Feature

Spring to your defense

G Magazine

Seasonal allergies, common as they are, are nothing to sneeze at. Learn how to minimise and deal with yours naturally.

Spring to your defense

Credit: iStockphoto

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Spring conjures joyful images of bright blossoms and jasmine-scented air. However for those vexed with seasonal allergies it’s a time of trauma: runny nose, constant sneezing, lethargy, itching, headaches, conjunctivitis, sleep disturbances, even cognitive problems.

According to the National Asthma Council Australia, 16 per cent of Australians are affected by seasonal allergies – allergic rhinitis in medical parlance – and the rates are increasing.

Nature goes into overdrive in spring, releasing pollens and spores, the effects of which can be felt all the more keenly if dust-mites, also recharged by warmer weather, weigh into the irritating airborne brew.

In some people, the immune system has become overly reactive, so relatively benign substances – such as pollens released by trees, grasses or weeds, along with spores – are perceived as threats. This triggers defenses, such as the release of chemicals called histamines, which cause the sinuses and eyes to swell and leave the sufferer feeling as if a nasty cold has taken root.

As long–time sufferer Mark Howe puts it: “You don’t even want to go out, it’s so embarrassing to be constantly sniffling and feeling wiped-out.”

While conditions such as hay fever are often dismissed as sniffles, congestion from allergies can increase susceptibility to chronic sinus infections and asthma.

“Many people think that they simply get the ‘flu every spring, but in fact they’re suffering from allergies,” says Professor Connie Katelaris, Immunology and Allergy specialist at Westmead Hospital.

“Left untreated, these conditions can have a serious impact on a person’s life. It’s important to realise that people suffering from allergies are tired, rundown and not functioning at their best.”

Deloitte Access Economics estimates that in 2007, absenteeism due to allergies cost a whopping $196 million and the average sufferer is likely to have their health and, subsequently, productivity cut by at least 25 per cent for 52 days a year.

The root of rhinitis

Australia has one of the world’s highest prevalences of allergic disorder, explains Katelaris. “We have a mixture of temperature and humidity that pollens really favour and no sharp winters to kill off dust mites.”

But why are rates on the rise? While genetics and viral infections play a big role in goading the immune system towards hyper-reactivity to begin with, Katelaris points to the ‘hygiene hypothesis’ – the theory that Western society has become too clean, not allowing children’s immune systems to develop properly.

“It’s been noted that as developing countries become more westernised, allergy rates increase,” she says.

Urban pollution can also worsen reactions, with rates of allergies rising alongside levels of pollution. The World Health Organisation has declared that climate change is the biggest health issue humans will face in the next century, predicting a 20 per cent rise in allergy and asthma cases over the next 10 years.

Naturopath, lecturer and clinical supervisor at Nature Care College Sally Anna Bertram views seasonal allergies as part of a broader spectrum of conditions that includes asthma and eczema.

“It’s a sign that your immune system is way out of balance and can be indicative of wider problems,” she says.
Modern lifestyles, stress, pesticides, pollution and emotional strains can all play a role in depleting your bodies defenses, Bertram explains, adding that immune issues present an opportunity to tweak overall health.

There’s also a strong link between digestive issues and allergies, she says, naming as key culprits candida conditions, ‘Leaky Gut Syndrome’ (a condition in which a deteriorated gut-wall causes undigested food to irritate the immune system) and food sensitivity.

Another critical but often overlooked trigger for both asthma and allergic rhinitis reactions is mould, which can also exacerbate the effects of other allergies. “People with allergies will usually react to fungus; in some places it’s as big a problem as pollens,” she says, giving the example of a landscaper client whose allergies eased after she became more cautious when handling potting mix.

“If you have a damp house, you really need to take a serious look at your living environment,” Bertram says.

Au revior allergies

“If you find you’re getting sick each spring, then you should go and get tested,” Professor Katelaris advises. “When you know what triggers your allergy, you can take preventative steps and use appropriate treatments.”

Herself an asthmatic, Bertram has developed a program that involves testing immune sensitivity to certain foods, healing leaky gut, killing candida, then desensitising the body.

Dr Shaun Matthews is a medical doctor based at Bondi Road Doctors who specialises in Ayurveda, a nature-based healing system that incorporates physical, emotional, and lifestyle considerations. He takes a holistic approach to seasonal allergies, advising abundant sleep, positive relationships, and using food, yoga, meditation and breathing exercises as healing tools.

“When you’re depleted or stressed, you’re much more susceptible to problems like allergies,” he says.

How we eat is also important, he says. “Having your largest meal at night weighs down your system and makes you feel heavy and congested – undigested food is at the root of so many problems.”

He advises against mucus-forming foods, such as dairy, as well as cold foods and recommends instead drinking warm water brewed with fresh ginger.

“Happily, there’s effective natural ways to counter seasonal allergies,” Matthews says. A regime of cleaning nasal passages with a saline solution (try neti pots or Neilmed SinusRinse) and using herbal medicated oils to soothe mucus membranes has shown to help.

Top tips for beating seasonal allergies

- Consider staying indoors and taking preventative medication if a high pollen count is predicted; warm, windy days are particular culprits.
- Keep living and working spaces well ventilated to prevent the build up of mould, especially in bedrooms. Air mattresses, blankets and pillows regularly.
- In damp areas, such as kitchens and bathrooms, replace porous, mould-conducive surfaces, such as chipboard. Clean out drip trays under fridges.
- Ensure your living space is clean and dust free. Wipe floors and surfaces with a damp cloth, and vacuum mattresses.
- Minimise dust-collecting materials, such as curtains, carpets, pillows and soft upholstery.
- When handling potting mix, wear long clothing and gloves and avoid inhaling dust.
- Use only low-allergy plants in your garden. See www.asthmafoundation.org.au
- Avoid irritants such as tobacco, strong perfumes and formaldehyde.
- Use aromatherapy oils when wiping down surfaces and mopping the floor; clearing fragrances include lemongrass, eucalypt and tea-tree.