If I’m sneezing, this must be April.
Like most people with seasonal allergies, my histamine crisis normally begins in the spring, as soon as plumes of pollen fill the air.
Sneezing, nose-blowing, eye-rubbing and throat-scratching go on and on until summer heat pulls the plug on pollen production.
My torment is not from grass, pets, molds or anything I eat or wear. Allergy tests show my nemesis is the pollen from common trees — oaks, elms, hackberries, mulberries, sycamores, maples, etc.
Fortunately, after 35 years of severe allergic rhinitis, I no longer have hay fever. I am no longer a spring sneezer. By accident, I may have found my cure. If so, it’s been a long time coming.
I first developed hay fever around age 13. It quickly progressed from a sneeze here and there to extreme attacks, where I couldn’t stop sneezing all day and all night. I would even sneeze in the swimming pool — while under water!
In the interim, my great blessing has been the development of much better antihistamines, including pills which are non-sedating. Yet even the best of these becomes less effective for me as the allergy season wears on. By the end of a bad allergy year, an Allegra, a Zyrtec or a Claritin would do little good. I would be suffering an hour after popping a pill.
And then last year, my hay fever disappeared. I rarely had to sneeze. My eyes were not red and itchy. My throat was not hoarse. My sinuses were not congested. Yet Davis trees were still producing pollen.
This year, again, the same thing. High pollen counts, dry windy days and no serious symptoms.
One theory which has been suggested as to why my symptoms disappeared last year at age 48 was that I aged out of allergies. This apparently happens to many people.
Dr. Suzanne Teuber, a leading food allergy specialist at the UC Davis Medical Center explained to me, “Allergies do decrease with age in most people, and we do see occasional years in which a particular pollen just doesn’t tick very high on the charts for unknown reasons or related to perfect timing of a few showers.”
Perhaps that is what happened. Or perhaps, the change is a result of my diet. Beginning last March, I stopped eating all foods with gluten (save an occasional beer). I also no longer consume dairy products or food with added sugar.
Dr. Mark Hyman, a famous alternative medicine guru and author of diet books, says around 30 percent of Americans have gluten sensitivity. A small percentage of that larger group has celiac disease or a wheat allergy.
“In people with non-celiac gluten intolerance, the immune system attacks the gluten,” Dr. Hyman says. “When the lining of the gut is inflamed, the body is even more prone to food reactions.” Once inflamed, “the immune system attacks full throttle. White blood cells rush to surround the offending particle and systemic inflammation ensues.”
If I do have gluten sensitivity that causes my immune system to be on overdrive, it makes intuitive sense that, in the face of pollens, my body would produce histamine “full throttle” to attack those invaders.
Likewise, if I stop eating wheat and other gluten-rich grains, and my immune system is no longer inflamed, I should no longer have rhinitis when pollen is in the air.
I should add that, as far as I know, Dr. Hyman has never written anything about treating hay fever with a gluten-free diet. I more-less took what he says about gluten intolerance and guessed that may be why my allergies have ceased.
Anecdotally, there are others (on the Web) who have independently reached the same conclusion — that going gluten-free ended their rhinitis.
I posed the theory about food sensitivity causing seasonal allergies to Dr. Teuber.
She replied, “I don’t doubt that there are beneficial effects of various dietary factors — with an end result of inhibiting the release of histamine and other mediators from mast cells and basophils, which are the main effector cells in allergic rhinitis.”
But Dr. Teuber cautioned that the scientific evidence (as opposed to anecdote) is still thin.
“I have patients who have followed such (gluten-free and dairy-free) diets to no avail and still have allergic rhinitis,” she said. “Just saw someone today who follows such a diet for chronic gastrointestinal symptoms and saw me for their ongoing severe allergic rhinitis.”
A complicating factor in treating some food-related allergies is that what cures them may not be just one thing, such as removing gluten from the diet, but rather a combination of multiple factors which have a synergistic effect. Dr. Teuber pointed to a Mt. Sinai School of Medicine study looking at these synergies.
So perhaps, if I have not just aged out of my hay fever, the explanation is not simply going gluten-free, but that in combination with other changes in my diet and other environmental changes in Davis.
That said, this advice makes sense: If you are now suffering from seasonal rhinitis and you feel like you alone are keeping the Kleenex Corporation in business, remove all gluten from your diet for the rest of this allergy season.
If it works, great. If not, you will be no worse off.
— Rich Rifkin is a Davis resident; his column is published every other week. Reach him at [email protected]