Winter rain and snow is welcome during a drought, and this year, it also has contributed to an explosion of wildflowers and tree blooms—wonderful to look at, but a little hard on the pollen-sensitive. If you are welcoming the spring colors through itchy eyes and a runny nose, this article is for you.
The number of people with allergies is on the rise in Western Countries, perhaps, believe it or not, because we are “too clean”. In fact, studies have shown that children exposed to dogs, cats and other animals when they are young are less likely to become allergic to them than children who are not exposed. Coming into contact with normal bacteria, animals, and dirt—the traditional exposures that all humans in agrarian societies have had, actually helps our immune systems to develop in a balanced way. Living in an “anti-bacterial” society may cause the immune system to be “over-zealous” against non-threatening exposures, such as animals, pollen, dust mites, or mold. What’s the take-home message here? Avoid anti-bacterial soaps and hand gels—regular soap works just well to clean one’s hands. And don’t worry too much about your children rolling around with the dog and eating dirt.
If we can’t prevent the development of allergies, the best way to prevent allergic symptoms is to simply avoid the allergen. You can find out your specific allergies through tests performed by your doctor. Avoidance is easier for certain allergens, such as dust mites, mold, and animals that can be prevented or avoided in your home. Simple measures, such as washing your bedding in hot water once weekly, using “dust covers” for your pillows, comforter and mattress, avoiding carpet and upholstered furniture if possible, using shades rather than curtains, and having someone else “dust” and use a HEPA-filter vacuum cleaner frequently, can dramatically decrease your exposure to dust mites. And cleaning with a weak bleach solution and dealing with household moisture problems can reduce mold spores. If Fido is the issue, the problem becomes a little more emotional, but keeping pets out of the bedroom will at least guarantee that a third of your life will not be spent with allergen exposure. HEPA air filters can also help with floating allergens. If pollens, grasses and trees make you sneeze, avoidance is a little trickier. Airborne pollen levels are usually highest between 5:00 am and 10:00 am, so avoiding outside exercise during those times, and especially on dry, windy days, can help.
One of the newer “old” remedies, now back in fashion, is nasal irrigation for the prevention of allergies. The “neti pot” comes out of the Ayurvedic tradition, where washing the nasal passages with salt water is thought to be effective for treatment of allergies and chronic sinus conditions. Research now shows that saline nasal rinse 1-3 times daily reduces allergy symptoms because you are flushing the allergens from the nasal passages and the salt acts as a mild decongestant. You can do this with a traditional neti pot, found at health food and herb stores, or with one of the modern versions, such as Sinus Rinse, which is a plastic bottle that comes with pre-packaged salt and baking soda in the correct ratios to mix with water.
Nutritionally, some allergic people respond positively to lower levels of dairy products in the diet. It may be worth a 2-week trial off of dairy to see if this is helpful for you. Omega -3 fatty acids are also helpful, as they reduce inflammation, so eating fatty fish, taking a quality fish oil supplement, eating freshly ground flax seed or flax seed oil can all be helpful. Walnuts and other nuts are also great sources of omega 3’s. Eating an “anti-inflammatory diet” (see my blog Anti-inflammatory Living) is also helpful, including anti-oxidant rich foods, such as berries, beans, pomegranates, etc.
Quercetin is found in apples and onions and acts as an “anti-histamine” to prevent the redness and swelling of allergy season. Taken as a supplement, I would recommend 1 gram twice daily. Vitamin C also helps and is abundant in red, orange and yellow fruits and vegetables, as well as dark leafy greens. Supplement doses of vitamin C for allergies range from 1-3 grams daily. Magnesium glycinate can also be helpful at 400 mg daily.
Two herbs have shown benefits in research on allergies. Freeze dried stinging nettles (yes, those nasty green weeds growing in your yard this spring) are powerful antioxidants and can help with allergy symptoms at 100-200 mg twice daily. And if you’re really mad at the nettles that just stung you while clearing the brush in your yard, you can (carefully) harvest them and make them into a spring tonic soup. Once they’re boiled (ah, revenge) they cannot sting you anymore. Butterbur extracts are also helpful at 50-100 mg twice daily. Be sure that the butterbur you choose is free of pyrrolizidine alkaloids, which can be toxic to the liver.
If these measure fail to help, allergy medications may be just what the doctor ordered. Loratidine (10 mg) is an antihistamine tablet available at your local pharmacy that for most people is “non-sedating”. Taken once daily, it will help with runny nose as well as eye itching, though it will dry out your mouth and nasal passages. Be sure to drink a lot of water while taking it. Other medications in this category are fexofenadine and cetirizine. All of these are also available in a “D”, or decongestant formulation that will give added drying effect to the nasal passages, but will also dry out your tissues, keep you awake at night (it’s a stimulant), and increase blood pressure, so be careful. Also available by prescription are steroid nasal sprays, which are generally more effective than the anti-histamines for runny nose symptoms. They can cause bleeding of the nasal passages in some folks, particularly if they are overused, so, as always, consult with your doctor before using.
I hope you enjoy the gorgeous colors and sounds of spring and that the suggestions above keep the sounds of sneezing at bay!
Rachel Carlton Abrams, MD, is a family practice physician and the Medical Director of the Santa Cruz Integrative Medicine & Chi Center, a multidisciplinary holistic health clinic serving Santa Cruz County: www.santacruzintegrativemedicine.net, 831-465-9088, 21511 B East Cliff Dr., Santa Cruz, CA 95062