Every spring for as long as Julie Daly can remember, seasonal allergies would leave her with chronic sinus pain, postnasal drip, and debilitating headaches. For years, under an allergist’s guidance, she took prescription allergy medication, and while that helped ease some of her symptoms, her allergies never really went away—and the drug came with a host of not-so-pleasant side effects.
Frustrated, Daly finally saw a naturopathic doctor and got some shocking news: Her love of sweets and her high-stress lifestyle had more of an effect on her symptoms than the daily pollen count. So Daly took her new doctor’s advice to heart: She cut out wheat and sugar, started running every other day, and took at least one yoga class a week—and it worked. “I couldn’t believe the results,” says the 37 year old. Sure it took a while, but for the first time in years Daly managed to get through allergy season without being completely miserable. “Now that I have my diet and stress levels under control,” she says, “I realize my allergy symptoms were telling me that things were out of balance in my body.”
For the roughly 20 percent of the adults who suffer from seasonal allergies, results like Daly’s can seem like a pipe dream, particularly during allergy season. But the obvious suspects—pollen or ragweed—are merely triggers in the allergy bomb. The real culprit may actually be your immune system. “An allergy is essentially an exaggerated reaction of your immune system,” says Holly Lucille, ND, RN, a naturopathic doctor in Los Angeles, who says that anybody with a compromised immune system—even someone who’s never experienced symptoms before—can suffer from seasonal allergies.
How can something designed to protect you—your immune system—cause you so much grief? By being overworked, that’s how. If the immune system is on constant alert combating food allergies, stress, toxins in the environment, and even prescription medications, it begins to lose its ability to distinguish between dangerous invaders and relatively harmless things, such as pollen or dust.
“When your immune system is weak, it sees seasonal allergens as foreign bodies and launches an inflammatory response, releasing chemicals like histamine, to attack them,” says Daniel Monti, MD, director of the Jefferson-Myrna Brind Center of Integrative Medicine at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia and author of The Great Life Makeover (Collins Living, 2008). Histamines cause the sneezing, wheezing, and coughing you associate with allergies—the mechanisms the body uses to expel the allergens. The amount of histamine your body releases depends on how compromised your immune system is. For instance, if your immune system is in good shape, your body may handle allergens without you even knowing it, says Lucille. If it’s not, your body may release a flood of histamine, increasing the chance you’ll be downright miserable.
So how do you prevent your immune system from overreacting? Begin by figuring out which of these five immune system stressors could be throwing it into overdrive.
Allergy Trigger #1: Your diet
Adopting an anti-inflammatory diet is one of the first steps Monti tells his patients to take during allergy season. “If you eat inflammatory foods, your seasonal allergies will be much worse,” he says, “especially if you’re already sensitive to a particular food.”
As Monti explains, two types of foods can cause an inflammatory reaction that overtaxes your immune system. First are the foods you can’t digest well; ones you may not even know you have a problem with. The most common food allergies involve wheat, milk, eggs, and peanuts. If, for example, you’re sensitive to wheat, your immune system readies itself for a “fight” and remains in a heightened “attack mode” for as long as you eat that cereal grain or cheese. Then along come seasonal allergens, which your immune system would normally perceive as mild irritants. But because it’s already on high alert from dealing with your wheat sensitivity, it overreacts and your allergy symptoms spiral out of control. Follow a diet that minimizes inflammation in your body and creates little or no stress on your immune system, however, and your body won’t react so violently to external allergens, says Monti.
The second type of inflammation-causing foods affect everyone—no food sensitivities needed—and include saturated fats, processed foods, and heavily refined carbohydrates. Monti tells his patients to cut out all of these products, especially during allergy season, and instead eat lots of fruits, veggies, and whole (gluten-free) grains.
So how can you tell if you have an underlying food sensitivity that is making your seasonal allergy symptoms worse? Eliminate the suspect—wheat or dairy, for instance—for a week. On the eighth day, bring that food back and eat it three or four times. For the next three days, watch for signs like increased mucus production, asthma-like symptoms, skin rashes, gas, bloating, heartburn, headaches, fatigue, or mood changes, says Laurie Steelsmith, ND, LAc, a naturopath and acupuncturist in Honolulu and author of Natural Choices for Women’s Health (Three Rivers Press, 2005). If any of these symptoms arise, or you just don’t feel as well as you did when you were avoiding the food, nix that food from your diet. Repeat this process with any other foods you suspect may cause you problems.
Don’t expect immediate results once you’ve eliminated a food from your diet, however, says Randy Horwitz, MD, PhD, an allergist and medical director of the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona in Tucson. Two to four weeks may pass before you notice any relief. Also, unless you’re allergic to the food—think peanut allergies or celiac disease—you may be able to add it back to your diet once allergy season has ended.
Allergy Trigger #2: Stress
Research has linked unrelenting stress from work, family, financial problems—or just from life in general—to a number of chronic diseases, but it has also discovered that stress can make your allergies worse. Why? Because the hormones and other chemicals released during extended periods of stress cause damage that triggers an immune response.
What’s worse, the continual flow of stress hormones also causes nutrient depletion. “Your body actually uses nutrients, including antioxidants and vitamins, to defend your body against stress,” says Lucille. “So when stress becomes constant—like it is for so many of us—the body needs more nutrients to keep it going. But the more stress we have, the more likely we are to make poor food choices and not get enough sleep. When you think about it this way, you can see how stress throws the immune system off balance.”
It’s unrealistic to think you can ditch stress completely and still function in today’s world, but getting regular exercise, enough sleep, and practicing mind-body techniques, such as yoga and meditation, can certainly help you manage it. Taking a daily multivitamin and eating five to nine servings or more of fruits and veggies a day will also ensure that your immune system has an adequate arsenal of nutrients at hand.
Allergy Trigger #3: Your home
You might consider your home a sanctuary, but so do many of the things that trigger your allergies. Surprisingly, 52 percent of US households have at least six detectable allergens, all of which can float through the air and find their way into your body, reports a study from the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology. These irritants include animal dander, dust mites, mold, scented candles, cleaning products, and cigarette smoke. Once again, these allergens probably won’t spark much of a histamine reaction in a healthy immune system, but when it’s hypersensitive they’ll set off a host of five-alarm symptoms.
Fortunately, you can eliminate potential reactions to these foreign invaders by employing some simple solutions. For starters use a nasal rinse once a day—twice if you’re really suffering—to flush irritants out of your nasal passages. You can buy a nasal rinse at the drugstore or make your own by adding a teaspoon of salt and a pinch of baking soda to a quart of boiling water, says H. James Wedner, MD, chief of the division of allergy and immunology and medical director of the Asthma and Allergy Center of Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. Let the solution cool to body temperature before you put it in a neti pot to flush your nose. If the rinse burns, add a little more baking soda.
Four other common household immune-system irritants—and how to conquer them:
Dust mites. The key is to offer these microscopic creatures fewer places to live. If possible, replace carpeting with hardwood and limit upholstered items and fabric hangings like wall tapestries or drapes. Enclose pillows, mattresses, and box springs in allergen-proof covers, and wash bed sheets, mattress pads, and blankets in 130-degree water every week. Also, put pillows in the dryer on high heat for 45 minutes once a week, says Steelsmith—the heat kills dust mites. Every six weeks, wash any stuffed animals in hot water or stick them in plastic bags and freeze them overnight to kill off the mites, says Wedner.
Animals. Pets contribute a large share of household allergens, including proteins found in their dander, dead skin flakes, urine, and saliva. Cats are actually worse than dogs because their dander is lighter and clings to everything, says Wedner, which makes it more likely to enter your body and cause your immune system to “attack” it. Your pet’s dander can linger for long periods, so swap carpeting for hardwood, keep your little creatures off upholstered furniture, and invest in a HEPA air filter, which reduces dander in the air.
Mold. The best way to reduce mold in your house is to keep the temperature around 68 degrees and the relative humidity about 35 percent; you can pick up a humidity gauge to monitor this. Because mold tends to grow in potting soil, especially if it’s too moist, keep all indoor plants on the dry side and ban plants from the bedroom, where you spend up to a third of your time. Finally, place a dehumidifier in damp basements or crawl spaces during summer, which can improve overall air quality throughout the entire house.
Airborne chemicals. Switch to natural cleaning products (turn to page 72 for our favorites); avoid synthetic fragrances in scented candles, detergents, and deodorants; and if you smoke or live with smokers, now’s a good time for everybody to quit.
Allergy Trigger #4: Antibiotics
Used to treat bacterial infections like strep throat, urinary tract infections, and some sinus infections, antibiotics succeed when it comes to fighting bacteria—but they also wreak havoc on the good bacteria that live in your intestines. “Because 70 percent of your immune system is stimulated by the good bacteria, there’s a good chance taking antibiotics will result in an imbalanced immune system,” says Lucille. To counter this loss of healthy flora, she recommends taking probiotics daily (particularly a brand with shelf-stable lactobacillus) while you’re on antibiotics and for at least three months after you finish your prescription. And research supports this: A study published in Clinical and Experimental Allergy found that people with grass pollen allergies who took probiotics experienced fewer allergy symptoms than those who didn’t. You might even consider taking probiotics year-round for overall gut health, especially if you’re middle-aged or older.
Allergy Trigger #5: The great outdoors
No one with seasonal allergies spends much time outside when allergy season is, well, in full bloom. After all, who wants to come nose-to-nose with the onslaught of allergens floating through the air? While myriad types of pollen are the obvious offenders, other irritants like pollution and diesel fumes can also trip you up. “Pollutants act as a chronic irritant to mucous membranes in the nasal passages, and the body has to work hard to eliminate them,” says Steelsmith.
To deal with these outdoor irritants, reach for your nasal rinse. And while you can’t really stay indoors all the time, you can get a little savvier about when to venture out. Most plants pollinate in the morning, which is why pollen counts are higher during the first part of the day. So save outdoor activities like gardening, running errands, or exercising for later in the afternoon. Another ideal time to get outdoors is right after a storm. Rain, after all, washes the air and can drop high pollen counts to almost zero.
But you can’t expect it to rain every day, not even in Portland or Seattle, so the only sure way to get your seasonal allergies under control is to tend to your immune system. Strengthen it with good nutrition and plenty of sleep, but most of all give it a rest. If it’s not always in a frenzy, there’s a good chance it won’t care about a nose full of pollen or mold spores.
Karen Asp is a freelance writer in Fort Wayne, Indiana