An estimated 50 million Americans suffer from some type of allergy. According to the American Autoimmune Related Disease Association, 50 million Americans live with autoimmune disease. Coincidence? Probably not. Allergies and autoimmune disease are interconnected.
Both allergies and autoimmune diseases are caused by a hypersensitive, overactive immune system. The body’s immune system, primarily responsible for attacking viruses, parasites and bacteria, targets the body. With autoimmune disease, the immune system attacks the body’s tissues and organs. With allergies the immune system attacks proteins found in various substances, like food.
In recent years scientists have discovered a link between allergies and autoimmune diseases. The discovery was made during a massive ongoing study conducted on thousands of individuals worldwide. Known as the genome-wide association studies, the studies set out to discover and catalog genetic variations in the DNA in study participants. In addition traits and diseases associated with these variations were discovered.
The observations provided valuable insight into factors that contribute to the onset of various diseases.
One such association has been made in individuals with a variant of the BACH2 gene. The gene orchestrates the activity of certain types of white blood cells. It plays a key role in determining which cells will have a regulatory effect on the immune system versus which cells will produce inflammation.
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The Role of Inflammation
Inflammation is a necessary part of our survival. It occurs when cells damaged by bacteria, toxins heat or trauma release histamines and other chemicals in an effort to promote healing. Inflammation may cause you to experience pain, swelling, redness or heat in the affected area. Increased blood flow fills the affected area along with white blood cells and fluid loaded with specially produced chemicals to kill bacteria and promote healing.
The Connection Between Inflammation, Allergies and Autoimmune Disease
When the body comes in contact with an allergen, the immune system reacts by sending signals to “mast cells”, a type of white blood cell located throughout the body in areas such as the skin, throat, lungs, blood and gut. These mast cells release histamines in an effort to rid the body of the allergen by any means necessary, whether sneezing (nose), tearing (eyes), itching (skin), coughing (lungs) or by any other channel.
The immune system deals with allergens much in the same way as it deals with injuries and invaders…as something to be attacked, removed and cured. Every time you experience an allergic reaction, your immune system jumps into action, producing inflammation to do just that. The initial exposure to an allergen is said to be an acute reaction, however persistent, repetitive exposure eventually leads to chronic inflammation. In recent years it has become a widely accepted fact in the scientific community that chronic inflammation is a leading cause of autoimmune disease.
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What You Can Do If You Suspect You Have Allergies
Taking measures to reduce or eliminate allergen exposure is a crucial step towards controlling or perhaps even avoiding the onset of autoimmune disease. Here are some steps you can follow:
- Recognize allergy symptoms. Common allergy symptoms include itchy skin, eyes, throat or mouth, hives, sneezing, runny nose, sneezing coughing and wheezing. Conditions such as asthma, eczema and acid reflux can also be triggered by allergies. Less common symptoms of allergy include brain fog, sore throat, headaches and joint pain.
- Don’t rely solely on antihistamines. Antihistamines are just a bandaid to manage symptoms. Constant exposure to allergens (especially food allergens) can cause your symptoms to worsen over time. In addition, chronic conditions like asthma and eczema may develop as a result.
- Keep a food journal. Keeping track of the foods you eat and documenting any symptoms will help you to identify patterns. Several apps are available that enable you to easily record meals. If you find it difficult to commit to recording every meal, an alternative is to record what you were eating when symptoms developed. While it’s still possible to miss some suspected allergies, this method can still provide valuable insight.
- Go on an Elimination Diet. With an elimination diet, specific foods or food groups are removed from the diet for a short duration. During the elimination period, it’s important to completely avoid the specified foods. The reintroduction period occurs after the time period has elapsed. During the reintroduction period foods are slowly and methodically reintroduced back into the diet. This process can take several weeks. Because of the risk of vitamin deficiencies and/or severe reactions, elimination diets are best performed under the guidance of an allergist or dietician.
- Get allergy testing. Doctors can use a skin prick test to test for allergies to food, dust mites, pet dander, pollen and mold. A small needle is used to make up to 50 or so tiny scrapes on a small section of the forearm or back. Don’t worry, it isn’t as painful as it may sound! Each “prick” is labeled and a different allergen extract applied to the surface. After about 15 minutes, the skin is checked for allergic reactions. Blood tests can also be used to confirm allergies. One word of caution. If you suspect you may have a gluten allergy, you’ll need to get tested before eliminating gluten from your diet. Otherwise you may test negative, even if you have a gluten allergy.
The BACH2 gene has been identified as a common link between allergies and autoimmune disease. This is important to know because if you suffer from allergies, you may be predisposed to developing an autoimmune disease. While genetics plays a role in the development of autoimmune disease, it isn’t the only factor. Chronic, untreated inflammation is a huge factor. Since constant exposure to allergens creates inflammation, avoidance may go a long way in helping to prevent autoimmune disease and minimize autoimmune flare-ups if you already have an autoimmune disease.