Alleviating Seasonal Allergies
“I never had allergies before moving here” is often echoed among Coachella Valley residents. And it begs the question, is it age or location? Turns out it may be a little of both. But the good news is that you don’t have to suffer every spring or fall. With a little patience, practice and discipline, you can alleviate seasonal allergies. The key is to plan ahead.
Our Beautiful Desert
“The Coachella Valley may be one of the worst places for seasonal allergies,” states otolaryngologist (ENT), Michael Gatto, MD of Desert Regional Medical Center who has practiced locally for 32 years. Moderate climates conducive to long growing seasons coupled with dust, wind, and sands captured in our bowl-shaped valley are the primary factors. Dr. Gatto says he see patients’ symptoms getting worse, pointing to climate change and the number of golf courses built. “This is the only place in the world I know where golf courses are scalped,” says Gatto, as scalping adds spore, grass and dust particles to the air. “If you’re here during scalping and allergic to grass, your symptoms are significantly magnified.”
He also attributes the large number of allergy cases to our growing populations newly introduced to local pollens. “Allergies work on a 1-7 year cycle. When you move to a new environment, you may have no problems at first, but as you start to breathe in local allergens, your body starts the reaction cycle.” He says he usually starts seeing exasperated symptoms when people have been here 4-5 years. “It reaches a peak at 7 years, so if you start getting symptoms at 4 years you want to get tested and treated for better long-term results.”
Is it Age?
Allergies affect people of all ages from infants to the elderly, but are we more susceptible as we age? Gatto notes that hormonal change can attribute to new allergies as you age. Palm Desert naturopathic doctor, Jon Dunn states that respiratory ailments are more common as we age and the desert’s dry air is harder on the respiratory system, “So that part of the body is stressed more uniquely here in the desert than in other places.” Dr. Dunn also sees more allergies here than other places he has practiced.
Why All the Symptoms?
“The body considers pollens as foreign invaders similar to a bacteria or virus,” says naturopathic doctor, Shannon Sinsheimer. “When they are inhaled, your body attacks the pollen, producing allergic symptoms such as excess mucus, inflammation in the nasal passages, tearing and coughing in an attempt to expel the invaders instead of ingesting them.”
Dunn adds, “Our immune system strives to maintain balance in the GI tract. If the GI tract is out of balance, as with bacterial or fungal imbalance (perhaps aggravated by allergies compromising the immune system), impurities are absorbed into the blood and result in allergic reactions and symptoms.”
Grabbing an OTC Pill
“Conventional allergy medicines like Benadril, Allegra and Claritan can relieve symptoms, but do not get to the root of the problem,” says Dr. Sinsheimer. Gatto adds, “You can build tolerance to antihistamines, and the non-sedating ones don’t work as well when the symptoms are worse. He states that antihistamines are for the most part safe, but some do have side effects, and all drugs are broken down by the liver, so taking a variety of medications does put undue stress on the liver. “But don’t confuse antihistamines like Claritan or Allegra with decongestants like Sudafed,” warns Gatto, “as the later are not meant to be taken on a long term basis.”
Medical and naturopathic doctors approach the treatment of allergies in different manners, but all agree that the key to allergy relief is to plan ahead. You can prepare your body to be symptom free during the next allergy season with some trial-and-error testing to determine what works best for you. Each individual is different and what works for some may not work for others.
The next desert allergy season is only 3 – 4 months away (September and October) so use this time wisely to start your selected treatment plan.
The Nose & the Neti-Pot
The first line of defense against inhaled pollens is the membranes of your nose. As your nasal passages are bombarded with particulate matter, your body creates histamine which triggers the inflammatory response resulting in that stuffy nose and more. On windy and high pollen days, the first thing you may want to try is a nasal rinse with warm salt water to clean out the foreign invaders. Neti-pots are a simple applicator you hold up to each nostril allowing the salt water to flow through one nostril and out the other. “Sometimes this alone will take care of symptoms,” says Dunn. “Washing out the particulate matter that settles in the nasal and sinus passages reduces the load and the immune system quiets down.”
Foods can aggravate allergy symptoms and most practitioners will agree that dairy is on the top of the list as it is known to create mucus in the body. Many naturopathic doctors extend this list to include wheat, corn, soy, citrus, gluten, eggs, potatoes, caffeinated products and sugar – all thought to increase mucus and or inflammation.
Naturopathic doctors focus on GI tract health in fighting allergies. “One of the root problems of seasonal allergies is improper elimination from the colon and poor digestion,” explains Sinsheimer. “When you are constipated, you irritate the surrounding tissue of the colon and in turn, the surrounding lymph nodes which then inappropriately produce white blood cells.”
What you eat, how often, and the quality of your food affects how your body reacts to allergens. Whole organic foods are nutrient dense, reduce inflammation and improve elimination. Individual food sensitivities may also be responsible for the creation of excessive mucus or inflammation. “Food sensitivities are not food allergies,” explains Sinsheimer, “but may contribute to excessive mucus production and inflammation.” Testing for sensitivities helps to determine which foods may be worsening the allergy symptoms.
A good rule of thumb: start a natural remedy treatment plan 6-8 weeks before allergy symptoms usually occur, so your body is resistant before you are exposed to the triggers.
Naturopathic treatment plans often include therapeutic nutrition, herbal botanical medicine, and natural supplements. There are several plants with natural antihistamine properties and no side effects including butterbur, stinging nettles and quercetin. Vitamin C and bromelain can also reduce inflammation and make healthy mucus membranes.
Many of these products are combined in natural allergy remedies and found in quality health food stores like Harvest Health or Clark’s Nutrition. (For more information on these natural remedies, see Dr. Sinsheimer’s article on page 11).Supplementation for digestive tract health may include digestive enzymes and probiotics.
Dunn advises to try these natural remedies in the recommended dose and if you don’t see results, then consult a health care practitioner. Sinsheimer adds that she has a high success rate with treatment plans of nutrition and supplementation. “Those patients who follow my natural protocol typically show a reduction or alleviation of symptoms in 2-4 weeks.” However, she notes that this does not mean they have a complete reduction of symptoms come the next allergy season. “If they continue to improve digestion and remove dietary irritants, allergy sufferers will continue to reduce their symptoms from season to season.”
The allopathic approach to treating allergies is through immunotherapy including allergy shots or sublingual drops under the tongue. “These are actually holistic therapies,” notes Gatto. “They work on your immune system and are not simply drugs masking symptoms; they are curing the allergy.” But like other types of vaccinations, he adds, the effect can wear off and your immune system kicks in again in reaction to the allergens.
Other treatments may include steroid pills, sprays or injections, and antihistamine sprays. Gatto feels that the allergy shots are the most effective. Treatment includes weekly shots for 18 -24 months, then every 2 weeks for 3 months leading to a maintenance dose of once a month. Otolaryngologist Mayo Kato, MD of The Ear Institute says that many individuals have long lasting remission of allergy symptoms after 3-5 years of treatment and never require treatment again (see Dr. Kato’s article on Allergy Shots p. 7). Gatto cautions against stopping maintenance treatment. “If you stop the shots, the condition can reverse itself. It might take 2 years or it might take 5, but eventually, it may all come back and you have to start over again.”
For those who don’t want to go for a shot each month, sublingual therapy is available for application at home, but this option is currently not covered by insurance. There is also a new combination antihistamine and steroid spray available that is meant to be used daily throughout the allergy season.
Gatto also advises to use the current “preparation time” wisely. “Start immunotherapy treatment now to build your defenses for the fall allergy season.” Also follow practical advice including staying inside and out of the wind on blustery days. Improve the quality of air in your home with an air purifier or HEPA filters, and although a daunting task at times, make an effort to keep your home as free of dust as possible.
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