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Ahhh-choo! Yes, it’s that time again—flowers blooming, bees buzzing and lots of sneezing—the all-too-familiar sights and sounds of spring.
If you have pollen allergies, spring and summer can be miserable times. You can suffer with itchy eyes, a runny nose, congestion, sinus problems and sneezing—or you can numb your brain and reflexes with over-the-counter or prescription drugs. Maybe it’s time to consider an alternative. Making some minor modifications to your eating habits and taking certain supplements can do wonders to ease allergy symptoms.
Pollen allergies are a misguided immune response to harmless substances. Forty years ago, allergies and asthma were relatively rare conditions. An article in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology now estimates that half of all Americans have allergies, and the most common symptom is rhinitis—that is, nasal symptoms. Furthermore, people with pollen allergies are three times more likely to develop asthma.
Why has the prevalence of allergies skyrocketed over just a couple of generations? Scientists have theorized that it might be related to incomplete immune programming because of the use of immunizations, antibiotics and antiseptics. However, they may be overlooking the obvious cause: a change in the foods people consume, leading to a decidedly pro-inflammatory shift in immune responses.
The role of diet in allergies was first demonstrated by Francis Pottenger, M.D., in the 1930s. Pottenger conducted experiments with multiple generations of cats, totaling more than 900 animals. He found that when the quality of their diets declined—that is, when the cats ate processed instead of whole and raw foods—health problems developed and grew worse with each subsequent generation. By the third generation, 90 percent of cats eating poor diets had developed allergies, as well as skin diseases and poorer quality of fur. Certain fats, vitamins and minerals are needed for normal functioning of the immune system, and sub-optimal levels of nutrients and deficiencies impair normal immunity.
Interestingly, Pottenger found that the trend toward poorer health could be reversed in the second generation, but that it took four generations of normal feeding to once again produce healthy non-allergic cats. That reversal was not possible by the third generation of cats eating a nutritionally deficient diet. Furthermore, the cats became incapable of reproducing by the fourth generation, the last.
To ease your pollen allergy symptoms, start by strictly limiting your consumption of processed foods for at least a couple of weeks and, instead, emphasize fresh, quality proteins, fruits and vegetables. This often means avoiding almost all foods packaged in boxes, cans, bottles, jars, tubs and bags. Such packaging almost always indicates some degree of processing and a reduction in micronutrient levels.
It’s especially important to avoid eating wheat-, corn- and rye-containing foods, (including breads, pasta, muffins and bagels) and dairy products. There are a couple of reasons for this recommendation. First, wheat, corn and dairy are among the most common food allergens—and it only makes sense to reduce your total allergic burden. Second, grains are genetic descendants of grasses, and people with grass allergies may have some cross sensitivity. Cattle consume grasses or grains, and trace amounts of these foods appear to pass into milk and other dairy products. Try avoiding one food family, such as grains, then eliminate dairy. If your pollen symptoms ease, continue limiting these foods at least until your allergy season passes.
It’s also important to consider whether you have concomitant, or synergistic, allergies. These are a type of cross-reactive allergy, typically involving certain types of pollen (or other allergens) and specific foods. Allergies to the individual pollen or food may be mild, but the reaction is typically more intense when a person is exposed to both. For instance, beef can aggravate cedar and juniper allergies, eggs can worsen ragweed allergies and shellfish (though not shrimp) can intensify dust allergies. In addition, St. John’s wort may aggravate ragweed allergies.
A number of dietary “supplements”—I use the term loosely here—can often ease symptoms of pollen allergies. None of these recommendations will work for every person, so experiment a little to determine which might bring you some relief.
Although honey is a food, not a supplement, consuming small “supplemental” amounts of local, minimally processed honey can often bring relief. Finding the effective dose requires some trial and error, but as a general rule, one-quarter to one full teaspoon of honey daily works for many people. The theory is that honey contains trace amounts of pollens that turn off your immune responses to larger amounts of pollens. This is essentially the working theory behind conventional allergy shots.
Taking bee pollen granules (available at natural food stores) can be a little trickier than using honey, because people with pollen allergies or asthma do risk having intense allergic reactions. As a result, this approach is best followed under the guidance of a trained herbalist or naturopathic doctor (N.D.) who knows how to use bee pollen to treat allergies. As a general rule of thumb, take one granule the first day, and double the amount you take until you see a reduction in symptoms. If your allergies get worse, stop taking bee pollen immediately.
The late Robert Cathcart III, M.D., was a pioneer in the clinical use of vitamin C to treat disease. His own interest in vitamin therapies developed after he skeptically took vitamin C to treat his own pollen allergies. After taking large amounts of vitamin C, his allergies disappeared. Odds are that vitamin C will reduce but not eliminate your pollen allergies. The amount varies considerably among individuals, but a likely beneficial range is 3 to 10 grams daily. Divide up your supplements so you take them three to four times daily to maintain relatively steady blood levels of vitamin C. Buffered forms of the vitamin may produce greater benefits compared with regular vitamin C (ascorbic acid).
This antioxidant flavonoid has long been used to reduce symptoms of pollen allergies. It works by turning off histamine-producing mast cells.5 (Histamine is the chemical that causes the itchiness of allergies.) Try taking 1 to 3 grams daily in divided doses.
Wild nettles might sting, but when processed into an herbal remedy, nettles (Urtica dioica) don’t hurt—and they can help many people take the bite out of hay fever allergies. They seem to work by stabilizing the walls of mast cells, which reduces the release of histamine. They also have anti-histamine benefits. Follow label directions for use.
The omega-3 fish oils promote the activity of the body’s anti-inflammatory eicosanoids (signaling molecules). Just as they dampen the body’s immune response in arthritis and other inflammatory disorders, they can help reduce some of the discomfort associated with allergies. Try 1 to 2 grams daily.
Several studies have found that homeopathic remedies may ease pollen allergies. Some of the homeopathic remedies studied include products containing miniscule amounts of local pollens. In one recent medical journal report, people with atopic eczema, which is often associated with pollen allergies, benefited from one of several homeopathic remedies.6 7Mark Stengler, N.D., of La Jolla, California, recommends Allium cepa for burning, water eyes and a runny nose; Euphrasia for red, burning or tearing eyes; and Sabadilla for repeated sneezing.
A couple of studies have shown, not surprisingly, that a pregnant woman’s eating habits affect the risk of allergies in her children.
An article in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology reported that when pregnant women took supplements of Lactobacillus rhamnosus (a species of beneficial intestinal bacteria), and their babies were also given the supplements for two years, the babies were half as likely to develop skin allergies. Another study, in Archives of Disease in Childhood, found that babies who consumed fish at an early age had a one-fourth lower risk of developing skin allergies. Skin allergies are associated with the later development of pollen allergies.
In another study, researchers found that ewes deprived of B vitamins and the amino acid methionine gave birth to offspring with altered immune responses that were suggestive of allergies. These nutrients are needed to create what biochemists call methyl groups, which regulate the activity of genes.8Allergy symptoms can be difficult to completely eliminate. However, adopting one or more of these natural approaches is likely to reduce their discomfort.
More than 23 million Americans have asthma, which causes sudden episodes of shortness of breath, wheezing and a feeling of suffocation. Asthma attacks may result from exposure to any number of allergens and other triggers, including pollens, cigarette smoke, aspirin, sulfite (a preservative used in wine), cold air and exercise. Emotional stress can also induce asthma attacks, and being overweight predisposes people to developing asthma. Several supplements may be of particular benefit:
Several studies have linked low levels of vitamin D to asthma.1Take at least 1,000 IU of vitamin D daily—at least 2,000 IU daily during the winter.
Omega-3 fish oils, in high concentrations, may help dampen your asthma symptoms.1 In one study, large amounts of fish oil capsules reduced the severity of exercise-induced asthma attacks, as well as the need for medicated inhalers.1 Try 1 to 3 grams daily. Add 200 to 400 mg of gamma-linolenic acid, which also has an anti-inflammatory effect.
Magnesium is essential for muscle relaxation, and considerable research indicates that supplements of this dietary mineral can reduce the severity of asthmatic reactions. In a study of children and teenagers, published in the January 2007 European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, supplemental magnesium significantly reduced both asthma symptoms and skin reactions to allergens.1Intravenous magnesium is sometimes used in hospital emergency rooms, particularly in the treatment of very serious asthma attacks.1 Try 300 to 400 mg of magnesium citrate daily.
Carotenoids, particularly beta-carotene and lycopene, may reduce the severity of asthma attacks. Try 25 mg of natural-source beta-carotene or 30 mg of lycopene daily.