The weather is just beginning to turn warm and breezy, and moods are starting to perk up, when allergy season hits. I see a lot of people suffering through, and allergy medications can make them feel drowsy, dizzy, or dopey. If over-the-counter medications help decrease your symptoms enough, great! But if you have a job that requires you to be alert, if you are pregnant or have high blood pressure – which can limit your choices of medications – or maybe you just like the idea of ‘going natural’, here are some strategies that can help.
Oh, but first, what is happening in your body?
A seasonal allergen, like pollen, is a protein that your immune system recognizes as foreign invader. The immune system will start producing a particular type of antibody (IgE), which is a signal marker that lets the body know to alert its defences. The IgE attaches to mast cells – ticking time bombs of inflammatory chemicals (like histamine), and when the tipping point is reached, they explode these chemicals locally. These chemicals attract white blood cell soldiers and cause blood vessels to get leaky so the soldiers can get to the area of concern. Fluid happens to leak into surrounding tissues and that’s what causes swelling and congestion, puffy eyes, and runny noses. Mucus starts flowing, to help protect and soothe your airway. Blood vessels dilate, increasing circulation to the area, but also making your skin look red and feel warm. These chemicals can irritate your nerves, causing itchiness throats and eyes. Honourable mention goes to your cilia – tiny hairs lining your respiratory tract, that sweep excess mucus and microbes out of your lungs, and nose and into your throat so your stomach can deal with it. Smoking and cold weather paralyses these hairs!
The four ‘seasons’ of allergy in Ontario:
Early Spring: Tree pollen. Birch is a common culprit, but many species of trees are able to produce pollen allergens.
Spring – Early Fall: Grass pollen. An allergy specific to grass pollen is known as hay fever.
August – October: Mold spores peak. You may react to both indoor and outdoor molds. Suspect molds if your indoor humidity is high, or your reaction worsens in areas outdoors where there is a lot of rotting vegetation.
Late Summer until the first frost: Ragweed pollen. Ragweed likes to grow in disturbed soil and produces more pollen in urban environments.
Of course, there are dust mites and animal dander in your home that can trigger allergic symptoms year-round.
1. Reduce your exposure. Check your local 3-day pollen forecast and try to plan outdoor activities and exercise accordingly. Try to keep doors and windows closed, and wash your hair after a long day outside to remove pollen. Replacing carpets and drapes with hard surfaces and shades are options for those with household allergies, as well as keeping pets out of the bedroom. It may be worth looking into a HEPA filter for your bedroom, since we spend one third of our lives in this room! These are most effective for cat allergies. Cut back on smoking and even second-hand smoke – it is a notorious irritant to the respiratory system, and can aggravate allergies.
2. Nasal irrigation (or using the Netti Pot) is a great idea to help your cilia work efficiently. Rinsing out your sinuses with a warm saline solution can osmotically reduce swelling/congestion, moisturizes, and has been shown in studies to even locally reduce those inflammatory chemicals. Rinsing too frequently and for long periods of time can wash away too much protective mucus, and put you at an increased risk of sinus infections. Check with a knowledgeable healthcare provider first, to work out a good prescription for you.
3. Traditional Chinese Medicine – Chinese medicine herbal formulas and acupuncture are very effective for relieving allergy symptoms, and regulating your immune system. Here’s my favourite acu blog with an at home treatment you can give yourself!
4. Over-the-counter help!
*Antihistamines can decrease the histamine reaction – mainly reducing puffy eyes and runny noses. They can also stop the itchiness and sneezing, and benefit you the most when taken early on in your misery. The older versions can make you drowsy, cause dry mouth or nausea. The 2nd generation (Claritin, Allegra) have a lot less side effects. Don’t take these with alcohol or other nervous system depressants!
*Decongestants constrict your blood vessels, to reduce symptoms of stuffiness and runny noses. These medications may increase your blood pressure, and can cause insomnia, restlessness, and rebound nasal swelling. They may not be appropriate for everyone.
*Quercetin – this is a plant pigment that is found in citrus fruits and onions that stabilizes the ticking time bomb of histamine – the mast cells. It’s absorbed better with vitamin C, and bromelain, so you’ll sometimes see these in formulas. You’ll want to take 250 mg 3-4 times per day. They shouldn’t be taken in your 1st trimester of pregnancy – consult with a physician before taking anything new while pregnant.
*Stinging nettle leaf (Urtica dioica)– must be freeze-dried capsules or freshly juiced. Don’t worry, there will be no stinging when using these forms! It contains carotene, vitamin C, vitamin K, potassium, iron, and quercetin. This herb is also a mast cell stabilizer, and is anti-inflammatory, nutritive, and great for the urinary system. This herb is safe, and even encouraged to take in pregnancy!
The Advanced Strategy:
5. Enhance detoxification – You can actually help your body clear inflammatory chemicals faster by making sure your liver, kidneys and lymphatic system are working efficiently. This includes drinking plenty of water (which also thins out mucus secretions), and regular exercise and stretching (to move your lymph around). You can eat foods that give your liver the nutrients it needs to process inflammation, such as bitter, leafy greens, garlic, beets, and cruciferous vegetables. Avoiding saturated fats and processed foods, and reducing your exposure to environmental chemicals is also a big part of detoxification. I’ll cover liver detoxification and detoxes in general, at another time – it’s a big topic.
6. Optimize your immunity and heal your gut. This is another big topic, but is so important to how your body reacts and copes with exposures to allergens and infections. Your gastrointestinal tract is an important barrier between the outside environment and your bloodstream. Making sure you produce enough digestive enzymes, and addressing inflammation in your intestines (specifically food intolerances, or leaky gut syndrome), has been clinically shown to aid immune reations. Vitamin C, zinc, and probiotics are the basic supplements that you can start taking to help out your immune system. It’s worth mentioning that insomnia and high levels of stress are associated with increased risk of environmental allergies. Addressing these issues can help your immune system significantly!
Top 3 Diet Changes for Seasonal Allergies:
- Eat less dairy. The exception would be fermented dairy products, like kefir or probiotic yoghurt.
- Eat as vegetarian as possible. Saturated fats and red meats increase inflammatory signals.
- Eat an anti-inflammatory diet. This includes more omega 3′s (fish, flax, walnuts, soy, chia), less alcohol and refined sugar. With severe symptoms, it helps to supplement with fish oil, for it’s anti-inflammatory effects.
There, you are armed with the knowledge, now every choice you make to eat or move can be used to help take charge of your symptoms. Let us know how it goes!
Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology Society of Ontario. 2012. [http://allergyasthma.on.ca/patient/rhinitis-hay-fever/].
Brinkhaus R, et al. 2004. Acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine in the treatment of patients with seasonal allergic rhinitis: a randomized-controlled clinical trial. Allergy. 59:953-960
Horwitz RJ. 2012. Rakel: Integrative Medicine. 3rd ed.
Natural Standard Professional Monograph. 2012. [www.naturalstandard.com].
Romm A. 2009. Botanical Medicine for Women’s Health. 1st ed.