Skin Allergies Are Beyond Skin Deep

Allergy cases are among the most difficult to treat in veterinary medicine. In most cases, we chase the symptoms around with medications only to see them reappear with friends.  What are we missing?

The truth is that skin allergies are not really about the skin.  Skin is a reflection of the dysfunction within the body and begins at the gut level. Think of it like a reflection of a tree in a pond.  A reflection can be altered at the water surface with wind, rain, etc. However, once the water calms, the reflection returns.  Does this sound like a Zen Buddhist approach to skin? Not really. There is science behind the analogy. 

Digestion is truly the center of the body. Think about it. Most of the nutrients required to feed each of the gazillion cells in the body are acquired through digestion. It is not just a matter of ingesting food and fulfilling your Recommended Daily Allowance, rather there is great importance in the quality of the food, in addition to the effects that food has on the mechanisms of digestion themselves. Let’s look at simplified diagram of the small intestinal lining as an example.


Much like the levels of the defense on a football team, the intestines have normal levels of protective mechanisms in place. From the center outward, there are several important layers in a healthy gut. They include, but are not limited to:

1. Flora aka probiotic layer (green), which contains a balance of “friendly” and unfriendly bacteria. This is why we stress the importance of probiotics and other intestinal support supplements (i.e. Enteric Support) in so many cases.  You’re then assisting the healing from the inside out.

2. Mucus layer (blue) houses antibodies and protects the intestinal lining via.

3. Intestinal lining  (grey, blue and pink cells) is charged with the absorption of nutrients, but also contains mucus-producing cells, and stem cells.

4. Blood vessel network (red lines) absorbs the nutrients filtered by a healthy intestinal lining.

5. Lymphatic vessels (yellow lines) transport fats and immune cells to the lymph nodes where immune response is stimulated.

6. Lymphoid tissue (i.e Gut Activated Lymphoid Tissue or GALT) secretes antibodies into the mucus layer (not pictured)


Foods, drugs, environmental factors, stress, etc erode these normal, protective mechanisms.  This sets off a cascade of events ? the erosion of the probiotic and mucoid layers expose the intestinal lining to “bad” bacteria, yeast, and viruses.  This lining is subsequently damaged, allowing the transfer of “foreign” material into the bloodstream, which sets up immune reactions.  The immune reactions create further inflammation, which starts the cycle again. This scenario is what is called “Leaky Gut Disease” or intestinal dysbiosis.

But wait, there’s more to consider….the blood from the intestines ultimately drains into the liver.  In healthy individuals, the liver maintains a small amount of waste removal function.  With Leaky Gut disease, the liver is showered with high levels of waste to detoxify.   The liver recruits inflammatory cells, which release chemicals that cause more inflammatory reactions. The resulting inflammatory reactions can affect any part of the body, though generally moves to the weakest area of each individual body. This is why Leaky Gut Disease can set the stage for many types of inflammatory issues in a variety of places in the body. 

Interestingly enough, the liver shares some of this detoxification job with the next line defense – the skin.  Ah ha!  Now we get to it.  Let’s review a simplified waterfall of inflammation for clarity:

• The gut’s protective layers and processes are not operating at full capacity and this causes Leaky Gut disease. 
• Leaky Gut disease results in showers of waste products to the liver.
• Liver recruits inflammatory cells to resolve debris.
• The inflammatory cells release even more inflammatory chemicals into the body
• Inflammatory chemicals hang out anywhere in the body creating mischief.
• Skin acts as a secondary detox organ resulting in the itching, redness, etc. we see with allergic pets.


Wow!  It is a true trickle-down phenomenon.  When we treat the skin using antibiotics, antihistamines and steroids the skin improves for a bit, but the insults of the medications start the cascade yet again AND it increases the workload on the liver now attempting to detox even more with the new drugs on board.  These pills and injections are actually ultimately contributing to the stress the body has to overcome.

But wait, that’s not all!  The level of inflammation within the body is regulated by the adrenal gland.  As the inflammation increases, the adrenals release more of a substance called cortisol, which is the body’s version of steroids.  Long-term inflammation can cause long-term cortisol release and the adrenal gland becomes exhausted and malfunctions.  This adrenal gland insufficiency/fatigue can ultimately progress into disease processes you may have heard of called Cushing’s or Addison’s Disease.

Digestion is vastly more intricate than an article of this length can truly describe.  It boggles the mind.  I used to be totally fascinated with the kidney, as I thought it was the most interesting organ in the body.  Now I have to admit that the intestine fascinates me more.  Just think, if we focus on the reflection (i.e. skin) the results will always be temporary.  However, if we focus on the root (i.e. intestines), our results will be more profound and our patients infinitely healthier.  The center of the body really IS the digestion.  How nifty is that?