One of the biggest challenges I’ve faced over the last many years is allergies and sensitivities that just seem to get worse as I get older. How many of you have noticed this happening to you? Why is this happening and is there anything we can do to get some relief??
You’re not alone!
I was talking with my sister the other day about things we’re noticing as we get older that we never had a problem with before. She said she and a colleague both are having issues with increasing sensitivities to environmental irritants, allergens, and foods. I told her they are not alone because I, too, have been suffering for a number of years from worsening environmental sensitivities, and I’ve heard from many others who complain of the very same thing. My sister said her environmental sensitivities are getting worse and now she has even developed one to peanuts! That one is bothersome enough that she now has to pay close attention to the foods she eats so as to avoid them.
My problems started while I was working as a night nurse on an inpatient psychiatric unit. The unit was in a part of the hospital that was quite old and the ventilation system was like an allergen and particle distribution center. I remember reading around that time that almost all very old buildings have cockroaches, even if you never, ever see one, and the ventilation systems contain cockroach poop, which is a strong allergy trigger. Yuck! Cockroach poop could have been blowing into that unit! No wonder my eyes were always beet red and I was congested all night long. I was once accused by a patient of smoking weed in the nurses station–that’s how red my eyes were!
At first, I only had problems at work. A nurse I worked with, my good friend Julie, complained to me one night that I sounded like a jackhammer because of all the throat clearing I was doing. And then she offered me a melty Claritin tablet. It did help some, so from that day on, I always carry some with me. I also started using ketotifen allergy eye drops. They’re pricey, but even the 50% improvement in my symptoms that they give me makes it worth the expense.
After a year or so, I started to notice that my symptoms were happening a lot at home, as well. I saw an allergist who did skin testing on me, and I did have reactions to three things–pine (I live in Vermont), guinea pigs (Bronwen had three at the time), and cats (we have one and allergies be damned, I wasn’t getting rid of her!)–but the allergist said the reactions were so subtle that she doubted they were causing my symptoms. She is the one who got me thinking about the ventilation system at work because she told me that particulates in the air can cause the same symptoms as allergens. It just happens through a slightly different mechanism in our bodies.
Why do our allergies get worse with age?
It’s so frustrating to go through life allergy- and sensitivity-free only to develop them later in life. Or for some people, maybe they suffered from allergies or asthma as a child but “outgrew” it and thought the misery was behind them, only to redevelop those same problems in their 40’s, 50’s or older. And then there are those who have lived life with a certain predictable, stable level of allergy or sensitivity. And then, for no apparent reason, the allergies start to get worse in middle age.
So why do our allergies get worse with age? What is it that causes us to develop new ones when we never had them before? The answer, my friends, is IMMUNOSENESCENCE. That’s just a big, long word for changes in our immune function as a result of aging. I bet you saw that coming, didn’t you?
Physical changes that we can’t see
As we age, we can see physical changes, but there are also a lot of behind the scenes changes, too. Stressors such as free radicals cause changes in our body systems, tissues, cells, and even our molecules that make it harder for our bodies to face challenges. These changes also increase our susceptibility to the triggers of chronic inflammation. While parts of our immune function decline, others become overly active. Our innate and adaptive immune responses stop playing nice, and the mismatch only gets worse as our systems continue to face these stressors. Our immune system slowly shifts towards inflammation and autoimmunity and it’s this failure in immune regulation that leads to many of human beings’ chronic health problems, including allergies and sensitivities.
Stress is also a culprit. Stress releases hormones and molecules, including histamine, which cause our allergy symptoms. And then our allergy symptoms cause us stress, which in turn causes more histamine to be released, which in turn… Well, you get the picture. Interestingly, the chemical factors released as a result of stress affect the allergic response cells (mast cells) in our skin more than anywhere else. I’ll bet many of you know someone who breaks out in hives when they’re stressed out–I can think of least two people I know that this happens to. Another response in our skin can be rashes or dermatitis (eczema).
Changes in the gut
New food allergies and sensitivities can happen in a couple of ways. First, the immune response cells in the gut go through the same changes as the rest of your immune system. Combine that with a gut that is becoming more permeable as a result of age, and inflammation and food allergies can develop. Another reason for issues with foods isn’t immune-related, but it’s worth mentioning. Acid-suppressing medications for ulcers and gastroesophogeal reflux disease (GERD) can be responsible for the development of food allergies or sensitivities.
Less protection in our sinuses
As I mentioned before, my biggest problem is sinus and chest congestion. The insides of our nasal passageways are lined with tiny little finger-like projections that trap particles and move mucus (oh, that word. I’m a nurse and it still gags me to hear it!) down to our throats so it can be swallowed (gagging here!). Those cilia lose their efficiency as we get older and our nasal passageways dry because of changes in the mucus-producing cells (goblet cells). [Fun fact: mucUs is a noun, mucOUs is an adjective.] So think about what happens if cilia and goblet cells aren’t working the way they did when we were, say, 30. That’s right! Allergens and particles have a better chance of irritating our noses and sinuses and we are left with congestion, itching, sneezing, and runny noses.
Great! So now what do we do??
So what can we do about this? Suffer in silence (or like a jackhammer, in my case)? We probably aren’t going to make our symptoms go away completely and we certainly can’t reverse the damage already done (younger people can’t completely stop it from happening, if that makes you feel any better–it’s just part of being a human and human bodies must age). There are things, however, that we can do to make our symptoms more manageable. Here are some tips:
(Please keep in mind that I am not your health care provider. Please check with yours before starting any new herbs or medications–even over the counter ones–to be sure they won’t interact with any medications you’re already taking.)
- Stay hydrated and humidify your air if you live in a climate where it is dry. I humidify in the winter because the air gets so dry.
- Try to identify your allergens and avoid them, if you can.
- See an allergist for testing and recommendations.
- Try adding immunity-boosting supplements: iron, zinc, and vitamin D. A multivitamin contains all those, plus antioxidants like vitamins A, C, and E
- Herbs such as milk thistle, green tea, bromelian, and turmeric have anti-inflammatory and immunity-boosting properties. You can often find teas made with these herbs.
- Try a daily probiotic (the best ones are the ones kept in a fridge at your local health food store)
- Try an over-the-counter antihistamine such as Claritin, Zyrtec, or Allegra.
- If you develop an allergy that gets bad enough to cause anaphylaxis, your doctor will prescribe an Epi-Pen. ALWAYS keep one with you and remember to check it every so often to make sure it isn’t expired or discolored.
I’d love to hear from you about your experiences with allergies. When did you notice them? What have you tried to make them better? Have you found the “magic bullet”? I’m sure we’d all love to know what that is if you have!
Until next time, I bid you ah-CHOO!