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Friend or Foe? Understanding the Immune System and Allergic Responses


Reviewed by William Epperly, MD of Forum Health Bloomingdale

Learn how a functional and integrative approach to sensitivities and allergies can improve symptoms and quality of life.

Allergies are a common yet complex immune system response that can range from mildly annoying to potentially life-threatening. They occur when the immune system reacts to a usually harmless substance, such as pollen, dust, mold, or certain foods, as if it were a threat.  


This overreaction leads to the release of chemicals like histamine, triggering symptoms such as sneezing, itching, swelling, and in severe cases, anaphylaxis. Over long periods of time, this heightened immune response can lead to chronic inflammation, an overactive immune system, hormone imbalances, autoimmunity and more.  

Immune System Response to Common Allergens

The immune system is the defense system in your body that helps protect you from harmful things like bacteria, viruses, and other germs. It’s made up of different cells and proteins that work together to identify and fight off these invaders. 


When you have an allergy or sensitivity, your immune system triggers a reaction and releases chemicals like histamine, which can cause symptoms like sneezing, itching, or swelling.  


In the case of sensitivities and allergies, the immune system is overreacting to something that is normally harmless, and this can cause a range of symptoms depending on the person and the allergen involved. While everybody is unique, there are common substances that tend to trigger sensitivity or an allergic response in general.  


  • Food Allergies: Food allergies occur when the immune system reacts to proteins in certain foods. Common allergenic foods include peanuts, tree nuts, shellfish, eggs, milk, soy, and wheat.  

  • Seasonal Allergies: Also known as hay fever or allergic rhinitis, seasonal allergies occur when the immune system overreacts to pollen from trees, grasses, and weeds. Symptoms include sneezing, runny or stuffy nose, itchy eyes, and coughing. 

  • Dust Allergies: Dust allergies are triggered by dust mites, tiny organisms that thrive in dust. Symptoms include sneezing, runny or stuffy nose, itchy eyes, and coughing. 

  • Mold Allergies: Mold allergies occur when the immune system reacts to mold spores in the air. Symptoms are similar to those of seasonal allergies and can include sneezing, runny or stuffy nose, itchy eyes, and coughing. 

Allergies develop when the immune system produces antibodies to attack one of these substances. The next time you’re exposed to the same substance, your immune system releases chemicals like histamine, causing allergy symptoms. 

When to test? Top 10 Signs and Symptoms of Sensitivities and Allergies

Signs of sensitivity or allergies can vary depending on the type of allergen and your individual immune response.  The most common signs to look out for are a good indicator that testing may help narrow down what is causing your immune response.  


  1. Skin Reactions: Itchy, red, or swollen skin, hives, or eczema can be signs of an allergic reaction, especially to foods or environmental allergens. 

  2. Respiratory Symptoms: Sneezing, runny or stuffy nose, coughing, wheezing, and shortness of breath can indicate allergies, particularly to pollen, dust mites, mold, or pet dander. 

  3. Digestive Issues: Nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, or abdominal pain after eating certain foods may indicate a food allergy or sensitivity. 

  4. Fatigue: Chronic fatigue or low energy levels, especially when accompanied by other symptoms, may be a sign of underlying allergies or sensitivities. 

  5. Headaches: Recurrent headaches or migraines, especially when triggered by certain foods or environmental factors, may be related to allergies or sensitivities. 

  6. Joint Pain: Joint pain or swelling, especially when associated with other symptoms like skin or digestive issues, may be a sign of an allergic response.
  7. Mood Changes: Mood swings, irritability, anxiety, or depression, especially when accompanied by other symptoms, may be related to allergies or sensitivities. 

  8. Sinus Issues: Chronic sinus congestion, sinus infections, or sinus headaches, especially if they worsen during certain times of the year, may be due to allergies. 

  9. Eye Symptoms: Itchy, red, watery eyes, often accompanied by nasal symptoms, can be a sign of allergic conjunctivitis. 

  10. Anaphylaxis: Severe symptoms such as swelling of the face, lips, or throat, difficulty breathing, or a rapid heartbeat can indicate anaphylaxis, a life-threatening allergic reaction. 

It’s important to note that these symptoms can also be caused by other conditions, so it’s essential to consult with your Forum Health provider for an accurate diagnosis. Allergy testing, including skin prick tests, blood tests, and elimination diets, can help identify specific allergens and guide treatment decisions. 

The Effects of Allergies in the Long Term: Getting to the Root-Cause for Improved Overall Health

Sensitivities and allergies can have a significant impact on overall health, affecting various aspects of physical and mental well-being.  


Allergies can significantly reduce quality of life, affecting daily activities, work productivity, and social interactions. Symptoms like nasal congestion, itching, and fatigue can be bothersome and disruptive. Additionally, allergies, particularly those affecting the respiratory system, can lead to sleep disturbances such as snoring, sleep apnea, and difficulty breathing at night, which can further impact overall health and well-being.  


Mentally, allergies can contribute to symptoms of anxiety and depression, with the chronic nature of allergies and their impact on daily life leading to feelings of frustration, isolation, and low mood. It’s common to experience complications such as sinus infections, ear infections, and asthma exacerbations due to allergies.  


Chronic allergies can strain the immune system, potentially affecting its ability to respond effectively to other pathogens and threats, increasing the risk of infections and other immune-related conditions.  


Food allergies can impact nutrition and dietary choices, potentially leading to nutrient deficiencies if certain foods need to be avoided. Overexposure to allergens can also lead to various health risks, especially for individuals who are sensitive or allergic to those allergens, including triggering allergic reactions, exacerbating asthma symptoms, causing chronic inflammation, impairing immune function, and reducing quality of life.  


Overall, allergies can have a wide-ranging impact on physical health, mental health, and overall well-being. Effective management of allergies, through lifestyle changes, medications, and other treatments, can reduce symptoms and improve quality of life. 


It’s important that you manage your exposure to allergens, get testing to identify allergens and seek treatment to reduce the risk of health complications. Schedule allergy testing with a Forum Health provider near you.  

A Functional and Integrative Medicine Approach to Overcoming Allergies

Functional and integrative medicine takes a holistic approach to managing allergies, focusing on identifying and addressing the root causes of the immune system’s overreaction.  

Forum Health providers offer a comprehensive strategy for testing and treating allergies using various testing methods, including blood tests, skin prick tests, and elimination diets, to identify specific allergens triggering your symptoms.  

Based on these results, along with your health history, lifestyle factors, and genetic makeup, personalized treatment plans are developed. These plans often include dietary changes, supplements, herbal remedies, and lifestyle modifications to reduce exposure to allergens. 

Nutrition plays a crucial role in immune system support and inflammation reduction, so you may be advised to follow an anti-inflammatory diet rich in fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, and healthy fats. Additionally, there is a growing recognition of the link between gut health and allergies. Therefore, probiotics, prebiotics, and other gut-supporting supplements to rebalance the gut microbiome and improve immune function may also be recommended. 

Stress management is also emphasized, as stress can worsen allergy symptoms. Techniques such as meditation, yoga, and acupuncture are commonly recommended to reduce stress and improve overall well-being. Furthermore, environmental modifications may be suggested, such as using air purifiers, regular vacuuming, and maintaining low humidity levels to reduce dust mites and mold exposure.  

Allergies, while a common immune system response, is not something to let linger as the long-term impacts can be severe.  

Ready to discover the root cause of your sensitivities and allergies?

Schedule a discovery call with one of our health advisors here.