The Best Foods to Manage Your Seasonal Allergies
When hay fever hits, head to the supermarket for fruits and vegetables that can relieve your symptoms
Thanks to warmer winter temperatures in many parts of the country, experts say the 2013 allergy season is off to an early start.
That's bad news for the nearly 8 percent of American adults who suffer from hay fever, according to the American Academy of Allergy Asthma and Immunology. An additional 13 percent of adults have sinusitis, a chronic or periodic inflammation of the sinuses and nasal passages, which often acts up during the spring allergy season.
Hay fever develops after your immune system mistakenly identifies as harmful an airborne substance, such as pollen, and produces antibodies to combat it. Then, on subsequent occasions when you interact the substance, those antibodies signal your immune system to release chemicals, such as histamine, into the bloodstream. These chemicals cause the irritating reactions that are typical symptoms of the condition.
Many sufferers first contract hay fever as children, but for reasons researchers do not yet fully understand, adult-onset seasonal allergies are on the rise. Millions of Americans develop such allergies in midlife and beyond, perhaps because of a genetic predisposition or because they've had the condition all along but only experienced mild symptoms in their youth.
Seasonal allergies flare in spring and fall, when air-borne allergens, like grass, tree and ragweed pollen, take flight. "Those allergens can upset the normal routine of cells located in the clear layer covering the white part of the eye," explains optometrist Richard Norden of Ridgewood, NJ. "Histamine is then released by the cells in the eye, causing itching, tearing and redness."A similar effect occurs in the cells of your nasal passages, throat and sinuses, causing swelling, congestion and excess mucous production, says Susanne Bennett, founder of the Wellness for Life Center in Santa Monica, Calif., and a specialist in treating allergies.
As millions of people gird themselves for weeks of sneezing, watery eyes, stuffy noses and other symptoms, many sufferers will seek relief from over-the-counter and prescription drugs. But while those remedies can effectively treat allergies, eating certain foods — along with, or in place of, medications — can also limit the seasonal impact.
Produce That Produces Relief
Antihistamines reduce the histamine reaction triggered by pollen and other allergens. But the antioxidants known as flavonoids, readily found in certain foods and juices, also have antihistamine properties. These "natural antihistamines," as Norden calls them, include foods with the flavonoids quercetin and bromelain, which also give certain fruits and vegetables their color. Citrus fruits, apples, parsley, tomatoes, broccoli, lettuce, onions, garlic and legumes contain quercetin, as do black tea and red wine. Pineapples contain bromelain.
The richly colored foods containing the flavonoids known as anthocyanins also have antihistamine properties. These include berries and cherries, grapes, red onions, red cabbage and radishes. "These foods are helpful for reducing swelling in sinuses passages and reducing the congestion that leads to headaches, trouble sleeping and stuffy noses," says Peter D'Adamo, of D'Adamo Personalized Nutrition in Wilton, Conn., and the author of Eat Right for Your Type.
The Benefits of Fish and Water
Foods high in omega-3 fatty acids — like salmon, albacore tuna, herring, mackerel, walnuts, flaxseed oil and canola oil — can also help combat the inflammation associated with seasonal allergies.
Norden advises incorporating a variety of hay fever-fighting foods into your daily diet. "Two to three servings daily of food rich in anti-inflammatory and antihistamine nutrients is recommended to help control symptoms," he says.
Staying hydrated is also crucial. Allergy sufferers need extra water, Bennett says, to support increased drainage that flushes mold and pollen out of nasal passages, as well as tears to wash away dust and pollen in the eyes. "Water helps flush out the histamine reaction," she says.
Generally, the better hydrated you are, the more allergens will be diluted in your cells, minimizing their histamine effect. Bennett suggests this guideline: Take your weight, divide it in half and drink that number of ounces of water each day during hay fever season.
Drinking green tea may also be beneficial because it is high in the antioxidants known as polyphenols. "In green tea, these tend to stabilize cells in the body responsible for the release of histamine," D'Adamo says. "So does theanine, an amino acid that's also found in green tea." For best results, he suggests building up your reserve of histamine fighters by drinking a daily cup of green tea starting weeks before allergy season begins.
There are some foods you should consider limiting at this time of year, Bennett says, particularly dairy products, which tend to increase the production of mucous in the sinuses, worsening allergy symptoms. Many sufferers begin to feel less congested when they cut back on dairy, she says. But since calcium intake remains essential — to maintain bone mass, help your muscles expand and contract, and contribute to healthy blood pressure — Bennett recommends eating dark green vegetables (kale, Swiss chard, broccoli); seeds (sesame, flax); beans (soy, chickpeas, baked) and nuts (Brazil nuts, almonds).
An Allergy-Fighting Salad
For a lunchtime meal or dinner side dish, consider a symptom-busting salad featuring:
Dark green, leafy vegetables The base of your salad is rich in anti-inflammatory carotenoids, found to limit the prevalence of seasonal allergy symptoms in a study conducted at the Institute of Epidemiology at Germany's National Research Center for Environment and Health.
Flax seeds Sprinkle a tablespoon of ground flax on your salad for the potent allergy-fighting effects of their omega-3 fatty acids. A study at the Technical University of Munich, Germany, found that omega-3 consumption was linked to a reduction in allergic rhinitis.
Miso A homemade dressing made with 3 teaspoons of white miso completes your dish with gusto. A study conducted by the Japanese Department of Public Health found that just one teaspoon of miso a day can lower the prevalence of seasonal allergy symptoms by about 41 percent.
Altogether, it's a meal that fights hunger and hay fever.