As I’m writing this, I’ve just finished cleaning up a tree in my yard downed by snow. I’m less than enthusiastic about the whole thing, as I spent a few hours of my Sunday chopping up this tree and hauling it to my backyard for its future – a bonfire.
What I am enthusiastic about though, is that we’ve hopefully seen the end of this mild winter in Northeast Ohio, and I don’t think I’m the only one. The transition to spring, although it means more sun, grilling out, the NBA playoffs and the Indians’ road to redemption, for many spring means runny noses, teary eyes, lots of sneezing and itchy sensations.
Allergies are an unfortunate consequence of a little compound in our bodies called histamine. In this introduction to our Spring series on allergic rhinitis (the science-y term for seasonal allergies), I’m going to give you the story behind what’s actually happening in your body, how histamine plays a role, and what you’re doing that is likely making the situation worse. For those that are visual learners, I’ve included a Khan Academy YouTube clip1 to help here.
The Science Behind The Reaction
Inside your nose are rows of bone covered in flesh that look a little like gills on a fish. They’re referred to as turbinates, and they lie right up against the walls of your nose. Among the various cells on the surface of these “gills” are little cells called “mast cells.”
Mast cells are like gate keepers. One of their roles is to sample material (pollen, mold, pet dander, etc.) that comes into the nose to see if it’s harmful or not. If the body has encountered something it considers harmful in the past, it has created a special protein, or “antibody,” to help your immune system recognize it and know how to respond.
So these antibodies attach to material as it’s entering your nose and bring this stuff up to the mast cells. When the mast cells and the antibodies attach to each other, there are essentially two responses: a normal reaction and a hypersensitive reaction.
In a normal reaction, the mast cell might cause temporary local inflammation – enough to make you sneeze once or twice to get this pollen or other material out.
In a hypersensitive reaction, however, the mast cell opens, allowing a flood of histamine to leave and affect the surrounding cells. This usually triggers a large-scale reaction since there isn’t just one mast cell up there. Those “gills” and the membranous walls we discussed earlier become inflamed and swollen, producing tons of mucous. When this happens, our body has only one option, to rid itself of this pool of mucous, leading to dripping down the back of the throat, sneezing, and a runny nose.
Unfortunately, we also have connections to our ears and eyes that come into the nose. All this swelling we can block these connections, causing some of the other common allergy symptoms (clogged ears, watery eyes, etc.).2
When we understand the normal physiology of what’s happening, we can easily understand why our body is doing what it’s doing and often predict other symptoms that may arise.
Now that you have a rough understanding of how these seasonal allergies begin, what you must understand above all else is how our daily decisions play a vital role in whether or not we have seasonal allergies.
That may sound rather absurd to some, so let’s break it down into two more topics: epigenetics and what we’ll call “abnormal systemic issues.”
Epigenetics and Allergies
Epigenetics literally means “above, around, or near” genetics, or “things that influence our genetics.” Contrary to popular belief, our genes are not as concrete as science once told us.
Within biology, epigenetics is a topic of research that is expanding rapidly. Research is showing that the things we eat, the good or bad things in our environment, and even our thoughts all make small alterations to our genetic material. These small alterations equate to “turning on” or “turning off” gene expression.
When it comes to allergies, this is primarily tied to a process called “DNA methylation,” which is commonly associated with the “turning off” mechanism in epigenetics. What researchers are finding is that genetic markers for strong immune responses are “hypomethylated,” or not turned off well enough in people who have seasonal allergies and asthma3.
Abnormal Systemic Issues
This is more of a miscellaneous category of things that stem from our knowledge of epigenetics. What many with seasonal allergies need to be cognizant of here are their own potential “uniqueness” that they bring to the table.
In the aftermath of increased knowledge regarding genetics, programs such as “23andMe” have sprouted to help people understand the blueprints of what their body’s working with. Some people should be aware of genetic methylation & detoxification problems like MTHFR, or things like histamine intolerance. When someone has these issues, it will only worsen the severity of the reaction and the number of things they react to.
So we’ve discussed allergic response, we’ve discussed two contributors to our having these issues and their severity. Let’s tie these suckers together.
How Our Diet Affects Our Allergies
Whether you want to admit it or not, we’re surrounded by environmental factors that are both good and bad for us. Toxins, vitamins, hormones and minerals are all in our food, water, air, everything. Some of these things are relatively unavoidable, especially in the air. However, what we have the most control over is what we put into our bodies in the form of food. Fortunately, this is the most studied factor in epigenetics.
Ever wonder why there is a recommendation to consume folate when you’re pregnant? Because folate aids strongly in detoxification and the “turning off” process in epigenetics. Consuming this folate is especially crucial for pregnant women because our mother’s nutrition gives us the building blocks for a healthy body.
Animals exposed to known toxins during fetal development respond far better and can eliminate these offensive materials if Mom and Dad consume the proper supplements. Fortunately, research has shown it’s not just about your parent’s choices – even if we’re a deficient and sick adult we can restore our body and, to some extent, correct epigenetic changes through diet.4
This information should be freeing for you – there is a way out, a way of reducing your chronic health issues, maybe even eliminating them completely.
If you or someone you know suffers from seasonal allergies every year, you need to follow us in these next few articles and learn about how you can make temporary and lasting improvement to your allergies. I urge you to make a change for your own benefit.
- Min, Yang-Gi. “The Pathophysiology, Diagnosis and Treatment of Allergic Rhinitis.” Allergy, Asthma & Immunology Research 2.2 (2010): 65–76. PMC. Web. 11 Apr. 2017.
- DeVries, Avery, and Donata Vercelli. “Epigenetics in Allergic Diseases.” Current opinion in pediatrics 27.6 (2015): 719–723. PMC. Web. 11 Apr. 2017.