Dr. Ronald G. Ritchie
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Allergies and Stress

Allergies and Stress

The Stress Response
Your adrenals are two pyramid-shaped glands that are on top of your kidneys. They do several jobs, but one of the most significant is to help your body cope with stress.

Let’s say you get attacked by a mountain lion. Your brain and central nervous system go into hyperdrive. Your adrenal cortex (the center of the adrenal gland) floods your body with adrenaline immediately – it’s an automatic, almost instantaneous response. All of this makes your heart race, dilates your eyes, opens bronchioles (for better breathing), and dilates blood vessels providing your muscles with immediate oxygen and glucose for energy. This is called the fight or flight response. You either run away faster than you ever thought possible or turn and fight with tremendous energy. The adrenaline overrides several normal mechanisms in the body in order to fight or run. If you’re fighting for your life, it’s not important that you keep from tearing a muscle or having extremely high blood pressure, it’s a question of survival. This is the reason why a flood of adrenaline can allow people to perform superhuman feats, like a mother lifting a car off of her baby.

After you’ve either killed or gotten away from the mountain lion, the outside of your adrenals (the medulla) produces a different hormone called cortisol. Due to the rush of adrenaline and the other things that go along with it, your body just consumed massive sugar reserves (part of the reason for becoming shaky after a sudden severe scare), your blood pressure and heart rate are through the roof, and there is likely a lot of tissue damage from all that rage. Cortisol helps to bring the body back to its normal resting state. It encourages the breakdown of stored sugars in other areas of the body like the liver and abdomen. It redirects blood flow to repair tissues and digest food. It’s the natural steroid of your body to start and promote the repair process. It is anti-inflammatory but also immuno-suppressant. You see, digesting the cheeseburger you had before you met the mountain lion, controlling that runny nose from your cold, and feeling the pain of the sprained ankle you got while running away were all turned off during the Adrenaline rush. As I said before, many normal functions of the body are suppressed by adrenalin. It’s cortisol’s job to get things back to normal from the over-excitation of adrenalin.

This complex system is only designed to be activated in extreme crisis, only when your survival is on the line; like meeting a mountain lion.

The Effects of Prolonged Stress
In an initial stressful event, your adrenals compensate for the massive adrenaline onslaught by pumping out a matching amount of cortisol to balance it out. When this process is appropriate, like running from a mountain lion, the high and low come and go so quickly that there is no problem. It’s when this process goes on for longer periods (days, weeks and even months) and not in connection to the provocation of running from a mountain lion that there is a big problem. As I said before, this system is only meant to be activated in extreme situations, not everyday life. When the fight or flight response goes on too long you get a combination of symptoms of too much adrenaline (high blood pressure, emotional volatility and irritability), and too much cortisol (high blood sugar, weight gain especially in the trunk area, recurrent infections from immune system suppression, and insomnia). Prolonged cortisol production also inhibits the conversion of thyroid hormone which can lead to hypothyroidism.

When this process goes on for too long though (how long depends on the person) your adrenals become toast. They can’t keep up with the demand for either adrenaline or cortisol, at which point you feel apathetic and all you want to do is stare at the wall. Your body’s ability to cope with stress has just met its match, modern society. We live in constant stress from our environment, the foods we eat, the lack of good sleep, consumption of too many stimulants (coffee, tea, energy drinks, sugar, etc.), and more.

Here is where we will connect allergies to prolong periods of stress. Most allergens stimulate the release of inflammatory substances like histamine. A lack of sufficient cortisol from burned out Adrenal Glands means you can’t naturally suppress these reactions. While you may always have had sensitivity (allergy) to a particular substance (like a food or pollen), it’s not until your body loses its ability to manufacture enough of the naturally anti-inflammatory cortisol that you start to notice them. Having allergies all year long or worsening allergies for no reason may have little or nothing to do with what you are allergic to, but more to do with Adrenal Fatigue.

This is true of chemical sensitivities also. The exact mechanism by which fat-soluble toxins can affect our body is not known, but some experts suggest the mechanism is very similar to an allergic immune response. This makes sense based on the definition of an allergy.

Allergies and the Immune System
There are two general parts to the human immune system; specific and non-specific. The “non-specific” responds right away to toxins such as bee stings, tissue damage from injury, etc. The “specific” takes time to work but is more targeted against specific invaders such as bacteria, parasites and the like. Think of non-specific immunity as a sledge hammer, while specific immunity is a scalpel.

The smash of a sledge hammer is fast and harsh producing tremendous inflammatory reaction at the site of the problem, in surrounding healthy tissues, and even in areas of the body where there is no allergenic substance. Like the rock hit by the hammer, the rock is smashed but bits and pieces fly everywhere. In the non-specific immune system there are a series of interconnected chemicals and enzymes that respond to one another, like lined up dominos. One begins to fall and then the chain reaction follows. This is how the rapid non-specific immune reactions can pop up all over the body literally within seconds of their activation (such as hives from a bee sting).

The scalpel on the other hand, does not cause the collateral damage of the sledge hammer; but it must be very carefully directed in order to do the good it’s designed to. This careful direction is managed by two kinds of cells, the B and T lymphocytes. The T cells are the directors indicating to the B cells what target they are to attack. Basically the T cells “flag” the target and the B cells produce the chemicals and take the action required to destroy the target. This action on the part of both B and T cells is tremendously specific, even acting against a single cell at a time.

This “targeting” and “attacking” process is performed by your B and T cells through chemical substance known as antigens and antibodies. There are three general categories of antigens that have the potential to provoke your specific immune system to make antibodies against them. There are soluble antigens (coming from your diet and environment), insoluble antigens (from microbes and pathogens), and self-antigens (from your own cells). Reactions against soluble antigens are called allergies. Reactions against insoluble antigens are part of normal immune function such as infections. Reactions against self-antigens produce autoimmune diseases (our own immune system acting against its own body). Each of these can “cross-react” with one another triggering the other system too.

So how does stress make my allergies worse?
When you are under lots of stress, you’re likely to also have more allergies and/or chemical sensitivity than you used to or may have never had before. This occurs because your immune system is either under reacting to or targeting the wrong things, unable to react due to suppression from excess cortisol production, or unresponsive because all the systems (both immune and adrenal) needed to respond are burned out. Inflammation runs out of control because all the systems designed to keep it in balance with tissue repair are suppressed or burned out. Sometimes even the allergic reaction to something minor will produce mammoth inflammation because the sledge hammer is running wild and there are no breaks to hold it back. One small stress or allergy reaction will trigger the whole system.

You are probably saying “no way!” But I have personally treated patients who simply went outside to watch a baseball game and less than 30 minutes of sunshine provoked an immune reaction that resulted in something akin to “the Elephant Man.” Unbelievable inflammation, swelling, redness, high blood pressure, chest pain (the patient thought they were having a heart attack), that made the person unrecognizable, like the Elephant Man. And this was all due to the person having an undiagnosed gleutin allergy, chemical allergy, high cortisol levels, and the ultraviolet light from the sun was the trigger that pushed the immune system over the edge.

It’s a catch-22 situation. You have allergies and chemical sensitivity that trigger inflammation. Inflammation stresses your adrenals, forcing them to produce more cortisol to counterbalance it. And even if you don’t have adrenal fatigue yet, the longer you struggle with allergies and/or chemical sensitivity (constant stress on your immune system), the more likely you are to develop adrenal fatigue. Adrenal dysregulation affects immune sensitivity altering both specific and non-specific responses. This in turn affects allergy reactions and allowing more inflammation. And here we go on the Merry-Go-Round of stress and altered immune response.

So what do you do?

  • First, find what is taxing or draining your body energies, what is sucking the life out of you, i.e. stress; and properly deal with them.
  • Second, have your adrenals evaluated for their current status.
  • Third, determine what food, environmental, or chemical you may have.
  • Fourth, clean out your system; remove the toxins that are clogging everything up.

Once you do all these, your body will be reset back to optimum and you will experience health as it is meant to be. If you are not sure how to do this, call me.