The plants really are out to get you, it seems. In many people, pollen produces an inflammatory chain reaction that may trigger impulsive - and sometimes fatal - behavior.
Early in his career, Teodor Postolache, a psychiatry professor at the University of Maryland, was struck by a peculiar trend that comes up again and again in suicide research. Across decades and in various countries, suicide is much more common in the spring and early summer than other times of year.
Now, Postolache and other researchers believe they have found a curious link between the season and self-harm: pollen-induced allergies.
It's possibly coincidental, but in the recently discussed litigation involving the case of a 54 year-old woman who jumped from the Astoria Bridge in northwest Oregon two years ago, that event occurred in April 2015, and she had made several threats to kill herself in the weeks immediately preceding her action. And around here in the month of April, the forests are releasing a lot of pollen. While pollen itself doesn't cause allergy sufferers in general to jump off a cliff, it can be the final piece in a disturbing circle for some individuals:
There are several ways in which a severe reaction to airborne allergens might tip the scales for someone at risk for suicide, but here’s one. When a speck of pollen from the air comes into contact with immune cells in the nose, the cells release cytokines—molecules that cells use to communicate messages to one another. Postolache and others believe cytokines might drift through the nose to enter the brain. There, the cytokines might disrupt the brain’s delicate chemical soup, shifting the balance from feel-good chemicals to toxic ones that may trigger anxiety and impulsive behavior. Besides the nose, cytokines might also influence the brain by traveling through nerves, or by prompting immune cells to mistakenly attack healthy brain cells.
These cytokines, then, may play a role in the angst and impulsiveness that drives people to take their lives. Indeed, Postolache and others found elevated cytokine levels in the brains of suicide victims.
So what we have here is but one more piece in a complex puzzle: mood disorders, coupled with severe allergies, may well close the gap in a circle that incorporates other stressors, such as unemployment or marital discord or other factors. That, and the fact that our environments today are often a little too clean, so our immune systems aren't challenged to the extent that they were in earlier eras. Thus, they may simply overreact when challenged.
In the "Peanuts" cartoons, the character "Pigpen" may well have been the healthiest of the bunch.