Systems Thinking: Untangling Increasing Pollen Allergies

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By Linda Fisher Thornton

Large-scale problems usually have more than one cause. When we look for solutions, we need to investigate many different possible variables. Today, I’ll look at multiple causes of increasing allergies to pollen. This issue is of particular concern to me since I live in one of the Top 10 Most Challenging Places to Live With Spring Allergies (Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America). 

Why is pollen worse in and near cities?

Why are allergies worse in urban areas? One of the causes is a result of our choices when planning urban areas and may surprise you. It is an unintended consequence of the preponderance of male shrubs and trees in cities. Tom Ogren says that that 99.9 times out of 100 it will be a male tree, and male trees emit pollen (Tom Ogren, NPR, Too Much Pollen? Blame the Males). It seems that the male trees are preferred because they don’t drop seeds or fruit. But what we get instead of dropped seeds or fruit negatively impacts the health of millions of people.

“If you plant trees, look for species that do not aggravate allergies such as crape myrtle, dogwood, fig, fir, palm, pear, plum, redbud and redwood or the female cultivars of ash, box elder, cottonwood, maple, palm, poplar or willow” (Tammie Smith, For Those With Allergies, Here is a Pollen Primer, Richmond Times Dispatch)

How does pollen affect our brains?

One study, published at NCBI, finds that “allergies strain the brain, these results suggest, and key functions from attention to memory diminish the longer the battle rages.” 

Another study found that subjects with a history of allergies were more likely to be diagnosed with major depression. (Eric L. Hurwitz, Hal Morgenstern, Oxford, American Journal of Edpidemiology). WebMD also reports that “In one such study, adults with allergic rhinitis (hay fever) were twice as likely to have been diagnosed with major depression in the previous 12 months. In another study, kids who had hay fever at age 5 or 6 were twice as likely to experience major depression over the ensuing 17 years.”

Why is pollen worse each year?

According to ECARF. “The term (seasonal) is no longer used, since many people react to the pollen of more than one flowering plant species and suffer from symptoms not only in the spring, but also in the summer or virtually all year round.”

This Vox video explains another reason why pollen levels are increasing, and what that increase does to human health.

 

“Seasonal allergies and asthma impose significant health burdens, with an estimated 10–30% of the global population afflicted by allergic rhinitis (or hay fever) and 300 million people worldwide affected by asthma.” (Charles W. Schmidt, Pollen Overload: Seasonal Allergies in a Changing Climate, NCBI, U.S. National Library of Medicine)

Linked Issues

There are many other issues linked to the pollen problem including these: 

The Immune System

Allergies are the result of your immune system’s response to a substance… A person becomes allergic when their body develops antigens against a substance. Upon repeated exposure the severity of the reaction may increase.

Allergies and The Immune System, John Hopkins Medicine

Genetics

The allergic diseases are complex phenotypes for which a strong genetic basis has been firmly established.

Romina A. Ortiz and Kathleen C. Barnes, Genetics of Allergic Diseases, National Institute of Health

Pollution

Pollutants and climate change act as plant stressors, modifying the expression of plant molecules endowed with immunogenic properties, such as those present in pollens.”

Giovanna Schiavoni, Gennaro D’Amato, MD, and Claudia Afferni, The dangerous liaison between pollens and pollution in respiratory allergy, Annals of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology. 

Increasing pollen allergies have multiple connected causes that should all be addressed in a broader context. It is easy to see that when we are dealing with systems, no one source or academic discipline can adequately unravel the complete picture.  

 

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The Gut-Brain Axis (Ethical Questions)

By Linda Fisher Thornton

I am a long-time advocate of systems thinking. It has risen in importance as an increasing number of our greatest human challenges can’t be understood or resolved without it.

Today, I’m taking a look at new findings on the human microbiome, which is known to impact the brain in important ways. You may have already seen the recent news about advances in our understanding of the Gut-Brain Axis.

Hidden in the walls of the digestive system, this “brain in your gut” is revolutionizing medicine’s understanding of the links between digestion, mood, health and even the way you think.

The Brain-Gut Connection, John Hopkins Medicine

 The cells that make up our bodies are now better understood, and the current estimate is that only 43% of them are human (Adam Jezard, World Economic Forum). The rest of the cells are referred to as our microbiome. 

Not All Bacteria and Viruses are Bad

We have traditionally thought of bacteria and viruses as always bad and tried to kill them off. “There is now a multitude of evidence to suggest that this kill-all approach isn’t working (Adam Jezard, World Economic Forum).”The reason that killing all the bacteria and viruses in our bodies is not good is that some of them are necessary for our health, and can actually help our bodies fight the bad ones. Antibiotics are a kill-all approach that also eliminates the good bacteria. When the good bacteria are gone, it’s easier for the bad bacteria to take over.

A Second Genome

“Prof Sarkis Mazmanian, a microbiologist from Caltech, argues: ‘We don’t have just one genome, the genes of our microbiome present essentially a second genome which augment the activity of our own” (James Gallagher, BBC). In the article, he goes on to say that what makes us human is “the combination of our own DNA, plus the DNA of our gut microbes (James Gallagher, BBC).” Clearly, we need to use systems thinking (and not cause-and-effect thinking) for this to make any sense.  

How the Brain is Impacted

Here are some things we have learned about the multiple ways the microbiome impacts the functions of the brain:

“Insights into the gut-brain crosstalk have revealed a complex communication system that not only ensures the proper maintenance of gastrointestinal homeostasis, but is likely to have multiple effects on affect, motivation, and higher cognitive functions.”   

“microbiota influences stress reactivity and anxiety-like behavior.”

Carabotti, Scirocco, Maselli and Severia, The gut-brain axis: interactions between enteric microbiota, central and enteric nervous systems, Annuls of Gastroenterology

There are clearly many reasons to protect the health of our microbiome. How do we do that? We can start by eating a healthy, high fiber diet. If we eat a healthy, high fiber diet, are the good bacteria in our microbiome safe if we don’t take antibiotics? Not so fast. According to a recent study, many of “the world’s rivers are contaminated with antibiotics” (Kara Fox, CNN).

Protecting the Microbiome

Now we know that the health of our microbiome is intricately connected to overall human health. It is not something to be treated as an invader. It should instead be treated with care. Individuals will need to reconsider how their diet and habits will impact the microbiome, and businesses will need to assess the positive or negative impact of their products. 

Since our understanding of the microbiome and its importance to our health has advanced, the burden is now on all of us to adapt. Use the list of Ethical Questions below to determine the next steps. 

Ethical Questions

  1. What kinds of meals, snacks and drinks are we serving in our food services, meetings, conferences and retreats?
  2. How could our products be impacting the gut microbiome?
  3. Do our products feed the bad bacteria or the goodHow high is the sugar content? The fiber content?
  4. As we market our products, are we encouraging habits that support a healthy microbiome or an unhealthy one?
  5. What should we change about our products and marketing to align with new information about the microbiome and its impact on human health?

Resources:

How Your Gut Might Modify Your Mind, Chemical and Engineering News, American Chemical Society

Gut-Brain Psychology: Rethinking Psychology From the Microbiota–Gut–Brain Axis, Frontiers in Integrative Neuroscience

 

 

 

 

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