Breathing Easier in Achoo Season

Here’s a three-step plan for giving spring allergies the slip.

By Joanne Gallo

April 2005

It’s one of Mother Nature’s cruel jokes: The air starts to warm, buds begin to bloom, a gentle wind fills the air. But you are not one of those people fond of humming the song “It Might As Well Be Spring” because Mom Nature gifted you with seasonal allergies. Your nose runs, your eyes water, your throat is as scratchy as sandpaper. So those springtime breezes and lovely flowers are not your friends.

When you’re sneezing your head off, it’s probably little comfort to know that you’re not alone. More than one-third of all Americans are affected by allergies, according to The American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, and millions suffer needlessly or rely on medications without knowing their options. Before you resign yourself to a season full of sniffles or side effects, learn how to manage your allergies naturally with a three-pronged approach: Avoid allergens, eat the right foods and introduce supplements to your diet.

Nature of the Beast

An allergy is an overreaction by the immune system to a normally harmless substance, like a dog barking furiously at a falling leaf. The immune system prepares to defend itself against this “invader” by producing large amounts of antibody immunoglobin E (IgE). IgEs attach to the body’s mast (or tissue) cells and basophils (blood cells), and spur the release of inflammatory chemicals like histamine, cytokines and leukotrienes. These substances act on tissues in various parts of the body (like the respiratory system) and cause all those annoying symptoms.

Different allergens and reactions to them abound, but springtime allergies, also known as allergic rhinitis or hay fever, are often a response to pollen, tiny particles released from trees, weeds and grasses that enable them to reproduce. Other symptoms of hay fever include coughing or postnasal drip, dark circles under the eyes caused by increased blood flow to the sinuses and conjunctivitis, an inflammation of the membrane lining the eyelids. Yeech!

Seasonal allergy sufferers also often have sensitivities to dust mites, ragweed, mold spores and animal dander. If not brought under control, runaway allergies can lead to sinusitis (inflammation of the sinuses) or sinus infection, as excessive mucus production can cause fluid to build up and cause swelling. So before you run into more serious problems, start by hunting down and eliminating those allergens now.

Hide ‘n Seek

“The first rule of allergy treatment is to avoid and/or eliminate or minimize exposure to what you are found to be allergic to,” asserts Peter Madill, MD, a primary care physician in Sebastopol, California, who treats allergies with both Western and Eastern medicine techniques. The cause of your symptoms may not be obvious; skin and blood allergy tests can pinpoint more evasive offenders.

If pollen or dust turns out to be your archenemy, your home can be a major battleground. “Some allergens like grass pollen or house dust mites are ubiquitous when it is their season, but with careful education people can still learn to minimize their exposure,” says Madill. “This could include keeping bedroom and car windows closed during the pollen season, using an air filter, especially in the bedroom, and applying various strategies to bedding for house dust mites.” Washing bedding in hot water, as well as using a dehumidifier and removing carpeting, can be helpful. Unfortunately, vacuuming and dusting can worsen symptoms by exhausting dust particles and allergens back into the air, so it’s important to dust with a cloth sprayed with a dust-collecting agent and use a vacuum cleaner with a HEPA filter attachment that traps the smallest of particles.

Food 911

Once you’ve turned your house into an anti-allergy zone, it’s time to call on your diet as additional security. Foods to avoid are those that contribute to mucus production, as Sylvia Goldfarb, PhD, points out in her book Allergy Relief (Avery); she warns snifflers to steer clear of dairy, flour, shellfish and red meat.

Folks specifically allergic to ragweed should take extra caution when consuming common fruits and vegetables. According to Dr. Leonard Bielory, director of the Asthma and Allergy Research Center at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, melon, cantaloupe, bananas, cucumber, zucchini and watermelon—even the normally calming chamomile—can cause a spike in allergy symptoms, and in rare cases can cause a potentially fatal anaphylactic shock. Why? Allergy-stimulating proteins in ragweed pollen are chemically similar or even identical to those in such foods and the ensuing protein cross-reaction causes itching and tingling of the mouth, lips, throat and ears.

Which are the best allergy-fighting foods? “Those that calm down or at least don’t contribute to the body’s tendency for chronic inflammation, the breeding ground for so much disease,” asserts Peter Madill. He advises his patients to follow a diet of complex carbohydrates and good fats that help calm inflammation, and fruits and vegetables rich in antioxidants. A study in the December 2003 issue of Allergy confirms that a diet rich in the antioxidant vitamin E (good sources: almonds and hazelnuts) and the omega-3 fatty acid EPA (found in salmon, tuna and halibut) helped reduce the risk of developing hay fever.

Supplemental Options

If you’re not a fish-lover, try adding an omega-3 supplement to your regimen—its anti-inflammatory properties will benefit your whole system. For antioxidant support, try quercetin, a bioflavonoid, which according to Goldfarb, inhibits the release of histamine.

Recent research has also found a novel combination of herbs significantly reduced rhinitis symptoms: harda or haritaki, bahera or kalidruma, Indian walnut, ginger root, Indian long pepper and black pepper. The carefully designed studies concluded that people suffering from sneezing, runny nose and congestion were significantly improved, with no adverse side effects.

Of course, you can always opt to take antihistamines that might make you drowsy or spacey, decongestants that can speed your heart rate, nose sprays that can damage the lining of the nose, or painful, costly injections. But if you try attacking allergies the natural way, you might find Mother Nature’s seasonal joke is no longer on you.

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