Now that spring is finally here, many of us are feeling the familiar sensation of seasonal allergies creeping up on us. It’s unpleasant, annoying, and can even be debilitating. In this article, we’ll explore why allergies occur, and investigate some natural options for relief.
What Are Allergies?
A healthy immune systems is always in a state of vigilance, distinguishing the harmful substances from the benign. It’s when this state of vigilance goes awry and turns hyperactive that allergies develop. Immune hyperactivity causes the body to react to substances like pollen or dander by producing antibodies–and creating more for the future.
These stored antibodies bind to the surfaces of cells called mast cells. Then they live in “waiting” mode; but when the body re-encounters the original allergen, the mast cells do their job and release certain chemical compounds like histamine. This influx of compounds causes the familiar allergy “symptoms”: itchy eyes, runny nose, and more.
Why do seasonal allergies plague only some of us? Unfortunately, there isn’t one easy answer. Some of us have allergies because our immune systems are genetically predisposed toward hyperactivity. Others developed allergies when young, possibly the result of a bacteria imbalance in the gut (see below). Some of us became allergic after an infection. But for many sufferers, the answer has yet to be discovered.
What Can I Do?
Fortunately for allergy sufferers, there are some natural options that may offer some relief.
Nutrition: First, check your eating habits. Consuming antioxidant-rich foods like blueberries can reduce allergy symptoms, but sufficient quantities are necessary for this effect. An average adult should consume up to one pint of mixed berries per day to generate results.
Probiotics: Probiotics–friendly bacteria harboured in your gut–are necessary for health, contributing to good digestion and assimilation and manufacture of nutrients (for more on probiotics, check out the Voice article series, Part I and Part II). Because probiotics also keep your immune system in balance, a lack of these so-called gut flora can play a role in allergy predisposition. For example, infants without adequate gut probiotics develop allergies more readily than those with normal probiotic levels and species. Supplementing your probiotic levels can be done easily over the counter, but one caution: to be effective, a probiotic should have a minimum of two billion cells, be refrigerated, and include probiotic strains like L. acidophilus.
Quercetin: Quercetin is a flavonoid, a naturally-occurring biochemical compound found in fruit peels and eucalyptus leaves, and it can help reduce allergic symptoms in some adults. How does it work? Quercetin modulates the histamine response from mast cells, meaning that your reaction to an allergen will be less dramatic. As a result, you have fewer symptoms.
De-stress: With our fast-paced lives, it’s hard to stay in a relaxed, stress-free state. However, because stress affects the immune system, it can worsen allergy symptoms. Check out your attitude toward “must-do” projects; can you approach these in a more relaxed manner? Note your shoulders. Are they tensed and raised toward your ears? (Relax them!). And what happens when you come in contact with a known stressor? Pay attention to your body’s reaction. Try pausing and breathing deeply for two minutes. (Yes, the two minutes is important; Harvard Medical School’s Mind-Body team has shown that it takes this amount of time, minimum, before the brain’s predominant waves change to alpha waves, which are found in relaxed individuals). Some stress is inevitable, but learning to handle it well may be integral in helping you keep your allergies under control.
Although allergy season may be beginning, with some knowledge and natural tools you might not have to suffer as much this year!
Katie D’Souza is an AU graduate and a licensed naturopathic doctor. She currently practices in Ontario.
Disclaimer: The information contained in this article is for personal interest only; it is not intended for diagnosis or treatment of any condition. Readers are always encouraged to seek the professional advice of a licensed physician or qualified health care practitioner for personal health or medical conditions.