How to manage hay fever naturally
It’s that time of year again. Pollen counts are going up. Hay fever sufferers sensitive to tree pollen noticed a few weeks ago, but before long up to one-third of all adults and 40% of children will experience the symptoms of itchy nose and throat, sneezing and stinging, swollen eyes . It’s hay fever season
What is hay fever?
The medical term for hay fever is ‘allergic rhinitis’. It’s an allergic reaction to pollen. Those who notice it in March or April are most likely reacting to tree pollen; those who experience it between May to August are more likely to react to the pollen of grass and weeds. Remember, hay fever is seasonal. If you experience these symptoms all year round, you may be allergic to something other than or something else as well as pollen, such as dust mites, animal hair, or mould. You may also be experiencing cross-reactions from your tree or grass allergies. Those who are allergic to birch tree pollen, for example, often react to foods such as carrots, apples, or nuts as well.
What happens in the body when you get hay fever?
An allergic reaction occurs when a person’s immune system is sensitive to a particular substance such as dust or pollen. Once inhaled, the allergen settles on the mucous membranes of the nose, eyes or airways and triggers the production of an antibody called immunoglobulin E (IgE). IgE binds to specialised white blood cells, causing them to release histamine and other mediators of the allergic reactions. These chemicals can cause itching, swelling and mucus production .
Symptoms vary between individuals. Some people just experience red, itchy eyes, while others have all the symptoms, plus hives or rashes. In susceptible people, the allergic reaction can trigger an asthma attack.
What causes hay fever?
Pollen is an important part of a plant’s natural life cycle. In an ideal world it shouldn’t cause harm to the body as it’s not a toxin, but in recent years, the prevalence of allergies has been on the rise . So what’s going on?
Some experts have linked it to air pollution and climate change. Studies have demonstrated that urbanisation, high levels of traffic emissions and the westernised lifestyle are correlated with an increase in allergies affecting the airways, particularly among people who live in urban areas in comparison to people in rural areas . Definitely plausible, but we don’t know if this is a cause, or just a link.
Another recent theory from the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH) and the Royal College of Physicians (RCP) concluded that it is the lack of indoor air quality that causes the rise in allergies .
A popular explanation that’s received a lot of attention in the last few years, and one which also takes into account the lower incidence of hay fever in the countryside, is the ‘hygiene hypothesis’. This as yet unproven theory suggests that living conditions in the developed world might be too clean and that children do not receive enough exposure to germs – especially in their first three years of life – that train their immune systems to tell the difference between harmless and harmful agents. This concept is supported by studies that show that individuals living on farms develop fewer allergic diseases. The theory is that farm animals increase exposure to microbes and microbial components that stimulate the immune response and decrease allergic inflammation.
Research on the human microbiota (all of the microorganisms that live on and inside us) is still young and only just taking off. However, we do know that the gut biome in particular is heavily involved in training our immune systems. The composition of the gut microbiome is influenced by internal and external factors such as diet, illnesses, the use of antibiotics and other drugs, travel, and of course what happened in your first few years of life . It is thought that if antibiotics are given early in life, before the microbiota is fully formed, they interfere with immunity later on and promote allergies .
What can you do?
Eat a real food diet. Many hay fever patients are allergic to more than just pollen and will react to other allergens . A healthy, fully functioning immune system needs a multitude of nutrients obtained from real food. Think fruit, vegetables, nuts, seeds, pulses, whole grains, meat, fish, seafood, eggs, herbs and spices. What your immune system doesn’t need is the extra burden of food additives from processed foods to deal with.
Avoid sugar and refined carbohydrates. These foods raise blood sugar levels quickly and high, triggering the secretion of insulin. Both sugar and insulin are pro-inflammatory and can make allergic reactions worse.
Eat at least 7 servings of vegetables per day. The gut microbiota plays a pivotal role in the health of our immune systems. Probiotic supplements can help restore the health of your gut flora if it has been compromised, but backing that up with foods that help your gut biome thrive will help those supplements be even more effective. The best way to achieve that is by supplying their favourite food: fibre. Different species like different foods, so make sure to vary your vegetables as much as you can. And yes, fruit supplies fibre, too. But it is also a source of sugar. Limit fruit to no more than two servings per day – on top of the seven servings of veg.
Eat some fermented food daily. These are probiotic foods, i.e. they contain live bacteria, especially Lactobacillus and Bifidobacteria species. This could be fermented veg, like sauerkraut and kimchi, fermented dairy, such as yoghurt and kefir, fermented soya, like fermented tofu, tempeh or natto, or even drinks like water kefir or Kombucha (fermented tea). The good bacteria in them improve your gut environment for your own microbes and help them grow.
Eat all the colours of the rainbow. The different colours of food – especially fruit and veg – are supplied by pigments that are also important plant nutrients or ‘phytonutrients’. You will have heard of some of them: beta-carotene, lycopene, polyphenols and flavonoids, for example, are often mentioned in the media. Among other things, they serve as antioxidants, which means that they are able to disarm free radicals and render them harmless.
Include quercetin-rich foods. Quercetin is one of the above-mentioned phytonutrients, a type of flavonoid. It has long been known for its anti-allergic properties. It works in different ways, one of which is to prevent the release of histamine from mast cells . Luckily, it is the most abundant flavonoid in the diet. According to estimates, the average person consumes 10–100 mg of it daily through various food sources . Among others, it is found in onions, apples, grapes, berries, broccoli, citrus fruits, cherries, tea, and capers.
What about medications?
The general advice to allergy sufferers is to avoid their allergen wherever possible, but if you are allergic to pollen that is easier said than done. After all, pollen is microscopically small and can travel for miles. In the spring and summer, it is simply everywhere. During the season, the media often publish regional pollen counts. Advice to hay fever sufferers is to stay indoors and keep the windows closed on days when the pollen count is high – a precaution that is neither practical for most people, nor great for their mental health! Other advice includes rubbing Vaseline around the nostrils to trap pollen (which does not protect the eyes as an entry route), to shower in the evening to remove pollen before bed, especially from the face and hair, or to buy a pollen filter for the air vents in your car and a vacuum cleaner with a special HEPA filter .
A treatment that has been around for more than 100 years is allergen-specific immunotherapy. The patient receives a series of injections of the allergen into the skin or a pill that dissolves under the tongue until the body no longer mounts an immune response. These injections are usually given for several months before the effectiveness of the treatment can be determined. The effect lasts between 3-5 years. Immunotherapy is regarded as a very effective treatment but the long-term commitment to it seems off-putting to patients .
Most people self-medicate using over-the-counter antihistamine pills that can make symptoms disappear very quickly. In the past, these drugs would cause drowsiness, but the newer preparations no longer cause this side effect in most people. For some though, over-the-counter medicines offer no relief .
In recent years, much attention has been given to vitamin D. This is the only vitamin our body produces itself, under the influence of sunlight on the skin. However, the lack of sun in the northern hemisphere and our habit of using sunscreen when we do step outside is thought to have led to dwindling vitamin D levels in the general population, especially during the winter months.
Three studies that examined the role of vitamin D in allergic rhinitis were published in the autumn of 2019 , , . All of them found that vitamin D supplementation in people with low vitamin D levels improved their hay fever symptoms. Vitamin D Zooki contains 3,000IU of vitamin D3 along with vitamin K2 to help absorption. If you are in doubt about whether you need vitamin D, it is easy to check your levels with a simple finger prick blood test.
Finally, vitamin C is known to help reduce the severity of allergic reactions. It naturally decreases the body’s histamine production, which slows down the immune system’s overreaction to environmental triggers like pollen . For an anti-histamine effect, you need a good quality, liquid supplement of at least 1 gram or more per day .
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