut gluten completely out of your diet without seeing your doctor for a gluten test first. Cutting gluten out from your diet if you don’t actually have any problem with it is just wasteful of time, money and pleasure because so much food contains gluten and it’s a good source of non-meat protein. (Post No.: 0269 also mentioned how, although they’re not necessarily anything to worry about, gluten-free bread typically includes a lot of additives.) Therefore ‘gluten-free’ isn’t the same thing as ‘healthy’ for the vast majority of people. The same advice applies if you suspect that you have a wheat allergy, which isn’t the exact same thing as coeliac disease either.
Yet if you’re adamant that cutting gluten (or anything else) out of your diet does do something positive for you then I suppose it’s no problem as long as you get all of the nutrients you need to be healthy from other sources and you stay alert to not being ripped off by the much higher prices that gluten-free products are often sold at. For some people, it can be a case of just following influencer trends and current health fads and they don’t really have a problem with gluten, or it’s the placebo effect. (Some people force their pets to follow human health fads too :/.) The nocebo effect can also be present, like with some people and monosodium glutamate.
Ways to support our immune system are to consume a highly varied diet that improves the ‘good bacteria’ diversity in our gut microbiome, which in a practical sense means eating lots of different fruits and vegetables and a diet that’s high in fibre. Don’t drink too much alcohol. Exercise regularly – moderately is best because intense exercise will drain us and impair our immune system temporarily. It’s less about avoiding intense exercise altogether but about being extra careful about avoiding things like sniffly-nosed kids straight after an intense session! Temporary moments of acute stress are good but chronic stress is bad. And try to get around 7-9 hours of sleep per night.
Realise that this is all the same old advice as ever for living a healthy life in general – the scientifically-derived advice hasn’t changed over the years to ‘you should now eat few vegetables’, ‘don’t exercise’, ‘7-9 hours of sleep is good for your mind but will make you fat’ or ‘you’ll need to rub a fresh cowpat on your face twice a day’ for instance(!) Balance and moderation are still as important as always – it has never changed to advocating any excess or extremes, except by questionable health gurus who are trying to sell you something that’s usually expensive or unnecessary. The proper advice is neither constantly changing nor therefore confusing. There are no secrets. The problem is just doing it rather than being lazy, greedy, spoilt, preferring to do something else or expecting a quick fix!
A nice, relaxing massage or skinny dipping in cold water inbetween going into a sauna (or 30 seconds of cold water at the end of a shower) are ways to temporarily bolster your immune system. These can be regarded as relatively novel findings but they are just bonuses. The cold shock response and temporary stress of entering the cold water causes the body to prepare to defend itself, thus strengthening itself. Like for your mind or muscles, a bit of challenge makes you stronger. But too much or too long will be bad hence it’s not about having a body or mind that’s constantly in a ‘heightened defend itself’ or ‘fight or flight’ state. In this context of the immune system, this will result in long-term inflammation and a risk of autoimmune diseases. Some people like to go cold water swimming, and they also report feeling euphoric from the hormones released during the cold shock response. It could over time condition the body to deal with the stress response and therefore stress better. It might also help those with migraines or depression.
Every metabolic process in the body requires at least one vitamin or mineral to function. However, vitamin and mineral supplements should be understood as supplements that can be used if necessary to supplement one’s diet, and not ever as things that can ‘boost’ one’s levels of vitamins or minerals beyond a certain homeostatic level for more than a very brief moment. If one’s diet is normally sufficient concerning these vitamins and minerals then they’ll just make expensive **** (or it can potentially be dangerous when it comes to the fat-soluble vitamins since these will accumulate in the body and lead to toxicity if excessive). And again we don’t want to boost our fluffy immune system to extremes anyway because it’ll be unnecessarily overactive or hypersensitive, which at best is tiring because it uses energy, and at worst can lead to the body attacking innocent and healthy cells, organs or other structures. So we actually want a balanced immune system rather than an overworking or hypersensitive one.
It might also help for children, and everyone else, to be occasionally exposed to less sterile environments, which in a practical sense means regularly visiting the outdoors and nature rather than being constantly stuck inside buildings. This exposes us to a wide diversity of safe and friendly microbes. Antibiotic overuse on our gut and skin bacteria will have an impact on the good bacteria inside our guts and on our skin too.
The instinct to clean one’s home is strong because it makes sense in order to prevent real health problems caused by pathogens and infections. But we can apparently be ‘too clean’ to the point that, ironically, our children might develop health problems from allergies. We must remember or realise that being healthy is the real goal, but the oversimplistic instinct that evolved to help serve this is to be fearful of all invisible microbes. ‘Hygiene’ has been conflated with ‘cleaning’. This simplistic instinct worked, and still works, well most of the time, especially during ancient environments when sterility was pretty much impossible to achieve in a dwelling – but not in modern homes with modern cleaning fluids and lifestyles.
This is not to say that being dirty is therefore beneficial or we should lick some raw soil now and again(!) Dirt also includes some quite unfriendly microbes too. Healthy behaviours and things are seldom, if ever, ‘if it’s not this then it’s the complete opposite’ but rather about finding the right balance between two extremes. The ‘hygiene hypothesis’ suggested that it was over-cleanliness itself that caused allergies – but more precisely, allergies appear to be caused or exacerbated by a lack of exposure to a diverse range of generally helpful and harmless microbes (which can be caused or exacerbated by cleaning too much). So the solution isn’t really to intentionally eat dirt or to not wash ourselves but to naturally play outside more rather than being indoors too much. Be mindful of the good bacteria around us, and only use antibiotics when truly necessary. We want the exposure to friendly microbes, whilst being mindful of the unfriendly ones.
In the home, we most need to clean the things we will touch with our paws, because our paws might then touch our face and mouth. So we don’t need to be as fastidious about cleaning the floors, carpets, seats or walls compared to the tables, beds, door handles and taps, for instance. You most need to clean your hands, utensils and surfaces before and after you prepare or eat food, and clean your hands after using the toilet, touching a bin or caring for a pet or someone who’s ill. Cleaning hands regularly and properly should really now be instilled in everyone after COVID-19!
Playing outside amongst greenery, waterways and nature has been proven to help improve mood and psychological well-being too. The results are particularly noticeable with the young and it only takes about 5 minutes to start feeling the benefits. So – like with one’s diet, exercise, sleep and stress levels – this advice about being amongst nature remains the same regardless of whether it concerns our general physical well-being, weight, mental health or immune system.
Meow. Take care of your immune system and it will take care of you!