Thursday, March 29, 2012

Is It Really Allergy Season Again?

Last year, I wrote a comprehensive blog entry about allergies in response to a friend's inquiries. If you're suffering from allergies this year, I suggest you click this link to get back to that article - it's extensive and discusses a variety of natural approaches to allergy treatment. This year, I'm going to discuss two more factors in treating seasonal allergies, one is a treatment and the other is a clinical pearl.

In my many years of working in natural health, not only in clinical practice, but in my time at a health food store, I have often heard patients say that they consume local honey during the allergy season in order to prevent the allergic symptoms. In theory, it would seem to make sense – consuming small amounts of allergen desensitizes the immune system to the offending allergen, so that the body doesn’t react as strongly. This is, after all, roughly how allergy shots are believed to work.

But what does the research say? In our modern world, we like to see the hard data and don’t necessarily believe everything we hear, no matter how plausible it may seem.

I was able to find only two articles on the topic of honey consumption to reduce allergic symptoms. The first, conducted in 2002, allotted 36 participants to receive either a local, unfiltered honey, a mass-produced commercial honey, or a honey-flavored corn syrup placebo – participants consumed one tablespoon per day, and reported their symptoms to researchers. The results were poor, and researchers concluded that local honey provided essentially no benefit. However, the study had significant limitations, and I’m not sure we can take this result as completely valid. A third of participants dropped out of the study because they didn’t like the taste of the honey, reducing the study’s size to only 23 participants. A group that small is very unlikely to produce statistically significant results, not to mention the fact that small groups may not represent the larger population. The study design, with three arms, each receiving a different type of ‘honey’, was ingenious, and it would be great to see this repeated using a larger group. (Interestingly, the drop out rate was highest in the corn-syrup placebo group, and lowest in the local honey group – perhaps because local honey tastes better?)

The second study assessed the ability of honey to reduce allergic symptoms among participants who suffered birch pollen allergies. This study also featured three arms – one consuming honey with birch pollen added, one consuming regular honey, and a control group using their usual allergy medication. The results here were stronger – the group was still fairly small at 50 participants, but the drop out rate was much lower. Researchers found that participants consuming honey had lower total allergic symptoms, more asymptomatic days, fewer severe days and less antihistamine use, indicating a significant benefit to honey consumption. No significant differences were found between the group consuming normal honey and honey with birch pollen, however, which makes us question the exact mechanism behind honey’s effect on seasonal allergies. Here’s the caveat – the honey-consuming participants started consuming the honey in November in order to reduce their springtime allergies, so if you’ve not yet started your honey consumption, you may have to wait until next year to try this out.

Taken together, these studies present a mixed view of honey and seasonal allergies. Honey has a number of additional benefits, and few would fault you for consuming local honey, but the science is mixed. Hopefully we’ll see more studies on this topic in the future.

So here’s part two – the clinical pearl.

Just a few days ago, a patient came to me asking about allergy prevention. I conducted an intake, as per my usual, and as it seemed she was suffering from seasonal allergies, as she did every year, I made recommendations along the lines of what I wrote about last year. This week, I heard back from her, and found out that she hadn’t gotten any relief from the supplement I’d recommended – in fact, she had gotten significantly worse!

Far from her sniffling, sneezing and watery eyes, a day or two after I saw her, she’d developed pain and some really thick mucus discharge – unable to reach me, she’d gone to her family doctor on short notice. It turns out that she’d developed a sinus infection in the day or two after I saw her. She’s on antibiotics now, and we’ll see how she fares. The important lesson is this – complementary therapies are extremely effective, but only for those conditions for which they are indicated! Always make sure you make a proper diagnosis before proceeding on to treatment. I was a bit unlucky because she’d not fully developed the sinus infection when I saw her, but the incident underlined for me the importance of not missing the diagnosis!

That’s all for this week, allergy sufferers. Here’s hoping you find some relief!