Problems with Pollen -- Reactions to pollen can impact learning and behavior

by Kelly Dorfman, MS, LDN

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Bursting tree buds are a happy harbinger of spring. But budding brings pollen and when pollen is plentiful, problems with attention, behavior and mood are sure to follow for susceptible children.

My office phone starts ringing about the third or fourth week in March, depending on pollen count. “He was doing so well at school—until now,” the parent on the line will moan about her youngster.

Holly’s story was typical. I had last spoken with her in the fall after school had started. Her 9-year-old son, John, had a diagnosis of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and received educational support services because of learning differences. At the time, he had settled nicely into his classroom and was managing well without medication.

“I don’t know what happened,” Holly continued. “The teacher has been thrilled with his progress. But now out of nowhere, the school is calling me almost every day.”

John did not want to do his homework and often seemed to be in another world. Not normally an aggressive boy, he had knocked over one child and hit another within the past two weeks. His increased distraction and uncooperative behavior had escalated to the point where the teacher was suggesting that Holly talk to John’s pediatrician about medication.

Sudden behavior or mood changes happen for a reason. I quizzed Holly about the usual suspects:

  • Did John have a recent illness?
  • Were there staff changes or other major switches at school or with his schedule?
  • Was he being bullied in the classroom?
  • Did he have any other physical symptoms, such as rash, congestion or bowel changes?
  • Had his sleeping or eating patterns changed?

Holly reported that John had been healthy and his school schedule and teacher had not changed. But he was waking up more frequently and had started chewing on his shirt.

Potential Triggers

Over the years, I’ve often witnessed behavior, mood and sleep changes in response to pollen exposure. For unclear reasons, some children also chew on their clothing when they’re reacting to something over time.

In 2005, Marvin Boris, MD, a New York-based pediatric allergist, reported findings from a small study he conducted of this pollen phenomenon. He found that behavioral and neurological symptoms significantly increased when some children with autism or ADHD were exposed to pollen. He also reported that these children with regressive behaviors didn’t always have classic allergy symptoms, such as red and itchy eyes or a runny nose.

Sometimes behavior and learning problems can be the only signs the child is reacting to pollen. In adults, behavioral and neurological symptoms can include spaciness, irritability and depression.

Traditionally, an allergic reaction is narrowly defined as symptoms caused by histamine, a chemical produced by specific white blood cells (mast cells) in response to an irritant like pollen. When histamine is released, it inflames cells in the general vicinity, causes itching and swelling. Different messenger molecules, called cytokines, may be responsible for other non-histamine reactions to irritants, prompting symptoms like tiredness, sleep disturbance or crankiness. Cytokines are unstable substances which tend to disappear once their chemical messages are delivered. Consequently, they’re tricky to study and not well understood. We don’t know yet how widely they impact inflammation and immune functions.

I suggested that John’s behavior might be a reaction to pollen. If so, Holly may have noticed similar patterns of regressive behaviors in past springs or autumns. After some discussion and memory prompting, Holly recalled several sticky situations with John’s attitude the previous spring. His behavior had been completely fine, however, throughout the summer and at the beginning of the school year.

Reactions to foods in the diet can further muddy the picture. Food sensitivities can rev up the immune system so it responds more aggressively to environmental irritants like pollen. For example, someone who is sensitive to both dairy products and cats might be more reactive to cats when she is eating dairy products. This is the reason people will report being less symptomatic during allergy season after they adopt a gluten-free or dairy-free diet.

These immune interrelationships can be complicated to unravel. Testing is sometimes required to identify the suspicious food and time is needed after the food is removed to calm down the immune system.

Any dietary eliminations or changes we did now, if relevant and successful, would more likely impact John’s reactions next spring. But John needed help now.

Treating with Supplements

Although John’s symptoms were not classified as allergic or histamine-induced, some people respond well to antihistamines anyway. Due to the severity of John’s reactions, I sent Holly back to John’s pediatrician who agreed to an antihistamine trial. John’s behavior improved markedly within a few days.

If John’s symptoms were not so acute, we could have tried some of nature’s own natural antihistamines. Vitamin C, quercetin (a plant-based nutrient) and stinging nettles all reduce histamine when used therapeutically. Using two or more of these substances together has helped other clients successfully manage their pollen symptoms.

Quercetin is an antioxidant found in apples, cranberries, blueberries and onions. This unique nutrient has broader antihistamine properties than traditional medications because it inhibits mast cells from accumulating around an antigen, working to stop reactions before they begin. Quercetin also has some ability to stabilize mast cells to prevent them from releasing histamine, rather than blocking histamine’s effects later. A general dose of 500mg twice a day with an equal dose of vitamin C may be an effective alternative to allergy medication.

Extracts made from the dried leaves of stinging nettles also appear to have antihistamine properties. Although more research is needed, one preliminary human study found that taking capsules of stinging nettles reduced sneezing and itching in volunteers with hay fever. While stinging nettle extract is generally considered safe, occasional side effects, such as mild stomach upset or sweating, have been reported.*

By late June, John was back to himself and stopped taking antihistamines. All was well throughout the fall and winter but the next spring, his irritability increased dramatically once again. This time, his mother knew exactly what to do.

Licensed clinical nutritionist/dietitian Kelly Dorfman ( is author of Cure Your Child With Food. She practices in the Washington, DC, area.

*Always check with your health care provider about specific dosages and to see if supplement treatment is appropriate for you.