Spring allergies and histamine intolerance

Sometimes what we may think is the back end of a cold – a runny nose, red eyes, and sinus irritation – may in fact be the onset of an allergic reaction. Closed windows and constant central heating over winter can amp up the dust mite population to be an issue in early spring and plug in humidifiers, electrical devices and the static electricity of humans moving around can cause more dust particles to be suspended in our air at the height of our nose and throat, while outside spring brings tree pollen – a serious allergen with some.

‘What happens in an allergic reaction’ – when the body perceives a foreign body or allergen, it sends histamine to the site of intrusion. The role of histamine is to cause an initial clearing action and/or make a marker to where the immune system can travel and so sort the problem quickly. So histamine to a nettle sting is inflammation and a flush of blood to get the toxins dissipated while histamine to pollen grains in the nose triggers a sneeze or a runny nose to flush out the foreign body.

Normally histamine is good and for the majority it rids the foreign body or potential allergen effectively but with allergy sufferers it’s not just that the foreign body irritates, it’s that the histamine goes into overdrive and causes more of a problem – so the tiny nettle sting becomes a large rash or the short burst drip of a runny nose become a waterfall with inflamed sinus and puffy eyes.

The more histamine released the stronger the reactions. So while it is important to know your triggers and to spring clean away the common causes of allergies including animal fur, dust, mold, and also avoid pollen, nettle stings, insect bites etc, it is also an option to decrease your histamine production. Histamine is released from mast cells and several common herbs and foods inhibit the mast cells from opening and releasing.

Antihistamines are agents that inhibit histamine production or slow histamine release. Funnily enough, nettle tea or nettle soup is the traditional spring tonic to help the body better regulate its histamine production. The cooking or heat kills the sting and inflammatory agents but the other beneficial nutrients and phytochemicals remain intact.

Other antihistamine options
• Chamomile, thyme, fennel, rooibos are amongst the best herbal teas suitable for all round stabilization.
• In terms of targeted specifics, peppermint is particularly effective with mast cells related to allergic rhinitis while echinacea has an affinity for upper respiratory tract reactions.
• Ginger works brilliantly on hive and rash reactions.
• Quercetin rich foods – Many of the antihistamine herbs have either high quantities of quercetin or help with quercetin absorption. Quercetin is abundant in cruciferous vegetables (cabbage, broccoli, spinach, kale, cauliflower etc) as well as in garlic/onions/shallots, citrus fruits and also in green tea. The benefit of including more leafy greens is the enzymes they contain that assist detoxification and also help reduce inflammation.
• Probiotic-rich foods — support immune health and can help to balance reaction/response – your gastrointestinal tract is responsible for more than 80 percent of your immune function. So more kefir/yogurt, miso and kombucha.

Detox – I’m not talking shedding the kilos – these are the guys that can flush toxins and excess histamines out of the system.

• Lemons — are natural detoxifiers and help the body rids itself of impurities – riding the triggers and also lessens the pressure on your immune system.
• Apple cider vinegar has benefits in both reducing mucous production and in supporting lymphatic system removing toxins and so leaving the body fitter to fight seasonal allergies.
• There are several specialist diets you may want to investigate – an elimination diet, alkaline diet, GAPS, an immunology diet etc – to cleanse the system before allergy season.

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seldom is spring without cold

According to Irish tradition the first of Feburary aka Imbolc (Imbolg) marks the beginning of spring. This morning there was blue sky and sunshine and an collection of spring flowers on offer in the local shops. And while this morning I got up to celebrate my cultural heritage and the rejuvenating energy of believing it is spring, I also know we are a good twenty days or more away from soil temperatures conducive to planting and gardening proper.

So while today I will potter and weed a bit and wish I wore gloves under my gloves, I know we are getting into a more positive place – longer, warmer days and productive early starts. And as to the setbacks – they will come – but they won’t seem so bad when you can munch an apple or a strawberry you have grown while viewing your domain from vantage of your garden seat. Being true to your self overrides people and circumstance less true to you.

It is not always easy to jump into spring and get the zest for life, sometimes the bitter taste in the mouth of past experiences or on-going dramas can undermine enthusiasm. The trick is not to expect that spring will instantly eradicate winter. Spring is the germination, the bud emerging. Patience is required but flourishing is on its way. I live by the saying ‘god bless the intent’ and I am grateful to every signpost.

There is also the old Irish proverb Is annamh earrach gan fuacht – Seldom is spring without cold. It speaks of taking the good with the bad – equal measure and in your stride. It is about setting your expectations. A bit of winter can linger into spring. Enjoy the new leaves emerging, enjoy the birdsong, feel the warmth of the sun on your face but don’t sell your scarf and gloves just yet.

In a way this one also reminds us that you cannot have good without bad, just as you cannot have day without night, cold without hot, or joy without pain – they are not a consequence of each other but the frame of each other- we understand hot by knowing cold, we know daylight by its difference to night-time and we appreciate joy all the more for having had the experience of pain or sorrow.

The proverb reminds me of Zen sayings. My favourite Zen saying being “Before enlightenment chop wood carry water, after Enlightenment, chop wood carry water.” Enlightened or not you still need to fend for yourself, you will still need firewood and water to drink and bathe with. The spring still has cold in it – it’s no time to slacken off.

Enlightenment does not stop life and life’s necessities in their tracks. Life goes on, enlightened or not. The transformation is in your perception of the world and your expansion of consciousness, not a new realm where the mundane realities no longer apply. We still have to chop wood, weed the garden, brush our teeth.

Life goes on. We sleep and we wake – we are alive in both states – hearts beat, blood flows, lungs breathe – life is intact. Life is as intact in sorrow as it is in joy – we need not fear the cold day in spring. And while you are mindful of each step on the journey, do not be daunted or caught off guard by a cold day in spring – a minor setback – no panic if the path is frozen for a time. Chop some wood. Warm your toes.

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Hypothermia awareness for gardener, farmer, forager and rambler

Hypothermia officially occurs when a person’s core body temperature drops below 35°C (95°F), but you know you are on the way if you have been exposed to extreme cold or a cold, damp environment for a prolonged period – or in a situation of high wind chill and high humidity, or any scenario where more heat is lost than your body can generate.

Because the signs and symptoms of hypothermia usually develop slowly and most casualties experience a gradual loss of both mental acuity and physical ability as the symptoms progress, they may not even be aware that they need emergency medical treatment.

Signs include fatigue, cold and pale skin, shivering (mild to violent), slurred speech and respiratory distress or abnormally slow breathing, confusion (including memory loss), loss of coordination and loss of consciousness. In a garden or farming context, working in the winter in wet or inadequate clothing, or falling into a pond or other cold water exposure, for example, can trigger hypothermia. Foragers and ramblers are prone of not correctly dressed and protected from extremes

First response – Hypothermia is a life-threatening condition and should always be treated as a medical emergency. It’s when the shivering stops that you need to really worry as this indicates that circulation is receding and the heart is slowing. Time is of the essence. Call for help and call the emergency services. Move yourself or the casualty out of the cold. If moving him or her is not possible, add layers to insulate the casualty from further heat loss. If in wet clothes, remove what you can (within socially acceptable limits) and replace with dry clothes or wrap in dry fabric.

If the casualty becomes unconscious, layer the ground beneath him or her with a jacket or blanket and place the person into the recovery position. If he or she is not breathing and you cannot detect a pulse, commence CPR until an ambulance arrives.

Top tip – Always warm the casualty from the core/centre of the body (chest, head, neck and groin). Heat applied to the extremities (arms and legs) only forces cold blood back towards the heart and lungs, which will cause the core body temperature to drop even further – this is potentially fatal. Do not attempt to massage or rub the person vigorously if you suspect frostbite or other cold or non-cold related injuries.



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a terrifically simple health-boosting thermogenic soup

There is the theory that hot soup of any kind raises the temperature in the nose and throat and so creates an unwelcoming environment for viruses that otherwise thrive in cool, dry places or which often find a way in via our frigid gardening faces. Our noses running while we weed or try get the bulbs in is really an automatic response to try flush out any potential grip opportunities for invading viruses. This is why broths are traditional flu cures in many cultures across the world.

Now imagine the benefit of hot soup with ingredients to boost your immune system and your stamina to weather extremes. Stews or chunky soups that are made with root vegetables are true winter warmers because root veg require more energy to digest than leafy veg and as your body works to break down the roots, that energy and the amped up process of metabolism enables a thermogenic effect – the process creates internal heat and safely increases body temperature.

And at a time of year when comfort food is often high on the agenda it’s good to point out that thermogenic foods in boosting metabolism help us more efficiently burn excess fats too. Win win.

So here is my gardener’s winter warmer broth.

•1 large potato – thermogenic and nutritious but also delivers vitamin c to boost immune system
•1 small beetroot – thermogenic and contains phytonutrients called betalains that boost muscle stamina and speed recovery from exertion.
•1 average parsnip – sweet and earthy flavour with vit c and thermogenesis.
•1 small red onion diced small– contains allion and allicin, the same antival agents as garlic
•1 teaspoon of coconut oil – thermogenic and the “medium chain” fatty acids bolster immunity.
•1/2 teaspoon of turmeric – packed with antioxidants and phytochemicals that boost the function of the immune system.
•Pinch of black pepper – thermogenic and the piperine content counteracts stagnant circulation (that’s cold hands and icicle feet)
•3-4 cups of water

Method – wash, peel and roughly chop the veg. Add to water in a saucepan and bring to a boil. Simmer for twenty minutes. Stir in coconut oil and spices. Its ok if the potato breaks down – It will add thickness to the broth. Season to taste, serve and enjoy.

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combat chilblains and other cold weather conditions

Chilblains – the medical name is perniosis – occur as a reaction to cold but not necessarily freezing temperatures. They occur more often when cold exposure is accompanied by dampness, icy water or snow – winter clearance of a pond will do it, or wrapping tender plants when it’s sleeting.

Symptoms generally develop within two to fourteen hours of initial cold exposure and manifest as localised redness with swelling, often as ‘skin bumps’ which on re-warming of the area become tender and blue or develop itching or burning sensations. In severe cases, blisters and ulcers can form. They normally heal within a week.

Chilblains are the result of constriction damage to the capillaries and blood vessels feeding your skin and can affect hands, ears, lower legs or feet. Women gardeners are more susceptible to chilblains than men – it’s nothing to do with the thickness of socks, just one of those things.

First response – Warm but do not apply strong heat to the affected area to decongest blood vessels and begin natural recovery. But do this slowly, as the re-warming – the renewed blood flow – causes pain. Traditional treatment is to use steroidal cream for the itching and inflammation, and an antibiotic to ward off secondary infection. Do not scratch or burst chilblains as they can easily ulcerate. Calamine lotion or a similar lotion will ease the discomfort of itching. Ulcerated wounds need medical supervision.

Garden aid – A pokeweed poultice or nettle juice and/or garlic paste are folk remedies to alleviate congestion in the blood vessels. Aloe vera or juniper berry juice applied to the site will relieve itching and address secondary infections. Crambe (sea-kale) leaves are useful as an anti-itch poultice, as are acanthus leaves.

Any herbal antiseptic lotion or rinse will be beneficial and the use of calamine lotion or lanolin cream can ease sensations and keep healing skin supple. Cramp bark tea or prickly ash decoctions have a history of use to remedy this condition.

The leaves of spotted laurel – used in traditional Chinese medicine and Japanese ethnobotany are pounded to become a poultice or paste and applied to burns and chilblains and to remedy swelling. The flowers of hollyhocks are calming, while their root is soothing – both parts can form the basis of pastes, tinctures and poultices applied to ulcers and an array of skin complaints.

Kitchen aid – Undiluted lemon juice, taken internally and applied to the skin, is an old folk remedy. Sipping a strong cup of ginger and cayenne tea, or munching a spicy snack that includes both, can help to improve circulation to the extremities.

try a home remedy:

Bicarbonate of soda, cinnamon and oatmeal healer ( A ‘Ditch the Itch’ Paste Suitable for chilblains, peeling suntan and any irritated skin conditions.)

Method – Add 4 heaped tablespoons of bicarbonate of soda and 1 heaped tablespoon of ground cinnamon to 2 cups of finely ground oatmeal. Make a mug (2 cups) of strong camomile or linden tea and add to it 2 tablespoons of witch hazel extract. Mix all together to a porridge consistency. This will help itching, circulation and potential ulceration/infection. You can make a basinful of the mixture and soak toes for up to 30 minutes, or steep fingers in a small bowl of the healing gruel.

Find more recipes to treat chilblains and treatments for other weather related injuries in my book first aid from the garden available in all places that sell books. Also kindle downloads at usual sources.

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herbal teas to help you sleep

I am frequently asked about Insomnia and for a quick fix. The long answer is to reset your circadian rhythm (search posts for that) and purge yourself of the stresses and bad habits (late coffees, late night social media and binge watching box sets, bringing phone to bed). In the short term there are herbal nudges into zzzzz but nothing beats a set bedtime and a bedtime routine of winding down and cooling down and sleeping in a dark room.

Before we jump to the teas, insomnia is best understood as the inability to sleep or the experience of poor quality and quantity of sleep. It can be considered acute or chronic. Acute or short-term insomnia generally lasts a single night or a short cluster of a few nights over a week or more. Chronic is the complication extending into repeated bouts over several weeks and, in the extreme, over several months.

Acute insomnia can be a simple case of environmental factors such as noise (traffic, rattling wind, a party next door), light (brightness keeps the mind alert) or temperature (hot or cold can impact on the body’s ability to rest). It can be occasioned by illness or physical discomfort and even conventional treatments for those conditions (some medications can interrupt normal sleep patterns). It can also be occasioned by emotional discomfort (stress, office politics and unrequited love, alas, can all play on the mind at night) and similarly medications to address anxiety and depression can have sleep-altering side effects. Shift work, jet lag and so on can also trigger short-term insomnia.

Chronic or prolonged insomnia most often pertains to chronic stress, depression or anxiety or to an underlying ailment causing night-time bodily discomfort or mental anguish. Whichever you suffer from, insomnia can be a vicious circle in that anxiety and fear of not sleeping generates more anxiety and adrenaline to psychologically and chemically undermine the sleep potential. Sleep is essential for brain function and cellular regeneration, so loss of it impacts directly upon health and daily function. Insomnia upsets the natural balance, cognitive performance and our hormonal rhythms but it, and its ancillary symptoms of fatigue , irritability and stress can be treated and reversed.

Herbal teas – Both chamomile and lavender are the go-to herbs for rest and sleep. Clip a little of either one and smell it, put some in the bath or better still sip a tisane of it – both plants have aromas and phytochemicals that steady the nerves, counter stress and even-out the excesses of caffeine and biochemicals that keep you from peaceful rest.

Cowslip petal tea is sedative and soothing to the mind. Valerian root harvested for tea or tincture is sedative and hypnotic (the latter meaning sleep-inducing rather than making you walk like a duck or believe you are naked) and it also helps alleviate spontaneous fidgeting and muscle spasms that can be a part of a restless night.

Passionflower is both sedative and antispasmodic, and suitable in tea or tincture form. Other sedative herbal teas include those made from linden flowers, Californian poppy and hops; mood-enhancing and rest-inducing herbs include lavender, lemon balm, catmint and skullcap. All those mentioned are also considered to be anxiolytic (anti-anxiety) herbs.

If your sleep problems is a daytime stress slipping into night time agitation then try a cup of green tea in daylight hours – it contains L-theanine, a neurologically active amino acid that stimulates the production of alpha brain waves, thus inducing a relaxing effect. It won’t make you drowsy or fall asleep, but its anxiolytic potential is good to support you through the day and set you up for a good night’s sleep later on.

Insomnia can seriously undermine you mental and physical wellbeing so if you find its not resolving then don’t prolong your suffering, go see your GP or a sleep specialist/clinic.

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Eat to beat the Winter Blues and S.A.D

At this time of the year when the light levels drop and the rain and cold puts a dampener on going outside we tend to plummet in our natural synthesis of Vitamin D – which is a precursor of serotonin aka the happy hormone. It is a neurotransmitter that is not only a natural antidepressant but it peps up the body with a sense of alert, energized wakefulness. Evolutionary biology would say that’s just the perfect state we needed to go hunt and gather in daylight.

Later in the evening when the daylight dims we cease producing serotonin and shift to production of melatonin aka the sleepy hormone – this neurotransmitter slows the brain and body to a more relaxed, soporific state as befits going home to the cave and having a good night’s sleep. At night the darkness causes a flood of more melatonin and that tranquilizes us into a state of heavy rest and eventual sleep.

So these chemicals are the triggers of our sleep wake cycles. The problem is at this time of the year for many the lower light means we produce less serotonin and even produce melatonin during the day. So the low energy is actually a rise in the sleepy hormone and the deflated mood is battling the tiredness and not having the serotonin zip to fire up your cognitive function and sense of wellbeing.

To some it just a case of the winter blues and the distractions of Halloween, Christmas and other festivals of light are and were societies’ way of trying to boost up the populace. For many those distractions work or the blues are not heavy to bear but for others this seasonal dip is a recurring winter type depression with all of the clinical dangers (and beyond the help here, do seek help- a CBT councillor, a GP, a family member or friend or helpline)

Whichever end of the spectrum you fall there is help and it’s the same help – get more sunshine. Take your break outdoors. Sit by a window in the daytime. Resist the urge to nap or pull the curtains and instead get outside for a walk or a spot of gardening or a jog. The more light exposure then the more serotonin, the less melatonin. Bright light therapy is a clinical treatment to supplement and often replace antidepressant medication. Daylight bulbs and day-lamps can be purchased to catch the right rays indoors.

Winter type depression can be though off as starting with a deficiency in vitamin D – which we humans mostly derive from the sunshine but there are foods that are rich in it; mushrooms, fortified milk and yoghurts , some soya and tofu products but it is abundant in oily fish. With supplements there is always the risk of an overdose or damage to the organs by misuse but with food it’s not just a tasty dose its good nutrition to keep you going too.

Some depressions are complicated by a deficiency in B-complex vitamins. Well, brassicas all have good b-complex as well as being jam packed with antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds. Trendy Kale has plenty of brain fuel and health extending vitamins as well as essential dietary fibre and omega-3 fatty acids. Sprouts, cabbage, broccoli, Asian greens and other darky leafy are full of vitamin C and vitamin K to help the body eliminate environmental toxins and help manage stress related illness.

The lean in to comfort food and sugary snacks at this time of year is believed to be an inherent or intuitive intelligence to get tryptophan activated in the body. Tryptophan is an essential amino acid that is a precursor of serotonin. Consumption of carbohydrates triggers the release of insulin which supports tryptophan to cross the blood brain barrier.

Now as to the ‘intelligence’ – this is the quick fix with a whole array of complications from sugar spiking, sugar crashing, potential weight gain and further cravings – so not the cleverest option – especially when sweetness and carbs are so readily available – unlike in the early stages of mankind. Evolutionary biology is lagging behind, from climbing a tree for honey to drive through fast food and a sugary beverage on every corner.

One of the issues with Seasonal affective disorder that makes it different to summer depression is the craving and binge eating situation. But we can trick ourselves out of this with another food related hormone – leptin. That’s a hormone made by your fat cells when they are at capacity to tells your brain oak switch off hunger we are full of stored energy now.

So high leptin in the blood means low hunger, low leptin and you will crave food. Foods that supply leptin to the bloodstream or increase our sensitivity to leptin include oatmeal, nuts and seed, broccoli and greens, low-fat yogurt, green tea, eggs, Lean proteins and fish. And here we can see cross overs in foods that support D and B vitamins deficiency too.

All of this is about foods that do the pharmacology for your brain to re-correct to the tilt of winter triggers but if you are having emotional crisis and upsetting thoughts then please talk to someone while you wait for the nutritional changes to kick in.

Beyond food – If you want to develop more resilience and look to CBT and mindfulness base therapies and tricks to stay on course then do investigate my new book – by time is everything revealed – via amazon or a book store near you.



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