Hay fever, also known as seasonal allergic rhinitis, can affect up to one in four people in the UK – an estimated 18 million people. Around 95 per cent of hay fever sufferers are allergic to grass pollen, with 25 per cent also allergic to tree pollen.
It has been suggested that more people suffer with hay fever and other allergies today than in the past, due to a more hygienic modern lifestyle. While staying germ-free can prevent the spread of diseases and infections, it means our bodies no longer need to fight germs as much as they did in the past. As a result, the immune system has shifted away from fighting infection to developing more allergic tendencies.
With so many people affected by hay fever, research is focusing on natural ways to protect against the allergy. Here Dr David Mantle, Fellow of the Royal College of Pathologists and nutritional adviser to Europe's leading manufacturer of dietary supplements, Pharma Nord, discusses the benefits of pycnogenol, a plant-based solution to hay fever. He also provides some tips to help prevent and treat symptoms naturally.
What causes hay fever?
Allergies result from an inappropriate response of the body's immune system to substances in the environment mistakenly perceived as harmful (allergens). When the body is exposed to pollen, a type of antibody (IgE) produced by the immune system B cells binds to the proteins contained in pollen; this in turn triggers another part of the immune system (mast cells) to release the chemical histamine. It is this release of histamine that is responsible for inflammation, and the symptoms of hay fever, including runny and blocked nose, watery and itchy eyes, and sneezing. Conventional treatment of hay fever includes antihistamine drugs to prevent allergic reactions, and corticosteroid drugs which reduce inflammation and swelling once an allergic reaction has taken place.
Controlling hay fever naturally
As with most allergies, the best way to control hay fever is to avoid exposure to triggering substances. However, it is difficult to avoid pollen, particularly during the summer months. In the case of hay fever, prevention is better than cure, and pycnogenol is emerging as a natural way to protect against this allergy.
Pycnogenol is a natural plant extract obtained from the bark of the maritime pine tree, found in the south west of France. The extract contains a unique combination of flavanoids, a large family of compounds responsible for the red, yellow and orange colours of many fruits and vegetables, as well as their beneficial dietary effects.
The active substances in pycnogenol have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant actions, which are of relevance to hay fever. As an anti-inflammatory, pycnogenol inhibits a cellular protein complex called NF kappa beta (NfkB), which acts as a “master switch” for the inflammatory process. Inhibition of NfkB reduces the sensitivity level for triggering an inflammatory response. As an antioxidant, pycnogenol inhibits the release of histamine from mast cells.
A clinical study1 has shown that pycnogenol is most effective when taken at least 5 weeks before the start of the hay fever season. Patients with allergy to birch pollen were treated with pycnogenol (50mg twice daily) or placebo. Only 12 per cent of hay fever sufferers needed conventional antihistamine drugs during the study, compared to 50 per cent of those not taking pycnogenol. In addition, the total average nasal symptom score and eye symptom score for the allergy season was lower in the pycnogenol group when compared to the placebo group.
Supplementation with pycnogenol has also been shown to benefit childhood asthma2, another allergic condition. Patients taking pycnogenol over a period of 3 months had significantly improved symptoms and respiratory function, and were able to reduce or discontinue their use of rescue inhalers more often, compared to placebo.
Tips to tackle hay fever
1. Products that give instant relief for hayfever sufferers whilst important are not necessarily the only option. By looking at the problem from a nutritional point, it is possible to protect against the onset of allergies.
2. Try taking Bio-Pycnogenol at least one month before the hayfever season starts to help reduce symptoms. The season generally runs from April to October.
3. Try to reduce your stress levels. Research has shown a link between stress and the severity of hay fever symptoms. Almost seven out of ten stressed hay fever sufferers rate their symptoms as unbearable or debilitating. As stress levels drop, symptoms become milder.
4. Take regular exercise. Research has shown that people with hay fever who exercise have the mildest symptoms. Exercise will help reduce your stress levels, too. Aim to do at least 2 hours of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise, such as cycling and fast walking, every week. However, during hay fever season, it's best to avoid exercising outdoors when the pollen count is high. This is generally first thing in the morning and early evening.
5. Eat well. People with hay fever who eat a healthy diet are less likely to get severe symptoms. Eat a varied, balanced diet with plenty of fruit and vegetables.
6. Reduce alcohol. Try to reduce your alcohol intake during the hay fever season. It can make you more sensitive to pollen and alcohol also dehydrates you, making symptoms seem worse.
7. Sleep well. Try to avoid too many late nights during the hay fever season. People with hay fever who get a good night’s sleep tend to have the mildest symptoms.
8. Limit your exposure to pollen by keeping windows shut at night and first thing in the morning, staying indoors when the pollen count is high and wearing wraparound sunglasses. Wash your hands and face regularly.
9. Smear the inside of the nostrils with vaseline or equivalent to form a barrier to prevent pollen from adhering to the nasal lining.
For more information on pycnogenol, visit www.pharmanord.co.uk
1. Wilson D et al (2010) A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled exploratory study to evaluate the potential of Pycnogenol® for improving allergic rhinitis symptoms. Phytother Res; 24(8): 1115-1119.
2. Lau BH et al (2004) Pycnogenol as an adjunct in the management of childhood asthma. J Asthma; 41(8): 825-832.
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