Every fall, as the seasons begin to change, the bees are busy making honey and taking advantage of the year’s last nectar surge. Starting around mid-August in most of the US, flowers are in full bloom and thousands of plants are going to seed in preparation for the first frost. With all their pollens in the air, the risk of chronic sinus irritation is at an all-time high. To make matters worse, the sinuses, nose, throat, and eyes are all lined with mucus membranes that make mucus when they are irritated by pollens, pollution, and the end-of-summer heat.
In the West, we are told to simply take an antihistamine to dry out the sinuses and block the production of mucus. While this may offer symptomatic relief, it is only that—a symptom reliever with no attention to the underlying cause. According to Ayurveda, an extreme sinus reaction to the summer-to-winter transition is caused by an improper seasonal adjustment that took place in the prior season, when spring transitioned into summer. On that note, if you have issues with spring allergies, it would be wise to look at how you transitioned from summer into winter the year before. But first, let’s address the possible risk factors linked to long-term use of antihistamines.
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Long-Term Use of Antihistamines Linked to Cognitive Decline
To address the surge of mucus production that commonly accompanies spring and fall, most folks take an antihistamine which causes a common side effect of dry mouth. It makes sense, right? If your nose is running and your eyes are watering, you naturally want to take something to dry them out. The problem is, according to a new study, antihistamines might be drying out more than just your sinuses. Your brain, memory, and long-term cognitive function may be directly impacted by the long-term use of certain antihistamines as well as other medications. (1-6) According to a new study published in the Journal of American Medicine (JAMA), anticholinergics (antihistamines) have been linked to memory loss and severe cognitive decline. (1) The most common anticholinergics are found in most antihistamines such as Benadryl, chlorpheniramine, tricyclic antidepressants such as doxepin and amitriptyline, and bladder antimuscarinics such as oxybutynin, to name a few. (7)
Memory loss has been a well-known side effect of these drugs for years, but the so-called anticholinergic-induced cognitive impairment was considered reversible until now. Please note: there are antihistamines that are not anticholinergic (such as Claritin), but first-generation antihistamines like Benadryl are indeed anticholinergic.
The study evaluated 3,434 participants who were at least 65 years old with no history of cognitive impairment from 1994 to 2012. During the 10+ year evaluation of anticholinergic use, 23.2% of the participants developed dementia. (1)
Efforts are now being made to inform doctors about the risks of the long-term use of anticholinergics, but this is difficult – as the use of this class of drugs is incredibly prevalent, with so many over-the-counter antihistamines on the market. In fact, long-term or daily use of antihistamines has been the gold standard prescription for years for sinus irritation, with more than 20% of seniors on daily anticholinergics.
While over-the-counter antihistamines are a major concern, tricyclic antidepressants actually made up most of the anticholinergic use in this study, which further complicates this issue of limiting long-term use.
While these medications have served many people, we should be considering them for what they are. They are medicines – you should get on them, get better, and then get off them. The problem is that we are not being guided to bring the body back into health, and we are instead becoming dependent on the long-term (and sometimes risky) use of medications.
Addressing the Cause of Seasonal Allergies
In the northern hemisphere, August and September are the hottest months of the year due to something called thermal accumulation. Even though the sun began its journey back to the southern hemisphere on June 21, the heat of the sun continues to build through the month of September. Along with the accumulation of heat comes dryness. Add a surge of pollen, and a growing amount of particulate matter from air pollution or fires, and you have the perfect storm for fall allergies.
According to Ayurveda, the heat (or pitta) in the body rises up from the digestion into the upper respiratory tract. This heat causes the mucous membranes of the throat, mouth, nose, sinuses, and eyes to dry out (also known as an aggravation of vata). This is particularly aggravated by the accumulation of summer’s heat and dryness at summer’s end. Of course, nature has a plan to help rid the body of the building summer’s heat with its harvest. Cooling foods like apples, watermelon, pomegranates, and other ripe fruits have a naturally cooling effect on the body.
Ayurveda says that the best way to dissipate heat at summer’s end is with purgation or some form of laxative therapy. In the same way, a baby gets diarrhea when they get a fever, the end-of-summer harvest of fruits causes us (and the animals) to have more frequent loose stools. This serves two purposes: it spreads the seeds of the fruits quickly because of the loose stools, and it also dissipates the accumulation of summer’s heat.
From the Ayurvedic perspective, if you are prone to seasonal allergies, consider eating a pitta-reducing diet which is made up of foods that are cooling and predominately harvested at the end of summer. Apple farmers know very well that enjoying the fall harvest of apples causes many of them to deal with loose stools through most of October.
To help protect the upper respiratory tract from being dried out, Ayurveda also suggests consuming certain herbs that are also summer harvested to enhance the anti-pitta effect. Manjistha is one of the best summer herbs for cooling the blood and decongesting the lymph, which drains the sinuses. Brahmi (Centella asiatica) is very cooling, and it contains a collagen precursor to help protect the lining of the inner skin of the gut and respiratory tract. Neem is perhaps the most powerful of the cooling herbs; it supports a healthy reaction to the irritants that can aggravate the mucus membranes of the respiratory tract.
How the Spring Causes Fall Allergies
At the end of winter, there is an accumulation of vata or dryness. Nature’s remedy for that is spring—which is a wet, rainy, muddy, and congestive time of year. This is called kapha season. This is also a time of year where allergies can pick up because of excessive mucus production. The winter that just passed dries out the mucus membranes of the gut and respiratory tract, paving the way for excessive mucus to be produced in response. The extent to which we become excessively dry in the winter is the extent to which we will produce excessive reactive mucus in the spring. The spring pollen surge only makes this reactive mucus production worse.
Learn More About LifeSpa’s Aller-Rest for Seasonal Sinus Support
Nature’s plan is to make sure that the kapha or mucus production is not excessive in the spring and is found in its harvest. Spring is an austere time of year, as is the harvest. It consists of mostly bitter and astringent roots, some spring greens, leftover beans, and maybe some animal protein. There are no grains, pasta, bread, or pizza being harvested in the spring. Nature always gives us the antidote to the extremes of each season with its produce and harvest. If too little of the bitter and astringent spring-harvested foods are eaten, then the reactive mucus that lines the intestines and respiratory tract will linger and cause congestion into the summer months. If this happens, the heat of summer can slowly bake the mucus onto the villi of the intestinal tract and the cilia of the respiratory tract. This potentially causes hardened mucoid material. This material compromises the immune response in the inner lining of the gut, lungs, and sinuses. This is just one example of how the symptoms you may be experiencing in one season may be a manifestation of an imbalance from the season prior. Eating seasonally, taking appropriate herbs, and cleansing at the turns of the seasons can help you avoid long-term dependence on band-aid remedies like antihistamines.
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