By Dr. Mercola
Spring allergies affect an estimated 25 million Americans, and according to the American Board of Allergy and Immunology, we’re looking at one of the worst allergy seasons in a long time, thanks to a number of climactic factors.1
The Asthma and Allergy Foundation's annual list of the worst cities for those with spring allergies (based on tree pollen counts) include the following five:2
- Jackson, Mississippi
- Knoxville, Tennessee
- Chattanooga, Tennessee
- McAllen, Texas
- Louisville, Kentucky
Airborne pollen is the most common cause of seasonal allergies, also known as hay fever or allergic rhinitis. Early arrival after a mild winter has spawned high levels of pollen, and means allergy season will linger weeks longer. Both 2011 and 2012 reported record-breaking pollen numbers, and this season will likely break those records.
Needless to say, sales of allergy medications of all kinds are booming. This includes antihistamines, decongestants, nasal sprays and allergy shots—many of which can cause significant side effects.
According to the featured article in Forbes, the US market for allergy drugs is projected to hit or exceed $14.7 billion by 2015:
“The companies named to benefit most include Schering-Plough, Novartis, Teva Pharmaceutical Industries (Vicks), Meda Pharmaceuticals, Collegium Pharmaceutical, McNeil Consumer Healthcare, and others, including companies that make alternative remedies as well.”
One of the better alternatives is sublingual allergy drops, which have been shown to work just as well as inhalers. Sublingual immunotherapy has not been approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), but is widely used in Europe, and some American doctors prescribe it off label.
There are also a number of other alternatives, including provocation neutralization treatment. The success rate for this approach to treating allergies is about 80 to 90 percent, and you can receive the treatment at home.
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, your 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, hacking 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.
Allergies May Also Be Due to Leaky Gut Syndrome
Leaky gut is a condition that occurs due to the development of gaps between the cells (enterocytes) that make up the membrane lining your intestinal wall. These tiny gaps allow substances such as undigested food, bacteria and metabolic wastes that should be confined to your digestive tract to escape into your bloodstream -- hence the term leaky gut syndrome. Once the integrity of your intestinal lining is compromised, and there is a flow of toxic substances "leaking out" into your bloodstream, your body experiences significant increases in inflammation.
Besides being associated with inflammatory bowel diseases like Crohn's and ulcerative colitis, or celiac disease, leaky gut can also be a contributing factor to allergies.
According to a growing number of experts, including Dr. Loren Cordain, a professor at Colorado State University and an expert on Paleolithic lifestyles, humans are NOT designed to eat grains, and doing so may actually be damaging to your gut. The problem isn't only that there are superior sources of nutrients; grains actually contain anti-nutrients that may damage your gut. Cracks in your intestinal wall can then allow undigested proteins to enter your blood stream. These large complex substances are antigenic and allergenic, meaning they stimulate your immune system to produce antibodies against them. This is what sets the stage for the occurrence of allergies and other autoimmune disorders.
“Healing and sealing” your gut has been shown to help alleviate allergy symptoms.The key lies in altering your diet to eliminate the offending foods, such as grains and processed foods, and introduce healthier ones that will support a proper balance of bacteria in your gut. To restore gut health, and prevent leaky gut from occurring, eating traditionally fermented foods is essential.
Alternative Allergy Treatments that Can Work
A recent ABC News report took 10 common “myths and old wives' tales” to allergists to get feedback on what works and what doesn’t. Included in their list were the following. For the remaining, please see the original article.3 In the following sections, I’ll address a number of other drug-free alternatives:
- Eating locally-produced honey: According to ABC News, the feedback was mostly negative on this strategy. But they do acknowledge the positive results gleaned in a 2011 study, which found that patients diagnosed with birch pollen allergy found significant relief when they consumed birch pollen honey daily from November to March. During birch pollen season, compared to the control group, the patients using honey experienced a 60 percent reduction in symptoms; twice as many asymptomatic days; 70 percent fewer days with severe symptoms, and 50 percent decrease in usage of antihistamines.
While I believe there's truth to the anecdotal claims that local honey can help reduce symptoms of asthma, it's important to be aware that honey itself can also trigger in some cases severe allergic reactions, including anaphylactic shock. So clearly you should not attempt to use honey if you've ever experienced an adverse reaction to honey in the past. Also be careful and use it sparingly in the beginning until you've confirmed that you can tolerate it. Another important point to remember is that honey is high in fructose, which, in excessive amounts, can exacerbate pre-existing insulin resistance and wreak havoc on your body.
- Flushing your nasal cavity with a neti pot: This strategy is widely recommended, even by the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology. Irrigating your sinuses will help flush out pollen and other irritants, helping you breathe a little easier
- Acupuncture: Perhaps surprisingly to a lot of people, acupuncture has been shown to offer effective relief from allergy symptoms. A study published earlier this year found that those who went for weekly acupuncture treatments had significantly fewer breathing problems compared to those who did not receive acupuncture. However, the effect only lasted as long as they maintained their treatments. Still, this could be a viable option for seasonal allergy sufferers willing to get needled once a week while pollen counts are at their worst
- Eating “right”: Here, the allergists claimed the findings were inconclusive, but I think there’s a lot of wiggle-room when you ask conventionally trained doctors and researchers to define what the “right” diet is. Most are simply clueless about using nutrition for optimal health. For example, genetically engineered (GE) foods, which are pervasive in the American diet, have been shown to cause food allergies. Ditto for various food additives. Recent research has also found that junk food increases a child’s risk of asthma and allergies, so certainly, avoiding such foods can, at the very least, reduce your risk.
To me, addressing your diet if you have allergies is a no-brainer.
An estimated 80 percent of your immune system is located in your gut, so supporting your digestive health is essential to also supporting your immune system, which is your primary defense system against ALL disease. Processed food, GE ingredients and synthetic additives all decimate the beneficial bacteria in your gut, thereby having a negative effect on your immune system. Ideally, you’ll want to avoid processed foods, focusing on organic, locally-grown foods instead (both to optimize your nutrition and avoid pesticides), and include fermented foods in your diet to optimize your gut flora, or use a high-quality probiotics supplement.
Additionally, as it pertains to your diet: about one-third of seasonal allergy sufferers have something called "oral allergy syndrome,"4 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. If this applies to you, you’ll want to avoid such foods.
The MOST Important Allergy 'Treatment' You Need to Pay Attention to
While I believe you certainly need to address your diet and could try any of the alternative strategies listed above, if you have asthma, optimizing your vitamin D levels is absolutely crucial. In fact, research suggests that vitamin D deficiency may be a primary underlying cause of asthma. This means that many are needlessly suffering with a potentially life threatening ailment, since vitamin D deficiency is easily remedied.
Ideally, you'll want to get your vitamin D from safe sun exposure. Beware that using sunscreen when outdoors effectively shields your skin from making any vitamin D. Another alternative is using a safe tanning bed, or if neither of those options are available, an oral vitamin D3 supplement. If you opt for a vitamin D supplement you also need to boost your vitamin K2. For more information on this, please see this previous article.
Whichever way you go, make sure to check your vitamin D levels to make sure you’re within the therapeutic levels of 50-70 ng/ml. If you get your levels to about 60 ng/ml there's a strong likelihood -- especially if you combine it with exercise and balancing out your omega-3 and omega-6 fats as described below -- that you will not experience asthma anymore.
Provocation Neutralization Allergy Treatment
Addressing allergies takes a multi-faceted approach that involves optimizing your diet, intestinal health, vitamin D levels, and avoiding potential triggers. Typically, allergy sufferers tend to arm themselves with a variety of antihistamine pills, nose sprays and eye drops in anticipation of allergy season. But these drug treatments come with their own set of side effects, and relief is short lived. And it's been my experience that 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 perhaps years, and it can take several years to be effective.
Provocation neutralization (PN) allergy testing and treatment 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. I offered this effective treatment for many years in my office.
The 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 Medicine5 (AAEM) has a list of physicians and offices that are trained in this highly effective and recommended technique.
Sublingual Immunotherapy for Asthma & Allergies
“Desensitizing a person to allergies usually involves a series of injections of small amounts of allergens, but a large review of studies has found that putting allergens under the tongue in a water solution might work just as well,” the New York Times6 recently reported.
A meta-analysis of 63 randomized controlled trials, involving more than 5,130 patients between the ages of four and 74, found strong evidence that sublingual immunotherapy improved asthma symptoms caused by grass, tree pollen, dust mites, ragweed and other substances. The treatment produced a greater than 40 percent improvement in symptoms compared to a placebo, and led to a significant reduction in the use of asthma medicines. Interestingly, Provocation Neutralization technique, described above, has also utilized sublingual allergy treatments for many decades.
The review, published in The Journal of the American Medical Association,7 also found moderate evidence that the oral treatment reduced runny nose and eye inflammation. Local reactions were common, but no life-threatening side effects, such as anaphylaxis, were reported. According to Dr. Daniel Moore,8 the allergy drops used for sublingual immunotherapy (SLIT) are administered daily, or several times per week, over a period of years.
“The immune system of the gastrointestinal tract tends to 'tolerate' foreign substances, meaning that it does not respond in an over-active way to swallowed material,” he explains. “...When SLIT is administered into the gastrointestinal tract [via your mouth], the immune system tolerates the allergen, instead of the over-reactivity of the immune system, as with allergic disease. This results in less allergy symptoms when the body is exposed to the allergy source, such as airborne pollen or pet dander... SLIT appears to be effective in the treatment of allergic rhinitis, allergic conjunctivitis and, to a lesser degree, allergic asthma.”
Additional Safe and Effective Strategies to Treat Allergies and Asthma
As already mentioned, addressing your diet and optimizing both your gut health and vitamin D levels should be at the top of your list if you’re suffering from allergies and/or asthma. Here are a few other basic strategies that can help treat the root of the problem as well.
- Increase your intake of animal-based omega-3 fats – I can't emphasize enough the importance of getting sufficient amounts of high-quality animal-based omega-3 fats in your diet. The fats DHA and EPA found in fish oil and krill oil are potent anti-inflammatories.
According to Mother Earth News,9 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 study10 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.)
- Reduce your intake of omega-6 fats – In addition to adding omega-3 fats to your diet, you also want to reduce the amount of omega-6 fats you consume because the ratio between these two fats is very important. If you eat processed foods daily, the balance between omega-3 and omega-6 fats will become distorted, which can cause the type of inflammation that leads to asthma.
- Fermented vegetables and/or 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.
- Avoid pasteurized milk products, which are notorious for increasing phlegm and making asthma worse.
- Get regular exercise – Exercise (especially out in fresh air if you're an asthmatic) is actually crucial, as it helps to moderate insulin levels.
Below are several other foods and herbs you might want to try:
- 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.
- Quercetin: Quercetin is an antioxidant that belongs to a class of water-soluble plant substances called flavonoids. Although research is sketchy, 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. As far back as the 17th century, butterbur was used to treat coughs, asthma, and skin wounds. Researchers have since identified the compounds in butterbur that help reduce symptoms in asthma by inhibiting leukotrienes and histamines, which are responsible for symptom aggravation in asthma.11 In a German study,12 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. Also, the RAW herb should not be used because it contains substances called pyrrolizidine alkaloids that can be toxic to the liver and kidneys and may cause cancer. Commercial butterbur products have had a lot of these alkaloids removed.
- 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 bath water.
There is Hope if You Suffer From Allergies
If you’re one of the tens of millions of allergy sufferers in the US, know there is plenty you can do besides lining the pockets of the pharmaceutical industry. Eating a wholesome diet based on unprocessed, ideally organic and/or locally grown foods, including fermented foods, along with optimizing your vitamin D levels and correcting your omega-3 to omega-6 ratio, will form the foundation upon which your immune system can function in an optimal manner.
For short-term relief of symptoms, you could give acupuncture a try, and irrigate your sinuses with a neti pot. There are also a number of foods and herbs you can try to alleviate symptoms, which are listed above. For more long-term relief, you may want to consider provocation neutralization treatment, or sublingual allergy drops, which work just as well as inhalers.