The Doctor Speaks - Allergic reactions, Observation and Encountering Outer Stress

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By: Philip Incao, M.D.

Q. Having just been through a severe allergic reaction (hives covering my body) I would very much be interested in an article on al­lergies from a spiritual scientific viewpoint. Why do apparent runaway histamine reactions occur?

A: Your question is a wonderful op­portunity to compare two different approaches to seeking answers to nature's puzzles.

Today mainstream science uses the reductionist approach. Reductionism seeks to explain a puzzling phenomenon such as allergic hives by reducing it to its smaller active parts, much as you would explain how a T.V. set works by taking it apart and examining what the essential parts do and how they work together. Reductionism has led us to discover histamine, a chemical substance in our body which causes hives, swellings and asthma when injected into mice. Thus, from the reductionistic viewpoint the cause of allergies is the making of too much histamine by the body. Apparently this solution to the allergy puzzle doesn't entirely satisfy you, even though you may appreciate feeling less itchy after taking an anti-histamine pill. "But why did my body produce excess histamine?" you ask. Most of us doctors don't like such questions. We would prefer that you gratefully accept your antihistamine prescription and go quietly.

This column, however, encourages and applauds bold questions. We go by Einstein's wonderful maxim: "the important thing is not to stop questioning." Rudolf Steiner even asserted that if we have the will to pursue a thought to its ultimate conclusion, through unbiased and logical questioning, we are led to a spiritual scientific outlook. Such an outlook always seems to call for greater moral responsibility on our part, which is probably why most people do not pursue thoughts to their ultimate conclusions. If it means I have to change myself, then maybe I'll just take that antihistamine pill after all.

Spiritual science takes a phenomenological approach in seeking answers to nature's riddles, but we also entirely validate the reductionistic approach which has led to the discovery of lifesaving medicines like the adrenal hormones adrenalin (epinephrine) and cortisol (usually prescribed as prednisone) for the treatment of allergic reactions.

Phenomenology bids us take the phenomena at face value. In Goethe's words, "Do not ... look for anything behind phenomena. They are themselves their own lesson." Thus the investigator begins by looking, long and hard, and with marvel and wonder, at the allergic phenomena: the swelling, sneezing, itching, the hives, the watery eyes and nose of the allergic subject. We carefully observe the phenomena in great detail, but also we immerse ourselves in them and experience these symptoms as if they were part of us. This wondering observation and immersion repeated persistently and with loving interest, can lead to special insight. We learn to intuitively "read" the phenomena, in this case, the allergic symptoms. This process should be quite simple, natural and un-selfconscious. Many mothers in my practice are good phenomenological investigators of their childrens' illnesses. Through their loving interest and keen observation they can often read correctly what is happening in their children.

If you had to choose one phrase that best describes your recent acute allergic reaction, my guess is it would be something like "maddening irritation" or “itching both inside and out" or "jumping out of my skin." It seems fairly self- evident that with allergies we are dealing with something foreign, like cat dander or pollens or peanuts, that irritates us severely.  But why does the exposure of the human being to cat dander result in allergic symptoms only in some people and not in others? How can we use our rational imagination to live into and understand the separate realities of the allergic person with itchy, watery eyes and nose and the totally unaffected non-allergic person as they encounter the same cloud of pollen?  Pursuing both questions with a fundamental attitude of wonder and respect for the phenomena we are observing might lead us to some simple general truths.

We human beings are placed within a natural environment which supports us with its warmth, air, water and food and which also threatens us with elements, plants and animals which may be harmful or poisonous to us. Anything in the environment that comes into our body through eating, inhaling or through our skin can either support us or stress us, depending on what it is and how much of it there is. The warmth of the sun can sustain us and also kill us if it is too extreme. Each individual has their own particular limits of tolerance, their own individual coping ability, for each of the many stressors in our environment.

From this viewpoint, an allergic reaction is what happens in our body when we encounter an outer stress which exceeds our capacity to process it, to digest it and to neutralize it. We can say that episodes of indigestion, vomiting or diarrhea, coughing, sneezing and hives are all different ways that our body is saying it is not able to easily adapt to the outer foreign presence which has come into us. Our coping forces are stretched beyond their normal limits and the body in its wisdom calls upon its reserve forces. When our reserve forces become active, then we may experience hives, or the other symptoms mentioned above.

If we examine these symptoms, we might discover that they represent various ways that our body tries to digest, destroy and expel the foreign presence that is stressing us. It takes considerable focused energy to process stress in this way. Being healthy today is in large part determined by how well we develop the skills and capacities to maintain ourselves against the various stressors from our environment that would tip us off balance. We can talk about these skills and capacities in future columns, if our readers are interested.

You didn't say what kind of exposure might have triggered your hives. In some cases there is no obvious exposure to anything.

Our environment comes into us in the food we eat and the air we breathe, and this environment is alive. But God designed our body to house only one living individual (us!) and not any of the other various life forms in our environment. Foreign life is poisonous to us, with the exception of our symbiotic and commensal bacteria. Therefore our body digests and destroys any foreign life coming into it. Every bite of food is thoroughly destroyed deep in our interior by our digestive system. Foreign particles that enter into us through our breathing and skin are destroyed by our immune system. When this inner destruction proceeds normally, we have little or no perception of it. When the outer life which has entered into us proves difficult to destroy, either because it is too strong or there is too much of it or because our forces to destroy it are too weak, then our body must make a special effort and must intensify the destructive power of our digestive and/or immune systems. When this happens we notice it, we feel sick and have various symptoms of illness. This intense activity of our digestive and immune systems is what is usually called a detox reaction or a healing crisis.

An allergic reaction like hives is thus a kind of detox reaction, in which the cells of our immune system feverishly releasing histamine and chemicals called cytokines, (interferon, interleukin and others) which cause all the familiar symptoms of inflammation: swelling, redness, pain, fever. Rarely, in severe cases, a serious drop in blood pressure (shock), multiple organ failure and even death can result when there is a massive release of cytokines into our bloodstream. We usually think of our immune system as our defender against illness and death, but an acute over­reacting immune system can kill us. In a very allergic, hypersensitive person an acute anaphylactic reaction upon exposure to peanuts or a bee sting can be fatal. A toxic person who develops sepsis or toxic shock syndrome can also die, in spite of antibiotics. In the past we considered deaths from sepsis to be caused by overwhelming bacterial infection. Now the evidence shows that these deaths are caused mainly by an over-reacting immune system pouring too many cytokines into our circulation! This fairly recent change in our mainstream medical understanding of severe "infection" has very far-reaching implications, but these have not yet filtered down to practicing doctors, nor to the general public. I look forward to the day when they do!


DR. INCAO maintains a medical practice in Denver, Colorado.


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