Menopause and allergies - what's the link?
As March gives way to April, and tantalising slivers of sunlight shake us from our winter slumbers, you may have started to hear the telltale chorus of sniffling noses in the office. That’s right, hay fever season has begun its annual descent into the mortal world, and some of us are suffering. Strangely enough, those of you going through menopause may be extra susceptible to seasonal changes during this time of year.
We often associate menopause with hot flushes and mood swings. Any longtime Olivia followers, or simply those of you clued up on menopause, will know that fluctuating hormones can cause a whole host of symptoms. But did you know that this same shift in hormones may also provoke new allergies, or worsen old ones?
Maybe you’ve recently developed hay fever, despite a lifetime of blissful imperviousness to grass and pollen. Perhaps you’ve always struggled with asthma, but the past few years have seen this condition worsen. It’s not as widely known as other menopausal symptoms, but a new or aggravated sensitivity to certain allergens can affect some menopausal women. Typical symptoms include:
Skin sensitivity and bloating
What are allergies?
To fully understand this process, let’s first take a look at what happens during an allergic reaction. An allergic reaction is your body’s immune system response to what should be a harmless substance. This is not to be confused with an intolerance. An intolerance to certain foods can certainly result in uncomfortable symptoms, but the immune system is not involved. An allergy is also not a sensitivity, which entails an exaggerated reaction to a normal substance. A good example is caffeine, with many of you able to knock back gallons of the stuff. In contrast, this author is liable to getting the shakes after one mid-morning latte.
Let’s have a look at some typical allergens:
Grass and tree pollen (hay fever)
Animal dander (the shedding of tiny skin particles)
Food, such as nuts, fruits, shellfish, eggs, cows milk
Insect bites and stings
Some medicines, like ibuprofen, aspirin and some antibiotics
When the body detects the presence of something harmful, such as an infection, histamine is released into the bloodstream. This chemical causes an inflammatory reaction, as blood vessels expand and skin swells, a process that helps protect the body. Depending on where in the body the histamine is released, you will experience this reaction as itchy or watering eyes, a runny or blocked nose, sneezing, or itchy skin. This is why antihistamines are commonly used against allergic reactions, as this medicine blocks the effect of histamine in the body.
So what has this got to do with menopause?
The role of sex hormones in allergies
Research shows that among children, boys are more likely to develop asthma. Yet when they hit puberty, it’s more common for girls to develop this condition. Associations between asthma sensitivity and hormonal fluctuations during menstruation, pregnancy and menopause have also been noted. Furthermore, the onset of puberty in girls before the age of 11 was associated with an increased risk for asthma. At the other end of the spectrum, women taking HRT had higher rates of asthma, and 30-40% of women with asthma experienced worse symptoms around the beginning of their period.
What does all of the above seem to indicate? These studies seem to show that there is a clear link between female sex hormones and a person's sensitivity to asthma. Asthma has seen the most research, but there does also seem to be a link between other allergies and female sex hormones. The process behind this is currently unclear, nor is it conclusively proven that it is specifically hormones that precipitate this change.
There is, however, one potential explanation. If you’ve been reading our other articles, you’ll know by now that oestrogen receptors exist all over the body, hence why diminishing oestrogen levels in menopause can lead to such a funky array of symptoms. Believe it or not, there are even oestrogen receptors in many of the cells involved in our immune system. One explanation could be that oestrogen supports the immune system in how we react to allergens, and that diminishing levels of oestrogen therefore leave our body more sensitive to potential irritants.
Tackling allergies during menopause
That a link exists between female sex hormones and allergies seems undeniable, particularly when it comes to menopause. We might not know the exact reason behind this, but that doesn’t mean that solutions aren’t available to get those runny noses and itchy eyes under control. Let’s have a quick look at the lifestyle and medical options available, before investigating the role of diet in attenuating allergic symptoms.
First things first. Get tested for any allergies! It’s easier to work out a battle plan if you know what the enemy is. You can also track symptoms yourself to figure out any potential irritants
Hypoallergenic sheets and pillows can help with dust mite allergies, as well as vacuum cleaners specifically designed for allergies. If possible, wooden floors are better than carpets for this problem
Hypoallergenic cleaning products, body care and make-up can help with irritated skin
Dogs are a man’s best friend, whilst cats reign over their human subjects with an affectionate tyranny. You most likely adore your pets, yet these miniature family members could be the culprit behind your allergic reactions. If that’s the case, wash them often and try to keep them outside as much as possible. Clean your home regularly to prevent a build-up of animal dander.
Decongestants can help against blocked noses
If itchy skin is bothering you, you can try special moisturising creams to protect it from external allergens. Calamine lotion can reduce itchiness
Steroids can ease the inflammation that occurs in an allergic reaction. Nasal sprays, eyes drops, topical creams, inhalers and tablets for hives are all different options to explore. Speak to a healthcare professional to find the right option for you
Antihistamines. Some are more appropriate for evening use as they can make you drowsy. This is a great option if allergic reactions keep you up at night. In this case, look for chlorphenamine (Piriton), cinnarizine, diphenhydramine, hydroxyzine and promethazine. Non-drowsy options include acrivastine, cetirizine, fexofenadine and loratadine.
What are the best foods to combat allergies?
It may come as a surprise, but diet can play an important role in managing allergic reactions. Certain foods and ingredients have anti-inflammatory properties, which is important because histamine triggers an inflammatory reaction in your body. Have a go at incorporating these particular foods and ingredients to see if they help ease your symptoms.
Vitamin C was found to reduce instances of allergic rhinitis (irritation of the upper respiratory tract caused by pollen), according to one Korean study. The researchers hypothesised that increased rates of allergies in the modern era are linked to changes in diet, though conclusive evidence remains to be established. Vitamin C-rich foods like oranges, grapefruits, lemons, limes, sweet peppers and berries are your friend here.
The active ingredient of turmeric, curcumin, has anti-inflammatory and reportedly anti-allergenic properties. Combine with black pepper which increases turmeric’s bioavailability by 2000%, as curcumin is difficult for the body to absorb otherwise.
Not only are they rich in vitamin C, but tomatoes contain lycopene, which is known to have anti-inflammatory properties.
Oily fish has many health properties and combatting hay fever could be yet another string to its bow. A 2005 German study found that increased levels of EPA fatty acids, found in such oily fish as mackerel, salmon and sardines, were associated with reduced instances of allergies and hay fever. Another study found that fatty acids help prevent the narrowing of airways, which occurs with asthma and some seasonal allergies.
You might not have heard of quercetin before, but it’s about to become your new best friend. Quercetin is a flavonoid, which is a nutrient with anti-allergic properties, and it is also known to have histamine-inhibiting qualities. One study found that increased quercetin intake helped reduce the itching and watering eyes associated with hay fever. Quercetin is found in onions, apples, berries, tea, tomatoes, grapes, brassica vegetables (such as broccoli, cabbage and cauliflower) as well as many seeds and nuts. The highest concentration of quercetin is found in capers. Opt for raw food wherever possible, as cooking reduces quercetin content.
That surprise bout of seasonal sniffles might have left you scratching your head, especially if you didn’t associate it with menopause. But as you can see, there is a clear link between female sex hormones and the development of allergies. With our arsenal of lifestyle tips, quick-fix medication and dietary wonder foods, you’ll soon be back on your feet and ready to conquer the world. See you out there!
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