I know the recent weather has not exactly demonstrated the need to worry about hay fever, however I am an optimist and am sure it will be upon us again soon! Hay fever is one of the most common allergies in UK, estimated to affect 12 million people, 15 to 25% of the population as a whole. Virtually unknown before 1800, hay fever has only become a known common condition during the last century.
What causes hay fever?
Hay fever, also known as allergic rhinitis, is an allergic response to pollen or mould that affects the mucous membranes of the nose, eyes and air passages, causing these areas to feel irritated and inflamed. When any bacteria, viruses or other substances such as pollen and mould spores enter the body, the immune system aims to destroy those that might cause illness and ignore those that do not. In allergic individuals the immune system cannot tell the difference between threatening and benign material (such as mould of pollen). As a result, innocuous particles such as pollen trigger the release of a naturally occurring substance called histamine and other inflammatory compounds in the area where the irritant entered the body. In the case of hay fever, this is the nose, throat or eyes.
What are the symptoms?
Symptoms include itchy, red eyes, watery discharge from the nose and eyes, sneezing, fatigue and nervous irritability. Many of the symptoms are similar to that of a cold but without the feverish symptoms. Many sufferers experience a feeling of being ‘wiped out’ for weeks on end and can have daily life seriously disturbed during this time.
If you notice symptoms during the warm weather you may have seasonal hay fever triggered by irritants such as grass or tree pollen during later spring/early summer, typically March to May for tree pollen and May to July for grass pollen. These dates can be about a week earlier in the south of England and one to two weeks later in Scotland. If you experience symptoms all year round you could be suffering from perennial allergies, the triggers being animal fur, household mites or mould. All these irritants produce the same symptoms.
Why do we suffer from it and who is at risk?
Approximately two-thirds of sufferers develop the symptoms before the age of 30 but the condition can occur at any age. As it takes two years of exposure to the allergens to develop the condition, occurrence is low in children under 12 months.
It is not known exactly why the immune system reacts in this way and the causes can be multifaceted as highlighted below:
Hereditary: Clinical studies have shown that the risk of developing the condition is 30% if one parent has a history of atopic disease (eczema, asthma, allergies), and rises to 50% if both parents suffer.
Climate: Experts have suggested that global warming could lead to greater misery for hay fever sufferers, believing that the milder climate in the UK is likely to lead to many plants flowering earlier and for longer periods. The modern trend for mowing the lawn all year round is also suggested to pile on the misery still further. Although cut grass is usually too short to flower, hay fever can still be triggered by chemicals contained in the grass sap which is released when it is cut.
Hygiene Hypothesis: Epidemiological studies suggest that reduced exposure to pathogens and infection in childhood can alter the balance of the immune system thus causing allergic reaction later on.
Nutritional deficiencies: Some researchers think that our increased exposure to stress, poor nutrition, and air pollution is having a substantially detrimental effect on our immune system. Deficiency in certain nutrients can be seen to contribute to the random onset of hay fever symptoms in supposed ‘non-sufferers’. This may explain why some people may experience hay fever symptoms one year but not the next.
Stress: Long-term stress can use up vital nutrients such as the antioxidant group needed to reduce histamine. Stress also causes the down-regulation of our immune defences. As a result you can be vulnerable to hay fever one year but not the next, depending on the degree of stress you are experiencing.
What can be done about it?
Treatment of hay fever is commonly found in the use of OTC (over the counter) medicines to manage symptoms, oral or topical antihistamines, corticosteroids and nasal decongestants to name a few. All work well to reduce sneezing, itchy nose and eyes but come without side effects and could be addressing only the symptoms not the cause. Natural health experts would suggest that ultimately this approach may increase vulnerability to allergic reactions over time by wearing down the immune system.
Complementary approaches such as homeopathy, acupuncture, diet and nutritional supplements work well to reduce excess histamine and inflammation in hay fever.
Antioxidants: Vitamin C has been well documented as the main antioxidant in the cells of the respiratory passage. However, it is not just its protective antioxidant abilities that prove wondrous in easing hay fever, it is also its welcome ability to work as an anti-histamine and anti-inflammatory.
Flavonoids: Quercitin and pine bark extract, a renowned flavanoid for it's antihistamine effect, inhibits the release of histamine and reduces damage to the nasal passages. Where conventional drugs work to block the effect of histamine, Quercitin works to inhibit it's release, lending itself as a powerful natural approach to hayfever.
B Vitamin Complex: B vitamins are key nutrients in reducing physiological stress as well as reducing the production of histamine.
Omega 3 fatty acids: When taken on a long-term basis omega-3 fatty acids from fish oils or flaxseed may help to reduce inflammatory symptoms in the areas under attack.
Flavonoids: The anti-histamine action of the flavonoid quercitin and those found in abundance in pine bark extract is added to by their potent ability to reduce inflammation by blocking the release of pro-inflammatory prostaglandins.
MSM: MSM is a commonly used acronym for methylsulfonylmethane, is a naturally occurring source of sulfur necessary for the production of collagen (needed for healthy nasal passages and respiratory organs) and certain anti-oxidants. MSM encourages blood circulation to carry necessary nutrients and helps in itself to promote healing and reduce soreness and inflammation.
For best results take up to 3 months before the onset of the ‘hay-fever period’.
In summary here are some tips to avoid the arduous onset of hay fever this year:
- At times of high pollen count, remain indoors if possible. If this is not possible, avoid fields, newly mown grass and picking fruit and flowers.
- Close all doors and windows.
- Plan holidays carefully. Pollen levels tend to be lower on the coast, in mountainous and moorland areas.
- Follow pollen count reports. Useful contacts are; National Pollen Research unit (UK) http://pollenuk.worc.ac.uk, European Pollen Information: www.pollen.cat.at/pollen/index.en.html.
- Support the body’s defences with a diet rich in fruit and vegetables such as berrries (strawberries, raspberries, blueberries), nuts, seeds and oily fish. Take an antioxidant nutritional supplement such as our Wild Nutrition Food-Grown Immune Complex or Food-Grown Vitamin C which, because they come from real food and not chemicals, will be readily absorbed and used by the body. Ideally you should start taking these 4-6 weeks before the 'sneezing season' begins.
- Eat plenty of oily fish, healthy oils from avocados, mixed seeds and flaxseed or cold pressed olive oil to increase your intake of essential fats. If you're not keen on these, try an Omega 3 supplement like our Wild Nutrition High Strength Omega 3 (N.B. Always choose a fish oil supplement that has take oil from small fish such as sardines or anchovy rather than the bigger fish such as tuna or salmon).