For most of North America -- ranging from the Midwest to the East Coast, this winter has been a doozy. In the beginning of January, a rush of warm air in the Arctic disrupted the local atmospheric zone, known as the north circumpolar vortex, breaking the normally stable air mass into three pieces.
Like many a winter traveler, one of these sections headed south and settled in just above the Great Lakes, stretching from Northwest Territories to the State of Georgia. This left most of the continent suffering with bitterly cold temperatures, strong winds and an increase in severe winter storms.
Though the atmosphere has apparently stabilized and winter will soon be gone for yet another year, for millions of people, this is no time to breathe easy. In the next few weeks, a new kind of trouble will emerge. Dubbed the 'pollen vortex' this rare springtime phenomenon will leave allergy sufferers just as miserable and clambering for the indoors.
Pollen allergies have been known for centuries and in 1937, links were established between the concentration of these dust-like particles in the atmosphere and the development of those well-known symptoms. It took another 60 years before the entire process of an allergic response was fully understood. It was a depressing moment as studies concluded allergies were an overreaction of the regulatory arm of the immune system to not one but a large number of different components. There was little choice for those at risk than to simply avoid pollen in the air, especially when the concentration is extremely high.
For most in North America, this would mean a few days to weeks of hiding while the pollen made its way from plant to soil. But this spring may be different. Instead of just a few days or weeks, this could be a very long allergy season offering not a gentle but a calamitous start.
The problem lies in the way plants come back to life from their wintertime sleep; it's highly dependent on temperature. In a normal year, fluctuations slow down the growing season. When the air warms, the plant is active, happily making leaves, flowers and pollen.
When things cool down -- below six degrees Celsius -- the plant chooses to go back to sleep. This year, because of the extended cold, plants simply have not had a chance to start the growing process. But with the polar vortex gone, the weather is expected to stay high both day and night.
The result is fairly self-explanatory. Plants of all sizes and shapes will come back to life and begin to rev up their biological engines. In a short period of time, they will produce their entire springtime pollen offering, which will make its way into the air and into us. Some estimates suggest the levels could be 40 times higher than normal years. Worse, unless there are severe weather events to force the pollen from the trees to the soil, the air will be filled with these particles far longer than usual.
For those who suffer from allergies, the coming weeks may be a nightmare. Yet, there may be ways to prepare for the coming dust storm. Because of the work to study the mechanisms of allergies, a number of nutritional strategies have been suggested to help prevent that overreaction of the regulatory immune response. They include increasing levels of Vitamins A & D, increased consumption of essential fatty acids including DHA, reduce fat and gluten intake and increase consumption of probiotic bacteria, such as Lactobacillus.
Should those familiar symptoms occur, the best advice for mild sufferers is to stick to the anti-inflammatories and antihistamines. For those who are extremely affected, the standard treatment is steroid medication. However, over the last decade, a few other options have been proposed and in many cases shown to be effective.
The first is immunotherapy in which a small dose of specific allergens are given orally in the hopes of developing immunological tolerance and reducing or eliminating symptoms. Clinical trials have been very successful and with a treatment schedule, allergies may be a thing of the past.
The second involves the controlled introduction of parasites into the body. The basis for this treatment is historical in nature. At one time, humans and parasites worked together to keep the immune system from overreacting; by returning to the past, we may prevent the allergies of the future.
The last is far more controversial albeit very easy to accomplish: visit a farm. It's based on an interesting observation of allergy sufferers. The majority tend to come from urban areas. People who live and work on farms, however, seem to suffer less. The mechanism is similar to immunotherapy in which the body is naturally exposed to small doses of allergens over time leading to tolerance. However, unlike the medical treatment, which is specific for individual allergens, farm life helps universally.
With any luck, the predictions of pollen peril may not transpire though little may be done to prevent the predicament. Although the best means to avoid problems is to stay indoors, in light of the pain of the polar vortex, it would be a shame to miss the sun and the warmth. Instead, by improving nutrition and exploring preventative options, there may be hope for those who are now living in fear and quite possibly a future without that all too common phrase, "It's just allergies."
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