Wednesday, March 10, 2010

In Which I Do Not Sneeze

I know, an unusual title for a post, but I have been thinking about spring for several weeks now, and thoughts of spring, invariably, ultimately, lead to cringing anticipation of hay fever. Like millions of people, I suffer from spring (and now out here in the desert, fall, too) allergies. Unlike millions of people, I was crazy enough, no, intrigued enough by the scientific underpinnings of this, or no, maybe just plain tired enough of sneezing, to let my acupuncturist try an experiment on me.

Last summer, she began work on her thesis investigating whether a common practice in Chinese medicine and used extensively in China but less so here in the US, applying mustard-based plasters mixed with Chinese herbs to particular points on the back, would work on plant allergies. She'd done a preliminary test the summer before on some friends (this is the benefit of having an acupuncturist who has a Ph.D. in physiology and for years did traditional science), and decided to expand her sample to 12 people last summer. I was invited to join.

I did. The plasters were quarter-sized and left on for increasingly shorter lengths of time because they caused excruciating itching and, often, large boils to erupt. TMI, Gentle Reader? My apologies. But please don't abandon reading, because the result is...

I am not sneezing. My allergies, which generally start during the last week of February, have not made an appearance. Three weeks into allergy season here in the desert, one of my coworkers is in agony with his allergies, and I may wake up with an ever-so-slight stuffiness that goes away. The spots where the plasters were have occasionally started to itch and redden over the intervening months, and were doing so again last week, and I'm wondering if they are somehow indicating a reaction to the allergen that is not strong enough to elicit the usual sneezing 5,000 times in a row/itching eyes/watery eyes, etc. of a normal allergy attack.

I am shocked. Really. I only started telling people about my non-sneezing allergy season this week because I was afraid saying anything out loud might jinx me and I'd immediately start having to tote around a box of tissues. Clare had said last summer that generally the treatment required two or more years of therapy to succeed, but I'd reacted so strongly she wasn't going to apply the plasters to me again. I am taking some Chinese herbs she gave me for symptom relief, and had, for several weeks in late January and early February, taken another set of Chinese herbs for allergy prevention.

I'm not sure I'd recommend this to anyone, but the Nerdy Scientist in me is intrigued by what the mustard plasters and Chinese herbs did, how it did it, and why it should cause the result it did. The desert dweller in me is just delighted for a reprieve (however temporary, and hopefully it is not) from sneezing.

Olivia Judson's weekly opinion piece in the New York Times today is about wind pollination and flowering plants, a timely piece for hay fever sufferers. One of the comments left on the page called her a "bio-poet;" how true! She makes evolutionary science very readable, and as I've said before, I highly recommend her opinion essays.

The same issue of the New York Times has two obituaries we want to mentionin the Missy Nest: the first, of world-renowned herpetologist, John Thorbjarnarson, a crocodile expert. His work, and the effects of it, will live on. His life is also a reminder that children who are fascinated by something in nature, and encouraged to learn more about it, really can figure out a way to grow up to study what fascinated them and produce lasting environmental and scientific change. So no being squeamish when some enraptured child wants to show you a tadpole or a bug.

The second is that of Dr. Edgar Wayburn, physician and environmentalist, whose work with the Sierra Club was responsible for saving millions of wild acres, and all the plant and animal life therein. His life was devoted to healing us physically as well as emotionally, by saving wild spaces for us to refresh our bodies and souls.

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