Allergies: Hypersensitive Boredom of the Immune System

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By: Hans-Ulrich Albonico, M.D.

When usually harm­less substances be­come harmful to the immune system we speak of aller­gies. Today we know: our immune system needs training. From birth our organism is in constant interac­tion with its environ­ment which either supports or attacks it, although newborn infants still receive a certain immune protection through the antibodies of the mother. Breast-feeding prolongs this protection somewhat.

As the child develops externally, including standing, coordination, walking and speech, a parallel development takes place in the individual immune system. The thymus gland, which recedes in later life, most clearly reveals this development. It has sometimes been called "the life clock" and its function consists fundamentally in mediating perception and digestion, providing an organic basis for differentiating between "foreign" and "self."

The Lymphocyte School
Today, some immunologists consider the thymus as a "school for lymphocytes," where the latter learn to recognize foreign as opposed to body protein. Lymphocytes even store memory for subsequent encounters with the envi­ronment. Recognition, memory and response—these concepts belong to the learning process.

On an organic level children learn to integrate themselves into their surroundings, just as they later learn to fit themselves into their world in a healthy way. A central anthroposophical medical premise asserts that growth forces underlying the development of the immune system are the same as those forces that a child draws on for learning. They are the life forces at the basis of all physical and mental wellness.

Obviously such a metamorphosis from growth forces to forces of consciousness needs inner and outer challenges and stimulation. The "lymphoctye school" needs its teachers and challenges that are appropriate and age-related.

Continuous under- or over-stimulation of the immune system and the nerve-sense system can cause long-term weakness and damage. The dynamic balance between challenge and assimilation is key.

Allergies due to lack of stimulation
Every year springtime is ruined for many because of itching, tearing eyes, running noses, sneezing and, at worst, breathing difficulties. In Europe hay fever and asthma continue to increase. In 1926, 1% of the Swiss population suffered pollen allergies. In 1987 it was 15%. Today almost one in five Swiss are affected by pollen.

Immunological studies confirm that allergies are more prevalent in countries with high standards of hygiene and living and in families with few or no children and less prevalent in rural children. This can be interpreted to mean that where the immune system is not "trained" allergies increase.

Recent research in Germany attempted to prove allergies more prevalent in polluted industrial areas. The result showed the opposite. Allergies were three times higher in pristine, non-­industrial areas. Further studies indicated a prevalence for allergies in well-to-do households although the incidence was lower if children had normal childhood illnesses such as measles. The magazine Bild der Wissenschaft (Science View) wrote: "The medical establishment has to rethink. It appears that lifestyle has a greater influence on health than pollution does."

In 1999, a Swedish anthroposophical physician, in collaboration with the Karolinska University Hospital, Stockholm, researched children from three schools, including one Waldorf school. Hair and blood samples showed that 13% of the Waldorf students had allergy problems as opposed to 25% of the children in the other schools. Possible influencing factors were listed as: Waldorf students often receive fewer antibiotics and fever depressants, they are allowed to have normal childhood illnesses, are breast-fed longer and have a different diet.

The immune system needs training
While classical childhood illnesses are be­ing eradicated, youngsters suffer increas­ingly from adult illnesses such as allergies and psychosomatic disturbances.

But a shadow side is that the immune system is becoming less "trained." At the same time children are subjected to ever earlier and sharper assaults on their sensory-nervous system. The result: a certain organic "hatred" which overreacts at the slightest touch. Allergies are manifestations of such overreactions of a "bored" or inactive immune system.

Interestingly, the latest research suggests that triggers such as dust mites or pollen may not be as causative as pre­viously thought. The organism's reactive ability, formed from the very beginning by the confrontation with the inherited body and the environment, is equally important.

Finally the encounter of the organism with the environment must be appropriate to the age of the child, and built in healthy stages. This includes the childhood illnesses which represent unavoidable prerequisites for developing a strong and mature immune system.

Knowledge of self and knowledge of non-self
The boundary between "self" and "non-self" is not as sharply delineated as one might think. Our body is penetrated by myriads of bacteria far outnumbering our own cells. The fact that some can be disease-causing and others essential for our functioning leads us to rethink the relationship between environment and our body, and between macrocosm and microcosm—a question as old as humanity itself. Paracelsus wrote: "It follows that the human being is a small world—a microcosm—but a complete world, including extracts of all the stars and planets, the whole firmament, the earth and all the elements."

Our immune system is a place where we confront the "large world." It is a place of experience and learning—a sensory organ. All learning is based on an encounter with the world, on challenge and on effort. Health can be seen as the balance between our inner development and the outer challenges on the path of life so that "we can become who we are." Understanding ourselves by knowing the world—that is the path towards freedom.

Hans Ulrich Albonica, M.D. is an inter­nist and an anthroposophical physician. He has a medical practice together with his wife and is the head physician for the department of complementary medicine in the hospital of Lagnau, Switzerland. The text is excerpted from a brochure with the title Krankheit als Begegnung, "Illness as Encounter" put out by the Verein fuer Anthroposophisches Heilwesen, from Weleda Nachrichten, #229, 2003, by Sophia Christine Murphy.

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