By Stephen T. Sinatra, M.D., F.A.C.C., F.A.C.N., C.N.S., C.B.T.
Before I moved to Florida a few years ago, I spent most of my adult life in the Connecticut River Valley. It’s beautiful there. Or rather, I should say it’s beautiful except for the couple months every spring when the pollen count shoots up.
I loved watching the countryside come back to life after a long winter, but my allergies drove me absolutely nuts.
I wasn’t the only one who suffered, either. A number of my patients were right there with me—the only difference between us being that along with typical allergy symptoms, a lot of them experienced a worsening of their cardiovascular symptoms, too.
Seasonal Allergies Can Affect Your Heart Health
When you think about seasonal allergies (or as it’s known clinically, allergic rhinitis), you probably think of the usual suspects: itchy eyes, congestion, runny nose, and post-nasal drip. What I’ll bet you don’t think about is how all that sneezing, itching, and wheezing can raise your risk for heart disease.
There have been several studies over the years linking both allergic rhinitis and asthma, another condition that can be aggravated by high pollen counts, with the development of heart disease.
The connection? Inflammation.
Allergies are basically an immune response gone awry. When you’re allergic to something, your body sees that thing—pollen, mold, dust, animal dander, whatever it may be—the same way it sees bacteria and viruses: as threat it needs to get rid of.
So, when you breathe in these things, your body launches an attack. It produces immunoglobulin E (IgE) antibodies that tell the body to release histamine and initiate an inflammatory response in the respiratory tissue. That’s why seasonal allergies come with a lot of congestion and wheezing, and why having an allergy can be doubly bad if you also have asthma (as I do).
Some inflammation is normal. But when allergies are chronic and/or severe, a sustained inflammatory response can have a more systemic impact, and one that directly affects the heart and arteries.
How to Keep Your Heart Safe During Allergy Season
So, short of moving to a climate without the offending vegetation, what can you do to protect yourself?
The biggest thing is to reduce the amount of inflammation in your body as much as you can. (This is true year-round, but especially so during allergy season.)
If you know your immune system is going to produce extra inflammatory factors for a few weeks, don’t add to the load with poor lifestyle choices. They’ll up your risk and may make you feel even worse.
Instead, make sure you support your body with habits that keep the inflammatory response to a minimum. This will help reduce the systemic impact of your allergies and help prevent your immune system from getting overworked.
Here are a few of my favorites:
Load Up on Anti-Inflammatory Foods
Sticking to anti-inflammatory diet, like my Pan Asian Modified Mediterranean (PAMM) diet, is always the best way to immediately and effectively lower your inflammation level.
PAMM works by cutting out processed foods, bad fats, and sugar, which are all notorious for aggravating the inflammatory process. At the same time, it floods the body with antioxidant nutrients, which help protect against inflammation caused by free radicals.
If you’re not familiar with PAMM, be sure to check out my rules for what to eat and how much. A good place to start, in this case, is with eating more plant foods—fresh vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds, legumes, and plant-based fats like olive oil. They’ll provide you with more antioxidant nutrients than anything else.
Try also to get a lot of anti-inflammatory omega 3 fatty acids into your diet. While small, migratory fish are the best sources, walnuts and chia seeds are ideal options for vegetarians. Taking a daily squid or fish oil supplement is a surefire (and probably the most convenient) way to cover you on the omega 3 front.
I also want to give a special shout-out to olive oil. When it comes to inflammation, you just can’t get too much of the stuff. Not only does olive oil have tremendous antioxidant power, but science also suggests that it can actually turn down some of the genes that promote inflammation. That’s huge! Add it to salads, sauces, marinades, fresh or roasted veggies…anything, really. Just make sure you’re getting at least two tablespoons a day.
I also love Earthing (also called “grounding”) for keeping inflammation at bay.
Whenever we connect with the natural energy of the Earth, our bodies absorb negatively charged free electrons from its surface. These additional electrons help neutralize positively charged free radicals—the molecules that cause inflammation in the first place.
Another benefit of Earthing is its calming effect on the nervous system.
Allergies can make us feel miserable physically, no doubt about it. But they can also make us grumpy, impatient, and generally unhappy. Add it up, and all of the extra pollen can mean a big dose of extra (and some might add “completely unnecessary”) stress.
Any form of sustained stress drives inflammation and cardiovascular risk by raising cortisol levels and lowering heart rate variability (HRV). (It’s been shown that people with allergic rhinitis do have poorer HRV than people who don’t.) Earthing helps reduce that risk by helping the body turn off and “reset” its stress response, which brings both cortisol levels and HRV back to normal.
The easiest way to practice Earthing is to walk barefoot outside, although that may not be the best idea when your issue is seasonal allergies. If you can tolerate some extra exposure to the pollen, by all means do it. If you can’t, try an Earthing device like a grounded mat or bed sheet. These products are easy to use and connect to the Earth using the ground port of any standard electrical socket. Better yet, you don’t have to go outside to get relief.
Minimize Your Exposure to Allergens
Many doctors see allergy symptoms as a sign that your “allergen bucket” has reached capacity, and is now overflowing. In other words, your body is designed to deal with a number of offensive substances – whether they be dust mites, mold, chemicals, pet dander, and even offending foods – but when seasonal allergens like ragweed and pollen are added to that allergen load, your body reaches its tipping point, and lets you know via allergy symptoms.
So limiting your exposure to various allergens will help keep your bucket from spilling over. Using a high quality, HEPA-grade air filter in your home is one of the best ways to minimize allergen exposure, as is keeping your home or work environment as free as possible of dust or animal hair. When it comes to the allergy bucket, every little bit of prevention counts!
What About Antihistamines?
Of course, you can also avoid extra inflammation during allergy season by preventing allergy attacks to begin with. Allergy shots, steroids, and natural and OTC antihistamines are some common options for this.
Personally I prefer a natural approach, but you may need to combine conventional and alternative approaches to get the best results. I would stay away from products that also include a decongestant, though, since most of them work by contracting blood vessels. That drives up blood pressure, which could aggravate other cardiovascular issues.
Probably the best thing about allergy season, in my book, is that the worst of it lasts only a month or two. Even so, you’re best off making these year-round habits—along with other inflammation fighting strategies like eating organic food, drinking plenty of fresh, clean water, and doing your best to avoid environmental toxins. Your eyes, lungs, and of course your heart will thank you.
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