A few years ago, I had a patient come in for a first time visit who mentioned that they were dreading the changing of the seasons. Now, here in the Pacific Northwest, where it rains non-stop for months on end, this is not the normal attitude. Sunshine is craved and treated like a precious commodity (which it is!). I asked him why he dreaded spring coming, and he explained that he had suffered from horrible hay fever since he was a boy. Beginning in April, he had a regimen of staying inside and avoiding the outside world at all cost for a good 6 months. What an awful way to live! And what’s worse, he believed there was no way to lessen or eliminate his allergies.
Allergy symptoms are indeed awful. Watery, itchy eyes, scratchy throat, sneezing, runny nose…these symptoms are sure to put a damper on what ought to be fun, relaxing time outside.
Unfortunately, allergies have dramatically risen in the last 25 years for as yet unknown reasons, although there is a lot of research being done on the “hygiene” or “old friend” hypothesis. This hypothesis states that a lack of early childhood exposure to certain microbes, or exposure to as many microbes as our ancestors once were, is causing our immune systems to lose some of its ability to self regulate. To put it simply, the immune system starts overreacting, looking at things such as pollen, which should be recognized as non-threatening, and instead seeing it as a dangerous foreign invader that needs attack. To get rid of this perceived foreign invader, our immune system starts creating many chemicals that give us those aggravating symptoms.
The release of histamine triggers an inflammatory reaction, which causes congestion and increased secretions. Our body does this with the aim of making it easier for our white blood cells to attack foreign invaders. Unfortunately, with an allergic reaction, there’s no actual invader to be rinsed out with all that snot! There are many over the counter pharmaceuticals available that address histamine release. As a group we refer to these drugs as “antihistamines” since they all, in one way or another, affect histamine, either by blocking it, or lessening our reaction to it.
To reduce symptoms during this year’s season, the time to act is now. Stabilizing the cells that release histamine, that cause those nasty symptoms of itchy eyes, runny nose, and general fogginess, can be very helpful in reducing symptoms. Balancing the immune system, though, is the key to long-term wellness and the avoidance of worsening problems later in life.
Here are a few things you can do to minimize your experience of allergies. As with any new regime, check in with your health practitioner before starting. While it’s ideal to begin these treatments prior to your allergy season, beginning at any time is going to improve your symptoms.
- Take high potency probiotics daily. A good number to shoot for is between 40-60 billion cfu’s per day. Eighty percent of our immune system is in the gastrointestinal tract, as it has to differentiate between what’s food and what is a dangerous invader. Probiotics are the beneficial bacteria that our immune system requires to be regulatory and not inflammatory. Probiotics minimize allergic reactions and also protect us against bacterial and viral infections such as the flu virus. Purchase a high quality refrigerated.
- Use a neti pot to clean your nasal passages each day. Add ¼ tsp. probiotics, and ¼ tsp salt per cup of water and use as directed. This rinses the nasal passages of any possible allergens.
- Avoid foods that you are sensitive or allergic to. This decreases the overall load your immune system is processing so that allergens may not have as dramatic an effect. If you notice that you have an itchy throat or ears after eating a particular food, chances are you are sensitive to it. Other possible symptoms include generalized fatigue (often several days after ingesting a food), gastrointestinal distress, joint pain, headaches, depression, or anxiety. A food sensitivity test may be a good idea if you are wondering which foods are irritating for you.
- Take a mast cell stabilizer beginning about three months in advance of allergy season. The flavonoid quercitin is one such supplement. 250-500mg twice daily is a good starting dose. Taking a mast cell stabilizer, helps the some of the cells that release histamine be less reactionary.
- Butterbur (Petasites hybridus) is an herb that has strong anti-inflammatory effects and has been shown in at least one trial to be as effective as an OTC antihistamine for controlling hay fever symptoms. A good dose is 25mg, 4 times a day.
- Nettles (Urtica dioicai) is an herb that has a long history of being used as a treatment for allergies. There are many ways to enjoy this nutritious, green plant, from homemade pesto, to using as a spinach replacement (steamed!). For the best allergy prevention, 2 freeze-dried capsules 2-3 times a day works best.
- Local Bee Pollen. If one is not allergic to bees, bee pollen local to your area, ingested in large quantities, can help remind the immune system that pollen is a “food”, i.e. not something to react to. Take ½ tsp bee pollen and wait to see if there is a negative reaction (itchy throat, sneezing, etc); if there is no negative reaction, eat 3TBLS bee pollen 4X/day for 5 days, then 1 tsp when acute symptoms occur
Allergies of any kind are a signal that your body is out of balance in one or multiple systems. If long lasting change is the aim, rebalancing the immune system and any systems increasing overall inflammation must be addressed. Allergy symptoms are not something that has to be put up with! I’m happy to say my patient who hid in his house for half the year is now able to go out with his family on picnics, to the beach, to baseball games, anywhere he wants. He’s worked hard the last few years to change his diet and has incorporated many of the above treatments into his daily routine. Getting to fully enjoy life has been well worth the effort. Allergy symptoms are not something that has to be put up with!