Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Why Pollen, WHY?

Ah spring, the time of singing birds, baby animals, flowers, and...allergies. One out of about every five of you reading this right now are likely sniffling, sneezing, watery-eyed messes, all because of a flower.

First off, I want to clear the air (so to speak) about just what plants are and are not causing your misery. You likely know that it's a flower's pollen that is your allergy trigger. But not all pollen is created equal. In the world of plants, there are generally two main ways that pollen travels from one flower to another in order to fertilize it (That's right, that stuff you're inhaling is plant sperm. Awww yeah.). One way we learned about back in elementary school, when bees, butterflies, and other pollinators visiting flowers for their nectar inadvertently collect sticky pollen on their bodies and then deposit it on the next flower they visit. Flowers that depend on animals as their pollen couriers are typically showy and colorful in order to attract the attention of their pollinator pals. The other way pollen gets around is through the wind. The wind blows pollen, hopefully in the right direction, to a neighboring plant. This method is common in grasses and many trees, such as the oak seen in the photo above. These plants are small, numerous, and not very showy, because the wind isn't shallow and doesn't judge a flower's worth by the physical appearance of its flowers. 

When you see pictures, videos, and other images for pollen allergies, you usually see something like this photo. The problem is that the flowers shown are those whose pollen sticks to animals, not goes up your nose. The real culprit for pollen allergies is those wind-blown flowers! But let's face it, a photo like this just isn't as exciting to use for CNN news spots and Allegra commercials.
"Is that man crying over caterpillars?"

Now that we know what causes pollen allergies, the answer is why? Why are we humans allergic to something as mundane and natural as pollen? I just can't imagine our ancestors being successful hunters while sniffling and trying to see their prey through red, watery eyes. In short, scientists still don't entirely know why allergies occur. But there are a few theories. One thing that we know is that allergies don't typically start showing up in children until about age 5 or 6. When you were a child and got sick with a virus, say the common cold, it may have occurred at the same time that there was a big tree bloom going on. As your immune system was reacting to the virus and trying to purge it from your body, your immune system made an association between the pollen and the virus. It reminds me of when I once got seasick on a casino cruise after eating a breakfast buffet. It took me years to be able to eat a croissant again without feeling nauseous. Unfortunately for you, your immune system has a far better memory than my digestive system.

Another theory is called the hygiene hypothesis. It suggests that in today's hand sanitizer-obessed world, kids are not exposed to the host of germs, bacteria, and other pathogens that essentially train the immune system what is dangerous, what is not, and how to react to them. So later on in life, when your immune system encounters something that normally shouldn't be a big threat, it overreacts and has the same reaction as this kitten to a harmless bearded dragon lizard:


The good news is when it comes to pollen allergies, the symptoms are seasonal, unlike those with allergies to pets and peanuts. I know that's not much of a comfort right now, but hey, while you're stuck inside, you always have The Nature Geek archives to keep you company! And for those of you who have children, get them outside, get them dirty, let them play with animals, and yes, maybe even let them eat a little bit of dirt. Those mud pies are not only low in calories, but high in immuno-building goodness as well.

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