In 1989, an epidemiologist named David Strachen proposed that the rise in allergies was due to the rise in hypercleanliness – that is, the fact that Western culture is so preoccupied with germs, and therefore obsessed with creating a sterile environment.

Think of exposure to relatively harmless bugs as “basic training” for our immune systems.  Without this exposure, our bodies won’t know how to recognize a real threat later.

(It’s sort of like that person we all know who was spoiled as a child and has never been through any real hardship in her life, and therefore thinks of a hangnail as the end of the world.)

That’s an allergy.  It’s reacting to something that isn’t really dangerous, like pollen or pet dander or peanuts, as if it posed a real threat.  But in reality, the pollen (for instance) has no intention of invading and killing off our cells systematically in order to replicate itself, the way a virus might.  It’s just sitting there, minding its own business, when our immune system sees it, freaks out, and releases a massive assault on it, flooding our bodies with histamine and causing all kinds of collateral damage.

How do we deal with allergies, according to this theory then?  We can prevent, or at least minimize the whole thing by allowing our bodies to be exposed to harmless bugs while it’s still young and impressionable, so that it can learn on its own, “That guy’s okay, he isn’t going to bother me, so I’m not going to waste my energy fighting against him,” versus, “That guy’s gonna attack me.  I’d probably better remember what he looks like so that I can have a good defense prepared next time I see him.”  (This is what happens when you create antibodies.  It’s an army specifically prepared to attack a particular invader.)

But once your immune system is paranoid to think everybody is out to get it, the only thing to be done is to start all over and teach it the truth, in a controlled environment.  We do this by exposing it to little bits of “friendly” antigens at a time – small amounts at first and then increasing doses, so that the immune system eventually figures out, “Hey, maybe this guy isn’t going to attack me after all.  Perhaps I ought to invest my defensive resources elsewhere.”

Allergy shots, and sublingual allergy drops (which I do in my office, based on blood testing and produced at a compounding pharmacy) are a great way to do this.  Instead of just minimizing the collateral damage (with anti-histamines), maybe it’s time to re-train your immune system to recognize friend versus foe.

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