Allergies! Your Food IS Your Medicine
It’s spring…the trees are green, the grass is lush after a wet winter, and the flowers are blooming beautiful colors. With this being so, your allergies may be blooming too! If this is you, you know the drill: red, itchy, watery eyes, sinus congestion, trouble sleeping, loving the looks of the outdoors, but having to keep your windows closed to keep that pollen out, and…having to minimize your time spent outdoors to keep your symptoms at bay. What a hassle!
That’s the technical term for all those lovely allergy symptoms. It is what happens when inhaled allergens come into contact with IgE antibodies and trigger acute symptoms such as watery eyes, sneezing, nasal congestion and sinus congestion. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in the United States, 17.9 million adults and 7.1 million children were diagnosed with allergic rhinitis in 2010. Traditionally, antihistamines are prescribed to treat and relieve these symptoms, but they come with many side effects: restlessness and moodiness, drowsiness, nausea and vomiting, dry mouth, and blurred vision for some.
But what if there were dietary modifications
you could make that would help lessen your symptoms?
You may be exacerbating your allergies by eating foods from certain plant families. When we discuss genus and species of plants, the families are complex. They are not limited to items we can safely call “seasonal” issues. Many plants, trees, grasses and shrubs are in the same family as many commonly consumed foods. If your body is sensitive or has an allergy to one species, it may be wise to limit consumption of foods in that species as well to lesson your symptoms. Now, you may ask: But I’m not allergic to any foods, how can avoiding certain foods help? Let’s begin this discussion by talking about the different types of allergic responses that can occur.
Our bodies produce antibodies as a natural part of our immune system. They are designed to help the body mount an immune response to any type of foreign substance. This could be a substance that is viral or bacterial in nature. Often times the body produces specific antibodies in response to a particular food or plant substance. The antibodies we will be discussing here are IgA, IgE and IgG antibodies.
IgE responses are immediate immune responses that signify a true allergy. Hives, throat swelling, anaphylactic reactions are common when this response is triggered by an inhaled element or ingested food one to which you are allergic. Other symptoms can include coughing and wheezing, vomiting, swelling of lips and tongue, and in severe cases weak pulse or loss of consciousness.
IgA reactions are generally a delayed response in the system and can take up to 48 hours to present themselves. These immunoglobulins are present in our mucus membranes and help the body fight against viruses and bacteria. If the foods we consume cause inflammation, or if the body is under stress, this response can be triggered.
IgG reactions are also known as a delayed response reaction and are generally a reaction to food proteins. Repeated exposure, inflammation and immune reactivity can contribute to food sensitivities.
IgA and IgG responses cause symptoms such as digestive distress (constipation, diarrhea, nausea), skin conditions such as eczema and psoriasis, headaches, fatigue, brain fog and joint pain.
You may have an IgE response (true allergy) to a plant/tree, and have a response to the foods produced by some of the trees in that same species. There can be cross reactivity that occurs and when this happens, avoidance of those foods is a wise choice and can lesson symptoms of seasonal allergies. For example, if you are allergic to grass, cross reactivity can occur with melon, tomatoes and oranges. If the issue is an allergic reaction to ragweed, avoiding banana, cantaloupe, cucumber, zucchini, honeydew and watermelon may be wise. Other common allergens that cross react with various foods are Alder tree pollen, Birch tree pollen, and Mugwort pollen. Check out the possible cross reactivity list below:
Alder tree pollen: almond, apple, celery, cherry, hazelnuts, peach, pear, parsley
Birch tree pollen: almond, apple, apricot, carrot, celery, cherry, coriander, fennel, hazelnut, kiwi, lychee, nectarine, orange, parsley, parsnip, peach, peanut, pear, pepper, persimmon, plum, potato, prune, soy, wheat, possibly walnuts
Grass pollen: melon, tomato, orange
Mugwort weed pollen: broccoli, cabbage, carrot, cauliflower, celery, coriander, garlic, fennel, mustard, onion, parsley, pepper, sunflower
Orchard: cantaloupe, honeydew, watermelon, peanut, white potato, tomato
Ragweed pollen: banana, cantaloupe, cucumber, zucchini, honeydew, watermelon, chamomile tea
Timothy: Swiss chard, orange
Are there foods you can consume that can lessen your symptoms?
Following an anti-inflammatory diet is sure to help considerably. Anything we can do to lesson systemic inflammation is going to help with the immune response to these plants/foods. To simplify anti-inflammatory diet guidelines for the purposes of this article, I would recommend 4 key components:
1. Decrease sugar and refined carbohydrates in the diet
Sugar and the quick breakdown of refined, processed carbohydrates into sugar lends itself to systemic inflammation. When decreasing these foods, think not just desserts, but any food made from flour: crackers, breads, any food product made from dough, baked goods and chips all fall into this refined carbohydrate category. Try to consume carbohydrate foods only as they naturally appear in nature. For example, sweet potatoes, brown rice, quinoa, and winter squashes are all great sources of complex carbohydrates.
2. Decrease dairy in the diet, especially that from cow’s milk.
Dairy can be very inflammatory for many people. (Cow’s milk, yogurt, cheese, ice cream) Note: eggs are not dairy.
3. Increase produce in the diet, particularly vegetables
Most Americans fall far shy of the standard recommended 5-9 servings of produce per day. I aim for my clients to consume as close as they can to 5 servings of vegetables daily (think about the equivalent of 1 cup of cooked vegetables as a 1 serving quantity). Pay special attention to green vegetables: dark leafys such as kale, spinach, chard, Brussels and broccoli. These are nutritional powerhouses and contain VItamin C, a natural antihistamine, B vitamins, Vitamin K and minerals such as Magnesium which reduces histamine release and inflammation of the airways.
For guidance on fruit intake: 2 servings per day is a good amount for the average person. Focus on low glycemic fruits: berries are excellent choices due to the amounts of antioxidants, fiber and numerous vitamins present. Citrus and kiwi are another excellent choice for their Vitamin C content. Citrus fruits, apples, onions and cabbages are all rich in quercetin: an important flavonoid that has natural antihistamine and anti-inflammatory properties. Consuming these vegetables and fruits will ensure adequate consumption of antioxidants, polyphenols, phytonutrients, B vitamins, minerals and fiber, all of which are key to reducing inflammation in the system. Remember, 1⁄2-3⁄4 of your plate should consist of vegetables.
According to Dr. Mark Hyman, MD, leading expert in the field, here are some guiding principles about vegetable intake:
- 50-75% of your plate should be non-starchy veggies
- Eat the rainbow – it’s where the phytochemical powerhouses live
- Eat brassicas daily
- Eat organic: EWG Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen (www.ewg.org)
- Eat wild
- Eat heirloom
- Eat weird vegetables (Spanish black radish, gooseberries)
- Try fermented foods (sauerkraut, kim chee)
- Try sea vegetables (rich in iodine and minerals)
- Cooking them right matters (lightly/crunchy/preserves nutrients)
4. Increase your consumption of healthy fats
The average person should consume a minimum of 4-5 servings of healthy fat per day. Olive oil, avocado or avocado oil, coconut oil, raw nuts and seeds, and wild caught fatty fish are all excellent choices. These are all anti-inflammatory fatty acids that lend themselves to keeping down systemic inflammation.
What is your gut telling you?
Maintaining the integrity of your gut lining is crucial to overall immune system health. The stronger and healthier it is, the stronger and healthier you will be. This is another key component to managing allergic symptoms. The job of your digestive tract is to break down the foods you eat so that you can absorb the nutrients within them into your bloodstream and distribute them to all the cells of your body. What you eat greatly influences how efficiently it will function.
There are trillions of different types of beneficial bacteria that reside in our body and those in the intestinal tract work synergistically within us to help break down nutrients and fight pathogens. Collectively, we refer to these as our microbiome. In 2008, the National Institute of Health launched the Human Microbiome Project to understand the role these bacteria play in human health and disease. Since then, scientists have been studying this incredibly expanding field of research. How does this apply to you and your allergies? The bottom line: feed your gut bacteria the right foods and they will thrive and flourish. Feed them junk, and detrimental bacteria will grow, leading to an imbalance in the bacterial ecosystem and lending itself to ill health.
What foods should you feed your gut?
Prebiotics are those foods that feed the good bacteria in the gut. Great prebiotic foods include those foods grown under the ground. Some excellent choices include:
- Jerusalem artichoke
- Sweet potato
Probiotics are beneficial bacteria we can consume to help maintain bacterial balance. Where do we get them? Naturally fermented foods. Consuming a small amount daily is a wonderful addition to the diet. Because dairy is so inflammatory for many and can cause adverse allergic symptoms, I do not generally recommend fermented dairy products. I do recommend the following as great options to incorporate into your diet:
- Pickled vegetables
Herbs: In addition to the beneficial anti-inflammatory and immune supporting foods discussed, there are many anti-inflammatory herbs that can be consumed as teas on a regular basis to help alleviate allergic rhinitis. One such recipe is listed below:
Anti-Inflammatory Allergy Blend: Mix equal parts of the following in a glass container. To make the tea, measure 1 tablespoon per 8-10 ounces of hot water. Let steep for 5 minutes.
- Rooibos: Originating from South Africa, this tea contains both rutin and quercetin, both excellent anti-histamine and anti-inflammatory agents.
- Peppermint: Is a natural decongestant and adds a delicious component to this tea.
- Ginger: Contains natural anti-inflammatory and anti-histamine properties and is a nice digestive aid.
- Stinging Nettles: Long recommended for allergies for its anti-inflammatory properties.
- Lemon Balm: Natural anti-inflammatory herb.
- Local honey: You can add this at the end for its soothing properties and to add a touch of sweetness after brewed.
Overall, if you suffer from seasonal allergies, and are looking for alternate ways to help manage your symptoms, these 3 key components can help:
- Check on your particular cross re-activities to determine which foods you should avoid in order to lesson your symptoms
- Implement an anti-inflammatory diet.
- Consume foods that will serve to maintain a healthy digestive tract.
Wishing you all a wonderful spring!
Pauline Weissman, MS, CNS, LDN is contracted with many insurance companies as a nutritionist. She sees private clients in her Farmington, CT location at HART Acupuncture and Nutrition, as well as at West Hartford Yoga. She can be reached at: 860.284.4406 and www.hartacu.com.