Here’s how allergies work. Pollen, let’s say from a juniper bush, is for some reason seen as an invader in your body. When it’s inhaled, the body tries to fight off the invader by producing antibodies called immunoglobulin E (IgE). The IgE then sends a signal to “mast” cells to raise arms against the invading allergen by releasing chemicals like histamine into the bloodstream. The result is inflammatory reactions throughout the body, triggering the stuffy nose, the sneezing, the hives, etc.
But if juniper pollen isn’t actually harmful, why does your body see it as such? And why doesn’t everyone have the same reaction to it? Scientists are still unsure how allergies develop, but some have posited what is called the “hygiene hypothesis.” Because children in the US and other developed countries have limited exposure to germs early in life, their immune systems don’t properly understand what is truly a dangerous germ and what is just an unknown invader. The result is to attack anything that might be dangerous, resulting in allergy symptoms. Though it’s just a hypothesis, studies have shown that allergy rates are indeed higher in developed countries, and the rate of allergies increases as they develop.
In addition, according to the American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology, a warming climate may continue to make allergy seasons worse and worse. The reason is that earlier warming—and earlier onset of spring—helps common allergens flourish. From a recent press release from ACAAI:
Weather conditions have a significant effect on the levels of pollen and mold in the air, which in turn affects the severity of allergy symptoms. Typically, the common allergens that cause allergic rhinitis ("hay fever") flourish when the weather is warm.
"When winter weather turns unexpectedly warm, pollens and molds are released into the air earlier than usual, and then die down when it gets cold again," said Stanley Fineman, MD, of the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology. "This pattern of weather can ‘prime' a person's allergic reaction, so when the allergen reappears as the weather gets warm again, the allergy symptoms are worse than ever.
Whether or not we know exactly how exactly allergies work, allergy symptoms can make life difficult. Here are some of our favorite ways to combat them.
Neti pot. This centuries-old Ayurvedic tradition utilizes a saltwater mixture that is poured through the nostril. Used daily, it helps sweep allergens, bacteria and viruses from the nasal passages, thereby reducing the chances of infection or allergic reaction. It also helps reduce inflammation in the mucosal lining of the nose, making it stronger and more resistant to infection.
Antioxidants help reduce free radical damage, which can suppress the immune system. The more your immunity is compromised, the more likely it will be to react badly to normal environmental allergens. Try a daily dose of Pharmaca’s Antioxidant Booster, and get lots of purple and dark red fruits in your diet—since berries, cherries, and red grapes contain powerful antioxidants that have naturally anti-inflammatory properties.
Antihistamines. Dr. Tieraona Low Dog, MD, recommends non-sedating histamines like Zyrtec or Claritin, especially when you know you’ll be outside on a high-pollen day (take a few hours beforehand). On the other hand, herbal extracts like nettles and butterbur, and the antioxidant quercetin have natural antihistamine effects that can reduce the allergy response.
Chinese herbs. Plantiva’s AllerDx, one of Pharmaca’s best-selling allergy relief products, offers a unique blend of Chinese herbs that go to work on the entire immune system while quickly calming allergic reactions. “I’ve gotten a lot of positive customer feedback about its quick-acting effects for sneezing, and itchy, watery eyes,” says Marisa Buchsbaum, herbalist at our south Boulder store. “It’s made up of Chinese herbs that support the liver and mucous membranes and help clear the lungs and sinuses. And the clinical studies and trials behind the products are really supportive of its claims.”
Probiotics. Because allergies are an overactive immune response, simply helping to support the immune system can be really helpful, says China Rose Reid, herbalist at our Napa store. And since so much of the immune system is centered in the gut, probiotics help keep everything in balance. China Rose recommends MegaFood MegaFlora, especially if you’re having digestive symptoms along with your allergies. The Pharmaca brand Super Probiotic Blend can also provide a good maintenance dosage.