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Stress Less, Sneeze Less

The best way to fight allergy season is knowledge and prevention. Reducing stress in your life could be the one boost to your immune system that will carry you through the season.

If it's fall, the symptoms may be back with a vengeance: nasal congestion, runny nose, itchy eyes, sneezing, coughing and fatigue; maybe even wheezing and chest tightness. Sound familiar? If so, you probably have seasonal allergies and have been advised to treat the symptoms with antihistamines or corticosteroid drugs. But why put a Band-Aid on a cut you could have prevented in the first place? There are simple ways to avoid—and treat—allergies. And you can start right now.

Allergies are adverse immune reactions to everyday substances that most people can tolerate. "Allergens," as they're called, can include inhalants such as pollens (such as ragweed), dust, cat hair or mold. Allergens also are found in foods including wheat, peanut or egg. These two types of allergens—food and inhalant—can join forces to increase your suffering. If you're allergic to ragweed and to milk, for example, your symptoms will be worst during ragweed season, from mid-August through October. One easy way to relieve your symptoms considerably is to eliminate one factor from the equation—in this case, avoiding milk during the autumn.

A second important approach to preventing allergies is reducing your "immune load"—that is, eliminating stressors on your immune system above and beyond seasonal allergies.

I often ask my patients to picture their immune system as a kettle. If you picture the kettle filling up with immune burdens as it would with water, eventually it will overflow once you've exceeded the immune threshold—the top of the kettle—and you become symptomatic. Your immune system is remarkably resilient and can handle the challenges of increasing assaults, but there is a limit to how much it can tolerate. During ragweed season, the pressure on your immune system due to allergies and sensitivities is greatly increased; you not only have to contend with your normal immune load but also with the new season's attack of pollen, increasing your body's burden significantly.

Clearly, minimizing exposure to offending seasonal allergens and sensitivities is a logical and effective way to reduce immune load and annoying symptoms. Of course, this is frequently difficult when allergens are pervasive—how can you completely avoid going outside in ragweed season? You can't. But by reducing other immune assaults, you stay below the immune threshold and minimize symptoms.

One of the best ways to consistently lower your immune burden—and thus bolster your body's defenses—is to recognize the compounding influence of anxiety, loneliness, insecurity and other psychological and emotional factors. Stress tends to be people's biggest immune stressor, in and of itself.

You can improve these conditions by practicing various methods of stress management, including meditation, biofeedback, hypnosis, yoga, massage therapy and relaxation exercises. Deeper emotional issues such as chronic depression should be dealt with through counseling.

You can also alleviate allergy symptoms by modifying your eating habits and avoiding nutritional deficiencies. Try taking dietary supplements such as antioxidants, including vitamin E, carotenoids, selenium and buffered forms of vitamin C; biofiavanoids such as quercetin and proanthocyanidins; essential fatty acids like gamma linolenic acids and the omega-3 fatty acids; and herbs such as Glycerrhiza glabra (licorice). These nutrients can all help to counteract the swelling and inflammation of tissues in the nose and throat that are usually associated with allergic reactions. Meanwhile, staying away from foods full of sugar, hydrogenated fats, chemicals or additives can also relieve immune stress. So can eating a healthful diet packed with fruits and vegetables.

Steering clear of environmental pollutants like smoke, fumes, heavy metals and other toxins, and avoiding viruses and bacteria, are yet other ways to reduce your immune load.

In more severe cases, of course, the immune system is so compromised that allergy shots may be a necessary treatment. Tough cases may also benefit from newer types of immunotherapy, such as enzyme potentiated desensitization. Consult your physician to determine which allergy-fighting approach will best alleviate your seasonal distress.

By utilizing this natural approach year-round, you will not only beat this season's allergy symptoms, but help prevent next year's episodes, as well.