April 16, 2009

Seasonal Allergies and the Histamine Link

Yesterday my five year old niece Nevi emerged from the back-forty all puffed up with red circles under her eyes. When I asked her what happened she replied,

“When the wind blows my eyes water.”

It seems that even little Nevi has joined our beleaguered ranks of Pacific Northwesterners who, impatiently awaiting spring’s arrival after a long and cold winter, are finally able to get outside and enjoy the blooms and the warmer air only to be met with itchy and watery eyes, runny nose and sinus congestion: the symptoms of seasonal allergies.

Patients often ask me why they developed allergies as adults never having experienced them as a child, and conversely I am asked why one often seems to outgrow childhood allergies. I’ll never forget a statistic I learned in medical school: a child with one allergic parent has a 30% chance of developing allergies, a child with two allergic parents has a 70% chance of developing allergies. It appears that one is born with a tendency or propensity toward developing them – whether symptoms develop in early or later life could depend on several factors including geographic location, diet and the body’s overall inflammatory load. Symptoms that come on earlier in life tend to fade, those that come on later in life tend to increase.

When I put on my Naturopathic Doctor thinking cap and think about seasonal allergies, my mind wanders to histamines. Histamines are the proteins released by the immune system when an immune response is taking place. In the case of seasonal allergies, the immune system is unnecessarily attacking an innocuous substance (pollen, dust, mold) that is mistakenly perceived as a threat. Once the histamines are released the blood cells become leaky, causing swelling in the tissues which in turn causes more inflammatory mediators called cytokines to be released creating more inflammation. When we are sick this chemical cascade activates the immune system to attack pathogens such as viruses and bacteria. The mucous produced when we are sick helps to protect the tissues and wash the invaders away. In the case of hayfever and seasonal allergies, in addition to swelling and mucous the histamines and leukotrienes irritate nerve endings causing burning, itching and sneezing.

Many people are operating with an increased load of histamine in their bodies all the time as a result of eating foods they are sensitive to, or being exposed to chemicals in their food or environment. These people will be more prone to react to allergens because the immune system is in a hypersensitive state – its ability to identify between a threat and a benign particle becomes blunted and it reacts to many potential allergens.

Some common foods that are known histamine producers in the body:


See some of your favorite foods on that list? I am not suggesting that you stop consuming the things that make you happy. I do encourage my patients to listen to the signals that their bodies are giving them. If they notice that a food causes them undesirable gastrointestinal sequelae, or another makes their cheeks red and another interferes with sleep – the body is signaling that an inflammatory process is underway. Removing the foods that cause symptoms, especially during allergy season, will greatly lighten you body’s allergenic load and will decrease your overall allergic reaction rendering allergy season much more bearable.

Some natural supplements to help the body decrease inflammation:

*Bromelain is a naturally occurring enzyme in pineapple. In concentrated form it has proven anti-inflammatory effects as it breaks down the histamines and cytokines which cause inflammation. It is important that Bromelain be taken in-between meals as it will break down the proteins of food if taken with meals and the body will not receive the anti-inflammatory benefits.

*Quercitin is a bioflavanoid that stabilizes mast cells so they don’t release so much histamine.

*Local Bee Pollen. Many believe that eating bee pollen from local bees will help to desensitize the immune system.

*Vitamin C is another natural antihistamine. Keep in mind that it can cause loose stools when taken in high doses. If this happens just decrease the amount that you are taking.

*Allium Cepa is a homeopathic that treats allergic symptoms similar to those experienced when slicing an onion: profuse watery eyes and runny nose.

*Drinking plenty of water can help to remove the pollens and the mucous. And of course nothing compares to the nasal irrigation that one can experience with a Neti Pot. Allergy sufferers swear by the Neti pot as it flushes pollen particles from the nostrils and lower sinuses. A great description of Neti Pot usage on Daily Cup of Yoga. A saline nasal rinse has a similar action.

Pollen counts tend to be highest during the hours right before and after sunrise and sunset. If you do plan to be outdoors, the middle of the day is the best time to avoid peak pollen times. Change your clothing, brush your dogs and cats outside to remove pollen and consider getting an air filter. We swear by our Austin Air filter. When my daughter is feeling asthmatic she finds relief by breathing in the filtered air.

This spring, try one of the above suggestions to decrease your body’s inflammatory load so you can avoid the "eye watering winds" and experience the season with your senses intact.