I was totally in denial.
I’ve known for years that a strong sign of allergies is dark circles under the eyes, and on many an occasion I would have a little conversation in my head like this:
My kids sort of look like they have the dark circles, a little baggy under there.
Maybe they’re just tired? Maybe it’s a shadow?
But could it be that they’re allergic to something? It’s hard to tell if they’re actually dark or not…
Compare yours to other kids around – looks the same to me!
That was always the end of the investigating (and weird conversations in my head, thank-you-very-much) — that I couldn’t see a marked difference in my kids’ under-eye area and most of the kids around us.
As you already know if you’ve read about how we’re managing our kids’ dust allergies through cleaning routines and more, I was wrong.
My husband said recently that now that the pediatrician explained the under-eye circles to him, he looks around the table and sees them on all our kids. Even Leah, who has been avoiding dairy for nearly a year now, still seems to have something there, much to our dismay.
I’m starting to wonder, however, if I wasn’t in denial as much as there’s a real problem mounting in our world.
The symptoms of environmental allergies are quite rampant in our culture, and statistically more and more adults and children are diagnosed with allergies (both food and environmental). And those are just the diagnosed numbers…
What if my confusion and ultimate misdirection is quite simply because the majority of the children around my kids also have allergies and subsequent dark under-eye circles?
If I’ve now got you worried, let’s dig into the research to lay out a plan for you to determine if anyone in your family might have environmental allergies and WHY it’s so important to look into this.
What are Environmental Allergies?
Environmental allergies happen when the immune system sees a common thing like pet dander or pollen as a foreign invader. Instead of business as usual, the immune system goes into overdrive to attack the enemy. The immune system makes antibodies that then identify and mount an immune response to the allergen every time you’re exposed. (source)
Here are some common environmental allergens:
- Dust mites (what our family is dealing with!) – These tiny little bugs can cause massive problems. They burrow into furniture, mattresses, and fabric and love warm environments.
- Pollen from trees, plants, and grasses. – This is a common one and often causes the classic itchy, watery eyes, sneezing response. Pollen is more prevalent in the spring and fall and can cause seasonal allergy flares.
- Pet dander – Even pet drool (yuck) can cause an allergic reaction for some people. The teeny tiny bits of skin from animals and the proteins from their saliva, urine or feces can trigger allergies.
- Mold – Yes, mold is everywhere, but some kinds are worse than others. Exposure to high levels of certain kinds of mold over a long time can cause allergies. Other times allergenic molds affect people with certain allergies.
- Air pollution and chemicals – There’s some nasty stuff floating around in the air, especially near highways and factories. Exposure to the pollution is known to increase asthma related hospital visits, harm lungs and can cause wheezing and allergy symptoms.
- Cigarette smoke – While this doesn’t technically cause allergies, it can make symptoms worse if you already have an allergy.
- Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4
Symptoms of Environmental Allergies
This could be something as mild as a little sniffle and congestion or more serious issues that cause severe breathing problems or hives.
Here are some symptoms associated with environmental allergies.
- Itchy nose, eyes and/or roof of the mouth
- Runny nose
- Stuffy nose and congestion
- Eyes that are red, swollen and/or watery
- Pressure and pain in the face
- Swollen blueish or dark circles under the eyes
- Mucus that drips from the nose down the throat
- Asthma attacks
- Difficulty sleeping
- Tiredness during the day (from lack of sleep and oxygen!)
Dr. Sheila Kilbane tells us in a recent Healthy Parenting Connector episode that in children, she can see the signs of allergies a mile away (environmental and food):
- Dark circles under the eyes
- Red ears or cheeks
- Dennie lines (a horizontal line between the eyes caused by the child constantly pushing/rubbing at the irritated nose)
And upon further examination, these children usually have nasal inflammation, retracted ear drums (this is why kids with recurrent ear infections should look seriously into allergies), and mouth breathing/snoring.
What Happens if Environmental Allergies Aren’t Treated?
A little sniffle here, a little cough there … environmental allergies may not seem like a big deal, especially if the symptoms don’t seem “that bad.”
However, this is usually just the tip of the iceberg to damage going on in the body right now and what can crop up later down the road.
Or maybe you’re just thinking “Eh, I’ll just take a natural anti-histamine or maybe some Claritin and we’ll be good to go.”
Consider this first …
How Environmental Allergies can Wreck Your Sleep
A whole lot is going on while we sleep, and not being able to breathe right can really put a damper on things. When your nose is plugged because of allergies, the body resorts to mouth breathing, especially at night.
Mouth breathing can cause dry mouth, which is a risk factor for cavities, gum disease, yeast infections, and mouth sores.
Oral health is only the beginning.
When we rely on our mouth to the job our nose was designed for, it can cause even more issues than dry mouth. Snoring may be cute in little kids, but it’s a sign of more serious problems.
When airways are obstructed and cause labored breathing or snoring, oxygen levels dip and then the brain panics. The body startles us awake to try and get another breath in.
What’s the harm of waking up a few times a night? Quite a bit actually! When our deep sleep cycle is constantly interrupted like this, it can lead to some annoying (and serious) side effects.
Untreated sleep disordered breathing can cause:
- ADHD symptoms
- Confusion and brain fog
- Trouble concentrating
- Feeling like you’re always tired
- Trouble sleeping
- Problems focusing and remembering things
- Mood swings, depression and anxiety
- Sources: 1, 2
Even worse, if breathing continues to be obstructed at night it increases the risk of serious diseases like diabetes, obesity, and Alzheimer’s.
Allergies Increase the Risk of Serious Disease and Death
The National Sleep Foundation points out how interrupted breathing at night can lead to other long term health effects.
Mouth breathing and the oxygen deprivation that comes with it messes up our adrenal glands, causes inflammation and hormone imbalances. This can then lead to heart disease, high blood sugar, mood issues and more.
In fact, researchers at the Institute of Medicine concluded obstructed breathing at night significantly increases risk of death from any cause.
Human Growth Hormone
When we sleep at night our body is hard at work.
We secrete certain hormones at night, including human growth hormone (HGH) that are in charge of repair and growth in the body. This isn’t just haphazard though. Different sleep stages release different hormones, so when the sleep cycle is interrupted the corresponding hormone doesn’t have a chance to get up to speed.
We’ve known since the 60s that when the slow-wave sleep cycle is interrupted, our body makes less HGH. And I thought my kids were just genetically short — what if they’re just genetically allergic to dust, which is making them short! #mindblown
If my boys start growing faster all of a sudden as we address this, I’m going to need another refrigerator for all the food they’ll eat! (Please, pass this post around to others…I can serve about one dinner for every 1,000 people who visit!) 😉
Allergies May Be Why You Need Braces (and other things)
Breathing during growth is an important factor in how the face and mouth develops into adulthood. When kids get used to having their mouth open to breathe, it sets off a cascade of dental issues. The tongue tends to push forward when speaking and swallowing, making it harder to make certain sounds. This can even be the reason behind a lisp.
I have a slight lisp (at least my first principal said I did during my job interview!) and John has a tongue thrust that causes a snowfall of feta on my kitchen floor every time we eat dinner. These aren’t coincidences!
When the mouth is closed and the tongue is pressed up against the palate where it should be, the face and jaw develop correctly. Our orthotropics dentist (you’ll hear more about that later!) says proper oral posture is, “Lips closed, teeth together, tongue on the roof of your mouth, breathe through your nose.”
This was a complete surprise to me as it’s not at ALL how I rest my mouth!
My husband said it was totally normal — and how could I NOT have my tongue on the roof of my mouth? Uh oh, I smell a genetic train for this mouth breathing thing going to my side of the family. Shoot!
Mouth breathing effects the entire facial structure development and can lead to abnormally shaped features, lower muscle tone, a narrow palate and lower jaw that’s too small. And what happens when your mouth is too small to hold all your teeth?
They crowd in, become crooked, and voila … braces. Or for some people it means orthotropics to slowly break and widen the mouth out to where it should be. Ouch. <<literally!
Mood and Behavior Disorders
Over the past few decades allergies have been on a steep upward trend. It’s estimated that now 30% of adults and 40% of children have an allergy. Houston, we have a problem!
Unfortunately this has a big impact on our attention and mood, especially kids. Hmmmm, been in a classroom of children lately? You can see and feel the difference.
Taiwanese researchers looked at the link between allergies and depression. They found the more severe the allergy symptoms are, the higher the depression and anxiety. Teenagers with asthma and allergies have a higher risk of suicidal behavior.
Research published in the journal PLOS found that when allergy symptoms were treated, it majorly improved kid’s ADHD, ADD, and memory problems. Thank goodness there’s hope that we can turn all the side effects around!!
Bacteria in Your Lungs
You’ve probably heard about “leaky gut,” but have you ever heard of “leaky lung”?? The lining in our lungs is actually kind of like our gut. Doctors used to think these were sterile environments, but both the gut and lungs are populated with bacteria and microbes.
People with environmental allergies and asthma experience inflammation in both the lungs and the gut. It seems like the microbes in our lungs may play a role in allergy symptoms and complications. In fact, asthma sufferers even have different levels of certain bacteria camping out in their lungs compared to those without asthma.
Unlike our gut though, it seems like the less bacteria overall in the lungs, the better.
Scientists and doctors are providing even more evidence of the known link between gut health and brain/emotional health. Maybe there’s a link between what’s living in our lung lining and that congested nose? We know allergies cause inflammation in the body, so this could be a two-way street.
In our family, poor little John had pneumonia twice before he was 18 months old, and although it was likely not bacterial and we didn’t use antibiotics, I always wondered if it weakened his lungs. Ever since, he has trouble breathing when he gets a bad cold, and more than any of our children, his colds “go deep” into his lungs and may cause more serious problems like fever and rapid breathing.
He also had whooping cough, which IS a bacteria, right around age two. Poor kid’s lungs took a beating in his early life!
Perhaps it’s all very related, those early illnesses, the dust allergies, and the fact that he has now been diagnosed with “illness-induced asthma.” We’ve only had to use an inhaler for him twice, but he also had a nebulizer breathing treatment at our old pediatrician’s (the ones who kicked us out because we weren’t up to date on shots).
Gets me wondering about steroids in the lungs: potentially helpful for the lung bacteria (if they’re hostile) or harmful to our native bacteria?
Dr. Lauren Jefferis Weighs In On Environmental Allergies
I had an opportunity to interview Dr. Lauren Jefferis and we talked about all sorts of things – you can watch the full interview here or this little snippet below is where we talked about how environmental allergies impact your overall immune health.
Filling Up Your Bucket
Some people think allergies are like a personal bucket. Holistic MD Elisa Song explains the “bucket theory” of allergens, which is basically:
Each allergen we’re exposed to: grass, dander, dust mites, etc. dumps a little into our allergy bucket.
The more exposure, the faster the bucket fills up and the sooner and more severe the symptoms.
It’s not just allergens though. Unhealthy food choices, too much sugar, being tired (another symptom of allergies!), exposure to bacteria and viruses, etc. all add up in the the bucket. This is really similar to the body burden bucket of toxins I talked about with environmental expert Lara Adler in this interview.
What happens when it gets full? That’s when we see the allergy symptoms.
It doesn’t stop there though. Full buckets will eventually make it harder for us to fight off everything else. 🙁 This can lead to worse allergies (or more of them), general sickness, autoimmune disease, and other problems.
By reducing allergen exposure and taking steps to healthier choices in general, it’s going to help drain the bucket and reduce allergy symptoms. That’s why we’re cleaning like crazy people and even organizing toys differently to keep safe from dust allergies!
We tried to maintain our environment and spend money on killing and containing the dust mites, and it just wasn’t tenable.
When I thought about jeopardizing my children’s human growth hormone production, palate shape, mood regulation and sleep in general (which we work so hard to preserve!), I realized this was a big decision with potential major gains in overall health.
We finally decided to (sort of) go the modern medical route, even though I’m as crunchy as they come!! I’ll definitely be sharing more on the treatment research I’ve done and the choices we made in the future so stay tuned for that!