Is Inflammation At The Root Of Your Allergies? (An Integrative Immunologist Explains)
Ah, that first scent of spring: the waft of flowers and fresh-cut grass. Most of us feel rejuvenated with the warmer temperatures, sun on our faces, and the ability to pack away our parkas and boots. For some of us, however, spring harkens in several weeks of battling itchy eyes and a stuffy nose, making us want to hide away until summer. Seasonal allergies can really throw a wrench into our springtime bliss.
So why is it that some of us seem doomed to suffer these disruptive symptoms every year while others walk through clouds of pollen without a care?
Your allergies have a lot to do with your childhood.
The source of our allergies actually starts before we are even out of the womb. Part of it is our genetics, but if we are born by C-section or not breastfed we don't get exposed to our mother's beneficial protective microbiome and antibodies. The levels of good bacteria in our gut at an early age determine how our immune system develops and therefore whether we are likely to develop allergies to both food and airborne allergens.
About 70 percent of the entire immune system is found in the gut, so weakening it by taking antibiotics at a young age or using a lot of antimicrobial cleaning products—the so-called hygiene hypothesis—can also lead to an increased risk of allergies to food, airborne allergens, and even asthma and eczema. Studies also show that exposures to bacteria, viruses, and even parasites when we are kids strengthen our immunity even further by teaching our immune system naturally what to react against, preventing the misfiring against benign things like tree pollen.
The truth about allergies and inflammation levels
The symptoms of allergies like red itchy, runny eyes and the swelling and irritation of our airways all come from unbridled inflammation caused by chemicals that we release from our own cells in a misguided attempt to protect ourselves. Therefore, anything that makes us more inflamed—whether it's food, chemicals, or even stress—can worsen our allergies.
Many things overtax our natural stress response: emotional stress at work or home, eating too much sugar or processed foods, and skimping on sleep being just a few. When our stress levels run high, our brain starts telling our body to secrete hormones like cortisol and chemicals like histamine and other neurotransmitters. Several studies have shown that this can make us more inflamed, create more congestion in our nasal passages, and even worsen asthma. A study done on college students studying for exams showed that allergic cells in their blood rose and asthma symptoms worsened during final exam week.
The good news is that there are natural and safe methods to redirect our immune system, calming the inflammatory response and lessening our allergy symptoms.
1. Change how you deal with stress.
Studies have shown that using techniques like journaling about stressful events and using mental imagery have a positive role in asthma and allergy management. Relaxation therapies such as deep breathing techniques also had positive effects on asthma. The Buteyko method is one particular series of exercises with significant clinical trials showing effectiveness.
2. Maximize your antioxidants.
Psychological stress increases free radical damage, and studies have shown that eating diets rich in natural sources of vitamin C and vitamin E can reduce immune imbalances and help with allergic response. Vitamin D is also one of the most common vitamin deficiencies in the world, which is significant because it's an important immune modulator, and supplementation has been found to play an important role in reducing allergic asthma.
3. Build up your healthy gut bacteria.
Adding in probiotic foods such as fermented sauerkraut, kimchee, and kefir will maximize your gut immunity. In addition, taking a good-quality probiotic with at least 30 billion colonies and multiple strains of lactobacillus species can significantly improve1 immunity and reduce allergic rhinitis. In order to feed the good bacteria and keep them happy, add prebiotic fibers like chicory, inulin, and raw Jerusalem artichoke to your daily routine.
4. Make your diet anti-inflammatory
Omega-3 fatty acids from oily fish such as salmon and sardines can play a strong anti-inflammatory role2 in asthma and allergies. In addition, taking an omega-3 fish oil supplement daily may be very beneficial3 for decreasing allergic disease. Other beneficial phytochemicals from foods like catechins3 from green tea and curcumin4 from turmeric root, have been shown to help with many inflammatory diseases such as asthma and eczema.
5. Embrace herbal allergy solutions
In clinical trials, Butterbur has been shown to be equally effective as pharmaceutical drugs in managing allergic symptoms like runny nose and sneezing. Quercetin is a flavonoid found in certain foods like apples. In supplement form it stabilizes the cells that release histamine in the body, thereby having an anti-inflammatory and antihistamine effect. It's best to start this supplement a few weeks before allergy season actually begins to get the best effects. Coleus Forskilli is a member of the mint family used widely in Ayurvedic medicine, and the powder of this plant has been found to improve asthma and decrease eczema.
6. Keep those sinuses clear naturally.
Many pharmaceutical sprays dry out and thin the nasal membranes, making symptoms worse in the end. Instead, use a Neti pot filled with saline to rinse pollen out of your nasal passages. Try replacing any steroid sprays with Xlear nasal spray—a natural blend of xylitol and grapeseed extract to keep congestion at bay.
Tweaking your diet, managing your stress, and using more natural supplements and techniques will help you navigate allergy season and have you smelling the roses in no time.
Dr. Heather Moday received her medical degree from Tulane Medical School in New Orleans. She completed a residency in internal medicine and a fellowship in allergy and immunology. She completed a fellowship in integrative medicine with the Arizona Integrative Medicine program and is board-certified in integrative and holistic medicine. She completed her functional medicine training with the Institute for Functional Medicine and the Kalish Functional Medicine Fellowship.
She started the Moday Center for Functional and Integrative Medicine in Philadelphia, where she practices both traditional medicine and integrative medicine. You can learn more about Dr. Moday through her blog and website and follow her on her YouTube channel, Functional Medicine TV.