Plenty of medications are available to ease allergy symptoms. We’ve all seen the ads for meds for nasal congestion, sneezing and coughing, eye redness, etc.

We are used to treatments that attack the disease or suppress symptoms, but there is a downside to this approach, the first being side effects. From a wellness perspective, these drugs do not address the underlying cause, and it is always better to treat the cause than to suppress symptoms. Of course, if someone has a life-threatening allergy, it is certainly wise to have some emergency meds available, but for most allergy sufferers the condition is not so serious.

Besides medications, there are two main approaches to helping with allergies: lifestyle changes and wellness treatments, or therapies that work with the body’s own healing mechanisms to restore balance and normal function. When they first start care, most patients are in bad shape, so lifestyle changes alone are not enough. Once their allergies are controlled with treatment, then lifestyle changes become more important.

For most patients, addressing the causes of their allergies begins with the “leaky gut” problem in the digestive tract, which I discussed in last week’s column. Leaky gut is a source of chronic, low-grade immune system stimulation, which over time can cause it to overreact to even small irritants.

A first major step is finding and eliminating foods the person is sensitive to; this is best determined by using an elimination diet. Some practitioners recommend allergic patients stop eating all dairy and wheat products, because they are such common sources of irritation to the gut. This can be a major lifestyle change but the benefits are well worth it.

There are also supplements, both food-based and herbal, that help with irritation of the gut lining. They are most helpful in the beginning of care, but if there is a long history of inflammation, some patients benefit from taking them indefinitely.

Another step is to restore the normal bacteria balance in the gut. A diet of highly refined and processed foods, as well as antibiotic use, causes changes in the bugs in our intestines, and this also can overstimulate the immune system. “Probiotics” are supplements or foods that contain large amounts of the “good” gut bacteria, so the gut can be reseeded. Studies have shown that allergic patients benefit from taking probiotics in pill form. Children whose mothers took probiotics during pregnancy have fewer allergic problems than children whose mothers did not.

Fermented foods such as kimchi, yogurt and sauerkraut, and drinks such as kombucha and kefir are a great source of probiotics, but be sure to read the label — some commercial brands are pasteurized after they are fermented, so the bacteria are killed. A great source is homemade fermented vegetables; they are easy to make, and classes on preparing them (as well as the veggies themselves) are available in the Bangor area through Ripley Farm in Dover-Foxcroft.

Educating patients about the leaky gut effects of anti-inflammatory drugs, and then helping them to stop using them is a plus. These meds are a very common source of gastrointestinal stress and leaky gut problems. Easing chronic pain is an area where wellness treatments shine; this is especially important in a time when powerful, addictive painkillers are fast becoming a problem in our society.

Some sinus congestion problems are not due to allergies. Just because the sinuses are painful and inflamed does not automatically mean there is an allergic problem. Joint and muscle problems in the neck can interfere with sinus drainage, and can cause frontal headache and redness of the eyes. Many congested chiropractic patients leave the office with their sinuses draining for the first time in months, after treatment released blockages in the neck that were keeping the sinuses from letting go. By restoring normal function to the joints, muscles and nerves, manipulation can also help reduce stress on the whole system, and improve the over-reactivity that is typical for the allergic patient.

Because it has a calming effect, acupuncture can also be a great treatment for the allergic patient. It can be used for both the systemwide, underlying pro-allergic state (in acupuncture theory, sometimes known as “general excess”) as well as any specific symptoms such as sinus congestion, breathing difficulty, skin reactions, etc. There are many different styles of acupuncture, but they all have the same goal, as does any wellness treatment — to allow the body’s normal healing functions to restore balance.

Allergies are a very common, and increasing, problem. Chronic sinusitis is one of the most commonly reported chronic diseases, affecting up to 30 percent of the U.S. population. The increase in many chronic diseases in our society points to our need to change our health care system. Our health is worsening despite the fact that about 80 percent of the U.S. population is using either a prescription or over-the-counter drug daily. Clearly another approach is needed. To me, the only real options are a combination of lifestyle improvements and wellness care.

Dr. Michael Noonan practices chiropractic, acupuncture and other wellness therapies in Old Town.