If Your Spring Allergies Are Crazy, You Might Have A Gut Problem. Here's How To Tell (And How To Fix It!)
"Every year the warmer weather kicks in, and I feel happy for a few days, and then it happens," my 34-year-old patient Brenda told me during our initial consultation. "I start sneezing my head off, my head starts pounding, and I just want to stay in bed and sleep."
Even with her former doctor’s rotation of prescription and over-the-counter drugs, Brenda’s seasonal allergies returned every spring with a vengeance. She wanted natural relief without that drowsy, dopey feeling and other side effects medications often created.
Numerous environmental suspects, like dust, dust mites, and pet dander, create or exacerbate allergies. Certain foods can trigger or make you more prone to developing allergic symptoms as well. As Brenda knew all too well, environmental factors including pollen were her nemesis. But many health care professionals overlook a common culprit for seasonal allergies: your foundation of health—the gut.
Because I am a medical doctor who focuses on gut health, my patients don’t always make that connection between what they eat, digestive wellness, and spring allergies. But once you consider about 70 percent of your immune system resides within your gut1, you can understand how gut problems can trigger or worsen immune-related conditions like seasonal allergies.
It’s as if the gut controls a dimmer switch on immune reactivity, even to the outside world. So if your gut is sounding the alarm, the rest of your immune system goes on full alert, wreaking havoc on your enjoyment of the beauty of spring flowers. Pollen release happens in waves, so this can go on for several weeks at its worst.
Underlying these and other problems is your gut microbiome, a diverse ecosystem living inside you comprising trillions of symbiotic bacteria that help maintain a healthy digestive system. When your microbiome becomes unbalanced, all sorts of havoc ensues, including seasonal allergies. When I tell patients that everything starts in your gut, I’m not kidding.
The driver of your symptoms of seasonal allergies—including sneezing, feeling stuffy, and a runny nose—begins with chronic inflammation in the gut, which puts your immune system into overdrive.
For Brenda, a leaky gut ramped up her immune system, amplifying the effects of her environmental seasonal allergies. To eliminate her allergies and all their miserable symptoms, we had to start with her gut.
Leakiness or "hyperpermeability" of the gut essentially means partially digested protein molecules from food slip through your gut wall and create chaos. The immune system does not recognize these, so it attacks, which results in food sensitivities. You might not even be aware of these sensitivities because they can manifest without gut symptoms, instead showing up as seasonal allergies, postnasal drip, chronic airway congestion, and recurrent sinusitis, to name a few conditions.
Food allergies differ from food sensitivities. Food allergies create an immediate response that can begin within seconds to minutes after contact with the protein substance. A skin rash, itching, shortness of breath, and closing of the windpipe are among the symptoms of food allergies.
Food sensitivities, on the other hand, involve a prolonged or delayed reaction to food. A delayed onset (from several hours up to 36 hours after you eat the offending food) shows up with unwanted skin rashes (eczema, for example), fatigue, mental fog, and migraines.
Research2 shows what I’ve found in my own practice: Intestinal permeability creates a vicious cycle of inflammation and allergic reactions. A nasty forward-feeding cycle develops as food sensitivities keep your immune system revved up.
I had Brenda keep track of her symptoms, and we quickly saw a major culprit: She was eating a lot of "healthy" whole wheat pasta and low-carb whole-grain wraps with cheese. I explained that each time you eat gluten, the immune response it triggers can last up to six months. Add in dairy, and it triggers the overproduction of mucus inside your nose and sinuses, which will trap more pollen, keeping you feeling miserable for longer.
We spent several consultations focusing on the right nutrients and other strategies to heal Brenda’s leaky gut (much of which I condensed into my free Quick Start Guide to a Happy Gut), which subsequently helped tame her seasonal allergies. Here’s how I approached that healing process.
How to heal your gut and eliminate your allergies.
1. Nix the offenders.
For Brenda that included gluten, but I also found sneaky sugar sources like agave-sweetened cookies and sugary almond milk in her journal. Cow dairy was also a big problem, even in the form of cheese. It was fueling her overreaction to the outside world. These and other food sensitivities can rev up your already-overactive immune system, keeping your inflammatory fire burning and increasing allergy symptoms. Brenda pulled these offenders for four weeks, and her symptoms dramatically improved.
2. Eat an anti-inflammatory diet.
Equally important to heal your gut and eliminate problems like seasonal allergies: Eat foods that help reduce inflammation and stabilize your histamine-producing mast cells. Those include wild-caught seafood, freshly ground flaxseed, walnuts, chia seeds, and plenty of nonstarchy vegetables. Brenda stocked up on wild-caught pre-cooked salmon in aseptic packaging, which she threw on top of a salad or cooked greens for an easy, satisfying meal. She also added freshly ground flaxseed into her morning smoothie. Quercetin-rich capers were a great addition to recipes and salads as well while helping to diminish the amount of histamine released in her body.
3. Focus on gut-healing foods.
Probiotics, fiber, and prebiotics (a type of fiber that feeds your good gut bugs) are the trifecta for a happy gut. Brenda upped her leafy greens and snacked on sprouted nuts and seeds. Fermented and cultured foods supported the growth and proliferation of her "good" gut bacteria. For her that meant coconut kefir, fermented foods like sauerkraut and kimchi, and cultured beverages containing favorable live bacteria, like kombucha. She also added prebiotic-rich foods like chopped raw scallions and sauteed Jerusalem artichokes into her salads.
4. Get the right exercise.
While working out might not be high on your list when you’re stuffy and congested, research3 shows moderate exercise can help asthma. If you exercise outdoors, do it early in the morning or in the evening when pollen counts are the lowest. And remember, outdoor pollen counts are always going to be less after a fresh rain. That’s a great time to go for a run. Brenda found high-intensity interval training (HIIT) did the trick in just 20 minutes, three times a week, and as an added "bonus," she toned up in time for beach season.
5. Take the right nutrients.
A number of nutrients can help minimize or eliminate seasonal allergies and their miserable symptoms. For Brenda, those included fish oil to help reduce the inflammation associated with asthma. Research also shows curcumin, the active ingredient in turmeric, provides anti-inflammatory and antioxidant support to alleviate allergy symptoms. And studies4 endorse vitamin D to support various immune-related conditions including allergy-related sinus infections. Consider, too, an immune-supporting, natural "antihistamine" formula that contains a synergistic blend of vitamin C, quercetin, bromelain, and zinc.
6. Be mindful of seasonal allergies and cross-reactive foods.
Researchers find about 50 to 75 percent of adults allergic to birch tree pollen get itchy after eating certain fruit or vegetables. That’s because the proteins in some produce resemble those found in pollen, confusing your immune system and creating or exacerbating an allergic reaction (called cross-reactivity). While I would rarely tell patients to eliminate nutrient-dense fruits and vegetables, I had Brenda limit cross-reactive foods during allergy season to reduce her symptoms. In other words, be seasonal in your eating habits to match the times of year when certain foods are more likely to trigger an allergic reaction.
7. Get a head start.
If you know allergy season really starts affecting you in April, start taking precautionary measures a month or two before. Really dial in your diet, nutrients, and lifestyle factors so your immune system operates optimally when the season kicks in. Cut out all dairy completely in preparation for allergy season. With this information, Brenda left my office feeling confident she was armed with the right strategies to get next spring’s allergies under even better control.
You could also try sipping on this tea, which really helps with itchy eyes and throats!
Vincent M. Pedre, M.D., medical director of Pedre Integrative Health and president of Dr. Pedre Wellness, is a board-certified internist in private practice in New York City since 2004. He completed his bachelor’s degree in Biology at Cornell University before attending the University of Miami School of Medicine and completed his residency in Internal Medicine at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine. He has appeared on the Martha Stewart Show and ABC and is the author of Happy Gut: The Cleansing Program to Help You Lose Weight, Gain Energy, and Eliminate Pain. Dr. Pedre is a clinical instructor in medicine at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine and is certified in yoga and medical acupuncture.