Allergies and the Brain

A foal, just 9 hours old, at the Cal Poly Equine Center and another “newborn”

Spring time on the Central Coast starts…. NOW!

Thankfully, we’ve had some rain and the hills are green from San Luis Obispo to Sonoma. I traveled north this past weekend to assistant with wedding photography in Sonoma. During the car trip, I had fun taking in the ambiance of some northern sites, like the Golden Gate Bridge.  Also, I navigated with a map! (Imagine that!) An easy way to exercise your brain is to leave your GPS at home when traveling to new places.

Since I took a Cal Poly orienteering class I rarely struggle with getting lost, but the toughest part about going new places for me used to be my allergies.  There is nothing more embarrassing than wiping your nose constantly or sneezing your head off when trying to venture out.  It gets trickier when you run out of Kleenex and there is none near.  My friends who have known me since childhood will tell you that I’ve always had a tissue on hand.  In fourth grade, my teacher once jumped and threw his books in the air after I let out a LOUD sneeze due to the aroma of freshly cut grass sneaking in the open window.

I’ve had allergic symptoms to all the main culprits: dust, mold, pollen, grass, trees, pet dander, etc.

I never wanted my allergies to “win” so I hated taking allergy medicine.  When my husband finally forced me to go see an allergist, the doctor informed me I was a prime candidate for allergy shots because I was basically allergic to almost everything.  After the allergist’s assistant performed the arm and back prick test, I was just one red irritated mess.

Luckily, I had good insurance because that trip to the allergist would have been pretty expensive otherwise (don’t let that deter you from seeking help though!).  At that visit, the doctor informed me of a helpful online site where I could purchase special bedding and pillow case covers to deal with my dust mite allergy (gross!).

There were no dust mites out on the trails but that did not stop my runny nose and itchy eyes.  I continued to walk outside during the spring among the wild mustard in the open spaces in SLO County around Highwy 1.  I refused allergy shots, never went back to the allergist, and continued to sneeze A LOT (which really annoyed my husband).

Now, I don’t know why or how, but I seem to have kicked my extreme allergic symptoms.  Maybe it is because I quite walking in the open spaces during spring? Or maybe my sneezing fits stopped because I got rid of any carpet in my house or I am keeping my environment cleaner? Or that I moved closer to the ocean where there is a breeze that keeps the offenders away? Perhaps it is because I changed what I ate? I consume a lot more healthy fruits and vegetables than I did in the past.  Sadly, the only thing orange in my lunch used to be cheese puffs!

I don’t know exactly what to attribute it to, but I made positive changes and I am loving life without the daily attack of sneezes! I am not totally free of my allergy symptoms but I have noticed a big improvement.

Perhaps you can relate to having allergies? In a quick search for allergy statistics, I found that the American Academy of Asthma, Allergy, and Immunology website states that, “Allergies are among the most common chronic conditions worldwide.”  According to WebMD, allergies rank 5th among other leading chronic diseases in the U.S and one in 5 people in the U.S. have either allergy or asthma symptoms.  WebMD listed one estimate of the annual cost of allergies to the health care system and businesses in the U.S. at $7.9 billion.

There are many environmental factors that are causing today’s allergies. I just read, “The biodiversity hypothesis and allergic disease: world allergy organization position statement.”  (See end of post for the full citation and article link.)  Here’s how it starts off:


Biodiversity loss and climate change secondary to human activities are now being associated with various adverse health effects. However, less attention is being paid to the effects of biodiversity loss on environmental and commensal (indigenous) microbiotas. Metagenomic and other studies of healthy and diseased individuals reveal that reduced biodiversity and alterations in the composition of the gut and skin microbiota are associated with various inflammatory conditions, including asthma, allergic and inflammatory bowel diseases (IBD), type1 diabetes, and obesity. Altered indigenous microbiota and the general microbial deprivation characterizing the lifestyle of urban people in affluent countries appear to be risk factors for immune dysregulation and impaired tolerance. The risk is further enhanced by physical inactivity and a western diet poor in fresh fruit and vegetables, which may act in synergy with dysbiosis of the gut flora. Studies of immigrants moving from non-affluent to affluent regions indicate that tolerance mechanisms can rapidly become impaired in microbe-poor environments.

I think if you take the tech talk out, the authors are trying to say there is less diversity in our good bacteria on our skin and stomachs, folks aren’t eating enough fresh fruits and vegetables, and aren’t exercising enough. When people move from a non-affluent area to a crowded city their immune systems suffer.  Hence, more allergies.  I was surprised at the mention of type 1 diabetes above. It is usually type 2 that would be mentioned along with obesity.

What also stood out to me from the article was the connection with nature and the natural environment and how it helps improves allergies.

An urban environment appears to lack elements that apparently are important for the proper development of immune tolerance. The recognition of the (absolute) dependence of humans on both the commensal and environmental microbiota is crucial to unravel the mechanisms involved. In recent years, concepts such as ‘ecotherapy’ [152], ‘green exercise’ [24] and ‘forest therapy’ [27] have been launched. Urbanization and densification policy continues globally, and within the next 30 years, it is estimated that two-thirds of the world’s population and 85% of the population in the developed countries will live in urban areas with little green space [153]. Prevalence of inflammatory diseases is likely to increase even more. The health effects of nature and green spaces (see ‘Biodiversity and human health’) should be recognized, and measures to limit excessive land use and fragmentation urgently undertaken.

As a biology enthusiast and graduate from California Polytechnic State University with a degree in Recreation Administration and a concentration in Natural Resource Management, the subject of forest therapy highly interests me.  It involves protecting natural resources, environmental medicine, and then you add in the brain component and you have all my favorite subjects tying together! (Nerd alert!)

A few years ago, I read the book, “Last Child in the Woods. Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder,” by Richard Louv.  It seems that, “More time in nature– combined with less television and more stimulating play and educational settings– may go a long way toward reducing attention deficits in children, and, just as important, increasing their joy in life” (pg. 107).   Enjoying time outdoors may diversify a child’s microbes, help them focus better, and limit their need for Ritalin. Sounds like an inexpensive way to improve your child’s brain function, right? Time in nature might even boost their immune system and limit their need for allergy medication.

One of my favorite books to help with allergies, “Is This Your Child? Discovering and Treating  Unrecognized Allergies  in Children and Adults,” was written by Dr. Doris Rapp.  She states that: “Specialists in environmental medicine believe it is possible that any area of the body can be affected by an allergy or a food or chemical sensitivity” (Rapp, pg. 35).  This means your brain, even an infant’s brain, can be affected by allergies (Rapp, pg. 114).

Here’s some signs to look for in your child if you think their brain might be affected by an allergy: expressionless look  associated with red earlobes, wiggly legs, and dark eye circles (Rapp, pg. 67). Some adults may feel tired, depressed, and unable to think or remember things because of allergic brain fatigue. On the flip side, there are also hyperactive adults who are workaholic with brain allergies. (Rapp, pg. 153).

It has been noted that the brain can be affected by a wide range of common allergic stubstances.  Observation dating back to the mid-1930s indicated that odors, foods, pollen, molds, and dust could cause a wide range or problems in the nervous system. Entire chapters in texts for physicians written between the thirties and fifties were devoted to the role of allergy in relation to headaches, fatigue, epilepsy, behavior problems, minimal brain dysfunction, psychological  problems, and a wide range of other neurological or learning problems in children. (Rapp, pg. 394).

It seems this valuable information mentioned above was not included in past or present medical training for physicians specializing in allergy or neurology (Rapp, pg. 394). I truly hope things have changed and brain allergies are more widely studied.  If this subject interests you, you can read more about it in Dr. Rapp’s book listed in the sources below.

Take some time to let your brain find joy outdoors and do your part to protect the environment!  Future generations seeking allergy relief may depend on it!

By: Tina Davidson


Congratulations to Cal Poly Men’s Basketball Team for making it to March Madness


Tari Haahtela, Stephen Holgate, Ruby Pawankar, Cezmi A Akdis, Suwat Benjaponpitak, Luis Caraballo, Jeffrey Demain, Jay Portnoy, Leena von Hertzen and WAO Special Committee on Climate Change and Biodiversity.  “The biodiversity hypothesis and allergic disease: world allergy organization position statement.” World Allergy Organization Journal 2013, 6:3  doi:10.1186/1939-4551-6-3. © 2013 Haahtela et al; licensee BioMed Central Ltd. Here’s the link if you’d like to read the entire article.

American Academy of Allergy Asthma and Immunology.

Allergy Statistics and Facts.

Louv, Richard. “Last Child in the Woods. Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder.” 2005

Rapp, Doris. “Is This Your Child?  Discovering and Treating  Unrecognized Allergies  in Children and Adults.” 1991


1 Comment

Filed under Brain Health

One response to “Allergies and the Brain

  1. Super interesting! Keep up the research and writing . . . I learn something every time I read your blog 🙂


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