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Living better despite allergies 

I used to have the WORST seasonal allergies.  The only thing worse was when I got chickenpox as an adult.  Now that spring is springing, many people will soon be suffering through one of the best times of the year and thinking of it as one of the worst, as they deal with seasonal allergies.  I used to be one of them and tried EVERYTHING to ease the SUFFERING brought on by my seasonal allergies in the late 90’s and early 2000’s.  When I mowed the lawn, I was ruined for the rest of the day, because I would be a sniffling, snuffling, sneezy, watery-eyed wreck!  According to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA) I wasn’t alone - approximately 50 million people in the United States suffer from allergies each year.  This includes allergies that are ingested or inhaled, as well as other types of allergies such as skin allergies.  Other estimates put the population suffering from seasonal allergies at up to 25%.  So, what can people with seasonal, majorly irritating, but not life threatening, allergies do?


To talk about allergies, we need to understand a few things about our immune system and how it works. Our immune system is there as a defense system for us.  What is it defending against?  Anything foreign, like cold  and flu viruses, or even just allergens.  An allergen is simply anything that can cause an allergic reaction – you know, sneezing, sinus congestion or runny nose, hives, rashes and so on.  This immune, or defense, system of ours has three parts.  The first line of defense in our immune system is a physical barrier, our skin and mucous membranes.  The second two parts are what you hear about most often when you hear about the immune system: The innate immune system and the adaptive (or specific) immune system.  The innate and adaptive immune systems work together, and it all starts with – white blood cells.  We don’t just have red and white blood cells as I remember learning in elementary school science; there are actually five types of white blood cells, along with our red cells, water, ions, nutrients and waste running through our veins all the time.  Anything that makes it through our first line of defense and gets into our bloodstream has to deal with the innate immune system.  Here is where the different types of white blood cells come into play:  Certain ones, called Neutrophils, go on the attack first, along with the various types of white blood cells and macrophages, which are white blood cells that have evolved.  The innate immune system consists of these cells, our inner skin (or ‘wet skin’) and mucosa, and chemical secretions from the cells including salts, hydrochloric acid, lactic acid, lipids, cytokines, chemokines, enzymes and histamines.  Histamines are trying to get rid of the thing that’s bothering us, but in the process give us the typical allergic reaction symptoms that “anti-histamines” try and block.  While all that’s going on in the innate immune system, some of those white blood cells (Lymphocytes) start creating antibodies designed specifically for the invader so that if it ever shows up again we’ll have the antibodies ready to go on the attack with the other white blood cells.  This is the beginning of the adaptive immune system and is how we develop immunity to colds, flus and other viruses.    


So why do some antigens and antibodies result in immunity against this year’s flu virus, or the common cold, but other times our body gets it wrong? Just as our immune system has two parts, it has two ways for dealing with invaders.  One way is to kill the  invaders, the other is to just expel them from the body.  Bacteria, viruses and even infected human cells, warrant a killing type of response, while parasites and other large external threats can safely be expelled.  Some scientists believe that the immune system treating pollen and other common allergens as something to be killed is a glitch.  That thinking is somewhat supported by the hygiene-hypothesis, which proposes that stimulating our immune systems by exposure to many different germs and invaders protects us from developing inflammatory diseases; therefore, that less exposure to germs and invaders accounts for the rise in allergies and autoimmune diseases (which are just another breakdown of our immune system). By living so cleanly with masks and sanitizers everywhere, the immune system does not receive the training it needs to work properly, the hypothesis says In the cases of allergies, the immune system mistakenly identifies a (relatively) harmless allergen as a dangerous intruder.  In those cases, the immune system begins to produce chemicals including histamine to fight against the invader.  Sometimes, our immune system begins to develop antibodies against the substance (instead of against a virus or bacteria which is what it supposed to make antibodies for) and an allergy is born.  Allergic reactions are the result of the production of a specific IgE antibody to common, innocuous antigens.  With repeated exposure, the reaction may get more severe.  


How does our system decide to attack something harmless and eventually cause an allergic reaction?  By identifying antigens, which are any kind of marker that your immune system can recognize.  Let’s look at pollen as an allergen: Attached to the pollen are tiny bits of plant protein -those are the antigens.  Our bodies look at every antigen that gets past our physical barriers and compares it to what it already knows to decide how to deal with it.  If it’s known and not an invader it is ignored.  If it is an invader that has already been encountered it will launch the antibodies it made last time we encountered the threat.  If it’s new, the lymphocytes start creating antibodies specifically for that threat.    Common allergens are Dust, Food, Insect venom, Mold, Pet or animal dander and Drugs.  Our immune system is constantly making decisions on how to deal with antigens and makes millions of decisions every day.  Sometimes those decisions result in our immune system overreacting to relatively minor threats.  When someone with an allergy is exposed to an allergen, their immune system sees the antigen and mistakenly believes it's harming their body.  Their immune system then overreacts, treating the substance as an invader and trying to kill it by making antibodies.  Antibodies do two things- they recognize and bind to specific antigens, and they cause certain cells to release chemicals (including histamine) into the bloodstream to defend against the allergen "invader."  It's the release of these chemicals that causes our allergic reactions.  These reactions can affect our eyes, nose, throat, lungs, skin, and even our gastrointestinal tract.  It’s this part of the immune system that ensures if we’re exposed to the same allergen again, we will have the allergic response again.  For colds and viruses that gives us the ability to not get sick every time we are exposed.  For things we’re allergic to, that means that every time we’re exposed we’re going to have a reaction.


Now that we have an allergy, and we know it is our body’s adaptive immune system overreacting to something that isn’t harmful – how can we handle it and get our lives back on track?  Below I’ll list several ways that are proven both through studies, and anecdotally, to reduce allergy symptoms – but first I’ll say that I have not had anything that could be called an allergy in about 10 years.  I’ll get to how that happened for me a little later on.


a) Exercise -  Exercise doesn’t directly eliminate allergies, but can help alleviate the symptoms:  Moderate-intensity activities like brisk walking, jogging, or swimming, can help reduce chronic inflammation, enhance immune function, and lower stress - all of which are beneficial for reducing allergy symptoms. 


b) Diet.  Ever notice that when you’re hungry, your decision making isn’t what it should be?  Your immune system has a similar problem – if your body is missing certain nutrients then your immune system cant be at 100% and is more likely to overreact to non threatening invaders.

- Make sure you are getting enough Vitamins C and D, omega-3 fatty acids, pre-biotics and probiotics. All of these are crucial to a healthy immune system.

- Drink more water.  Water comes up in almost every blog.  In the case of allergies being well hydrated can thin the mucous in your nasal passages providing some relief from the stuffy feeling. It also helps carry all of those nutrients to every place in your body.

- Take out things that weaken your immune system:  Alcohol, OTC painkillers (like ibuprofen and aspirin) and inflammatory foods.  These simple things damage your inner skin and mucosa, weakening our immune system.

c) Alternative therapies.  There are a handful of things that have a good sized following and may provide as much or more relief than over the drugs sold for allergy relief.  

- Honey. It’s pretty well known that honey makes your throat feel better which can help with some of the symptoms.  Now there are studies suggesting that honey can have a positive impact on the process where we make antibodies and release chemicals to fight the ‘invaders’. 

Honey also has pollen in it, and it’s believed that ingesting some of what ails you can actually help you. 

- All natural supplements like Butterbur, Black cumin seed oil and Quercetin are gaining traction and many people feel that herbs and plants are far better than chemicals made by some pharmaceutical company with only one thing in mind. 

- Treatments (like acupuncture).  Acupuncture is still around thousands of years after its first use. It reduces inflammation and improves circulation both of which help alleviate allergy symptoms.

- Nasal rinsing – I was torn between putting this here, or in prevention.  But it can relieve symptoms, and most people don’t think of it until after symptoms start so here it is. There are many different devices available to help you rinse your nasal passages and effectively flush out the allergens that are irritating you.  The important thing to remember here is to use distilled or boiled (and then cooled off!) water and to make sure you add some salt to it.  Plain water can irritate your sinuses more than the pollen you are trying to get rid of; and non-distilled or boiled water can carry parasites that could wreak havoc if they got into your sinuses.

- Xclear.  Following a discussion about nasal rinsing is a good place to put some comments about Xlear.  It’s like nasal rinsing, but the xylitol that it contains helps wash your sinuses and the other ingredients help lessen symptoms.

- Inhale some steam. Hold your head over a hot bowl or sink full of water, and place a towel over your head to trap the steam.

  d) Prevention.  Until you find YOUR cure for what’s making you suffer, minimize exposure.

- Shut out breezes – as much as that spring breeze feels great, it’s full of pollen – seal it off and keep your house as pollen free as possible.

- Clean house, but use green cleaners.  People whose immune systems are acting up and overreacting to one type of allergen are frequently sensitive to other allergens.  Green cleaners are a little kinder to our systems and may ease some of your symptoms.

- When you have to go to someplace where you’ll be exposed to allergens, wear a mask.

- Wash up frequently.  As soon as you can after being outside or exposed to your nemesis, was as much of it off as possible.  You’d be surprised at how much pollen or pet dander your hair or face can collect.

- Avoid (cigarette) smoke.  Tobacco and wood fires can worsen your runny, itchy, stuffy nose and watery eyes


So what did it for me?  How did I go from essentially non-functional for 2-3 months, to not caring about pollen and just remembering how bad it used to be?  I got sick of being sick every time the pollen came out, and tried something unconventional.    Knowing that sometimes a little of what ails you can cure you, and having heard that bee’s pollen, local honey and similar things were supposedly helpful for allergies I went all in:  I started collecting pollen and just eating it, pretty much straight from the source.  At the same time I also quit drinking and started exercising more regularly after somewhat of a hiatus.  I don’t know which thing worked, but my symptoms were a little better that year, and the next year were completely gone.  Sure, I still have an occasional sneeze when pollen counts are through the roof, but nothing that makes life challenging like it was.


Allergies are just an overreaction, by our immune system, to something that should be harmless and ignored.  This could be because our immune systems aren’t getting the ‘training’ they need to be able to deal with millions of invaders every day or because we’re weakening them without even knowing it.  Alcohol and OTC pain-killers and anti-inflammatories weaken our protective barriers as well as our white blood cell counts. Being chronically dehydrated means your white blood cells have a harder time being transported to where they need to go to do their jobs.  The list goes on, but the point is that it’s not too late to boost your immune system and even beat allergies. Even if you don’t lose and allergy (like I did), you’ll probably experience fewer colds and milder symptoms when you do succumb to one.


To your health;

Doug and Robin




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