While everyone else is enjoying warmer weather and a greening landscape, are you balled up in a sneezing heap of misery?
You are not alone!
Amid budding trees, shrubs, flowers and plants, spring can, unfortunately, feel absolutely wretched for some 81 million Americans—that’s apx. 26% of American adults and 19% of children—who suffer from seasonal allergies, also called allergic rhinitis or hay fever (1).
Seasonal allergic rhinitis is an allergic reaction to pollen from trees, grasses, and weeds and to airborne mold spores. This type of rhinitis occurs mainly in the spring and fall when pollen and mold spores are most abundant. Lucky me…I have both spring and fall allergies [eye roll]!
Common symptoms of seasonal allergies include (2, 3, 4, 5):
–Frequent throat clearing
–Watery, red and / or itchy eyes
–Large dark circles under the eyes, a.k.a., “allergic shiners”
–Clogged or itchy ears
–Asthma symptoms (newly triggered or a worsening of asthma if you already have it)
–Shortness of breath
The Consequences of Allergies
Allergy symptoms can compromise your quality of life.
Standardized quality of life measures have found that among patients with allergic rhinitis, 62% acknowledged that their allergies had a significant, negative impact on their daily life (6).
Yes! I’ve had seasonal allergies forever—and they have always wreaked havoc on my energy, mood and productivity. I remember how, as a child, I spent summer and fall, sneezing my way through countless boxes of tissues. In college, I popped Benadryl like candy between August through October—even though it left me zombie-like—so desperate was I for symptom relief. The hope that I would “outgrow” my seasonal allergies…well, that never happened! In fact, after living in New York City for 10 years, I developed new (spring) allergies, which manifested as intense headaches, sneezing, congestion, brain fog, debilitating fatigue, lethargy, and modest weight gain because my body was perpetually inflamed. It took everything I had to get through the day.
Though seasonal allergies seem harmless—just a temporary inconvenience that we need to soldier through—allergies are the 6th leading cause of chronic illness in the U.S., with an annual cost exceeding $18 billion (7).
Allergies are also on the rise, affecting 30% of adults and 40% of children, with significant increases in food allergies and skin allergies among children under age 18 (8).
What Are “Allergies” Anyway?
Allergies are your body’s reaction to a foreign protein. If you have an allergy to a particular protein—for example, Fel d 1, a glycoprotein specific to cats—your immune system overreacts in its presence (9, 10) and produces IgE antibodies. These IgE antibodies travel to cells that release histamine, a chemical that plays an important role in your body’s inflammatory response, including allergic reactions. Histamine is mostly stored in mast cells (immune cells found in mucosal and epithelial tissues throughout the body) in tissues and in basophils (a type of white blood cell involved in inflammation and allergy) in blood. (11)
Histamine regulates several bodily functions, but it is best known for causing allergy symptoms in the nose, lungs, throat, and/or on the skin. For example: sneezing, wheezing, scratchy throat, hives and itching. An inability to break down histamine can lead to a condition called “histamine intolerance”, characterized by excess histamine levels in the body that can make you feel like you are allergic to everything all the time!
Aside from allergy symptoms causing mild to acute physical discomfort, other consequences associated with allergic rhinitis include (12):
- Disruption of daily routine or activity
- Disturbed sleep
- Increased daytime fatigue
- Inability to pay attention and focus
*Note: Children with allergic rhinitis are more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD, have lower exam scores during peak pollen seasons, express low self-esteem and have impaired athletic performances.
- Decreased cognitive functioning in both adults and children
- Irritability or mood swings
- Parenting stress and/or negative relationships between mothers and their children
“Good” vs. “Bad” Inflammation
Allergy symptoms result from inflammation caused by chemicals (e.g., histamine, prostaglandins and leukotrienes) that we release from our own cells in an attempt to “protect” us from an allergen (13). Because allergies = inflammation, it is important to understand the difference between “good” vs. “bad” inflammation.
Acute inflammation is considered “good” inflammation, a biological process where the body protects itself from foreign substances, such as bacteria, yeast, viruses, parasites and toxic chemicals. Acute inflammation occurs with an infection (e.g., sore throat) or an injury (e.g., a burn). Acute inflammation can last up to a few days; it is an immediate, adaptive and controlled response against infectious or foreign substances. The physiological goal of inflammation is to protect and rebalance the body and to help heal the site of injury or infection (14).
On the other hand, chronic inflammation = “bad” inflammation. Why? Because chronic inflammation is slow, long-term inflammation that can last for months, up to years. Prolonged, out-of-control inflammation increases the risk of damage to your tissues and organs, including the digestive system, endocrine system, joints, muscles, heart, and brain. Chronic inflammation is a root cause of chronic conditions, like heart disease, diabetes, overweight / obesity, autoimmune diseases (e.g. rheumatoid arthritis) and Alzheimer’s Disease.
Chronic inflammation can result from (15):
- Your body’s inability to get rid of the source causing acute inflammation.
- Chronic exposure to low levels of a chemical toxin(s).
- An autoimmune disorder (e.g., rheumatoid arthritis, Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, inflammatory bowel disease), where your immune system mistakenly attacks your body because it is unable to distinguish between your cells and foreign cells.
- A defect in the cells mediating inflammation.
- Repeat episodes of acute inflammation.
- High levels of oxidative stress, leading to increased free radical production that result in inflammatory markers, such as oxidized lipoproteins (small, dense LDL particles), high levels of homocysteine, or high uric acid.
Whether an allergic response to an allergen(s) is mild or severe depends on the extent to which your immune system is battling—and overwhelmed by—other sources of inflammation; for example, food intolerances, poor quality or too little sleep, hormone imbalances (e.g., Type 1 and 2 diabetes, Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, prostatitis), exposure to chemical toxins, and physical, psychological or emotional stressors.
Many people perceive allergic rhinitis as “temporary” (i.e. seasonal). However, if, in addition to hay fever, the immune system is simultaneously battling multiple inflammatory stressors (e.g., high sugar intake, excess alcohol consumption, birth control pills, sleep loss, work stress, etc.), severe hay fever can, over time, lead to other chronic inflammatory conditions, such as sinusitis, allergic asthma, eustachian tube dysfunction (eustachian tubes are the canals that connect the throat to the middle ear), or chronic otitis media (middle ear infection), particularly in children (16).
This is why getting relief from allergy symptoms means more than just suppressing symptoms with antihistamines, nasal steroid sprays or other pharmaceuticals. If you are an allergy sufferer, one of the best ways you can support your body is by making anti-inflammatory food and lifestyle choices to lighten the inflammatory load.
Working with a functional health coach can help address root causes of your allergies, as well as provide food and lifestyle guidance and support. If you have questions about functional health coaching or how we would work together, you can schedule a Free 15 Minute Consultation with me HERE.
A Leaky Gut Can Worsen Allergy Symptoms
Did you know: 70-80% of your immune system resides in your gut?
A healthy gut microbiome is key to improving how your body responds to seasonal allergies.
Having intestinal permeability or a “leaky gut” can lead to—or exacerbate— allergies. Your gut becomes leaky through a poor diet that is high in sugar, flours, starches, inflammatory fats (e.g. vegetable oils), processed foods and fast food; stress; hidden or chronic infections; heavy metals (e.g., mercury, lead, arsenic); pesticides; chemical toxins in food, water or the environment; undiagnosed food sensitivities; mold toxins; and poor gut flora (too much bad bacteria; too little good bacteria).
Our digestive tract is protected by a gate-like gut barrier that allows specific substances (e.g., vitamins and minerals) to go through, while keeping “foreign invaders”—such as food proteins, undigested food particles, bacteria, viruses, parasites and other xenobiotics (disease-causing compounds)—out of the bloodstream. With a compromised or “leaky” gut barrier, however, things like bad bacteria, toxic waste and gluten can pass from the intestinal wall into the bloodstream. This creates inflammation throughout the body, triggering—or worsening—allergy symptoms.
What You Can Do
Environmental precautions you can take include (17):
- Limit the time you spend outdoors when pollen counts are high.
Pollen counts are lowest before dawn, at their peak by midday, and slowly fall in the evenings. If you want or need to go outside, mornings are the best time to do so. Dry, windy weather increases the amount of pollen in the air; rain lowers it.
- Keep windows closed during peak season or peak pollen times.
- Use central air conditioning with a Certified Asthma and Allergy Friendly filter and/or a HEPA air purifier to reduce indoor airborne allergens, including pollen that may enter your home through windows, doors, pets or your clothes. Keep up with filter maintenance and make sure your air ducts are clean!
- Avoid exposure to endocrine-disrupting synthetic fragrances from personal care products, perfumes, cleaning products, laundry detergents and air fresheners. Synthetic fragrances typically contain phthalates, a fixative for scent, and can aggravate an already overwhelmed immune system and trigger or worsen allergy symptoms, including respiratory problems, migraines, atopic dermatitis and asthma (18).
- Wipe pets off before they come into the house if they spend a lot of time outdoors.
- Launder bedding and clothing in hot water at least once a week.
- Shower before bed (to wash off any residual pollen from the day).
12 Tips for Natural Allergy Relief
External environmental measures for reducing allergy symptoms will only take you so far. The best defense is a good offense. Try the following food and lifestyle strategies during allergy season, roughly April through June. They can help mitigate the severity of spring allergy symptoms because you are reducing your overall inflammatory load.
- Eliminate or reduce caffeine. This includes all caffeinated coffees, teas and energy drinks. Herbal teas are fine to drink. Caffeine can inhibit the breakdown of histamine in your body and promote the release of histamine (19).
- Eliminate or limit alcohol. Remember: alcohol, especially red wine, is a major source of histamine (20).
- Cut dairy. Milk and milk-based products (e.g., milk, cheese, yogurt, cream) has long been associated with increased respiratory tract mucous and with asthma (21). And if you were wondering: eggs are NOT a dairy product because they don’t come from the milk of a cow.
- Remove any foods, to which you have a known or suspected sensitivity. Eating foods to which you are sensitive creates more inflammation, forcing your immune system to work overtime. Common culprits include wheat, gluten, dairy, soy, corn, shellfish, eggs and peanuts.
- Minimize consumption of high histamine foods. As much as possible, avoid high histamine food and drink during allergy season. This is not an exhaustive list, but main offenders include:
— Fermented foods: Sauerkraut, kimchi, yogurt, soy sauce, vinegar
— Fermented drink: Wine, beer, champagne, spirits, kombucha
— Vinegar-containing foods: Pickles, mayonnaise, balsamic vinegar, ketchup
— Cured, smoked or processed meats: Bacon, salami, deli meats, hot dogs
— Dairy: Cheese, goat cheese
— Fish: Canned or smoked fish (fresh fish is fine)
— Dried fruit: Apricots, prunes, dates, figs, raisins
— Vegetables: Spinach, eggplant, mushrooms
— Processed foods: Contain preservatives that are high in histamine.
Be sure to check the pollen count. When it’s high, you’ll want to be especially mindful of making low-histamine food choices that day.
- Eat fresh foods and freeze leftovers. What to eat? Stick with freshly cooked meats, poultry and fish; eggs; vegetables (especially leafy greens); fresh herbs; non-dairy milks and herbal teas. Store any leftovers in the freezer since the bacteria that produce histamines start to build up right away in leftovers, even when stored in the refrigerator.
- Eliminate refined and processed sugars. The average American consumes 22 teaspoons of added sugars a day. Refined sugar consumption depresses immune function. One study found that consuming 3.5 ounces of a simple carbohydrate (e.g., fructose, honey, pasteurized orange juice) suppressed the immune system within 30 minutes of ingestion and lasted up to 5 hours (22).
Not only does sugar lower your immune function, it also increases inflammation. And, since allergy symptoms are the result of inflammation caused by the release of histamine, anything that makes you more inflamed (like sugar) worsens allergies.
- Avoid foods to which you have a known allergy or sensitivity AND cross react with seasonal pollen.For example, the pollen in birch is similar to the proteins in foods, like almonds, apples, carrots, celery, parsley, pear and plum. If you are allergic to birch pollen, and you eat, say, celery, your body can’t tell the difference between the pollen and the food protein in celery. Your immune system gets confused and treats the celery like a “foreign invader”, triggering an allergic reaction. This is “cross-reactivity”. Click here to read more about Pollen-Food Syndrome.
- Move your body daily—to tolerance. During allergy season, you may experience headaches, fatigue and lethargy as your immune system battles allergens. Instead of pushing your body to exercise hard and long, give your body the rest it craves. Exercise to tolerance. Choose gentler forms of movement: taking long walks, yoga, Pilates, stretching or any other movement that you enjoy.
- Sleep 8 to 9 hours. Sleep is vital to immune health. During allergy season, you will likely be more fatigued than usual since your immune system is working overtime to fight allergens. Help your immune system recharge by being in bed between 10PM and 11PM and getting 8 to 9 hours of restorative sleep.
- Supplements that support immune health. Take a high-quality probiotic. I favor this dairy-free probioticto support digestive and immune health during allergy season. A big plus is that it does not need to be refrigerated. Other supplements that are helpful, especially during allergy season (and which I take myself) include:Quercetin, Vitamin D with K2, Vitamin C with Flavanoids and Liver GI Detox.
- Do a spring cleanse. If you’re an allergy sufferer, spring is the perfect time to do a whole foods-based cleanse, like my DIY 7-Day Body Reset Cleanse, which eliminates common food allergens, including many high histamine foods, and supports liver detoxification. Removing foods to which you are sensitive—even temporarily—can help improve digestive health, boost immunity and tame inflammation in the body, enabling you to experience greater relief from allergy symptoms.
Functional Health Coaching and Allergies
If allergy symptoms are affecting your quality of life and/or you are dependent on antihistamines, nasal steroids or other medication to get through the day, you may have an underlying condition (e.g., hormone imbalance, digestive issues) that is driving your symptoms.
It IS possible to get natural relief from seasonal allergies. Personally, I have not taken an antihistamine in over 10 years. Every person is biologically unique and a one-on-one, custom-based approach can make a difference between spending your spring, holed up indoors near the air purifier; or, literally, smelling the flowers outside.
1, 7, 17 Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America.
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6, 12 World Allergy Organization. In Depth Review of Allergic Rhinitis. [Updated Oct 2020].
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