If you’ve noticed a constant tickle in your nose or have had more than your fair share of sneezing fits over the past few weeks, you’re not alone. Spring may be most closely associated with seasonal allergies, but for millions of people across the country, autumn can be just as miserable.
While springtime allergies can be blamed on tree pollen, fall allergies are usually triggered by weeds. The most common is ragweed, but others include goldenrod, sheep sorrel, sagebrush, and curly dock. Another culprit: mold spores, which are found in soil and leaf piles that cover the ground during the autumn months.
An Inflammatory Process
Simply put, allergies are our body’s response to foreign invaders (pollen, mold, animal dander, etc.) that pose no threat to us. Frankly, that’s one of the aspects of allergies that make them so frustrating. Our body’s response to them serves no useful purpose except to make us sick.
Now I talk about inflammation a lot. As you likely know, chronic, low-grade, systemic inflammation is dangerous and can lead to a host of serious diseases. But acute inflammation is a totally normal reaction to something abnormal happening in or to the body.
If you get a bacterial attack or injure yourself, a beautifully orchestrated immune response causes affected tissues to swell up as blood flow increases to the area, bringing with it white blood cells. These white cells confront and destroy bacteria to prevent death-producing infections and initiate a sophisticated pathway that leads to repair of the tissue. Depending on the scope of the damage, the process can take a couple hours to a few days or weeks—but once healing is complete, the inflammation subsides. We humans would not last a day without this marvelous inflammatory process to protect us.
However, with allergies, the body initiates an inflammatory response to innocuous insults. Rather than an “attack and repair” reaction, our body’s immune system keeps attacking harmless invaders, causing more and more damage to our tissues.
Specifically, when you come into contact with an allergen, it gets absorbed into your tissues or breathed into your upper or lower airways. The body reacts by making and launching billions of antibodies (IgE) through the bloodstream. The antibodies eventually combine with two types of white cells, mast cells and basophils, that are in the blood and also tissues such as the eyes, nasal cavity, and lungs. This process then activates the release of messengers such as histamine, leukotrienes, and prostaglandins that signal the immune system to intensify the attack.
Just like inflammation fades after an injury heals, allergies diminish when the triggers (pollen, mold, etc.) go away. In the autumn months, this usually occurs by the beginning to middle of November, when temperatures start dropping. (Warmer climates may take longer.)
So the good news is that allergies are often temporary and the inflammation typically resolves itself once the allergens are gone. The bad news: This is little comfort for allergy sufferers, who can’t stand the thought of one more day—much less a few weeks—of sneezing and other symptoms.
If you’re in the throes of allergy misery, here are some things you can do now to find relief.
Prevention Goes a Long Way
Minimizing your exposure to triggers can go a long way in calming your body’s response to them.
- Make sure your air conditioning and vacuum are equipped with HEPA (high-efficiency particulate air) filters, which traps pollen, dust mites, and other irritants.
- Use an air purifier in your home.
- Keep your windows closed during allergy season to prevent allergens from entering your house.
- It may not be sexy, but wear an allergy mask while outdoors, especially when pollen counts are very high.
- Shower after being outside for long periods of time to wash pollen from your hair and body.
- Hire someone to remove decaying leaves from your yard or gutters.
- Take a probiotic every day geared toward balancing the friendly bacteria in your mouth and nasal passages. Research indicates that constant exposure to seasonal allergens can negatively affect the microbiota in the sinuses, increasing the risk of several airway diseases.
- Even though this letter is about seasonal allergies, remember that much of your year-round allergen exposure comes from within your house. Use easy-to-clean flooring, and avoid carpeting where moisture can get trapped and help mold and dust mites to grow. Mold, dust mites, and animal dander are also frequently found at high levels in mattresses and pillows, so replace mattresses at least once every 10 years and pillows more often.
Anti-Inflammatories and Anti-Histamines
Antihistamine medications block the release of histamine, which usually results in fewer symptoms. For many, they’re a great option. For others, they don’t work well or produce side effects such as dry mouth, dizziness, moodiness, drowsiness, restlessness, or blurred vision. There are now also leukotriene blockers that are effective for many.
If you’ve tried these products and don’t find the relief you need, early science shows that some natural herbs also may work to suppress histamine and block leukotrienes, often without terrible side effects.
Butterbur is an herb native to Europe. In one study that compared butterbur to the antihistamine cetirizine (Zyrtec) for hay fever symptoms, researchers found that both treatments were similarly effective but butterbur didn’t produce the drowsiness experienced by more than half of the Zyrtec group. Typical dosing is 50–75 mg twice daily.
Quercetin is a bioflavonoid abundant in the skins of many fruits, particularly grapes, apples, onions, and berries. Along with its anti-inflammatory properties, research indicates that it can naturally block mast cell secretion. Dosage ranges between 1,000–2,000 mg twice daily.
Stinging nettles (Urtica doica) is an herb found in the US and Europe that research shows may block several inflammatory events that cause allergy symptoms, including the inhibition of histamine receptors and the production of prostaglandin. It comes in many forms (tea, tincture, extract, etc.), so follow dosing instructions according to what you buy.
Finally, be sure to drink plenty of water every day. Along with fighting foreign invaders, histamine actually helps to regulate the body’s supply of water. Dehydration has been shown to trigger histamine release—it’s your body’s way of preserving the water remaining in the body.