Allergy vs Sensitivity – Part 1

In keeping with this month’s allergy theme, let’s look at the difference between an allergy and a sensitivity. As many of you may have noticed (and perhaps it has confused you), there is a distinction that is made in the healthcare world.

The ‘Coles Notes’ version: what is labelled a ‘true allergy’ is known as an IgE hypersensitivity. What is labelled as a ‘sensitivity’ is known as an IgG or an IgA hypersensitivity.

What I’ll emphasise here is that one is not more ‘real’ than the other. They both cause problems and can impact your long-term health by causing inflammation which leads to chronic disease. However, the big distinction is that one (IgE-mediated hypersensitivities) can cause one thing that the medical sciences haven’t seen in the other types: anaphylaxis.

And if you have heard of this, you know it could lead to sudden death. Oh yes, chronic inflammation leading to chronic illness eventually leads to death as well. It just takes a long time. No matter, both types of hypersensitivities are very much worth learning about and getting under control so that you may not only lower your risk of having an anaphylactic reaction, but also so you can live a healthy, high quality, and long life.

So for my nerdy, but tamed down, synopsis, read on…

What is the difference between an allergy and a sensitivity?

The western medical community has differentiated the various types of immunological reactions that take place when we experience what we all now understand as an allergic reaction or allergies. It helps our brains to put labels on things to categorise and understand them. As such, we have labeled one type of hypersensitivity reaction as a “true allergy” and another as a “sensitivity”. It’s interesting to note the differences in labels that we ascribe to this ever-evolving world of allergic sensitivities because one seems to infer that it is more serious and more real than the other. However, for anyone with any sort of hypersensitivity, I think we can all agree, both types can seriously and negatively impact our quality of life and our current and future health overall. So let’s look at the differences.

We have 5 types of antibodies that we currently know of and understand. I am purposely stating that last part, because in good scientific practice we continue to learn and modify previously held beliefs, based on new information. We currently know and understand this much about allergies; what I’m emphasising here is that this could change or be added to in the future. We don’t know everything, that’s for sure.

The 5 types of antibodies that we know of are: IgA, IgD, IgE, IgG, and IgM. We also understand a number of functions of most of these antibodies, but we actually don’t know and understand the functions of all of them. In recent years the understanding of the functions of, for example, IgA are better understood. Antibodies are but one part of the immune system; there are several systems within it, and they all integrate and signal one another and do so many different things. It is very complex. If you’d like to learn more about the mechanics of the human immune system, I found this to be a good overview. The general role of antibodies is to act like flags, signalling other immune cells to come and fix the problem.

grassThe main thing to understand is that the immune system is designed to differentiate between ‘self’ (it’s own body) and ‘non-self’ (something foreign, in scientific terms we call this an antigen). It will then respond to the non-self agent, which could be a bacteria, virus, fungus, parasite, cancerous cells, etc. and break it down, isolate it, and eliminate/remove it from the body.

I’m going to describe how this applies to allergies in simple terms.

What we call a ‘true allergy’ is a hypersensitivity reaction that we understand to be mediated by one type of antibody, called IgE; and, in this case, is classified as a Type I reaction (there are a few types of IgE reactions). When you inhale pollen, touch a cat, or eat a peanut, if you have a hypersensitivity reaction (or a ‘true allergy’) to those things, your IgE antibodies have previously been trained by your body that they are harmful and must be removed.

This is not a normal response, it is an over-expression of your normal immune response, or it is an altered response. I like to describe it as our immune system being confused. The IgE antibodies bind to that seemingly problematic substance and signal other immune cells to come. An example of such an immune cell that is signalled would be histamines. Of course, we have pharmaceutical drugs that block the action of histamines, but wouldn’t it be better to understand why your IgE antibodies decided to mark something innocuous as harmful so that you can get to the root of the problem? That’s my approach to my health.

You can read more about the IgE immune response by clicking here if you want to understand the science better.

It’s the cascade of reactions that occur when your IgE antibodies signal specific immune cells into action that causes the symptoms that you experience: inflammation, swelling, redness, heat, skin rashes, itching, and the most serious: anaphylaxis.

Testing For & Managing IgE-Mediated Hypersensitivities

You can test for IgE-mediated Type I hypersensitivities by doing a skin-prick test. This is what we all understand in our western healthcare system as the ‘allergy test’. The doctor scratches your skin with a razor blade on your arms or back after dropping a small amount of the allergen onto your skin. It gets into the surface of your skin and causes swelling, redness, itching, pain, and heat. These allergic reactions occur within minutes.

pollenThere are various methods to try to overcome seasonal and even ‘true’ food allergies in both the western and holistic wellness fields. I’ve personally tried desensitisation methods from both areas of medicine.

I’ve tried the ‘allergy shots’, where they inject you with a small amount of diluted allergen under the skin and make you wait in the office for 30 minutes (to be sure you don’t have an anaphylactic reaction). I did this over a period of months, increasing the concentration of allergen over time with the intention that the body stops reacting to the ‘offending’ substance. That seemed to desensitise me a little bit, but not a whole lot. Everyone is different, though. I’ve also tried some methods that include the use of Chinese Medicine meridians via my Naturopathic Doctor (ND). I had some success with that when it came to a few of my ‘oral allergy syndrome‘ foods and can now eat them again.

There are also some methods that employ the ingestion of bee pollen for a number of weeks before the allergy season. This method has some interesting clinical research behind it and is showing a lot of promise. And there are various nutrition & herbal remedies and methods. I have personally found that once my digestive tract started healing my seasonal allergies have subsided significantly.

Are we all ‘born’ with allergies?

I didn’t grow up with allergies; I started developing them in my late teen years and continued to develop more of them into my adulthood. Seeing as the digestive tract is actually the site of the majority of the immune system (at least 70% of our immune system resides here, if not more – some research puts it upwards of 80%), and the human microbiome is a fundamental and essential part of our immunity (something we haven only begun to understand in recent years), it makes total sense that once I started cleaning up my diet, healing my gut, and re-establishing my gut flora that I started to see improvement in my allergies without having to take any supplements or drugs. This is very powerful stuff, in my opinion. How amazing and empowering is it that we can change our health so dramatically through diet and healing the gut?!

There is also a strong connection between stress and allergies because our adrenal glands help regulate histamine production (histamines being those pesky little guys who create the IgE hypersensitivity symptoms that we have come to know as seasonal allergies). In reducing and learning how to better manage everyday stressors in my life, I’ve also helped alleviate my seasonal allergies and improved the response that I’ve had with holistic desensitisation and GI-tract healing methods.

stinging nettleIf you are currently suffering from allergies, there are some supplements that will help alleviate acute symptoms (instead of taking drugs), such as Quercetin, various herbs and nutrients for adrenal support, herbal teas (like nettle and peppermint), and more.

As you can see from my own experience, overcoming allergies usually takes a multi-dimensional approach. Certainly, healing the gut and making some lifestyle changes doesn’t happen overnight. Each individual will find the way they got to allergy and the way they heal is different as well.

I will address the second type of hypersensitivities: IgG, IgA in a second post.

If you want to read a little about my experience with Celiac disease and gluten sensitivity, read my last post here.