At first glance, these two conditions might seem to be very different. In reality, allergies and asthma are related. Allergies are believed to play a role in asthma. It is thought that an over-reaction to common allergens can lead to a constriction of the airways and/or increased inflammation in the lungs. The frightening experience of an asthma attack is hard to describe. Someone described it to me best as trying to breathe through a drinking straw; but you can’t take the straw out of your mouth. This “fighting to breathe” is a significant health crisis and leads to many emergency room visits. With proper education and treatment, people with asthma can lead rewarding lives. Many Olympic athletes have asthma, including Jackie Joyner-Kersee.
One natural solution to help treat allergies and asthma is simple: avoidance. How can one avoid allergens that are everywhere? Stay indoors all day in a bubble? No, there is no need to be this drastic. It is true that we spend most of our time at home. We also spend the most of that time in our bedrooms: this is where you start. We spend almost 8 hours a day in our bedroom, so it should be an allergen-free sanctuary. Pets should not be allowed to spend extended amounts of time in this room. The carpets should be vacuumed, with a vacuum cleaner that uses a HEPA filter, and surfaces should be dusted regularly. If possible, an air filtration device should be kept in the bedroom. Change sheets regularly and wash them in hot water to kill any dust mites. Cover mattress and pillows in dust proof covers. During the day, consider covering your entire bed with a sheet. At night, remove this sheet and put it in another room. This will help to keep the dust off your bed.
Does diet play a role in asthma or allergies? We are not sure. There are classic foods allergens for some people; wine, chocolate, seafood, nuts, etc. Naturopathic physicians often recommend avoiding certain foods that might cause ‘sub-clinical’ allergies. There is little evidence that this will help, but there is no harm in trying. Often avoidance of certain food groups can improve your health in other ways: such as, better digestion, more energy, better skin and less joint pain. The most common food allergens are: wheat (gluten), dairy, eggs and soy. If you only want to avoid one food group, make it wheat. Intolerance to wheat gluten, or celiac disease, is more prevalent than people might think.
Are there any supplements that can help with asthma? Sadly, the answer is no. But there are a few options. In one study, children with asthma who took omega-3 oil supplements demonstrated better lung function, less medication use and less coughing. There is no harm in trying this supplement; about 1-2 grams a day would be adequate. There are many kid-friendly, and great tasting, omega-3 oil supplements available. Ask your Peoples Drug Mart Pharmacist for help finding one.
One supplement that can help with the symptoms of allergic rhinitis (runny nose) is butterbur (Petasites hybridus). In one study, a special extract of butterbur was as effective as over the counter anti-histamines in treating seasonal allergies. This supplement has also been found to be helpful in preventing migraine headaches. If you are thinking about trying butterbur, you must find a particular formulation. These standardized extracts have been processed to remove all the toxic pyrrolizidine alkaloids (PA) that are naturally present in butterbur. The most common trade name product is called Petadolex. Talk to your Peoples Pharmacist or Naturopath for more information about Butterbur. Butterbur is thought to work by preventing the formation of compounds called leukotrienes. Leukotrienes are inflammatory substances produced by the body in response to allergic reactions. These leukotrienes are also implicated in the worsening of asthma symptoms.
Homeopathy has also been shown to be quite helpful in treating seasonal allergies. I have found that people who use the homeopathic allergy combination products find similar relief to those who use, or don’t respond to, over the counter antihistamines. One of the best studies to compare homeopathy to placebo in the treatment of allergic rhinitis appeared in the August 19, 2000, issue of the British Medical Journal. In this study, 50 patients received either a 30CH homeopathic allergy preparation or placebo. After four weeks, their nasal inspiratory peak flow and allergy symptoms were compared with a baseline reading. The homeopathy patients demonstrated a significant improvement in nasal peak flow readings, which measures how congested a person’s nose is. Patients also showed improvement on allergy symptoms, but this was not significant when compared to placebo. What I found interesting was that patients who took the homeopathic preparation showed an initial worsening in symptoms, which lasted an average of four days. This “homeopathic aggravation”, or temporary worsening of symptoms, is consistent with homeopathic treatment. One should keep this in mind when trying any homeopathic preparation; sometimes things get worse before they get better.
My favourite supplement recommendation for allergic rhinitis is quercetin. Quercetin is a natural flavonoid found in many fruits and vegetables. The best sources include apples, green tea and onions. During an allergic reaction, your body’s immune system recognizes a foreign substance and tries to get rid of it. It does this by causing a part of the immune system, called mast cells, to break apart and release histamine and other inflammatory compounds. This causes a lot of congestion and prevents the spread of the foreign substance. This sounds like a great idea, but with seasonal allergies there tends to be an over-reaction to allergens. How quercetin, and other flavonoids, work is by preventing the breakdown of mast cells and the subsequent release of histamine. This is referred to as mast cell stabilization. Vitamin C and the synthetic flavonoid cromolyn sodium can also act as mast cell stabilizers. I recommend a more soluble form called quercetin chalcone, a dose of 250mg taken two or three times a day. Side effects of headache may occur, but this is rare.
One, often overlooked, allergy season option is the nasal rinse. I’m not referring to the gentle salt water sprays that help to moisturize the nostril. These are the more vigorous, nasal flushes. A review of scientific data, appeared in the February 2003 issue of the Canadian Family Physician, determined that nasal rinses were a simple and inexpensive option to help treat various sinus and nasal conditions. I find using a sinus rinse product can really help with my seasonal allergies. Once your get over the awkwardness of squirting about a cup of salty water up your nose, things are great. Ask your Peoples Pharmacist to help you find a nasal irrigation product. I personally use a NeilMed sinus rinse.
Asthma, or any other shortness of breath, is a serious medical condition that should be brought to the attention of your physician. These ‘wheezing’ spells might not go away. Often they can be prevented or treated quite easily. Seasonal allergies can be very troublesome and tiring for those affected by them. When the symptoms of fatigue, watery nose and eyes and/or sneezing get your down, visit your People’s Drug Mart Pharmacist. They can help you choose the right anti-histamine or supplement to help treat your symptoms. It is a good idea to keep track of your allergy symptoms and any remedies that might have helped. Writing these thoughts on a calendar is a good idea. By the time next allergy season is upon us, you will remember when the symptoms started and what treatments worked. Take charge of your health, or it will take charge of you.