Article by: Tiffany Etterling Photography: Lisa Mayhew-Ortiz
This is one of the best times of year in the Mesilla Valley. But if you’re an allergy sufferer, you might associate spring more closely with itchy eyes, runny nose, and sneezing than you do with warm weather and sunshine.
If you have allergies, you’re not alone. One in five Americans suffers from allergy symptoms, and allergies rank fifth among leading chronic diseases in the US. The term “allergies” used to refer to only seasonal hay fever caused by dust and pollen. Today, doctors and researchers are beginning to dig deeper to find that allergies are a factor in many common health problems. Dr. Shiney Nattakom is one doctor taking a more serious look at the causes and treatment of allergies in Southern New Mexico. Dr. Nattakom began her career as a physician in internal medicine, seeing and treating many extremely ill patients. “When I started my practice, I never imagined I would end up being an allergist. Allergies didn’t seem like something I needed to pay attention to at the time.”
Then, Dr. Nattakom’s perspective on allergies began to change when her mother was diagnosed with asthma and one of her children was diagnosed with atopic dermatitis. “That just opened the door for me and I started doing more research into allergies. I kept expanding my toolbox and learning more about allergies, and after a while I realized that this is what I want to do.” Today Dr. Nattakom spends about 70 percent of her time seeing patients for allergy-related ailments.
What are allergies?
Allergies are inflammation in the body caused by some kind of allergen. Allergy symptoms can include a runny nose, sneezing, watery eyes, asthma, rashes, and even abdominal pain. However, fatigue is one symptom that many people don’t attribute to allergies. “A lot of people are walking around completely exhausted and they don’t realize that chronic allergies might be the cause of their fatigue.”
Although allergy symptoms most frequently manifest in the respiratory and digestive systems, it is the immune system that determines whether you will have an allergic reaction. Allergens, says Dr. Nattakom, are seemingly harmless things that our bodies shouldn’t react to, but if you have a sensitive immune system your body is more likely to respond with inflammation. Because Las Cruces is located in a desert, weeds and dust mites are the most common allergens in this area. Since Las Cruces is one of the world’s largest producers of pecans, Dr. Nattakom frequently sees patients suffering from pecan pollen allergies. Food allergies are also becoming more and more common. Food allergies can cause digestive symptoms and can cause or exacerbate seasonal allergies as well.
How are allergies treated?
Allergies are the cause of many unpleasant short-term symptoms, but there are also some long-term effects that can arise if allergyrelated inflammation isn’t properly diagnosed and treated. The latest research indicates that inflammation is the driver of many conditions including heart disease and obesity. The good news is that there are more options than ever before for diagnosing and treating all types of allergies. Some people who suffer from seasonal allergies are able to successfully treat their symptoms using over-the-counter medications available at local drug stores.
However, Dr. Nattakom says that if your allergy symptoms don’t respond to over-the-counter medications and start to interfere with your daily life, it’s probably time to seek the help of an allergy professional. Allergies can be tricky to diagnose with blood and skin tests alone. That is why Dr. Nattakom starts by taking a full history, doing a complete physical, and using a detailed questionnaire in order to narrow down a diagnosis. Once a diagnosis has been made, Dr. Nattakom uses an integrated approach, combining conventional medicine and complementary alternative medicine, to treat patients. “I am a big proponent of conventional techniques and they do work,” she explains, “but I also see the limitations.
My nutritional training was very limited in medical school. The roles of nutrition and diet are huge in treating allergies and other health problems; because of my functional medicine training, I can integrate it into my practice now.” Allergy treatments can include environmental control measures, dietary modification, medication (typically pills or nasal sprays), and immunotherapy through allergy shots or sublingual allergy drops. Sublingual immunotherapy is one of the things that makes Dr. Nattakom’s practice unique. The sublingual drops are perfect for the very young, the elderly, and patients who cannot take allergy shots.
Dietary modification is challenging, but Dr. Nattakom says that her patients are highly motivated. “Many times people come in and don’t even realize they are having symptoms until their diet has been modified. This is especially true of many patients with gluten intolerance. Once they realize what it feels like to be symptom-free, they don’t want to go back to their old eating habits.”
Dr. Nattakom combines all these traditional allergy treatments with a more holistic functional medicine approach for her patients. “Many times I discover that people with allergies need functional repair of the gut because 70 percent of the immune system is within the digestive tract,” she says. Traditional medicine and allergy sufferers alike most often overlook the reinnoculate portion of the five Rs, says Dr. Nattakom. “In traditional medicine we tend to use antibiotics quite frequently, but we forget to re-innoculate the gut with the proper probiotics because we didn’t understand its role in overall health.”