Summer is in the air! The same factors that make summer such a pleasant time of year, can also be a source of aggravation for many who experience seasonal allergies. Blooming flowers, spores, pollen, dust and mold that surface after the snow, are common triggers for those not-so-pleasant allergy symptoms.
Seasonal allergies, also known as hay fever and allergic rhinitis, affect approximately 25% of Canadians each year with symptoms ranging from mild to severe. An allergy is an inflammatory immune reaction triggered by a variety of substances called allergens (particles foreign to the body). In seasonal allergies, airborne pollen, dust, mold and spores are the allergens that typically trigger the immune system. The first time the immune system is in contact with an allergen, it produces an antibody toward that specific allergen, known as IgE. Production of antibodies is a way the immune system tries to neutralize the foreign substance. Once IgE is produced, it binds to an immune cell called a mast cell. A mast cell contains several chemical messengers, one of which is called histamine. Upon binding of IgE to the mast cell, the histamine and other chemical messengers, such as leukotrienes, and prostaglandins, are released from the cell into the body. The release of such a powerful immune cocktail causes the classic allergy symptoms: sneezing, watery eyes, itchiness, hives, congestion, runny nose etc. Histamine can cause a constriction of the blood vessels, leading to difficulty breathing, as in asthma, or a dilation of the blood vessels leading to leakage of fluid (swelling and congestion) and hives. Leukotrienes, on the other hand, cause an increase in mucus production leading to a runny nose and increased phlegm.
With each subsequent exposure to the allergen, the above process happens more rapidly as antibodies have already been produced toward the specific allergen. As a result, allergy symptoms can appear more rapidly and/or they can be more severe.
The Gut Connection
When dealing with allergies, it is important to consider the health of the gut. The exposed surface of the intestinal walls is under constant challenge by ingested foreign antigens, products of food digestion, bacteria and viruses, and drugs. It is not a surprise then, that 2/3 of the body’s immune system resides in the gut. The intestines have the largest accumulation of lymphoid tissue in the body, known as Peyer’s patches. The lymph tissues in the gut catch debris and present it to the immune system.
Additionally, the intestines have a large amount of healthy bacteria, which not only help digest and absorb nutrients from the food, they also play an essential role in immune reactions by balancing out inflammatory markers produced by the immune system. The amount of microflora can be compromised by several different factors including antibiotic use and food sensitivities.
Finally, in a healthy gut, the cells of the intestinal wall, known as enterocytes, are tightly packed together. This alignment of the cells prevents viruses, bacteria, metabolic wastes or toxins, and undigested food particles from escaping into the body. If the integrity of the gut is compromised, gaps between the enterocytes form (“leaky gut”) and the toxic substances are able to pass through the digestive tract into the blood stream. Once in the bloodstream, these toxins are foreign to the body and the immune system becomes more active as it tries to protect itself. The heightened immune reaction contributes, not only to inflammatory bowel disease and autoimmunity, but also to the development of seasonal allergies.
Improving/Optimizing Gut Health
The following tips can help restore and optimize gut health and decrease seasonal allergies.
- Identify and avoid food sensitivities: Avoiding sensitive foods helps repair leaky gut, decrease inflammation and decrease the exposure of the immune system to toxins entering from the digestive tract.
- Probiotics:Help re-establish the natural microflora in the gut to balance out the allergic response.
- Dark green, leafy vegetables: Promotes growth of healthy bacteria in the gut and is a good source of vitamin B and vitamin A to increase the immune system.
- Deep yellow and orange vegetables:Good source of vitamin A and is a natural fighter of histamine.
- Ginger:Improves digestive function, decreases inflammation in the gut, helping it to repair.
- Cabbage:Soothing to the gut, decreases inflammation and promotes the production of antioxidants.
- Beet tops and beets:High in vitamin A, vitamin C and Magnesium. Vitamin C is natural anti-histamine. Magnesium can improve breathing by helping to dilate the blood vessels (vasodilation).
Nutrients and Herbs to Reduce Allergies
- Vitamin C and Bioflavonoids: Natural anti-histamine.
- Vitamin A:Boosts the immune system.
- Vitamin B Complex:Can reduce allergy symptoms but improving the immune response.
- Quercitin : Natural anti-histamine.
- Butterbur: A herb that reduces the production of leukotrienes and histamine.
- Goldenseal: A herb that has anti-microbial and immune boosting properties.
Lifestyle Factors to Reduce Allergies
- Nasal Rinse:Using a Neti pot or nasal flush bottle, rinse daily to remove dust, pollen and spores from the nasal cavity. Also helps to improve sinus congestion.
- Eucalyptus Essential Oil:Add few drops to boiling water, place towel over your head and inhale or apply a drop to a cotton ball and sniff several times a day. Eucalyptus is healing to the mucous membranes and can decrease congestion.