Ever wonder why your seasonal allergies vary in intensity from year to year? What made them so much worse last year, and suddenly so much better this past season? It’s not as simple as environmental fluctuations that change how plants bloom. Our immune reactions against otherwise harmless things like pollen fluctuate and adapt according to what else is happening in our bodies. And unlike the growing season, our body’s reaction to this environmental stressor is one thing we have more control over than traditionally considered.
Allergies involve the release of an inflammatory chemical by our cells, called histamine. Most over-the-counter allergy medications are “anti-histamines” and work by blocking the action of this chemical in our bodies. However, the body is equipped with its own anti-inflammatory hormone called cortisol, which is produced by our adrenal glands. It’s the hormone that stops a small injury like a twisted ankle from swelling excessively, or from allowing a mosquito bite to grow to an impossibly large, itchy, bump. Interestingly, many people with chronic allergies also have low cortisol levels.
Cortisol affects and is affected by many other hormones, including thyroid hormones, blood sugar regulating hormones (e.g. insulin), and estrogen. Our thyroid gland health, dietary habits, and sex hormone balance therefore impact allergy symptoms. However,one of the most significant causes of reduced cortisol levels is chronic stress. Stress, whether emotional, environmental, or physical, and when experienced over a long period of time, shifts the body into a different biochemical state that includes inflammation. Our bodies may respond to the increased inflammation with cortisol, our natural anti-inflammatory hormone, but long-term production of high amounts of this hormone can be exhausting and levels may decline over time.
One medical approach to treating chronic allergies is to block the immune response, such as with an anti-histamine drug like Reactine. A more integrative approach includes supporting the body’s production of cortisol, which includes asking questions like: “Is the body’s production of cortisol low and if so, why?” “If cortisol levels are adequate, then is the problem about where the cortisol is going or how it’s being used in the body?” By supporting the parts of the body responsible for cortisol production and management, you come closer to addressing the source of the problem. By further asking what other imbalances in the body contribute to allergy symptoms, such as with blood sugar or estrogen imbalances, we come to understand the body more clearly and find long-term solutions with more widespread benefits.