This allergy season could be worse than those of past years in the U.S., heavy snow and rain in many places, followed by a sudden shift to warm weather, have led to a profusion of tree pollen and mold.
A new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences shows a link between warming temperatures and a longer ragweed pollen season. According to researchers led by Lewis Ziska of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the ragweed season is now 27 days longer in the northernmost areas of North America, largely because winter starts later and ends earlier, extending the time for pollen-bearing plants to thrive. It's not the first piece of research to make the claim that global warming will worsen allergies, but it's the most detailed and it's peer-reviewed.
In general, allergy seasons have been getting longer and more challenging, although pollen counts and allergy attacks vary widely from region to region.
If you're a seasonal allergy sufferer, you know that few things can drain the joy out of 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.
I will discuss this in greater detail below, but there is a technique called provocation neutralization (PN) that offers many allergy sufferers permanent relief with virtually no side effects. The success rate for this approach to treating allergies is about 80 to 90 percent, and you can receive home remedies for allergies and treatment at home.
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.
Evidence Climate Change is Making Allergies Worse
There are now a number of studies linking changes in climate with increasingly long and severe allergy seasons. In fact, springtime is arriving 10 to 14 days earlier than it did 20 years ago, which results in higher pollen levels for longer periods of time. A new USDA study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Health Sciences confirms that hay fever season is becoming more intense and lasting longer. How do altered weather patterns contribute to allergies?
Clifford Bassett, MD, medical director of Allergy and Asthma Care of New York sheds some light on this by using the example of ragweed, a very common allergen. Under normal circumstances, a single ragweed plant produces 1 million pollen grains. However, a CO2-rich environment boosts that number to 3 to 4 million grains. And ragweed is only ONE of the weed species making you miserable—there are many others that scientists expect to become "supercharged" by Earth's warming climate.
But here is something you probably don't associate with allergies: thunderstorms.
Stanley Fineman, MD (president of the American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology) reports that quite a few studies have linked thunderstorms to a greater incidence of asthma-related hospitalizations. The phenomenon even has a name—it's called "thunderstorm asthma," and physicians believe it has something to do with all the pollen and dust that thunderstorms stir up. Thunderstorms appear to be increasing in both frequency and severity. These trends are not likely to reverse themselves anytime soon, so it's time to arm yourself with some effective allergy fighters if you are one of the 60 million Americans afflicted.
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.
The good news is, many people "outgrow" their seasonal allergies by the time they reach the age of 60 to 70, when their immune systems become less reactive.
Besides pollen, household chemicals such as triclosan and bisphenol-A (BPA) can aggravate or even cause allergies. Scientists from the University of Michigan recently found that people who commonly used triclosan products were more likely to suffer from allergies or hay fever. This is why it is NOT a good idea to use antibacterial soap—which leads us right into one of the theories about why allergies have become such a problem today.
How a Cleaner Home May Actually WORSEN Your Allergies
Could your meticulous housekeeping be making you and your family's allergies worse? Proponents of the Hygiene Hypothesis would say, "Yes!" 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.
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.
Doris Rapp, MD, a pediatric allergist and environmental medical specialist, believes there's a good chance that allergies of all sorts are to blame for the majority of unexplained illnesses. 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. So, what can be done to ease your allergy angst? It turns out—quite a lot!
Provocation Neutralization Allergy Treatment is Nothing to Sneeze At
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 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 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.
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.
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.
Consider the following:
- 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 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. Just be careful to consume honey moderately as it’s high in fructose.
Below are several other foods and herbs you might want to try:
- 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 for home remedies for allergies and other health conditions since ancient times, 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. 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.
- 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.
Refer to this University of Maryland article for a more complete discussion of common herbal allergy treatments.
Other Tips For Making Allergy Season a Breeze
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 salt-water solution. (For more on this method, please refer to this previous article.) You may want to also consider the purchase of an air purifier. Air purification 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. In a 12-year long German study, sedentary children had more than twice the rates of hay fever as active children. 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. EFT is "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. If you enjoy hanging clothing or sheets outside to dry, you may want to avoid this during allergy season as spores and pollen can cling to fabric and end up right next to your body, triggering symptoms.
A Few Things to AVOID…
- Avoid chlorinated pools and hot tubs if you have allergies or asthma. Swimming in chlorinated pools has been shown to increase respiratory problems and allergies.
- Want to clean your air ducts? Don’t bother. One study showed that no significant allergens accumulate in air ducts, so cleaning them is a waste of money. Instead, put the money toward a good air purifier.
- You might want to back off on cell phone use if your allergies are raging. A study out of Bastyr University found cell phones might actually worsen allergy symptoms. The study, published in Archives of Allergy and Immunology, found that one hour of continuous cell phone use exacerbates allergic responses to dust and pollen. Although the findings are preliminary, they suggest that microwave radiation may somehow make allergic responses worse.
Hopefully, I have given you a number of ideas to try that you might not have known about. It is always best to employ natural measures before harsh drugs, and fortunately, natural allergy treatments work quite well. If you find a "magic combination," please don't hesitate to share your pearls of wisdom by posting a comment below!
- Rodale.com February 23, 2011
- Curr Allergy Asthma Rep September 2009
- MSNBC May 5, 2011
- Rodale December 2010
- American Academy of Environmental Medicine
- USA Today March 29, 2011
- WebMD October 2009
- University of Maryland Medical Center
- The Weather Channel PollenCast
- Bastyr Center for Natural Health
- International Archives of Allergy and Immunology 2002
- Allergy August 2006
- Altern Med Rev March 2004
- Mother Earth News August/September 2006