The Seasonal Allergy-Food Connection

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Are you feeling affected by spring allergies?

Me too…

As a lifelong allergy sufferer, I dread spring because this is the season when my allergies are most intense (and miserable). Suddenly, everything is abloom. When my allergies kick in—and always with a vengeance—they manifest as headaches, itchy / burning eyes, runny nose and/or sinus congestion, brain fog and exhaustion. Pollen especially affects my throat and sinuses, triggering violent bouts of sneezing, frequent nose bleeds and back-of-the-throat post-nasal drip.

Does this sound familiar?!

The Problem with Allergy Meds

If you’re an allergy sufferer, you likely reach for antihistamines, decongestants or inhaled corticosteroids for relief. I sure did—for years: Benadryl, Zyrtec and Claritan were my trusty go-to’s.

While an antihistamine can help reduce or suppress allergy symptoms (itchy eyes, runny nose, congestion, etc.), it does not get rid of the allergen itself. Nor, do antihistamines stop your body from being allergic to whatever triggered your symptoms. In fact, taking antihistamines can actually suppress your immune system so effectively that your immune system will not work properly when you need it most.  This leaves you vulnerable to pathogenic invaders in certain parts of your body, like, the throat or sinuses.

Antihistamines are classified as H-1 first- or second-generation antihistamines, or as H-2 blockers. They include:

1.  H-1 First generation antihistamines, like Benadryl, Vicks NyQuil, DayHist and Children’s Dimetapp, were approved by the FDA in the 1930s. They target the histamine receptor on the brain, spinal cord and other receptors, and they cross the blood-brain barrier, which results in drowsiness as a common side effect.

2.  H-2 Second generation antihistamines, like Allegra, Zyrtec and Claritan, were introduced in the 1980s. They do not cross the blood-brain barrier and typically do not cause drowsiness. However, they can have other side effects.

3.  H-2 Blockers, like Tagamet, Zantac and Pepcid, are designed to help with stomach issues, like heartburn and GERD. Common side effects can include joint or muscle pain, headaches and drowsiness.

Most of us who have taken antihistamines are familiar with their side effects: dry mouth, headaches, drowsiness, rapid heart rate, constipation, dizziness, stomach cramps, pain….and, yes, weight gain(!)—depending on whether you are taking a first or second generation antihistamine (1).

Less known, are the adverse health effects associated with chronic or long-term use of allergy medications.

For example, antihistamines, like Benadryl, belong to a class of medications with anticholinergic effects that block acetylcholine, a brain neurotransmitter involved in learning and memory. Blocking acetylcholine also inhibits involuntary muscle movements and different bodily functions, which is why anticholinergic drugs are also used to treat overactive bladder and GI disorders (2).

A longitudinal 2015 study published in JAMA Internal Medicine found an increased risk between long-term use of anticholinergic medications, like Benadryl, and dementia.

This study, which began in 1994, included nearly 3,500 participants, aged 65 or older, who took part in Adult Changes in Thought (ACT), a long-term study conducted by the University of Washington and Group Health, a Seattle healthcare system. None of the participants had dementia. What researchers found: Long-term use of anticholinergic medications, like Benadryl, is associated with an increased risk for all-cause dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease(3). Dementia risk increased with cumulative dose. For example, taking an anticholinergic for three years or more was associated with a 54% higher dementia risk than taking the same dose for three months or less (4).

Many people are also not aware that chronic or long-term inhalation of nasal corticosteroids (e.g., Flonase) for allergies or asthma can contribute to the development of adrenal dysfunction (inability for adrenals to properly respond to stress), osteoporosis, loss of bone density and growth, skin thinning, thrush, a.k.a., oral candida (creamy white lesions with a cottage cheese-like texture on tongue, inner cheeks, gums or back of throat) and lack of growth in children (5, 6).

But, but, but….I hear you saying…sometimes, the misery is so great that you need symptom relief right now….long term consequences be damned!

I get it.

The problem is that when you rely on a pharmaceutical remedy for allergy relief (or any health issue for that matter)….and it delivers relief—at least in the moment—casual usage can morph into a chronic dependency that can result (eventually), in long-term consequences that you may not even associate with a seemingly innocuous OTC remedy.

The Seasonal Allergy-Food Connection

Even if you do take an antihistamine for relief, consider incorporating a more holistic approach to managing allergy symptoms.

Personally, I stopped taking antihistamines about 12 years ago. These days, instead of reaching for an antihistamine during allergy season, I am mindful of supporting my immune system by adjusting my food choices, taking specific supplements and by prioritizing rest and sleep.

If you suffer from seasonal allergies—like hay fever—know that your food choices matter.  This is especially true if you have an autoimmune disease, like Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, psoriasis or psoriatic arthritis, because you will, in all likelihood, already have multiple food sensitivities (7, 8).  The seasonal allergy-food connection adds yet another layer of heightened sensitivity and inflammation. If you feel absolutely miserable from the intensity of your allergy symptoms, this is sign that you need to pay attention to your liver and digestive health.

An allergy is a hyperactive response of the immune system to substances called “allergens”—including (but not limited to) food, pollen, dust mites, mold, medications, and insect stings—that your body perceives as “foreign”.

Once an allergic response is activated, histamine is released.  Histamine is a neurotransmitter that acts as a chemical messenger for different parts of the immune system. High histamine levels trigger symptoms that are typically associated with allergy symptoms, such as a runny nose, itchy eyes, coughing and sore throat.

High Histamine Foods

It makes sense then that eating high histamine foods can be like pouring gasoline on the fire. In other words, increasing your body’s histamine load can cause diarrhea, headaches, flushing, congestion, hives and/or worsen existing allergy symptoms.

The worst culprits are aged and fermented foods, which contain high levels of histamine (9).  These include—and are not limited to—the following:

  • Alcohol: Wine, Champagne and beer.
  • Fermented foods: Sauerkraut, vinegar, kefir and kombucha .
  • Processed meats that are cured, smoked, dried, or preserved: Salami, pepperoni, sausage, etc.
  • Aged cheeses: Cheddar, Parmesan, camembert.

Even foods considered “healthy” contain high levels of histamine—or stimulate the release of histamine, including (10):

  • Spinach
  • Tree nuts
  • Citrus fruits
  • Tomatoes
  • Avocado
  • Coffee
  • Cocoa / chocolate

Pollen-Food Syndrome or Oral Allergy Syndrome

Many people who are allergic to pollen can also have oral allergy syndrome (OAS)— also called, pollen-food allergy syndrome—triggered when certain foods are eaten raw (11). Because the proteins in some fruits, vegetables and nuts are similar to the proteins found in pollen, the immune system gets confused and attacks the “invader”, causing a “cross-reactivity” allergic reaction, such as redness, swelling or itchiness of the lips, mouth or throat (12, 13).

Unfortunately, I have both hay fever and oral allergy syndrome.  I am highly allergic to tree pollen, especially maple, oak and birch.  I am especially sensitive to birch pollen. This means that if I eat foods containing similar proteins found in birch pollen—such as raw fruit (e.g., apple, pear, any kind of stone fruit, like cherries, plums, peaches, nectarines); raw vegetables (e.g., celery, carrots, green pepper, fennel); tree nuts (e.g., almonds, walnuts, hazelnuts); or peanuts, beans and lentils, which contain similar proteins found in pollen—my lips will swell, and both my mouth and throat will itch mercilessly!  So, I avoid eating these foods in the spring, at least through end-June.

The good news? Cooking the offending food can denature the protein cross-reacting with the pollen to which you are allergic.  For example, if eating raw celery or raw carrots triggers an allergic reaction, you may be able to eat cooked celery or roasted carrots without consequence. It will depend on your level of sensitivity and tolerance.

So, when even “healthy” foods cause your immune system to go haywire, what can you eat?!  I know…it can get confusing.

A whole foods detox, like my 7-Day Body Reset Cleanse, can help jumpstart your liver and digestive health, and ease the intensity (or even eliminate) the worst of your allergy symptoms.

Here, too, are 11 tips to ease spring allergy symptoms.


Continue Reading About Allergies (see below):

–Spring Allergies? Love Your Liver (Part 1)
–11 Tips to Ease Allergy Symptoms (Part 3)






1  Cleveland Clinic. Antihistamines. 7/13/2020.

2  Medical News Today. Anticholinergic Drugs: What to Know. July 16, 2021.

3  Coupland CAC, Hill T, Dening T, Morriss R, Moore M, Hippisley-Cox J. Anticholinergic Drug Exposure and the Risk of Dementia: A Nested Case-Control Study. JAMA Intern Med. 2019;179(8):1084–1093.

4  Harvard Health Publishing. Common anticholinergic drugs like Benadryl linked to increased dementia risk. Jan. 19, 2022.

5  Pandya D, Puttanna A, Balagopal V. Systemic effects of inhaled corticosteroids: an overview. Open Respir Med J. 2014 Dec 31;8:59-65.

6  Mayo Clinic. Oral Thrush. April 23, 2021.

7  Molnar I, et al. The Prevalence and Characteristics of Allergy in Autoimmune Thyroid Diseases. Journal of Clinical and Cellular Immunology. March 22, 2015; 6:2.

8  Lai NS, Tsai TY, Koo M, Lu MC. Association of rheumatoid arthritis with allergic diseases: A nationwide population-based cohort study. Allergy Asthma Proc. 2015 Sep-Oct;36(5):99-103.

9, 10  Swiss Interest Group Histamine Intolerance. Histamine Elimination Diet. July 7, 2017.

11  American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology. Oral Allergy Syndrome. 1/10/24.

12  Chimielewska A, Mazur M, Sacha M, Myszkowska D, Dyga W, Obtułowicz K, Czarnobilska E. Zespół alergii jamy ustnej u pacjentów z alergia pyłkowa [Oral allergy syndrome in patients with pollen allergy]. Przegl Lek. 2013;70(11):885-7.

13  Sussman G, Sussman A, Sussman D. Oral allergy syndrome. CMAJ. 2010 Aug 10;182(11):1210-1.

Hi, I’m Kathryn Matthews. As a Board Certified Functional Health Coach, I help clients reclaim their energy, vitality and well-being. I want you to feel empowered about taking charge of YOUR health! To learn more, see About Kathryn.

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