The compartmentalization of knowledge

Now that the birch pollen season is definitely over, I can draw some conclusions from a two-year experiment with the impressive sample size of one – myself. As you will see, my topic is not so much the experiment itself, but the circumstances in which it happened.

I have been allergic to birch pollen for more than thirty years. My allergy is strong enough to make normal life impossible when the birch pollen concentration is high, which happens for about three to four weeks every year. For those who have no experience with allergies, consider how sneezing five times in five minutes a few times per hour would impact your daily activities. Like most victims of pollen allergy, I consulted medical doctors in search for relief. In the course of thirty years spent in various places, even different countries, I have seen many of them, from three categories: general practitioner, otorhinolaryngologists, and allergologists. All these doctors agreed that the only reasonable treatment is antiihistamines, arguing that the only other option, immunosuppressive treatments such as cortisone, has side effects that are too severe compared to the benefit obtained.

Unfortunately, antihistamines also have a frequent side effect: drowsiness. Its degree varies between people and across different antihistamines. But in spite of undeniable progress over the years, I have yet to try an antihistamine that I could live with comfortably. I was always faced with the choice of the lesser evil: sneezing or drowsiness. I usually tried to take antihistamines as little as possible, based of birch pollen concentration forecasts, but I found that strategy hard to apply in practice.

So far for the motivation for my recent experiment. Last year I discovered, somewhat by accident, a herbalist in Paris offering a mixture of eight plant extracts for treating allergy symptoms. I asked if they considered their product sufficient as the sole treatment for a rather severe case of birch pollen allergy. They said it’s worth a try, though they didn’t want to make a clear promise. I tried, and it worked. Perfectly. No sneezing, no side effects. Spring 2014 was the first one I fully enjoyed since ages ago. Spring 2015 was the second. I haven’t taken any antihistamines since then, nor any other allergy treatment recognized by official medecine. Of course, my new treatments has its drawbacks as well. First, it’s rather expensive, about 40€ for one birch pollen season. Second, you can’t take a single daily dose, you have to distribute it over the day. I followed the recommendation to dilute the daily dose in a bottle of water, which I carried with me and drank over the day.

My sample-size-one study doesn’t of course permit any conclusions about the efficiency of this treatment for allergies in general, but that’s not my point anyway. What I find remarkable about this story is that a small herbalist shop in Paris offers something that according to all medical doctors I ever consulted doesn’t exist. Herbal remedies have been used by people all over the world for all of known history. All the eight plants in my new treatment (Plantago lanceolata, artichoke, arctium, boldo, desmodium, dandelion, horsetail, thyme) have been used by herbalists for centuries. Combining them into an efficient treatment certainly requires some solid knowledge about medical plants, but probably not a stroke of genius. How is it possible then that not even specialized allergologists are aware of such treatments? Even if it works only for 10% of pollen victims (a number I just made up), it’s worth knowing about.

This compartmentalization of knowledge between traditional herbalists and 21st century medical doctors, which I suspect to be due to pure snobism, is also a lost opportunity for medical research. According to the description of my plant mixture on the Web site, its mode of action is completely different from that of antihistamines. Studying these mechanisms might well lead to new insight into the causes of pollen allergies and their treatments.

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