Tips for Surviving Spring Allergy Season

Story at-a-glance -

  • Spring allergies affect an estimated 25 million Americans. Airborne pollen is the most common cause of seasonal allergies, also known as hay fever or allergic rhinitis
  • Supporting your digestive health with a wholesome diet of fresh and fermented foods will help optimize your immune function; optimizing your vitamin D levels is also important for those with allergies
  • Preventive strategies, along with short- and long-term treatment suggestions, are discussed, including provocation neutralization treatment and sublingual allergy drops, both of which work just as well as inhalers

By Dr. Mercola

An estimated 25 million Americans suffer from spring allergies associated with tree, grass, and weed pollen. Airborne pollen is the most common cause of seasonal allergies, also known as hay fever or allergic rhinitis.

Worldwide, hay fever affects between 10-30 percent of the population,1 making springtime a season of discomfort rather than joy for many.

Most people turn to antihistamines, decongestants, nasal sprays, and allergy shots to address their symptoms. Unfortunately, many of these drugs can cause significant side effects, and relief tends to be short-lived. Moreover, they don't address the underlying cause of your allergies.

The good news is that you do have options—drugs are not your only viable alternative. Also, taking a few preventive steps to avoid known triggers may help keep your allergy symptoms as minimal as possible.

As noted by Dr. James Sublett, president of the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology (ACAAI):2

"Because there can be millions of pollen particles in the air, finding allergy relief can seem nearly impossible for some. But by knowing what triggers your allergy symptoms and how to avoid these allergens, you can be on your way to a sneeze-free season."

Pollen is an extremely common allergen, but other agents can trigger allergenic processes as well. Mold spores, dust, airborne contaminants, dust mites, pet dander, cockroaches, environmental chemicals, cleaning products, personal care products, and foods can all cause allergic reactions.

Every person is different in what he or she reacts to. And, just because you haven't reacted to something in the past doesn't mean you won't react to it in the future—you can become sensitized at any point in time.

How and Why Spring Allergies Develop

Allergies are your body's reaction to particles that it considers foreign (aka allergens). The first time your body encounters an allergen, your plasma cells release immunoglobulin E (IgE), an antibody specific to that allergen.

IgE attaches to the surface of your mast cells, which are found in great numbers in your surface tissues, such as your skin and nasal mucous membranes, where they help mediate inflammatory responses. Mast cells release a number of important chemical mediators, one of which is histamine.

So, the second time your body encounters a particular allergen, within a few minutes your mast cells become activated and release a powerful cocktail of histamine, leukotrienes, and prostaglandins, which trigger the entire cascade of symptoms you associate with allergies, such as sneezing, runny nose, sore throat, hacky cough, itchy eyes, etc.

Tips to Reduce Your Exposure to Pollen

To minimize your allergy symptoms, the ACAAI suggests reducing your exposure to pollen by:

  • Avoiding clothing made of synthetic fabrics, as they can produce an electric charge when rubbed that attracts and makes pollen stick to you. Better options include natural fibers like cotton.
  • Exercising outdoors either before dawn, in the late afternoon, and/or early evening, as pollen counts are at the lowest at these times. Intense exercise may be best done indoors, as your increased breathing rate could make you inhale more pollen.
  • Wearing gloves and a mask when gardening. To filter pollen, wear a National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH)-rated 95 filter mask. Also avoid touching your eyes, and when done, be sure to take a shower and wash your clothes.
  • Reducing your exposure to indoor allergens may also help reduce spring allergy symptoms.
  • To improve your indoor air quality, regularly vacuum your home, including furniture, ideally using a HEPA filter vacuum cleaner; leave shoes by the door to avoid trekking dirt through the house; and use a dehumidifier and/or a HEPA filter air purifier.

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Allergies Need to Be Addressed Using a Multi-Prong Approach

Avoiding triggers can certainly be helpful, but to really address your allergies you need a multi-faceted approach that includes optimizing your diet, intestinal health, and vitamin D levels.

An estimated 80 percent of your immune system is located in your gut, so supporting your digestive health is essential to also supporting your immune system, which is your primary defense system against all disease.

Allergies are a sign that your immune system is in overdrive, and diet, gut health, and vitamin D are all important components that will help optimize your overall immune function.

One common reason for an overactive immune system is "leaky gut" syndrome. If gaps develop between the cells (enterocytes) that make up the membrane lining your intestinal wall, it allows substances to pass through that really should be confined to your digestive tract.

This includes undigested proteins, which can cause allergic reactions. Besides being associated with inflammatory bowel diseases like Crohn's and ulcerative colitis, or celiac disease, leaky gut can also be a contributing factor to allergies.

Once the integrity of your intestinal lining is compromised, and there is a flow of toxic substances "leaking out" into your bloodstream, your body also experiences significant increases in inflammation, which places an increased workload on your immune system.

Eating Right and Optimizing Your Vitamin D Levels Is Part of the Long-Term Solution

So what causes leaky gut? The foods you eat play a paramount role, for obvious reasons.

Grains can damage your gut in a number of ways, for example. Not only do they contain anti-nutrients that may damage your gut, many are also highly contaminated with glyphosate, which has been shown to wreak havoc on your intestinal health.

Glyphosate has been shown to severely damage your gut flora and cause chronic diseases rooted in gut dysfunction, and the use of glyphosate on wheat crops has risen in tandem with the rise in celiac disease.

Genetically engineered foods, which are pervasive in the American diet, also tend to be far more allergenic than conventional ones, by virtue of producing foreign proteins that have never existed in the human diet before. Research has found that junk food increases a child's risk of asthma and allergies, so certainly, avoiding processed foods in general can, at the very least, reduce your risk.

"Healing and sealing" your gut has been shown to help alleviate allergy symptoms, and the key to this is eliminating inflammatory foods like grains and processed foods, and introduce healthier ones that will support a proper balance of bacteria in your gut. Traditionally fermented foods is one essential component of a gut-healthy diet, but trading out processed foods for whole, fresh (ideally organic) foods is also important.

Additionally, as it pertains to your diet, about one-third of seasonal allergy sufferers have something called "oral allergy syndrome,3" in which your immune system is triggered by proteins in some foods that are molecularly similar to pollen. Your immune system looks at the protein molecule and says, "Close enough!" and attacks it. If you are allergic to ragweed, for example, you may have cross-sensitivity to melons, bananas, tomatoes, zucchini, sunflower seeds, dandelions, chamomile, and Echinacea. If you have a grass allergy, you may also react to peaches, celery, tomatoes, melons, and oranges. If this applies to you, you'll want to avoid such foods.

Why Vitamin D Is So Important for Allergy Sufferers

If you have asthma and/or allergies, optimizing your vitamin D levels is absolutely crucial. In fact, research suggests that vitamin D deficiency may be a primary underlying cause of asthma. This means that many are needlessly suffering with a potentially life threatening ailment, since vitamin D deficiency is easily remedied. Vitamin D will also help to upregulate your immune system.

Ideally, you'll want to get your vitamin D from appropriate sun exposure. Beware that using sunscreen when outdoors effectively shields your skin from making any vitamin D. Another alternative is using a tanning bed, or if neither of those options are available, an oral vitamin D3 supplement. If you opt for a vitamin D supplement you also need to boost your vitamin K2. For more information on this, please see this previous article. Whichever way you go, make sure to check your vitamin D levels at regular intervals to make sure you're within the therapeutic levels of 50-70 ng/ml.

Provocation Neutralization Allergy Treatment

Aside from addressing health basics like diet and vitamin D, Provocation Neutralization (PN) allergy testing and treatment offers many allergy sufferers permanent relief without adverse side effects. The success rate for this approach is about 80 to 90 percent, and you can receive the treatment at home. The provocation refers to "provoking a change" and neutralization refers to "neutralizing the reaction caused by provocation."

During provocation-neutralization, a small amount of allergen is injected under your skin to produce a small bump called a "wheal" on the top layers of your skin, and then it is monitored for a reaction. If you have a positive reaction, such as fatigue, headache, or a growth in the size of the wheal, then the allergen is neutralized with diluted injections or with drops that go in your mouth of the same allergen. If you are interested in pursuing PN, the American Academy of Environmental Medicine4 (AAEM) has a list of physicians and offices that are trained in this highly effective and recommended technique.

Another Effective Option: Sublingual Immunotherapy

Sublingual immunotherapy5 is a similar technique, but rather than injecting the allergen under your skin, you place it under your tongue. One meta-analysis6 of 63 randomized controlled trials found strong evidence that sublingual immunotherapy improved allergy symptoms caused by grass, tree pollen, dust mites, ragweed, and other substances.

The treatment produced a greater than 40 percent improvement in symptoms compared to a placebo, and while local reactions were common, no life-threatening side effects, such as anaphylaxis, were reported. According to Dr. Daniel Moore,7 the allergy drops used for sublingual immunotherapy (SLIT) are administered daily, or several times per week, over a period of years.

"The immune system of the gastrointestinal tract tends to 'tolerate' foreign substances, meaning that it does not respond in an over-active way to swallowed material," he explains. '...When SLIT is administered into the gastrointestinal tract [via your mouth], the immune system tolerates the allergen, instead of the over-reactivity of the immune system, as with allergic disease.

This results in less allergy symptoms when the body is exposed to the allergy source, such as airborne pollen or pet dander... SLIT appears to be effective in the treatment of allergic rhinitis, allergic conjunctivitis and, to a lesser degree, allergic asthma.'"

Other Helpful Allergy Treatments

Other drug-free allergy treatment alternatives worth trying include flushing your nasal cavity with a neti pot, acupuncture, and eating locally produced honey. Irrigating your nasal passages to flush out pollen and other irritants is a widely recommended strategy, and is also supported by the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology. Acupuncture may also be helpful for relieving allergy symptoms.8 One randomized trial9,10 published in 2013 found that participants who received 12 acupuncture treatments over the course of two months reported greater improvements in their symptoms compared to those who received sham acupuncture.

They also used less antihistamines. As for using local honey, results tend to be mixed, but it could be worth trying—especially if you know what kind of pollen you're allergic to, so you can match it to the type of honey you buy. In one 2011 study, patients diagnosed with birch pollen allergy experienced significant relief when consuming birch pollen honey daily from November to March. During birch pollen season, compared to the control group, the patients using honey experienced a 60 percent reduction in symptoms; twice as many asymptomatic days; 70 percent fewer days with severe symptoms, and 50 percent decrease in usage of antihistamines.

While I believe there's truth to the anecdotal claims that local honey can help reduce allergy symptoms, it's important to be aware that honey itself can also trigger in some cases severe allergic reactions, including anaphylactic shock. So clearly you should not attempt to use honey if you've ever experienced an adverse reaction to honey in the past. Also be careful and use it sparingly in the beginning until you've confirmed that you can tolerate it. Another important point to remember is that honey is high in fructose. Typically, about 70-80 percent of honey is fructose, which in excessive amounts can exacerbate pre-existing insulin resistance and provoke metabolic dysfunction.

Helpful Herbs and Supplements

A number of herbs and supplements can also be helpful against allergy symptoms, including the following:

  • Hot peppers: Hot chili peppers, horseradish, and hot mustards work as natural decongestants. In fact, a nasal spray containing capsaicin (derived from hot peppers) significantly reduced nasal allergy symptoms in a 2009 study.
  • Quercetin: Quercetin is an antioxidant that belongs to a class of water-soluble plant substances called flavonoids. Although research results have been mixed, many believe quercetin-rich foods (such as apples, berries, red grapes, red onions, capers, and black tea) prevent histamine release—so they are "natural antihistamines." Quercetin is also available in supplement form—a typical dose for hay fever is between 200 and 400 mg per day.
  • Butterbur (Petasites hybridus): Another natural antihistamine, this herb has been used since ancient times to treat a variety of conditions. As far back as the 17th century, butterbur was used to treat coughs, asthma, and skin wounds. Researchers have since identified the compounds in butterbur that help reduce symptoms in asthma by inhibiting leukotrienes and histamines, which are responsible for symptom aggravation in asthma.11 In a German study,12 40 percent of patients taking butterbur root extract were able to reduce their intake of traditional asthma medications. A British study found butterbur as effective as the drug Zyrtec.
  • A word of caution is needed, however. Butterbur is a member of the ragweed family, so if you are allergic to ragweed, marigold, daisy, or chrysanthemum, you should not use butterbur. Also, the RAW herb should not be used because it contains substances called pyrrolizidine alkaloids that can be toxic to the liver and kidneys and may cause cancer. Commercial butterbur products have had a lot of these alkaloids removed.

  • Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis): Laboratory studies suggest that berberine, the active ingredient in goldenseal, has antibacterial and immune-enhancing properties that may be helpful for seasonal allergies.
  • Eucalyptus oil: This pure essential oil can be healing to mucus membranes. You can apply a drop on a cotton ball and sniff it several times a day, add a few drops to water (or to a nebulizer, if you own one) for a steam treatment, or use a few drops in your bathwater.

Is Your Home Too Sterile?

One last thing I think is worth mentioning is the hygiene hypothesis, which can also play a role in allergy development. Swedish researchers recently published a study13,14,15 in which dishwashers were identified as a potentially aggravating factor for allergies. Because dishwashers use very hot water (water typically too hot for human touch), they kill far more germs than ordinary hand washing. While most would count that as a significant benefit, it may actually increase your risk of developing allergies.

The study, which included more than 1,000 Swedish children, those with increased microbial exposure were less likely to develop allergies… and this included potential exposure through hand-washed dishes. In households where dishes were always washed by hand, rates of allergies in the children were half those from households that used dishwashers. The children using hand-washed dishes were less likely to develop eczema, asthma, and hay fever. According to the researchers: "We speculate that a less-efficient dishwashing method may induce tolerance via increased microbial exposure."

Being Proactive Can Help You Rein in Your Allergy Symptoms

If you're one of the tens of millions of allergy sufferers in the US, know there is plenty you can do besides reaching for an antihistamine pill. Eating a diet based on unprocessed, ideally organic, and/or locally grown foods, including traditionally fermented foods, along with optimizing your vitamin D levels forms the foundation upon which your immune system can function optimally.

For short-term relief of symptoms, you could give acupuncture a try, and irrigate your sinuses with a neti pot. There are also a number of herbs and supplements that can help alleviate symptoms, as discussed above. For more long-term relief, consider provocation neutralization treatment, or sublingual allergy drops, which work just as well as inhalers.