Saturday, June 13, 2009

Allergies and Addiction

Is there a connection?

Most medical scientists agree that the primary cause of allergies is the unregulated release of histamine from mast cells, mostly likely caused by genetic malfunctions in the immune system.

What connection could that mechanism have to addiction? For starters, real toxins like drugs, and mistaken toxins like dust and ragweed, are both dealt with by the immune system, which attempts to cleanse the system of the “poisons.”

On a more mundane level, Alcoholics Anonymous has from the beginning referred to alcoholism as an “allergy of the body and an obsession of the mind.” More and more frequently, references are made to “allergy-induced addictions,” which supposedly include cravings for high-carbohydrate foods, sodas, and sugar foods in general, in addition to alcohol.

Joan Mathews-Larson and Mark Mathews, in “The Role of Allergies in Addictions and Mental Illness,” from the 2009 Praeger International Collection on Addictions, concentrate on food allergies, and argue that abstaining alcoholics turn instinctively to “allergy-provoking foods” like grains, sugars, and yeast—not coincidentally the basic ingredients of alcoholic beverages. This same basic class of foods—wheat, milk, barley and corn (from which we derive corn syrup) are capable of forming peptides that can bind to endorphin receptors.

Combining these trigger foods with alcohol can be a bad idea, the authors claim. “The starting point of most diseases is in the gut. Allergy foods factor heavily in the etiology of diseases because they damage the GI tract, and impair digestion.... Furthermore, combining allergy foods with alcohol heaps more stress on the immune system by doing more damage to the gut.” Thus, allergic alcoholics risks compounding the digestive damage unless they work to clear their diet of allergens.

The authors further allege that “If the allergic addictive person is deprived of the offending allergen long enough, he or she will go into withdrawal,” concluding that addiction and allergies “are the same problem based on similar molecules, following the same etiology.” Needless to say, this is a controversial theory. As one commentator on a health site described it, “This is counter intuitive on so many levels.”

While the research is controversial, and represents an unusual view of the etiology of addiction, there are plenty of addicts and alcoholics who suffer from allergies, and the extent to which this represents a double whammy to the immune is a question that remains largely unanswered.

Photo Credit: Allergy Asthma Zone

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