By Christine Cioppa
There’s a seek and destroy mission going on in millions of Americans’ bodies. The enemy: pollen, grasses and weeds.
The immune system of seasonal allergy sufferers acts as if these allergens are harmful, releasing chemicals that trigger symptoms (itchy eyes, stuffed or runny nose, breathing problems, etc.). The body is actually overreacting to something considered harmless.
Popping pills may help some, but there are natural ways to manage allergies. Surprisingly, even some foods are connected with seasonal allergies and cross-react, making things worse. So, for example, eating raw celery can trigger an itchy throat in people allergic to birch pollen. Eating tomatoes can cause a food allergy reaction in those allergic to grasses. Sunflower seeds can cause an oral allergy in people who eat them and also have ragweed allergies.
Jennifer Johnson, N.D., clinical associate professor in the School of Naturopathic Medicine at Bastyr University, can help take the mystery out of your seasonal suffering with great tips so you can plan the best course of action to make it to finals without carrying a box of Kleenex.
Q. What are natural ways to fight spring allergies?
A: As much as possible, limit exposure to the allergen (e.g., better to go outdoors on rainy days— rain helps keep pollen count down). Eat foods to lower overall inflammation: salmon, fatty fish, and walnuts are high in omega-3 fatty acids, which can naturally lower inflammation.
Drink green tea; new research shows this acts as an antihistamine (histamine release in the body creates the symptoms of allergies). Take the herb stinging nettle (in capsulated, freeze dried, or dried herbal tea form) three weeks before allergy season. This may be difficult to predict in a new town.
Q: Our readers are from across the country, and some are living on bases overseas. How do seasonal allergies vary by region, and how does that change the treatment?
A: When we move to a new location we are exposed to new plants for the first time. That initial exposure may be a time when we do not react. So being in a new place may provide a break from allergies for the year. In years two and/or three, this is when the reaction may pop up. And the allergy season may vary from location to location, depending on how long the growing season is and/or when the spring starts, so be aware of the season changes. Allergies are best treated a bit in advance before the symptoms intensify.
Q: What are your thoughts on over-the-counter oral antihistamines, and which, if any, do you ever recommend?
A: I usually have my patients try natural options first; if less invasive treatment can work, then this is ideal. First: Clean up the diet—lower sugars and alcohol/caffeine (helps the body to be in the best shape to be less reactive). Second: Reduce exposure (rinse hair after being outdoors, wipe off pets, change clothes, try an air filter in the bedroom, etc.). Third: Try the natural options above (also vitamin C with bioflavonoids). If these don’t work, then try the oral over-the-counter antihistamines; they are usually safe. Check with a healthcare provider/pharmacist if taking other medications, though, since some patients experience a sensation of dryness that is just as bothersome as the allergy symptoms. If needed, try Claritin or Zyrtec (max 10 mg per day)
Q: What are your thoughts on over-the-counter or prescription nasal spray antihistamines or corticosteroids, and when, if ever, do you recommend them?
A: I would first recommend a “neti” pot or nasal saline wash or saline spray. This is a gentle way to help soothe the nasal passages, making them less reactive to the allergen (e.g., pollen). Some patients benefit from gargling with salt water. It’s best to use sea salt or salt without added iodine; the iodine can irritate. The first line for nasal steroid is Flonase. Caution: Patients can have a sensation of extreme dryness and irritation with nasal steroids, though for some patients they are a godsend.
Q: Can airborne allergies during spring and fall increase a person’s susceptibility to food sensitivities and food allergies?
A: Yes, patients who react to seasonal allergies (especially ragweed and other weeds) may cross react to:
herbs: Chamomile and Echinacea
If eating these foods trigger a similar reaction, then it’s best to avoid, especially during allergy season.
Q: Aside from the typical symptoms of seasonal allergies (runny nose, coughing, sneezing, stuffed nose, itchy eyes), are there other symptoms, not so obvious?
A: Shortness of breath, low mood, fatigue, sore irritated throat.
Q: How do things like sugar intake, alcohol, a poor diet, a lack of sleep, consuming processed foods, and stress affect the body’s ability to handle seasonal allergies?
A: Alcohol and excess caffeine can dehydrate the body, making the histamine levels more intense, worsening symptoms. More sugar/processed foods, lack of sleep, and stress all drag down the immune system, making is harder to fight off other infections if in an allergic state (e.g., may make people more susceptible to sinusitis).
When seasonal allergies peak by region: http://www.hsallergy.com/patient-education/pollen-calendar/pollen-calendar-northeast/
How foods are linked to seasonal allergies: http://www.aaaai.org/conditions-and-treatments/library/allergy-library/outdoor-allergies-and-food-allergies-can-be-relate