It’s Nice to Be Right

I have been reading the works of Euell Gibbons lately. One of the most interesting herbalist anecdotes he relates is a story that certain Native American tribes possessed a means of rendering themselves immune to the effects of poison ivy.

The method is as follows: very early in the year, when the first tiny leaves begin to form on the poison ivy vines, a leaf would be plucked and eaten each morning. As time passed, the ingested leaves would naturally be larger. After several months, entire sprigs would be safely consumed without any ill effects.

This sounds crazy, given that ingesting that much urushiol (the irritant substance in poison ivy, poison oak, and various other plants) is normally a quick route to misery or even death. But modern science has known for many years that our immune responses to substances are damped if they’re introduced to our bodies through the digestive system. The nasty effects of poison ivy come not from any special property of the chemical itself, but from our immune system reacting to it.

Eating the leaves, rather than rubbing against them, means that the oil is absorbed primarily once it’s in the stomach. Starting with new leaves means that initial contact is a microdose, causing little if any effect. Slowly increasing that dose means that eventually the immune system will treat even large amounts of urushiol as normal and harmless.

I’ve heard before that certain allergies can be conquered by slowing exposing the sufferers to initially small, then greater and greater amounts of the key allergen, but with most food allergies I figured it would probably be too risky to attempt. This anecdote made me wonder whether it could actually be viable after all.

This Saturday, I came across a news item which discussed how a team of medical researchers believed they’ve found a way to eliminate peanut allergies by having the sufferers – you guessed it – ingest very, very tiny amounts of peanut. (Even less than the traces that can be left in foods through contact exposure, which can themselves be deadly.) The method hasn’t been perfected yet, and several years of testing remain before it can be used on patients, but there’s good reason to believe it will eventually become an accepted treatment.

It’s nice to be right.

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2 Responses to “It’s Nice to Be Right”

  1. Indeed – a lot of allergies are treated that way currently, though usually not deadly ones.

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