Spring Fever — How to Treat Allergies

spring allergy season

Story at-a-glance -

  • Nearly 50 million people in America suffer from seasonal allergies, often triggered by pollen from trees, grasses and weeds; many spring allergies are activated by tree pollen, the worst offender of which is the oak tree
  • While over-the-counter decongestants and antihistamines immediately address symptoms, they also increase your risk of side effects
  • Reducing your exposure to pollen can reduce your symptoms, including keeping your windows closed during the heaviest pollen days, wearing a filter mask while gardening, keeping your hands from your face, and showering after coming indoors from exercising or gardening outdoors
  • A neti pot helps reduce the amount of pollen embedded in your nasal mucosa; taking quercetin, bromelain and MSM supplementation and supporting your gut health help support your immune system and reduce symptoms

By Dr. Mercola

Pollen is one of the most common allergens in America. Nearly 50 million people in the U.S. suffer from nasal allergies and as many as 30 percent of adults and 40 percent of children are affected. According to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA) allergies are the sixth leading cause of chronic illness in the U.S.1

The AAFA released a list of the worst cities to live in when you suffer from spring allergies.2 The report uses pollen scores, allergy medication use and the number of board-certified allergists who practice in the area as some of the criteria to develop the list. The top five cities are:

  • Jackson, Mississippi
  • Memphis, Tennessee
  • Syracuse, New York
  • Louisville, Kentucky
  • McAllen, Texas

Worst Spring Allergy Offender — The Oak Tree

Allergies to pollen are extremely common. Pollen is an airborne allergen carried by the wind and released from a variety of trees, grasses and weeds. Many of the allergens in the spring are the result of tree pollen, the biggest offender of which is the oak tree. According to Dr. Martha White at the Institute for Asthma and Allergy in Wheaton, Maryland:3

“People suffering this time of year are allergic to tree pollen. The biggest offender during the tree pollen season is the oak tree … Oak goes on for about six weeks, sometimes eight weeks, whereas the rest of the trees pollinate over a one- to two-week period and then they’re gone.”

Spring allergies or seasonal allergies are often referred to as hay fever and trigger symptoms irritating your sinuses, skin and eyes. Worldwide, seasonal allergies affect between 10 percent and 30 percent of the population.4 While most turn to antihistamines, nasal sprays, decongestants or allergy shots to address symptoms, these drugs offer only short-term relief as they suppress symptoms and sometimes have significant side effects.

Thus, they don't address the underlying cause of your allergies. By taking a proactive approach and addressing the causes, you have a higher likelihood of getting through allergy season without resorting to medication.

Why Do You Experience Seasonal Allergies?

In this short video you’ll see a visual demonstration of reactions occurring in your body as you are exposed to pollen and other protein allergens. Seasonal allergies cause a number of symptoms, including sneezing, stuffy or runny nose, watery and itchy eyes, and itching in your nose, mouth or throat. These are your body's reactions to foreign particles (allergens). The first time your body is exposed to an allergen, your plasma cells release immunoglobulin (IGE), an antibody design specific to an allergen.

The IGE attaches to the surface of mast cells found in surface tissue, such as your skin and nasal mucosa. Mast cells release a number of important cell mediators, one of which is histamine helping to mediate an inflammatory response.

The second time you encounter a particular allergen, your mast cells are activated and release a powerful combination of histamines, leukotrienes and prostaglandins, triggering a cascade of symptoms you associate with allergies. The American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology (ACAAI) explains:5

"One of the marvels of the human body is that it can defend itself against harmful invaders such as viruses or bacteria. In some people, the body reacts to harmless substances such as dust, mold or pollen by producing an antibody called immunoglobulin E (IgE).

When patients with one of the allergic diseases (such as rhinitis or asthma) are exposed to these substances, the immune system then rallies its defenses, launching a host of complex chemical weapons to attack and destroy the supposed enemy.

In the process, some unpleasant and, in extreme cases, life-threatening symptoms may be experienced … An allergic reaction may occur anywhere in the body, but usually appears in the skin, eyes, lining of the stomach, nose, sinuses, throat and lungs — places where special immune system cells are stationed to fight off invaders that are inhaled, swallowed or come in contact with the skin."

Using a Multipronged Approach May Further Reduce Your Symptoms

Allergies affect several systems in your body and you need a multifaceted approach to address symptoms and reduce reactions. If you're tired of suffering through what should be one of the most pleasant times of the year, it may be time to address more than what occurs in your eyes nose and throat. While I discuss other options to reduce your allergy symptoms below, I believe it’s important to begin with a healthy gut and optimized vitamin D levels.

An estimated 80 percent of your immune system is located in your gut, so supporting digestive health is essential as it's a primary defense against all diseases, including allergies. Allergic reactions begin in your immune system when a relatively harmless protein is encountered and your immune system overreacts, producing antibodies to attack the allergen.6

Your diet, gut health and vitamin D status are important components to optimize your immune function. One common reason for an overactive immune system is “leaky gut” syndrome.

When gaps develop between the cells lining your intestinal tract, substances may pass that should be confined to your digestive tract, including undigested proteins. These proteins contribute to allergic reactions and are a contributing factor to seasonal allergies. Once compromised, toxic substances continue to flow into your bloodstream, increasing inflammation and placing an increased workload on your immune system. The foods you eat play a major role in the protection of your intestinal lining and the development of leaky gut.

Several important nutritional factors affect your gut, including grains, sugar, glyphosate and genetically engineered foods. Grains contain antinutrients changing your gut, metabolizing into sugar and often are highly contaminated with glyphosate, which has been shown to trigger intestinal problems by damaging gut flora.

Genetically modified foods tend to be more allergenic than conventional foods. The key to “healing and sealing” your gut is to introduce healthier foods, eliminate inflammation and support a healthy balance of gut bacteria.

Traditionally fermented foods is one essential component, helping to reseed your gut microbiome and providing essential nutrients for beneficial bacteria. Optimizing your vitamin D level is also crucial as it helps to upregulate your immune system.7 Ideally, you’ll get vitamin D from sensible sun exposure.

However, if you live in climates where it is difficult to get enough sun exposure, consider using an oral vitamin D3 supplement. If you opt for a vitamin D3 supplement, you’ll also need to boost your vitamin K2 and magnesium levels. For more information see my previous articles, “What You Need to Know About Vitamin K2, D and Calcium,” and “Without Magnesium, Vitamin D Supplementation May Backfire.”

Reduce Your Exposure to Allergens

Of course, another strategy that will help reduce symptoms is to reduce exposure to triggers. The ACAAI suggests you may reduce your exposure by:8

  • Avoiding clothing made of synthetic fabrics, as they can produce an electric charge when rubbed, attracting pollen and making it stick. Better options include natural fibers like cotton.
  • When exercising outdoors make it either before dawn, in the late afternoon and/or early evening, as pollen counts are at the lowest during these times. Intense exercise may make you inhale more pollen and so should be done indoors.
  • Wear gloves and a mask when gardening. To filter pollen, wear a National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH)-rated 95 filter mask. Also avoid touching your eyes and, when done, be sure to take a shower and wash your clothes.
  • Reduce your exposure to indoor allergens by regularly vacuuming your home, including furniture, ideally with a HEPA filter vacuum cleaner; leave shoes by the door to avoid trekking dirt through the house and use a dehumidifier and/or a HEPA filter air purifier.

Another way of physically removing pollen is using a neti pot, which is a small pot with a spout. The pot is filled with distilled water and salt and administered through one nostril. The liquid flows through the nasal passages and out the other nostril.9 Do not use tap water in your neti pot as it will burn and in rare cases could trigger a deadly brain infection from an amoeba commonly found in lakes, rivers and hot springs.10

Although your stomach acid kills the amoeba quickly, it may live and reproduce in your nasal passages, traveling through your sinuses to your brain. The salt solution loosens mucus in your nasal passages that may have pollen embedded.

The treatment is an easy and cheap means of removing pollen you’ve acquired during the day and may help reduce your symptoms. It is effective as a standalone treatment and when it is used alongside other options.11 Consider trying the neti pot to determine how effective it may be for your individual situation.

Helpful Herbs and Supplements

Nature provides a number of compounds offering allergy relief by supporting your immune system and blocking allergic symptoms, including the following:

Quercetin is a strong antioxidant with demonstrated antiviral12 and anti-allergy13 properties. This flavonoid, found in several plants, including onions, apples, green tea and grapes14 stabilizes the mast cell membrane and prevents release of inflammatory agents and histamine. The effectiveness of the flavonoid is enhanced by the presence of vitamin C, which is why some supplements are sold with a combination of quercetin and vitamin C.

The ability of quercetin to strengthen mast cell membranes is not immediate and it may take up to six weeks to notice the antihistamine effect. It is most effective when taken preventively before allergy season and maintained throughout the season.

Bromelain, an enzyme found in pineapples, is also most effective when used preventively. The enzyme helps reduce nasal swelling and thins mucus, making it easier to breathe. Proven mucolytic properties15 support normal tissue function and enhances the absorption of quercetin.16

The supplement may be split into two doses between meals on an empty stomach to maximize absorption. Bromelain is also marketed as a natural anti-inflammatory for health conditions like arthritis,17 and may be more easily absorbed when taken with both vitamin C and quercetin.18

Methylsulfonylmethane (MSM) is the first oxidized metabolite of dimethyl sulfoxide (DMSO)19 and a naturally occurring sulfur compound found in all vertebrates. When you have insufficient MSM your cells become hard and stiff, which doesn’t allow for adequate flushing of foreign particles and free radicals.20

Sulfur (sulfonyl) in MSM is one of the more prominent compounds in your body and is as safe and important as vitamin C — unlike bad sulfurs, such as sulfas, sulfates, sulfites and sulfides.21

Commonly found in cow’s milk, meat, seafood, fruits and vegetables, it is thought to work by contributing sulfonyl and work by blocking the receptivity of histamine in tissues of your nasal passages, thus reducing symptoms. As a supplement, most tolerate up to 4 grams daily with few known and mild side effects.22

Butterbur (Petasites hybridus). A natural antihistamine, butterbur was used to treat coughs and asthma as far back as the 17th century. Researchers have since identified compounds in butterbur helping to reduce symptoms in asthma by inhibiting leukotrienes and histamines, which are responsible for symptom aggravation in asthma.23

A word of caution however, as 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 a substance called pyrrolizidine alkaloids, which is toxic to your liver and kidneys and may cause cancer. Commercial butterbur products have had a lot of these alkaloids removed

Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis) may be helpful for seasonal allergies. Laboratory studies suggest berberine, the active ingredient in goldenseal, has antibacterial and immune-enhancing properties.24

Eucalyptus oil. The pure essential oil may have healing properties for your mucus membranes. Add a drop of the oil to a cotton ball and sniff it several times daily; add a few drops to water for a steam treatment or add a few drops to your bathwater.

Vitamin C. A natural antihistamine found in fruits and vegetables, it can also be found in supplemental form.25 Many people will get loose stools with conventional oral vitamin C at high doses, but liposomal vitamin C doesn’t have this side effect and provides blood levels similar to intravenous vitamin C without the expense or inconvenience.

Naturopathic doctor Dr. Doni Wilson told the Huffington Post,26 “ … [Y]ou need to take 500 to 1,000 mg, three times a day to reduce symptoms."

Green Tea has demonstrated the ability to strongly inhibit mast cell activation and the release of histamine, reducing symptoms of allergies to cedar pollen.27

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