April 24th, 2013 by Digestive Detective
It all begins with a sneeze. Then another. Then hundreds more accompanied by watery, itchy eyes, headaches, and a stuffy or runny nose. The telltale signs of allergy season are hardly subtle, and can range from annoying to nearly debilitating.
This year experts are informing patients and the public that seasonal allergies will be more intense than years past, with allergy season starting 14 days earlier in many parts of the United States and lasting about 30 days longer, too, running through the month of October. One explanation for this prolonged, more dramatic allergy season is favorable weather—lots of precipitation in late winter and warmer current temperatures set the stage for excess tree pollen. Higher levels of pollens generally occur on warm, dry, and windy days; lower levels of seasonal pollens circulate on calm, wet, and cloudy days.
An allergy is characterized by an overreaction of the human immune system to a foreign substance aka an “allergen”. According to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA), approximately 40 million Americans have indoor/outdoor allergies as their primary allergy. A variety of individual factors can influence susceptibility to allergies and resulting response, including predisposition, gut microbial status, and nutritional habits; as such, there are a number of proactive measures that can be taken to lessen the severity of symptoms and provide allergy relief.
Unfortunately, genetics plays a large role in allergy response and symptoms. Based on information from the AAFA: "Allergies have a genetic component. If only one parent has allergies of any type, chances are 1 in 3 that each child will have an allergy. If both parents have allergies, it is much more likely (7 in 10) that their children will have allergies." The identification of specific genetic markers provides insight into allergy formation, and provides potential targets for therapeutic methods. For example, researchers have reported that the histamine H1 receptor (H1R) gene is up-regulated in patients with allergic rhinitis (inflammation inside the nose; accompanied by stuffy, runny nose). The level of expression of the H1R gene strongly correlates with the severity of allergy symptoms. Recent research has shown that the bioflavanoid quercetin inhibits up-regulation of histamine H1 receptor and as such reduces histamine response and supplies anti-allergic activity. This supports prior research that has pointed to quercetin's efficacy on histamine response and alleviation of allergy symptoms.
Intestinal Microbiota & Gut Health
Research continues to abound showing the link between the microbial status of the gut and immune response. Unbalanced gut bacteria or a lack of particular, healthy strains in the GI tract appears to influence natural defense mechanisms. If natural defense mechanisms go awry and are dysregulated by a poor intestinal environment, then hypersensitivities and allergies can result. The intimate interaction between gut microbiota and host defense mechanisms is mandatory for the development and maintenance of a balance between tolerance to innocuous antigens and capability of mounting an inflammatory response towards potential pathogens (¹).
This evidence supports the importance of maintaining a healthy gut environment and microbial status. This can be achieved in a number of ways:
- Avoidance of gut irritants. Particular food constituents can irritate and cause inflammation in the GI tract as well as loosen the tight junctions that normally prevent food allergens and macromolecules from escaping into the bloodstream. Although the immune response that results from this agitation is different from a true hypersensitivity/allergy, it still serves to disrupt the important gut barrier and digestive environment. Zonulin, a protein that regulates the permeability of the intestine, has been found in increased levels in Celiac disease patients. Further investigation uncovered that gliadin (gluten) stimulates increased expression of zonulin in individuals irrespective of the genetic expression of autoimmunity (i.e. in non-Celiacs as well). The consumption of gluten appears to be an environmental stimulus that leads more zonulin to open the tight junctions of the intestinal barrier, causing autoimmune reactions. As such, it may be a worthwhile endeavor to avoid gluten and other processed foods as they can damage and disrupt gut function.
- Fermented foods. Consumption of fermented foods imparts healthy bacterial strains that aid in immune modulation.
- Probiotic supplementation. In addition to dietary sources of beneficial bacteria such as those found in fermented/cultured foods, supplementation with probiotics can serve to enhance gut microbiota. Research published in the journal Current Issues in Intestinal Microbiology cited:
"The administration of probiotics, strains of bacteria from the healthy human gut microbiota, have been shown to stimulate antiinflammatory, tolerogenic immune responses, the lack of which has been implied in the development of atopic disorders. Thus probiotics may prove beneficial in the prevention and alleviation of allergic disease." (¹)
Allergy Action Plan
In order to make it through this inevitably long, sneeze-inducing allergy season, take the following steps:
- Avoid known allergens when possible. You can opt to get tested to determine which allergens you specifically react to the most, but chances are you probably already know them from experience. The most common outdoor allergens include pollens of certain trees, grasses and weeds, and mold spores. You can prevent those allergens from creeping into your home by keeping windows shut and changing clothes/showering after you come in from being outside around your yard.
- Even with the most steadfast attempts, it may be nearly impossible to eliminate allergens in the home. As a solution, invest in a HEPA filter. HEPA stands for high-efficiency particulate air. A HEPA filter is a type of mechanical air filter; it works by forcing air through a fine mesh that traps harmful particles such as pollen, pet dander, dust mites, and tobacco smoke. If you want to really go all out, try individual nasal filters.
- Supplement with quercetin. Often paired with the proteolytic enzyme bromelain (derived from pineapple) and vitamin C for their anti-inflammatory and antioxidant capacity, quercetin is a potent seasonal allergy remedy in supplement form. Try Activated Quercetin from Source Naturals and take 3-6 tablets per day in divided doses. Unlike OTC anti-histamines, quercetin does not work instantly, but needs to accumulate in the body before exerting its effects.
- Use a quality nasal irrigation product. Nasal irrigation helps to clean out nasal passages and sinuses. The popular Neti Pot system provides simple irrigation with a saline rinse. You can also opt for a xylitol nasal spray. Unlike steroid sprays, which are often used in nasal sprays, xylitol doesn't dry out the nasal passages, and it doesn't inhibit the immune defense of the body. Xylitol has been shown to disrupt biofilm in mucosal membranes of the nasal passages and elsewhere. Biofilm is an extracellular matrix that bacteria reside in making them more difficult to be treated and eliminated by antibiotics. Clearing the biofilm will allow your natural immune system to scour the bacteria that can cause local inflammation. Try Xlear Nasal Spray with xylitol.
- Increase consumption of fermented foods and probiotics. I've written about the numerous benefits of fermented foods here, and again in this context they continue to serve a beneficial effect to allergy relief. Vital Choice cultured vegetables are a nice fermented addition to the diet, and if you are looking to add the gut-boosting, allergy-relieving effects to your children, check out this great list of kid-friendly fermented options. A broad-spectrum, multi-strain probiotic such as Pro-Bio 12 from Synergistics is a solid, reputable supplement to boost beneficial bacteria as well.
Now it's your turn to share. What have you tried so far? Do you have any home remedies that help you beat the allergy blues? Share below.