This Spring, Survive Your Allergy Symptoms!
If you're a seasonal allergy sufferer, you know that few things can drain the joy out of spring and summertime like the misery of red, itchy eyes, continuous sneezing and post-nasal drip. Airborne pollen is the most common cause of seasonal allergies, also known as hay fever or allergic rhinitis. Allergies can mean more than general misery for asthma sufferers, whose bouts can be much worse during allergy season—even life-threatening, in some cases. Allergy-driven asthma affects 10 million Americans, rates that have doubled since 1980.
Pollen from trees, weeds and grasses are the primary culprits behind seasonal allergies. Spring allergies are typically from tree pollen, whereas summer allergies usually come from grasses, and then weed pollens dominate the airways during late summer and fall. Without allergy testing, it's nearly impossible to determine which offenders are causing your wheezes and sneezes, but the time and season may give you some clues. If you've noticed your allergies seem to be getting worse lately, you're not the only one.
So How and Why Do Allergies Develop?
Allergies are your body's reaction to allergens (particles your body considers foreign), a sign that your immune system is working overtime. The first time your body encounters an allergen, your plasma cells release IgE (immunoglobulin E), an antibody specific to that allergen. IgE attaches to the surface of your mast cells. Mast cells are found in great numbers in your surface tissues (i.e., those with close proximity to the external environment, such as in your skin and in the mucous membranes of your nose), where they help mediate inflammatory responses. Mast cells release a number of important chemical mediators, one of which is histamine.
So, the second time your body encounters a particular allergen, within a few minutes the mast cells become activated and release a powerful cocktail of histamine, leukotrienes, and prostaglandins, which trigger the entire cascade of symptoms you associate with allergies: sneezing, runny nose, sore throat, hacky cough, itchy eyes, etc. Histamine can cause your airways to constrict, like with asthma, or cause blood vessels to become more permeable, leading to fluid leakage or hives. Leukotrienes cause hypersecretion of mucus, which you commonly experience as a runny nose or increased phlegm.
Pollen is an extremely common mast cell activator, but other agents can trigger these processes as well: mold spores, dust, airborne contaminants, dust mites, pet dander, cockroaches, environmental chemicals, cleaning products, personal care products and foods can all cause allergic reactions. Every person is different in what he or she reacts to. And, just because you haven't reacted to something in the past doesn't mean you won't react to it in the future—you can become sensitized at any point in time.
Can A Cleaner Home Actually WORSEN Your Allergies?
Could your meticulous housekeeping be making you and your family's allergies worse? Experts estimate that many allergies and immune-system diseases have doubled, tripled or even quadrupled in the last few decades. Some studies indicate more than half of the U.S. population now has at least one allergy.
Many researchers suspect the increase in immune-related diseases is rooted in our preoccupation with germ-free, dirt-free environments. As society in general becomes more "sterile," our immune systems have become increasingly unable to differentiate between real threats and harmless things like pollen and dust-bunnies. Meanwhile, you're exposed to antibiotics and pasteurized foods, which contain none of the bad or good bacteria that were once part of everyday life and helped stimulate robust immune function. Also, children don't play outside in the dirt like they used to, so are not being afforded the opportunity to develop healthy immune responses, and allergies and autoimmune diseases are the result. Numerous studies have provided very compelling evidence that your body actually benefits from regular exposure to dirt. Add to this the predominant junk food diet of the West, and you have a real recipe for a wimpy, confused immune system.
Allergies may be far more predominant than is widely appreciated, and they may even underlie many common diseases. You could be allergic to just about anything, and it could be causing a dizzying array of symptoms that you might not even suspect are related. The good news is that many people "outgrow" their seasonal allergies- the bad news is that it is by the time they reach the age of 60 to 70 (when their immune systems become less reactive)! But who wants to wait for their allergy symptoms to improve? What can be done to ease your allergy angst now? It turns out—quite a lot!
Natural Treatments: Dietary Friends and Foes
About one-third of seasonal allergy sufferers have something called "oral allergy syndrome," in which your immune system is triggered by proteins in some foods that are molecularly similar to pollen. Your immune system looks at the protein molecule and says, "Close enough!" and attacks it. If you are allergic to ragweed, for example, you may have cross-sensitivity to melons, bananas, tomatoes, zucchini, sunflower seeds, dandelions, chamomile, and echinacea. If you have a grass allergy, you may also react to peaches, celery, tomatoes, melons and oranges.
Besides avoiding foods that may trigger your allergy, there are a number of foods that can be helpful for calming down allergy symptoms, such as:
Omega-3 fatty acids: According to Mother Earth News, a German study published in the journal Allergy found people who have diets rich in of omega-3 fatty acids suffer from fewer allergy symptoms. A second study in Sweden found that children who regularly ate fish prior to age one had much lower allergies by age four. My favorite sources of omega-3 fatty acids are grass fed meat and eggs, and krill oil. (Fish has become too contaminated to rely on as a staple.)
Probiotics: In a 2008 study, researchers discovered that people who took probiotics throughout allergy season had lower levels of an antibody that triggered allergy symptoms. They also had higher levels of a different antibody (IgG), thought to play a protective role against allergic reactions. Other researchers found evidence that giving probiotics to newborns and mothers-to-be may help prevent childhood allergies.
Vitamin D: Insufficient vitamin D levels have been linked to more severe asthma and allergies in children. Vitamin D has also been found to reduce allergic responses to mold.
Hot peppers: Hot chili peppers, horseradish, and hot mustards work as natural decongestants. In fact, a nasal spray containing capsaicin (derived from hot peppers) significantly reduced nasal allergy symptoms in a 2009 study.
Locally produced raw honey: Many believe that consuming locally produced honey, which contains pollen spores picked up by the bees from your local plants, can act as a natural “allergy vaccine.” By introducing a small amount of allergen into your system (from eating the honey), your immune system is activated and over time can build up your natural immunity against it.
Quercetin: Quercetin is an antioxidant that belongs to a class of water-soluble plant substances called flavonoids. Many believe quercetin-rich foods (such as apples, berries, red grapes, red onions, capers and black tea) prevent histamine release—so they are “natural antihistamines.” Quercetin is also available in supplement form—a typical dose for hay fever is between 200 and 400 mg per day.
Butterbur (Petasites hybridus): Another natural antihistamine, this herb has been used since ancient times to treat a variety of conditions, including migraines. In a German study, 40 percent of patients taking butterbur root extract were able to reduce their intake of traditional asthma medications. A British study found butterbur as effective as the drug Zyrtec. (A word of caution is needed, however. Butterbur is a member of the ragweed family, so if you are allergic to ragweed, marigold, daisy, or chrysanthemum, you should not use butterbur.)
Stinging nettle (Urtica dioica): Another natural antihistamine, stinging nettle has a long history of use for seasonal allergies, without the drowsiness and dry mouth associated with many pharmacological antihistamines. Nettle inhibits your body’s ability to produce histamines. The recommended dose is about 300 mg freeze-dried nettle extract daily.
Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis): Goldenseal may be helpful for seasonal allergies. Laboratory studies suggest that berberine, the active ingredient in goldenseal, has antibacterial and immune-enhancing properties.
Eucalyptus oil: This pure essential oil can be healing to mucus membranes. You can apply a drop on a cotton ball and sniff it several times a day, add a few drops to water (or to a nebulizer, if you own one) for a steam treatment, or use a few drops in your bathwater.
Provocation Neutralization (PN) Allergy Treatment
Addressing allergies takes a multi-faceted approach that involves optimizing your diet and avoiding potential triggers. Typically, people anticipating the misery of allergy season arm themselves with a variety of antihistamine pills, nose sprays and eye drops. But these drug treatments come with their own set of side effects, and relief is short lived. And unfortunately, conventional allergy testing, whether done through the blood or skin, works for only 20 to 30 percent of patients. It is also quite inconvenient, as you need to go to the doctor's office every week for months or years, and it can take several years to be effective.
Provocation neutralization (PN) allergy testing and treatment, however, offers many allergy sufferers permanent relief without adverse side effects. The success rate for this approach is about 80 to 90 percent, and you can receive the treatment at home. Provocation refers to "provoking a change" and neutralization refers to "neutralizing the reaction caused by provocation." During provocation-neutralization, a small amount of allergen is injected under your skin to produce a small bump called a "wheal" on the top layers of your skin, and then it is monitored for a reaction. If you have a positive reaction, such as fatigue, headache, or a growth in the size of the wheal, then the allergen is neutralized with diluted injections or with drops that go in your mouth of the same allergen. If you are interested in pursuing PN, the American Academy of Environmental Medicine (AAEM) has a list of physicians and offices that are trained in this technique.
Simple Activities That Can Dramatically Reduce Symptoms
Another simple, inexpensive and very beneficial practice you can do at home is flushing out your nasal passages with a neti pot. A neti pot is a small vessel with a spout you insert into your nose that can be used to gently irrigate your nose and sinuses with a filtered water (boiled and cooled down) and sea salt solution. You may want to also consider the purchase of an air purifier that will result in lower levels of allergens circulating around your home or office. One of the best things you can do to reduce your allergy symptoms naturally is exercise.
If you have seasonal allergies, you will also benefit from clearing out some of your "energy meridians" with an energy technique such as acupuncture or EFT. In one study published in the American Journal of Chinese Medicine, acupuncture reportedly reduced allergy symptoms in all 26 participants. In a second study, just two acupuncture treatments totally eliminated symptoms in more than half of the participants. Even simpler is the Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT), which is my favorite energy technique because you can do it by yourself at home, and it's easy to learn, it’s "acupuncture without the needles."
Lastly, remember to keep your vehicle and building windows closed on high-pollen days, especially in the mornings before 10 am when pollen levels are normally highest. Similarly, avoid using window fans when pollen levels are high. Pollen levels are also worse on dry and/or windy days. If you must do yard work, wearing a mask might be helpful. It is always best to employ natural measures before taking harsh drugs, and fortunately, natural allergy treatments work quite well. So this spring, try some (or all) of these suggestions to reduce your allergy symptoms!
Rodale.com February 23, 2011
Curr Allergy Asthma Rep September 2009
American Academy of Environmental Medicine
USA Today March 29, 2011
WebMD October 2009
International Archives of Allergy and Immunology 2002
Allergy August 2006