Allergies are common but, unfortunately, so are the myths about them. For all of the scientific research we’ve done into better understanding how allergies work and how to fight them, many people are confused about what to do each spring when they start reaching for the tissues and eye drops.
For instance, do you think flowers are likely to be the root of the problem in those of us with sensitive seasonal allergies? Is local honey really as effective of an allergy remedy as its advocates claim? Is it possible to eliminate your seasonal allergies by simply moving somewhere else?
Did any of those questions make you hesitate or second-guess yourself? In this article, I’d like to answer those questions and more by looking at the science behind some of the myths and misconceptions about seasonal allergies, as well as share with you a promising new theory on why we get allergies and what you can do to combat them naturally. They say that knowledge is power and, when you feel miserable from the effects of pollen and other allergens this spring, you need all the power you can get.
Better Safe than Sorry
One of the most prevalent myths about seasonal allergies is that you should only take medication, such as an antihistamine, when showing symptoms of an allergic response. There are many reasons why people do this, like trying to avoid the drowsy feeling that certain medications bring or just attempting to be “efficient” and only using medicine when it’s needed, but they are all misguided. Waiting until you are already sneezing and sniffing is a surefire way to guarantee that you stay that way. By starting your allergy medicine before your allergies start, and being consistent with it, you’ll experience less discomfort for the rest of the allergy season.
For an explanation as to why this is, read my recent health tip here at our own Doctor’s Corner. It essentially comes down to keeping the body’s histamines from reaching the histamine receptors that trigger the inflammatory response. Another reason why you should start early is that, according to the Mayo Clinic, allergic inflammation in the airways can be present even if the person can’t feel it. While low level inflammation can be tolerated, severe obstruction of the nasal passage can occur if it is left untreated. So start early!
It’s Okay to Stop and Smell the Roses
Most people know that pollen is a leading cause of allergies and, since flowers contain pollen and bloom in the spring when allergies are bad, it makes sense to think that flowers are a cause of allergies. However, this logic does not hold up when we look at the science. The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases have found that the allergies most of us experience are caused by plants that are pollenated in the wind rather than plants that are pollenated by insects (like flowers are). Another key difference between the pollen of flowers and other plants, like trees and grass, is that flower pollen is much larger.
Since tree pollen is significantly smaller than flower pollen, it is more easily spread through the air and breathed in by humans, which causes allergic reactions. Flower pollens are relatively heavy and fall to the ground rather than lingering in the air. This isn’t to say that flower allergies are unheard of; they are just much rarer and highly unlikely to be the cause of your seasonal allergies. If you do sneeze sometimes when smelling flowers or pungent perfume, it is usually just because these scents cause a widening of the blood vessels in the nose (vasodilatation), rather than an allergy-induced immune system response. So even if you have bad seasonal allergies, feel free to appreciate the lovely flowers of the spring.
Don’t Believe the Buzz about Local Honey
While there are many great natural alternatives to traditional, pharmaceutical allergy medicines, eating locally-made honey is not one of them. Some of you have probably been told by a friend that consuming local honey allows you to build up a tolerance to pollen in your area. After all, honey is made by bees, bees carry pollen, and certainly some of it gets into the honey. The claim makes sense initially, but there is a large hole in this theory that keeps it from being sound advice.
According to the National Honey Board, honeybees pollinate larger flowers and, while it does stick to the bees, the pollen from these larger flowers doesn’t get into air that we breathe. Just as people wrongly blame flowers for their allergies, people put misplaced faith in local honey that contains that same pollen.
Even if local honey did indeed have large amounts of pollen in it, it wouldn’t cure you of your allergies because it is simply not the right kind of pollen. While local honey is still sustainable and delicious, you are better off simply trying to limit your exposure to pollen than seeking out honey for its flower pollen content if you are looking to reduce your allergy symptoms.
Put Away That Crystal Ball
Many of us with sensitive seasonal allergies have seen local newscasts or read articles online that serve as a “preview” for what to expect this allergy season. For example, some experts are already saying that this allergy season is going to be particularly brutal in certain parts of the country, but what do they base this on?
Can the severity of an upcoming allergy season really be determined with any kind of reliable accuracy? Unfortunately, correctly guessing pollen levels months, or even just weeks or days, in advance is quite difficult and the experts in this field are often less accurate than they would care to admit.
This doesn’t mean that there are no factors to look to in making an educated guess. For example, an early spring on the west coast likely makes the allergy season longer, whereas a late winter in the eastern U.S. may reduce the season. But citing this as a reason to think this year will be “the worst ever” for the west coast, as some are saying, is like a weatherman in California predicting “sunny and hot” as the forecast for the summer. It may turn out to be true, but it’s not really based on anything but assumption and trends. Of course you will have allergies this spring, probably bad ones if that is common for you, but that doesn’t give you any helpful information.
The Allergy and Clinical Immunology Practice at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston says that specific predictions about pollen levels are disingenuous and should be refrained from. Only a handful of certain weather events, like a drought that keeps plants from growing and producing pollen, can give us a somewhat clear idea of what to expect. For example, California’s drought made it easy for allergists to predict an early but relatively short allergy season. Most of the time, however, extended predictions are just educated guesswork.
Moving on Up
We all know that there are some parts of the country that get more than their fair share of certain pollens. For example, the Willamette Valley in Oregon (which includes cities like Portland and Eugene) is one of the world’s major producers of cool-season forage and turf grass seed, making it one of the worst places possible for someone with grass allergies.
If a grass-allergy sufferer in Oregon moved to Arizona, though, would that alone eliminate their seasonal allergies? It seems possible that trading grassy fields for sandy deserts would cure you, but it is not that simple.
According to STARx Allergy and Asthma Center in New Jersey, although grass allergy symptoms may be improved a little when moving from a grass seed hotspot to the desert, grass pollen is incredibly cross-reactive. This means that foods like melon, orange, wheat, and tomato contain similar proteins to grass and cause an allergic reaction in grass allergy-sufferers even if grass is avoided directly. Due to this cross-reactivity, and the fact that a place like Arizona simply has different pollen than Oregon and not necessarily less overall, the relief you expect from a move will likely be far less than you would hope for.
Allergies: Necessary or Nuisance?
The question of why we have allergies in the first place continues to baffle and frustrate allergy researchers. The reason that the “why” behind allergies is so important is that we may be able to treat them more effectively once we learn why the body does what it does. After decades of research, though, there is still no scientific consensus behind a single answer.
One of the most prominent theories for years has been that allergies are basically an irrational “freak-out” by our body’s immune system. The theory goes that benign pollen enters the body and the immune system mistakes it for a virus or foreign invader and unleashes a powerful immune response against it. If our body is a finely tuned machine though, why would it do this? What possible benefit would be gained from our immune systems mistaking grass pollen for a parasite or virus and making us miserable as a result?
Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine think they may have the answer; allergies are not a biological mistake, but rather a vital defense to minimize the damage from noxious chemicals. As we all know, our allergies are not perfect. Studies may soon find that allergies lower the odds of dying from toxins, but a powerful, allergy-induced overreaction by the immune system can be fatal (such as anaphylaxis from a bug bite or peanut allergy). So are we better off with or without allergies?
The scientists at Yale will be performing tests on mice over the next couple of years to see what happens when you essentially remove their allergies. Their prediction is that while the mice will be spared the misery of hay fever, they will ultimately be worse off because toxic molecules, pollen, and other allergens will pass into their bodies and damage their organs and tissues.
So How Do You Find Relief?
Now that we know a little more about what’s fact and what’s fiction regarding seasonal allergies, how should you go about seeking relief from your allergy symptoms? Just because local honey doesn’t work doesn’t mean that there are no effective natural solutions. There are a couple of items I’d like to share you with you because of their proven track record for both efficacy and reduced likeliness of side effects when compared to the most common pharmaceutical options.
The first is the natural antihistamine quercetin; a plant flavonoid that is both effective and far less likely to cause the side effects (such as drowsiness) associated with antihistamines like Benadryl. If you haven’t read our recent health tip on quercetin and the biological processes of allergies and histamine, I encourage you to read more about it here. While the quercetin works to keep you from feeling runny, sneezy and inflamed, Nazanol by Metagenics is a great complementary product that serves as a natural decongestant. Nazanol supports healthy nasal and respiratory functions that allow you to breathe easier and avoid the agitated and restless feelings that some people experience on pharmaceutical decongestants like Sudafed.
For some other tips on how to beat seasonal allergies naturally this spring, read our short article entitled Your Helpful Guide to Fighting Allergies. It explains how the foods you eat, the way you clean, and the pets you keep around the house all play a big role in how allergies will affect you. If you have any questions about the products or suggestions discussed here, or need help placing your order, our customer service team is standing by and ready to assist you in any way they can. You can reach them by phone at (888) 460-3091 or you can email them at:
Until next time, stay healthy!
Yours in health,
Dr. Gregg Gittins
Originally posted at Dr’s Corner – Busting the Myths Behind Seasonal Allergies