Nightmare on Allergy Street?

With Halloween rapidly approaching, do you have more than ghosts and ghouls and things that groan in the night to worry about?  If you suffer from seasonal allergies then your answer is almost certainly yes.

Seasonal allergies occur when outdoor allergens such as mold spores, tree, grass and weed pollen are inhaled and cause an allergic reaction.

This year allergy sufferers were subjected to the “perfect storm” of a mild winter, including an unseasonably warm February, and an early spring caused trees to pollinate earlier than normal.

This has been a very strange year for allergies,” says Dr. David Chudwin, an allergist from Crystal Lake, IL. “It’s been the strangest year in the 30 years that I’ve been practicing.”

The early spring was followed by a hot dry summer that kept pollen counts high, day after day.  Then in late summer and early autumn, record-breaking mold counts resulted in county wide air-quality alerts that resulted in even mild allergy sufferers dreading the outdoors.  Although mold is typically associated with dampness, mold spores also are associated with dying vegetation.

Many molds grow on rotting logs and fallen leaves, in compost piles and on grasses and grains. Unlike pollens, molds do not die with the first killing frost. And mold counts can change quickly, depending on the weather. Certain spore types reach peak levels in dry, breezy weather. Some need high humidity, fog or dew to release spores. This group is abundant at night and during rainy periods.

To makes things worse, retreating indoors may not be the answer. For, those bothered by indoor, as well as outdoor, allergens, the season of suffering is just beginning.  As we start to run furnaces and our pets elect to curl up in front of the fire, dust and dander levels start to rise.

According to most of the country’s leading expert on allergies, more Americans than ever are sneezing, sniffling and itching. The Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, estimates 450 million Americans suffer from allergies.

As previously reported by SRxA’s Word on Health, our squeaky clean lifestyle is probably to blame for the rising numbers.  According to the hygiene hypothesis – Children that lead too clean a life are not exposed to enough germs to properly adjust their immune system.

People who are less prone to allergies include children from large families, children who live on farms, children in underdeveloped countries,” Chudwin said.

If you don’t fall into any of these categories, we suggest a trip to your local allergist, who can help prepare you for sneeze-free trick-or-treating and the other joys of fall and winter.

Bring on the Bugs?

Think that keeping your children’s hands and mouths clean is helping them stay healthy?  Think again!  New research from Johns Hopkins Children’s Center reveals that exposure to common antibacterials found in soap, toothpaste, mouthwash and other personal-care products may make children more prone to a wide range of food and environmental allergies.

Using existing data from a national health survey of 860 children aged 6-18, the researchers examined the relationship between the children’s urinary levels of antibacterials and preservatives found in many personal-hygiene products and the presence of IgE antibodies in the child’s blood. IgE are markedly elevated in people with allergies.

We saw a link between level of exposure, measured by the amount of antimicrobial agents in the urine, and allergy risk, indicated by circulating antibodies to specific allergens,” said lead investigator Jessica Savage, M.D., M.H.S., an allergy and immunology fellow at Hopkins.

While antibacterials and preservatives themselves don’t cause allergies, that these agents appear to play a role in immune system development.

The link between allergy risk and antimicrobial exposure suggests that these agents may disrupt the delicate balance between beneficial and bad bacteria in the body and lead to immune system dysregulation, which in turn raises the risk of allergies,” Savage added.

In the study, those with the highest urine levels of triclosan – an antibacterial agent used in soaps, mouthwash and toothpaste – had the highest levels of IgE antibodies and their risk for food allergy risk was twice that of children with the lowest triclosan levels. Similarly, children with the highest urinary levels of parabens – preservatives with antimicrobial properties used in cosmetics, food and medications – were more likely to have detectable levels of IgE antibodies and twice the risk of environmental allergens such as pollen and pet dander.

These findings are consistent with the so-called hygiene hypothesis, which has recently gained traction as one possible explanation behind the growing rates of food and environmental allergies in the developed world. The hypothesis suggests that early childhood exposure to common pathogens is essential in building healthy immune responses. Lack of such exposure, can lead to an overactive immune system that misfires against harmless substances such as food proteins, pollen or pet dander.

Just  this week, other new research from the University of California, San Francisco has provided some answers to why children who grow up in homes with pets are less likely to develop allergies.

All of which suggests that parents should put away the hand sanitizer and let their kids play in the dirt with a dog!

Worming our way towards a Cure for M.S.?

Hot on the heels of our recent fecal transplant posting, SRxA’s Word on Health brings you news that might once again trigger your yuck factor.

According to an article in last week’s Wall Street Journal, help may be at hand, or maybe we should say “stomach” for people with multiple sclerosis – as the help is courtesy of  none other than parasitic worms.

Early safety studies conducted in the US suggest that the eggs of pig whipworms have anti-inflammatory properties that can reduce the size of brain lesions in MS patients. A similar trial is now under way in Denmark. And in Britain, academics at the University of Nottingham are studying the potential health benefits of hookworms.

If these trials prove successful, treatment with parasitic worms, or more correctly, helminthic therapy, could provide a simple, cheap, and controllable treatment for the debilitating condition, which affects 2.5 million people world-wide.

Multiple sclerosis is an inflammatory disease of the brain and spinal cord, in which an overactive immune system attacks the nerve fibers responsible for sending signals to the rest of the body. Its symptoms include impaired vision, muscle weakness and spasm, fatigue, memory loss and depression. Although a number of medications can slow the disease’s progression, many of them have unpleasant side effects including hair loss, muscle aches, sleeplessness and flu-like symptoms.

Interest in helminthic therapy surged in 2007 with the publication of an Argentina study which showed that the progression of multiple sclerosis was much slower in patients who carried parasitic worms in their intestines than in those who didn’t. Another recently published study in the Multiple Sclerosis Journal suggested that pig whipworm is effective in treating MS symptoms.

The results are quite promising,” says John Fleming, a professor of neurology at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, who led the study.

Five patients took part in the Phase 1 trial. All were newly diagnosed with relapsing-remitting MS, a form of the disease in which new symptoms can appear and old ones resurface or worsen. Whipworm eggs were taken from disease-free pigs and grown in a clean laboratory environment. Every two weeks over the course of three months, the patients in the study drank 2,500 of the eggs mixed into a sports drink. The eggs hatched in the patient’s intestines and were killed by the immune system after about a week.  Patients who took part said the liquid was salty but didn’t taste or smell unpleasant.

During the study, patients underwent MRI scans, which tracked the number of new brain lesions that developed before, during and after they ingested the worm eggs.

What makes us optimistic is that brain lesions in four out of the five patients decreased over the course of the study and then rebounded after it finished,” says Dr. Fleming. While the pattern shown by the MRIs is encouraging, he adds, larger and longer studies will be needed before any definite conclusions are possible.

Researchers say the Wisconsin study’s findings could mean that the immune system’s over-response to the brain tissue was lessened by anti-inflammatory effects from the worms, and this could offer an alternative approach to treating MS.

The theory behind helmintic therapy is known as “the hygiene hypothesis.” This argues that developed countries such as the U.S., Europe and Japan have higher incidences of allergies and autoimmune diseases because the population has little or no exposure to parasites or infections. In developing countries, where people are exposed to low-level infections or infestations, the rates of such diseases are much lower.  Essentially, the proponents of this therapy argue, our immune system is created to be in balance with the worm’s influence on us.  Naturally, our body wants to fight the foreign nematode invaders, but the worms don’t like that and they’ve actually evolved to suppress our immune response to their presence.  That means that without them our immune system over-reacts to things that in its ancestral setting it would have ignored

We spoke to a friend of ours who has MS and asked, would you intentionally swallow worms if it would help control your disease? After some initial hesitation, she gave the idea the thumbs up.  “Although it sounds gross, it’s probably no worse than injecting myself every day with chemicals that I really know nothing about and which leave me looking like a pin cushion” she told us.

What about you?

Time to get a little dirty?

Rising levels of allergic asthma and eczema have scientists wondering if there is such a thing as being “too clean”.

“We see auto-immune diseases like asthma and eczema increasing rapidly in North American children, but we don’t see the same effect in children in the developing world,” says Dr. B. Brett Finlay, a professor in the Michael Smith Laboratories at the University of British Columbia.

This has led Finlay to embark on a new project called the Impact of the Microbiota on Immune Development and Disease.  Researchers will look at the role of intestinal microbiota (normal bacteria that live in our gut) on immune development and disease, including asthma and eczema.

This makes a lot of sense.  The gastrointestinal tract is  afterall the primary site of interaction between the host immune system and microorganisms, both symbiotic and pathogenic.

Some of our everyday habits such bleaching countertops or giving antibiotics to young children may be killing off good bacteria along with the bad bacteria.  This so-called ‘hygiene hypothesis’ claims that our desire to be ultra-clean may mean that kids aren’t getting the bacteria they need to have strong immune systems later in life.

Finlay has assembled a team to study and identify the various types of microorganisms that live in the gut. They will also track the health development of young children enrolled in the Canadian Healthy Infant Longitudinal Development Study (CHILD) in order to both better understand the role microbiota plays in the immune system, and development of autoimmune disease.

The goal will be to gain a genetic understanding of the bacteria that lives in and on the human body, specifically those found orally, on the skin, the gut, nasal/lung and vaginally.

Previous studies in humans have suggested that immunological dysregulation is the cause of many non-infectious diseases such as autoimmunity, allergy and cancer.  Gut microbes are thought to  play a role in preventing diseases such as obesity inflammatory bowel disease and type -1 diabetes.

Word on Health, will be following this story closely.  In the meantime we’re thinking a little less housework might not be a bad thing!