Are you wheezing and sneezing like crazy these days?
You're not alone. Studies show that allergies are on the rise in developed countries all over the globe.
Here in the US, more than half of our population (54% to be exact) have nasty reactions to at least one allergy-inducing substance, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). That's a 500% increase since 1980 -- and those numbers continue to shoot up every year.
What the heck is going on?
"There have been significant increases in allergies and asthma in recent decades, which obviously cannot be explained by any change in genetics," says Christine Rogers, a research associate in Environmental Science and Engineering at Harvard University.
So if genetics aren't to blame, what's causing this epidemic of seasonal allergies?
More pollen, for one thing. A 2005 study found that plants are flowering earlier every year and total pollen production is increasing as a result.
A more recent Italian study found that pollen levels are definitely on the rise -- and that people are becoming much more sensitive to it.
Global warming seems to be the culprit
While genetics plays a role in seasonal allergies, it can't possibly account for the current epidemic-like incidence.
What seems more likely responsible are the rise in atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) levels from cars and coal-burning plants -- and the trend of warming global temperatures.
You see, CO2 is like steroids to pollen-producing plants.
Just as we mammals exist on oxygen, plants thrive on carbon dioxide. In respiration, plants absorb CO2 from the atmosphere and "exhale" oxygen.
Scientists have discovered that higher levels of CO2 exposure produce some curious effects on plants. Most notably, they produce more -- and nastier -- pollen.
An experiment conducted by Harvard Medical School showed that a single ragweed plant, which normally produces one billion pollen grains, pumps out 61% more pollen when it is grown in the presence of increased CO2 levels!
When Dr. Lewis Ziska of the USDA planted ragweed (perhaps the most allergy-provocative species in the entire plant kingdom) around the city of Baltimore, the downtown plants exploded in size and produced 500% more pollen than rural ragweed.
Even scarier: Dr. Ziska found that this pollen was far more toxic than normal ragweed pollen. No wonder so many more of us are miserable!
Ragweed and other pollen-producing weeds grow faster and bigger in and around urban areas, …
Ragweed and other pollen-producing weeds grow faster and bigger in and
around urban areas, where CO2 levels and temperatures are higher.
Photo courtesy of Lewis Ziska
Allergy-causing plants are taking over
Scientists are also finding that allergy-provoking weeds are forcing out native vegetation -- and taking over the landscape.
Researchers from the University of Colorado at Boulder have discovered that air pollution emissions from traffic, power plants, and farm machinery are killing off native vegetation (by altering the chemical composition of the soil), thus allowing more invasive, allergy-producing species to replace indigenous plants.
And no state, country, or continent appears to be safe.
In recent years, ragweed has been spreading across Europe. Barely seen there a decade ago, the noxious weed is now found all over the continent.
"It's a good example of a plant changing its distribution because of climate change," says Jean Emberlin, director of the National Pollen and Aerobiology Research Unit in Britain.
There's no such thing as "allergy season" anymore!
For those of us with allergies -- and for the millions who will soon develop them -- there's just no respite anymore.
It used to be that we'd suffer through allergy season and then be able to breathe freely until next year.
But now, "seasonal" allergies can (and do in some areas) last all year long. Here's why…
In the spring, we suffer from pollen as the trees bloom (earlier than ever because of warmer temperatures). In the summer, the pollen from grasses gives us grief. Finally, in the fall, pollen from the weeds (especially ragweed) start to bloom and spread.
Here in New Mexico, our allergies begin in late February, when the ground is still covered with snow (thanks to pollen from the Juniper trees) -- and our suffering lasts till the first snowfall.
This, scientist tell us, is rapidly becoming a global trend.
Blame it on histamine
Allergy symptoms are caused by histamine, a protein which acts like an alarm bell when foreign pathogens (such as pollen) enter your body.
In an all-out effort to remove the pollen, histamine triggers a massive immune response, characterized by sneezing, coughing, watering, mucus production, and localized inflammation to get it out of your body.
Left unchecked, seasonal allergies can trigger a severe attack in people with asthma -- or actually give you asthma if you've never had it!
During an asthma attack, air sacs in the lungs become inflamed and constricted, leading to tightness in the chest and feelings of suffocation.
Ask anyone who has it; asthma is no fun. But with seasonal allergies spreading so fast, more and more of us will be coming down with it.
How can you defend yourself?
Short of living in a plastic bubble-suit or moving to the North Pole, there is no escaping pollen-triggered allergies.
They are going to be with us for a long time -- and they almost certainly will be getting worse every year.
Unfortunately, modern medicine and the pharmaceutical industry don't have the answer. Antihistamine drugs, decongestants, and immune-suppressing steroid injections have their limits -- and generally carry far too many side effects (short- and long-term) to rely on daily, year after year.
Some people report success with immunotherapy injections (commonly called "allergy shots"). This starts with a series of skin-inoculations to determine the offending pollen and allergens. Then, over a period of 2 to 5 years, you are "immunized" with injections of a solution containing the allergens every 2 to 4 weeks.
During this period your body develops an immunity to the allergens so that your symptoms become milder -- or completely disappear. But this is a long ordeal.
Natural antihistamines help for the short term
Fortunately, Mother Nature provides us with a number of natural substances that are pretty effective at countering the body's "allergic response."
The best of these allies can inhibit the body's histamine response … have anti-mucosal properties (they reduce mucus, tears, and dripping) … and strengthen the body's immune system. Here are my favorite recommendations, based on personal experience and research studies…
Vitamin C. Allergy season is the time to increase your intake of this important antioxidant. Vitamin C is a renowned immune-booster that definitely reduces inflammation. It also decreases the presence of histamine and helps the body break it down faster once it is released. In a clinical trial, 74% of people with seasonal allergies who were treated with the vitamin C solution exhibited significantly reduced nasal secretions and fluid buildup, compared to the control group. I make sure I get at least 1 gram (or more) of vitamin C daily during allergy season.
Quercetin. Found naturally in many food sources such as apples, onion skins and raspberries, quercetin is an excellent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory compound. Perhaps the most powerful of all the bioflavonoids, it has been shown to stabilize mast cells in the cell membranes to prevent them from spilling histamine. In this way, it can halt or ease an allergic reaction. It is also an effective inhibitor of certain enzymes that cause asthma. Quercetin is available in supplement form. Dr. Andrew Weil recommends taking 500 mg of quercetin daily. For best results, start it well before allergy season begins.
Butterbur. Clinical studies show that this medicinal herbal extract can relieve allergy symptoms on a par with over-the-counter medications. Swiss researchers compared butterbur to a leading allergy medication in a clinical study reported in the British Journal of Medicine . They reported that butterbur scored as well as the medication in alleviating every category of symptom. Butterbur's active agents are petasin and isopetasin , two phytochemicals that relax swollen nasal membranes by inhibiting leukotriene synthesis. Shop for it in the nutritional supplement section of your pharmacy or natural food store.
Nettle. Also known as stinging nettle, this is a time-honored folk remedy for seasonal allergies because it seems to inhibit the release of histamine in the body. Nettle also helps the body rid itself of excess fluid and toxins. It is available in supplement form. Take as directed.
NAC. This stands for N-acetyl-cysteine , an amino acid which is a precursor (building block) to glutathione, perhaps the most powerful antioxidant and immune-booster in the human body. NAC is often given to patients to treat respiratory conditions and to break up mucus. It may also be taken as a supplement (and I certainly do).
Eucalyptus steam can ease congestion
Another of my favorite remedies when I'm extremely congested is to breathe eucalyptus steam. I usually do this in the sauna for a few minutes first thing in the morning and after my workout in the evening.
If you don't have a sauna, you can get a similar effect with this "stovetop method:"
Boil a pot of water on the stove. Add approximately 5 drops of eucalyptus oil and let it boil for 30 seconds. Turn off the heat under the pot. Put a towel over your head and lean over the pot, breathing in the steam deeply through your nose and exhaling through your mouth. Do this for 3-5 minutes. Repeat as often as necessary. (NOTE: Be especially careful not to knock the pot off the stove and burn yourself.) You can also put one or two drops of eucalyptus oil on a handkerchief that has been dipped in warm water, squeeze out the excess moisture, and inhale the vapors.
Eucalyptus oil may interact with other medications, herbs and supplements, so consult your health care provider before using it to treat allergy symptoms. Additionally, some sources report that eucalyptus oil may trigger asthma attacks, so people with asthma should talk to a doctor before using it. Pregnant and breastfeeding women should not use eucalyptus oil, either. Never take eucalyptus oil internally.
What are your favorite allergy remedies?
Do you get seasonal allergies? Have your symptoms been getting progressively worse with each new season?
What are your trusted remedies -- the ones that really work for you?
If you have asthma, do seasonal allergies make it worse? How do you prevent and relieve your attacks?
Please share your secrets and remedies here so we can all benefit.