Natural solutions for your hay fever
Over 10 million people in the UK suffer from hay fever, and media headlines tell us that the hay fever season this year is going to start earlier than normal due to the clement weather. This blog explains why you get hay fever, how you may be able to prevent your children getting it and some natural solutions you may not have heard before, that may just do the trick.
CAUSES OF HAY FEVER
Immune response to perceived pathogen
Hay fever, as opposed to other allergies, develops in response to pollens from trees, grasses and weeds.
If you suffer from hay fever it’s because your immune system perceives the otherwise harmless pollen as pathogenic and launches an immune response. It does this by releasing histamine and other inflammatory chemicals that cause swelling, itching and secretions in the mucous membranes of your eyes, nose and throat as a way of eradicating the pathogen (similar to the way you vomit and have diarrhoea when a pathogen enters your digestive system).
Reasons why some people respond this way and not others
If you respond in this way to pollen it’s generally because your immune system is producing a protein called Immunoglobulin E in response to the pollen rather than Immunoglobulin G. Immunoglobulin G stimulates the body to break down the pollen without an allergic response whilst Immunoglobulin E stimulates an all out inflammatory response (more info).
Genetic and environmental factors
If you suffer from hay fever you may know of someone else in your family who also has hay fever or another allergy. This suggests that the genes you inherit may be causing your allergy. However, environmental factors are now also considered to play a part, especially lack of exposure to “friendly” microorganisms (bacteria, viruses, fungi) from a young age.
Some microorganisms cause unpleasant and sometimes deadly illnesses and therefore, throughout time, we have tried to find ways to eradicate them. Louis Pasteur first discovered microorganisms during the industrial revolution and later went on to invent the first antibiotic – penicillin, which has saved hundreds of thousands of lives. This invention paved the way for better sanitation, pesticides, change in food production and processing (notably pasteurisation and mass production), vaccinations, vaccination/worming of our animals and anti-bacterial cleaning products, all of which reduce the microorganisms we are exposed to.
Whilst these advances mean we are no longer exposed to harmful organisms (a very good thing), these practises (and others) have caused our bodies to be deprived of “friendly” microorganisms that we have evolved with over hundreds of thousands of years, and are in fact dependent upon for our good health.
“Friendly” microorganisms, your gut and your immune system
When we ingest microorganisms, they most often end up in our gut. We swallow them in mucus from our respiratory and digestive systems and consume them when we eat. Around 90% of our immune system resides in our gut and consequently, our gut is one of the main places where our immune system is trained to either tolerate or attack a foreign entity.
It is theorised that the lack of “friendly” microorganisms in our gut leads to faulty training of our immune system, particularly in relation to distinguishing between harmless and pathogenic entities. More and more research is showing that this training of our immune system happens largely in utero and during the first year of life. A failure to acquire “friendly” microorganisms during this period can lead to a susceptibility to developing an allergy either as an infant or child, or later on in life.
NATURAL SOLUTIONS FOR HAY FEVER
For mothers and their babies
Your baby inherits the microorganisms in your gut during pregnancy and birth, and when breastfeeding. Here’s what you can do to reduce your child’s risk of developing an allergy such as hay fever:
- Probiotic foods – consume safe probiotic foods (i.e. not unpasteurised milk products or produce containing soil traces) during pregnancy and breastfeeding.
- Probiotic supplements – take appropriate probiotics during pregnancy if you suffer from an allergy or if you think your child may be susceptible to developing an allergy and/or ensure your baby takes a suitable probiotic supplement in the first few months of life (more info).
- Antibiotics – if you have taken antibiotics during pregnancy be sure to take a suitable probiotic supplement or consume probiotic foods once you have completed the course of antibiotics. If your baby is given antibiotics ensure they take a suitable probiotic.
- Caesarean section – babies born by caesarean section miss out on “friendly” microorganisms in the mother’s vagina – ask your obstetrician to wipe a little of your (the mother’s) vaginal mucus into the babies mouth shortly after delivery.
- Breastfeeding – “friendly” microorganisms (on the mother’s skin and in the mother’s breast milk – Staphylococcus, Streptococcus, and Pseudomonas) and antibodies (immunoglobulin G and A) are transmitted to the baby during breastfeeding. If you are unable to breast feed your baby then make sure your baby has plenty of skin to skin contact in the early weeks of life and ensure your baby takes a suitable probiotic supplement in the first few months of life.
- This company sells lovely probiotics for pregnant women, babies and children: www.biolive.co.uk
For children and grown-ups
- Herbal medicines – many herbal medicines have been shown to help modulate the immune response, reduce histamine release and reduce symptoms of hay fever including butterbur, nettle, huang qin and reishi mushroom (see below for more details).
- Foods containing flavonoid quercetin – quercetin has been shown to be a beneficial compound for reducing the inflammatory response and release of histamine. Quercetin can be found in abundance in the following foods: the skins of apples, pears, grapes, peppers, onions, dark cherries and berries; broccoli, cabbage, sprouts and leafy green veg such as kale, parsley and spinach. Note that you lose the skin of fruits and vegetables when you juice them, and so too the quercetin, use a blender/nutri-bullet instead (more info).
- Probiotics and probiotic foods – the impact of taking probiotics and eating probiotic foods (after infancy) on the reduction of hay fever symptoms in children and adults has as yet not been adequately researched. However, absence of evidence is not always evidence of absence and consuming probiotics and probiotic foods is good for your digestive system and for your overall health and immunity.
- Helminth therapy – helminth worms have been used as a therapy to treat various allergic and autoimmune disorders. Research is currently in its infancy and whilst research has not yet demonstrated a beneficial effect for hay fever, there have been successes with other allergic and autoimmune disorders.
- Butterbur (Petasites hybridus) – useful for headaches as well as hay fever due to its constrictive action on blood vessels, found to be as effective as pharmaceutical histamines without the side effects. Avoid use during pregnancy and breastfeeding.
- Reishi mushroom (Ganoderma lucidum) – its polysaccharides have been shown to suppress the hypersensitivity response to allergens, particularly pollens, and other compounds have anti-inflammatory and anti-histamine release actions. Safe to use during pregnancy and breastfeeding.
- Huang Qin (Scutellaria baicalensis) – key compounds inhibit release of histamine from mast cells and reduce inflammatory response. Use under guidance from a qualified herbalist during pregnancy and breastfeeding.
- Ma Huang (Ephedra sinica) – a restricted herb and so only available from a qualified herbalist – is an excellent decongestant for hay fever without the sinus headaches of pharmaceutical decongestants. Avoid use during pregnancy and breastfeeding.
- Albizia (Albizia lebbeck) – reduces production of histamine in mucous membranes of the nose and eyes. Safe to use during pregnancy and breastfeeding.
- Spirulina – this blue-green algae inhibits the release of histamine. Safe to use during pregnancy and breastfeeding.
- Stinging nettle (Urtica diocia) – fresh nettle tea exerts anti-histamine action. Safe to use during pregnancy and breastfeeding.
PHARMACEUTICAL SOLUTIONS FOR HAY FEVER
Current treatment approaches include topical nasal anti-histamines or nasal steroids, mast cell stabilisers, systemic steroids and nasal decongestants. Whilst they can be effective in the short term, they can lead to undesirable side effects if taken long-term.
- Anti-histamines – newer types no longer cause drowsiness, best to stick to topical nasal anti-histamine rather than oral anti-histamine as these may have deleterious effects on other parts of your body.
- Nasal steroids – reduce the inflammatory response but can cause problems if used long term, notably cataract and increases in intraocular pressure (pressure in the fluid of the eye). They may also cause headaches, sneezing and a runny nose – the very symptoms they aim to dispel.
- Decongestants – contain pseudoephedrine that causes tightening in the blood vessels in the brain and can trigger insomnia, restlessness, headache and anxiety.
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