Everyone knows that allergies cause sneezing, itchy, watery eyes, and nasal congestion and that for some people these symptoms can be more severe than for others. For these people allergies can feel like a curse, making them feel sleepy, irritable and downright miserable. There are many medical explanations for allergies, including the theory that the body is overreacting to the typical allergens.
But there’s one other reason why some people with allergies are more affected than others, and this has to do with their jaw size. If you had normal-sized jaw anatomy, then it’s less likely an allergy attack would bother you; in fact, it’s less likely you’ll even have allergies in the first place. Let me explain.
Why Your Jaw Size Matters
If you have smaller than normal jaws, it means that there’s less space for your tongue, so it takes up relatively too much space, especially when you’re on your back due to gravity. Even worse, whenever you’re in deep sleep, due to muscle relaxation, you’ll stop breathing to wake up and turn over. During these breathing pauses, a vacuum effect is created temporarily, which literally suctions up your normal stomach juices into your throat and nose. It’s been shown that stomach bacteria and digestive enzymes can be found in sinus and lung washings. This leads to inefficient sleep, which eventually makes your nervous system and immune system overactive.
This is why it’s important to avoid eating too close to bedtime. The more juices you have in your stomach, the more it’ll come up and cause nasal inflammation. And since alcohol is a strong muscle relaxant, indulging in a glass of wine before bedtime can make you stop breathing more often and cause more stomach juices to come up into your throat, in addition to heightening your immune and nervous systems.
What You May Not Know Will Surprise You
Sometimes, what seems to be allergy symptoms may not be related to allergies at all. Whether or not your allergy testing is positive, you may be suffering from non-allergic rhinitis or chronic rhinitis, which is linked to sleep breathing problems or silent acid reflux (LPRD). With non-allergenic rhinitis, your nose becomes sensitive to temperature, pressure, humidity changes, chemicals, odors, and emotions. Non-allergic rhinitis responds somewhat to allergy medications, so you may think you have an allergy problem.
One of the most under-appreciated things that most allergy sufferers (and doctors) don’t think about is getting a good night’s sleep. It’s been shown that lack of quality (or quantity of) sleep can adversely affect your immune system through the following mechanism: a low-grade physiologic stress response is created which heightens your immune system, making it over-react to common pollens or other allergens. (The same process occurs with your nervous system, too). So how does this relate to allergies?
Hay Fever Defined
Hay fever (or allergic rhinitis) results in congestion, sneezing, runny nose, irritated eyes and other annoying symptoms for more than 35 million Americans every year. It occurs when your body has an allergic reaction to something in your environment. During this time of the year, ragweed is the most common cause of hay fever, though mold, pet dander, dust mites and cockroaches can also cause allergies year-round.
When your body comes in contact with these allergens, your immune system kicks into overdrive. At the initial allergen exposure, the body creates an antibody called immunoglobulin (IgE), which rests on a type of white blood cells called mast cells. After repeated exposure to the same allergen, a massive release of histamines and other inflammatory mediators occurs. The end result—runny nose, watery eyes and sneezing.
When Allergies Cause You Misery
Obviously, a little sneezing and congestion never hurt anyone. For most people, these symptoms are no more than a mere nuisance and most can get by without any medications or for others, simple over-the-counter medications (see chart). However, some people with allergies feel completely miserable, with poor sleep and severe daytime fatigue.
As I alluded to in my book Sleep, Interrupted: A physician reveals the #1 reason why so many of us are sick and tired, anything that causes swelling or inflammation in your nose or throat can set off a vicious cycle where due to narrowing of the upper air passageways, the soft tissues of the throat (palate and/or the tongue) start to obstruct your breathing, which creates a vacuum effect in your throat that suctions up normal stomach juices into your throat. This causes more swelling and inflammation in your throat and nose, aggravating this self-perpetuating cycle.
Steps You Can Take
During allergy seasons (trees during the spring, ragweed during the fall, molds all year round), there are a number of conservative step you can take to lessen your symptoms, to more formal medical treatments:
● Stay indoors during high pollen counts with air conditioning (check pollen counts on pollen.com)
● Wash your hair before going to bed if you’ve been outdoors during the day. You don’t want to rub your face on your pollen-contaminated pillow all night long
● Most plants release pollens in the early morning, so if possible stay indoors until after 10AM. Pollen and molds can also be high in the late afternoon and early evening hours
● Wash your bedding every week in very hot water
●Invest in allergy-free bedding (if you’re allergic to dust mites)
● Try the Asian custom of taking off your shoes before entering your living spaces. Think about all the microscopic dust, pollen, molds and dirt that get tracked into your house, where your toddler is crawling on.
● Invest in a HEPA filter for your bedroom
● Keep pets out of the bedroom
● Remove rug or carpeting from the bedroom
● Finish eating at least 3-4 hours before bedtime
● Avoid alcohol within 3-4 hours of bedtime
● Regularly practice yoga, breathing, tai chi, or some form rhythmic meditative breathing (which also includes swimming).
A few natural and/or herbal remedies include:
● Regular irrigation with nasal saline. There are many options, including a Neti-pot, saline sprays, mists, pumps and squeeze bottles. The key is to find something you’re comfortable with that you’ll use every day. ●
Butterbur and stinging nettle extracts are two herbs that have anti-allergy properties. You can find them at any health food store or order them online. If the above conservative options are not good enough, you can try any of these over-the-counter allergy medications:
● Loratadine (brand name Claritin, Allavert, etc.) or Zyrtec. Zyrtec is stronger, but has a slightly higher chance of making you drowsy. If you take it regularly at night before you got to bed, this any potential drowsiness won’t be an issue and this effect wears off after a few days. ● Diphenhydramine (Benadryl). This is an older, stronger antihistamine, which can definitely make you drowsy. It’s also used to severe allergic reactions and rashes.
● Oxymetazoline (Afrin) can be used for severe nasal congestion only occasionally and should be used no more than 2-3 days at a time.
If you also have nasal congestion, then you can get the “-D” version of the various antihistamines. The D stands for decongestant, which is usually an oral version of phenylephrine or pseudo-ephedrine. This can sometimes be stimulating, so if you’re sensitive to these medications, don’t take it just before bedtime. If you have high blood pressure or a heart condition, talk to your medical doctor before taking these specific medications.
There are a number of prescription medications for allergy: Allegra (which should be coming out over-the-counter soon), nasal steroid sprays (Flonase, Nasonex, Rhinocort, Nasacort, Veramyst), and Singulair. Astelin is an antihistamine nasal spray. Different people respond differently to each of these medications, so it’s important to talk to your doctor about which one may be right for you. My preference for moderate to severe allergies is to use one of the topical nasal steroid sprays on a regular basis, since it works much better at preventing allergies, as well as treating it. In general, these sprays are not absorbed into the body in significant amounts and can be used for long periods.
Allergy shots (immunotherapy) are another option that you may want to consider if your allergies don’t respond to medications or if you don’t want to depend on medications as much. With immunotherapy, the sufferer receives regular injections of purified allergen extracts for between two to five years. The goal of immunotherapy is to rewire the immune system so it no longer overacts to allergens and causes hay fever.
Putting It All Together
If you have an underlying sleep-breathing problem such as obstructive sleep apnea or upper airway resistance syndrome (most people to some degree—I explain why in my book, Sleep, Interrupted), then it’s likely that you’ll have some kind of allergies or nonallergic rhinitis, whether mild or severe. Not only will your nose be overly sensitive to allergens or weather changes, it can also be irritated by your stomach juices.
This process supports observations that children who were bottle-fed as infants have higher rates of allergies later as children. It’s been suggested that bottle-feeding promotes jaw narrowing and dental crowding, which leads to smaller airways. This occurs despite the protective effects of the mother’s antibodies in breast milk, since it may be given in a bottle. So the next time you suffer from seasonal allergies or even year-round allergies, resist the temptation to simply take a pill. Go down the list of conservative options I’ve outlined, and most importantly, optimize your sleep quality. Any activity that’s calming and relaxing to your nervous system (yoga, breathing exercises, tai chi, swimming) can also help to alleviate your symptoms. Many of you will be surprised to find that conservative and simple lifestyle changes can lead to many more allergy-free, symptom-free days.