While it still feels pretty wintry, we’re heading into hay fever season which can really interfere with everyday life for those affected.
A recent study revealed that that means one in five of us to some degree. Seasonal allergic rhinitis, to give it its scientific name, is an oversensitivity to airborne particles – in 90% of Irish cases the reaction is to grass pollen, which peaks from May to July.
Earlier bouts of hay fever are likely to be in response to tree pollen particles, and later ones to weeds or the spores of fungi. The body mistakes these particles for threatening invaders, and releases chemicals to ward off the attack.
One of them in particular, histamine, triggers an inflammatory response that causes the typical sneezing, itchy, runny nose, and irritated, watery eyes. You can get over-the-counter antihistamines, or stronger medicines from your GP, and they may of course be very useful in the short term.
Long term, however, they only suppress symptoms, can cause drowsiness and other side effects, might weaken the body’s own defences and certainly do nothing to address the root of the problem.
As with asthma, junk food increases the inflammatory hay fever response – all processed foods including refined grains and sugars, and especially trans fats.
And again, to decrease the response you need a diet packed with vegetables, along with some fruit, anti-inflammatory oily fish, and plant proteins from pulses (beans and lentils) and wholegrains.
This way of eating will supply all of the vitamins, minerals and plant chemicals that are needed to control histamine production, prevent the oxidisation of fats (which is involved in the allergic response), and support the immune system, the mucous membranes and the cells of the respiratory system.
Increasingly the focus is on the relationship between the immune system (70% of which is in the gut) and the makeup of our gut bacteria; a poor profile creates overreaction and inflammation, so taking a probiotic, eating plenty of fermented foods and the fibrous foods (especially leeks, onion, garlic, asparagus, jerusalem artichokes, chicory, oats and other wholegrains, bananas) that feed the good bacteria would be very helpful.
A study last year suggested that rebalancing the bacteria increases the body’s number of regulatory immune T-cells, thereby reducing symptoms.
The key nutrients are antioxidants including vitamin C, betacarotene, vitamin E and selenium, as well as B complex, zinc, calcium and magnesium, quercetin and omega-3 oils.
Besides vegetables and fish, a special mention goes to buckwheat. This is actually a non-wheat grain, often found as flour in the wholefood store, which rarely causes allergic reactions and contains anti-inflammatory rutin and also quercetin, a powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory found in onions, apples, citrus fruit, berries, nettles and elderberry that can actually prevent the formation of histamine as well as limit its release.
Like many wholegrains, buckwheat also contains the B vitamins, magnesium and selenium.
Before and during hay fever season, you may want to take supplements as your diet might not provide an adequate supply of certain nutrients, such as quercetin and vitamin C, while some of them are not found in food – the pine bark extract pycnogenol, for example, which can reduce symptoms by up to 70%.
Evening primrose oil is also important for regulating the inflammatory response, and small regular amounts of seaweeds like kelp can cut the incidence of hay fever in half.
Other, practical measures you can take involve minimising your exposure to pollens. If possible stay indoors, with windows closed, when the pollen count is high, and close windows and vents in the car. At other times open all the windows (hang net curtains to partially trap pollen particles); avoid recently mown gardens, wear wrap around sunglasses and use Vaseline (no need for fancy products) inside your nostrils; wipe pets down before they come inside (or get someone else to); when you come inside, shower and wash your hair and change your clothes, and don’t dry your washing outside.
Try relaxing with some cooled (anti-inflammatory, soothing) chamomile teabags on your eyes. As all allergic conditions are exacerbated by stress hormones, do whatever you can to wind down.
Best Foods include all vegetables and plants, especially yellow/red/orange/dark green varieties (such as peppers, carrots, broccoli, red onion, red cabbage), garlic, seaweeds, nettles, ginger, turmeric, chillies, and fruit including berries (except strawberries which are a common allergen), blackcurrants and cherries, lemons, bananas, avocadoes, apples and apricots; wholegrains, especially buckwheat but also oats, brown rice, millet and quinoa; seeds, especially flaxseeds, and nuts; oily fish; olive oil; fermented foods like sauerkraut, kimchi, kefir, live yoghurt, sourdough bread; a daily spoon of local honey (there is good anecdotal evidence that this desensitises the immune system); yoghurt, tea, herbs and spices, herbal teas.
A good probiotic such as Bio Kult, high strength vitamin B, and C with rosehips, kelp (in tiny amounts), omega-3 or fish oil or flaxseed oil, Evening primrose or blackcurrant oil, quercetin (such as Viridian’s Quercetin B5 Complex), pycnogenol, elderberry (Sambucol syrup).