We may have had snow and sub zero temperatures recently but the thermometer is finally rising and spring is here – woo hoo! But for some that means hay fever season and months of misery from relentless symptoms. If you’re a regular sufferer you have probably tried a multitude of tablets and sprays to combat your symptoms. But did you know that changing what you eat could also have a big impact on the severity of those symptoms?
According to Allergy UK, around a quarter of the UK population suffers from seasonal allergic rhinitis (to give it its medical name). For some people their symptoms can be triggered as early as February, when the tree pollen season starts and typically goes through until June. Then we move on to the most common allergen, grass pollen, which is usually worst between May and July. Just when you thought it was over there’s weed pollen, which can go into September. And unfortunately new research shows that climate change has extended the hay fever season by around three weeks. That’s a big chunk of the year to be suffering.
What is hay fever?
Your immune system is always working in the background to protect you from infections, viruses and diseases and maintain the status quo.
Sometimes it can overreact to something that is completely harmless, such as food, pollen, dust mites or insect stings. That overreaction triggers the production of antibodies called Immunoglobulin E (IgE). In the case of hay fever, the next time pollen is inhaled it binds to those antibodies and prompts the immune cells (mast cells) in your nose and throat and even your eyelids, to release the chemical histamine.
It’s the histamine release that causes those common hay fever symptoms that include itchy, red or watery eyes, a runny or blocked nose, constant sneezing and coughing, an itchy throat, mouth, nose and ears, loss of smell, earache, headaches and feeling exhausted.
Histamine and your diet
Certain foods are naturally high in histamine, especially processed foods that contain artificial colours and preservatives such as sulfites. Consumption of these can add to your histamine ‘load’ and intensify your symptoms. Some of the high-histamine foods to be avoided include:
- Fermented dairy such as cheese (particularly aged cheese), yoghurt and kefir
- Fermented vegetables like sauerkraut, kimchi and pickles
- Processed meats such as sausages and salami
- Fermented soy such as miso and soy sauce
- Sourdough bread
- Ripe/red tomatoes, aubergines, spinach and avocado
- Tinned and smoked fish
- Alcohol, especially red wine
- Dried fruits that contain sulfites
There are also foods that are ‘histamine liberators’. They themselves are not high in histamine but they trigger your mast cells to release histamine. These foods include:
- Citrus fruits
- Some nuts including cashews and walnuts
- Egg whites
And then there are foods that block the enzyme diamine oxidase (DAO), which breaks down histamine in your body. If this enzyme is blocked then total levels of histamine in the body will rise. DAO-blockers include:
- Black tea.
Foods containing wheat – like bread and pasta, cakes and pastries – can also be problematic for people with grass pollen allergies.
Dairy products like milk and cheese stimulate the body to produce more mucus, making blocked noses or ears much worse. And sugar, which causes your body to produce more histamine, can further exacerbate your symptoms.
Try to cut out these categories of foods or reduce them as much as you can during hay fever season.
Foods that can help your hay fever symptoms
On the flip side there are other foods that are naturally anti-inflammatory and anti-histamine – disrupting or blocking histamine receptors and helping to reduce allergy symptoms.
These include foods that contain the phytonutrients quercetin, bromelain and beta-carotene and those high in vitamin C. Getting plenty of these in your diet or even supplementing with a product containing all of these compounds may help.
Onions, garlic, asparagus, berries, apples, kale, okra, peppers, plums and red grapes.
Pineapple, papaya, kiwi
Sweet potato, carrots, butternut squash, red and yellow peppers, apricots, peas, broccoli, dark leafy greens like kale, and romaine lettuce.
Vitamin C foods
Blackcurrants, blueberries, peppers, kale, collard leaves, broccoli, kiwis, mango, courgettes, and cauliflower.
What to drink
Water! Keeping well hydrated is a must for all aspects of health. In the case of hay fever, it thins the mucus and reduces that congested feeling.
Ginger tea has been shown to help reduce allergic reactions by lowering your body’s IgE levels.
Peppermint tea is worth trying because peppermint contains menthol, a natural decongestant that may help improve sinus symptoms.
Nettle tea may help relieve inflammation of the upper respiratory tract and ease nasal congestion, sneezing and itching.
Many people report that a daily spoonful of local honey helps to keep their symptoms at bay. The theory is that the honey contains trace elements of pollen and that over time your body becomes desensitised. There isn’t any scientific evidence to support this but, as sweeteners go, raw honey is one of the better options so there’s no harm in trying!
An anti-inflammatory approach
Hay fever is an inflammatory condition and may be further helped by including other types of food that calm the inflammatory response.
Top of the list are foods containing anti-inflammatory omega 3 fatty acids such as fresh oily fish (like salmon, trout, sardines, halibut and cod) and flaxseeds.
Coconut oil is another anti-inflammatory oil and can be used in cooking and baking or added to smoothies.
As well as adding flavour to your food, herbs like parsley, sage, thyme, oregano and basil have anti-inflammatory properties as do many spices, including turmeric and ginger.
While the main problem for hay fever sufferers is the pollen itself, you may also find that hidden food intolerances are triggering symptoms or making matters worse. Your immune system or your digestive system may be in need of a little extra support.