Spring is my favorite time of year for oh so many reasons - wildflowers, sunshine, gentle breezes, renewed hope and vitality, and longer days - to name a few. However, for many, myself included, spring also comes with one very unfortunate downside: pollen season.
“Allergies are the 6th leading cause of chronic illness in the U.S. with an annual cost in excess of $18 billion.”
If you’re one of the 50 million+ Americans who suffers during pollen season and even if you’re among those fortunate few who don’t), you’re likely well acquainted with the class of drugs called “antihistamines”. Antihistamines are one of the most commonly used pharmaceutical treatments during pollen season. As the name reveals, they work by interrupting the activity of histamine by blocking histamine receptors.
WHAT THE HECK IS HISTAMINE?
During an allergic reaction, histamine (an immune messenger protein and neurotransmitter) is released from mast cells - a type of white blood cell - in response to foreign proteins in the blood. This cascade of histamine is responsible for textbook allergy symptoms like sneezing, itching, wheezing, congestion, and swelling. Histamine may sound like the bad guy here, but it’s actually an essential chemical involved in appetite, digestion (it regulates stomach acid, and is also produced by certain gut bacteria), arousal, endurance, cognitive/CNS function, ovulation/reproduction, pituitary hormone secretion, and of course, immunity.
THE DOWNSIDE OF ANTIHISTAMINES
In the case of perennial or seasonal allergies (i.e., allergic rhinitis), excessive histamine is produced in response to a substance that is not inherently harmful. In an acute or emergency scenario, antihistamines can be immensely helpful in mitigating the inflammatory response. However, most folks are using these drugs daily for prevention, which can have a detrimental long-term impact on the body.
With continuous antihistamine use, the immune system interprets the blocked receptors as a problem of insufficient histamine, and responds by producing even more histamine, exacerbating the fundamental problem. Antihistamines can also deplete the very enzymes that degrade histamine - DAO and HNMT, making it more difficult for the body to naturally metabolize histamine. Sooo, with protracted consumption of the very thing you rely on to alleviate your symptoms, you may wind up with more severe reactions when you discontinue use. For instance, a staggering number of folks have reported unbearable rebound pruritus (i.e., itching) withdrawal symptoms from the popular antihistamine, Zyrtec.
Furthermore, antihistamines can cause imbalances in the gut microbiome, increasing vulnerability to issues like SIBO, constipation, and more. In a study published in March of this year, the antihistamines loratadine (Claritin), terfenadine, clemizole, and astemizole were found to inhibit more than 10 beneficial microbial strains in the gut.
Diphenhydramine (DPH; i.e., Benadryl), a first-generation antihistamine, interferes with the brain chemical acetylcholine, increasing risk of dementia when used long-term. A 2016 study suggests that anticholinergic drugs such as Benadryl are “associated with increased brain atrophy and dysfunction and clinical decline”. They can also aggravate Restless Leg Syndrome, and cause cognitive impairment and drowsiness, which slows reaction time, undermines focus and clear thinking, and may provoke mild confusion even if you don’t feel drowsy.
“One 50-milligram dose containing Diphenhydramine (Benadryl®) has the same effect on driving performance as 6 to 8 ounces of alcohol. Its effect is greater than a .10 blood alcohol level.”
CHINESE HERBS FOR POLLEN SEASON & IMMUNE ENHANCEMENT
As is so often the case, Chinese herbs offer a safe and viable alternative (or compliment) for those wary of the potential liabilities of pharmaceuticals.
In general, Traditional Chinese Medicine theory pinpoints Qi deficiency paired with exposure to external Wind, as the root of most seasonal allergy symptoms. One of the main herbal formulas used to address this pattern works by tonifying Qi (especially Wei, Lung and Spleen Qi), stabilizing the exterior, and expelling Wind. In other words, it bolsters and balances the immune system, allowing your body to engage harmoniously with its surroundings. In recent research studies, it showed bi-directional immune-modulating properties, meaning that the synergistic impact of the powerful herbs that constitute the formula can balance the immune system, in both hypo- and hyperactive immune responses.
If you're interested in learning more about ancient formulas that have proven successful in preventing and treating immune dysfunction, whether that be during pollen season or viral and bacterial infections, talk to your Chinese medicine practitioner or reach out to us for a referral.
Adverse side-effects related to the use of Chinese herbal medicine are rare, and mild and short-lived if at all. Thanks to centuries of evidence, we can confidently say that the benefits of Chinese herbs far outweigh the risks.
The next time you find yourself sneezing and sniffling and you suspect pollen season is to blame, think twice about which solution you choose.