Alice Whitehead gets some expert advice on the best allergy-fighting foods
It’s easy to dismiss hay fever as a minor sniff and sneeze, but for the one in four Brits that suffer from the condition, hay fever is a debilitating daily burden. Also known as allergic rhinitis, it’s caused when the body makes allergic antibodies to help fight off pollen, causing congestion, red and watery eyes, sneezing, coughing and fatigue. Studies have shown one in five hay fever sufferers have taken time off due to their allergies − and it seems the problem is getting worse. More than 16 million people are now affected by hay fever compared with just one in eight in the early 1980s. A recent study by Allergy UK also suggests a growing number of new middle-aged people are developing hay fever for the first time.
It pays to be prepared for hay fever long before it strikes. While most over-the-counter medicines take effect straight away, dietary changes will take longer. “It definitely helps to employ diet ary strategies pre-season. The effects can be cumulative and best-seen when employed consistently,” says immunologist Dr Jenna Macciochi. “Get your doctor to perform a skin prick test on the common pollens to identify when your symptoms are likely to be worst i.e. tree pollen – late March to mid-May; grass pollen – mid-May to July; and weed pollen – end of June to September.”
Your ability to tolerate allergens can change as you age, along with the effectiveness of medications, so it’s best to arm yourself with a range of remedies. “Allergies tend to change over time – some people find they get worse as they get older, while others find they get better,” says Dr Kim Glass, a GP at Bupa Health Clinics (bupa.co.uk). “This is also the main reason people might feel that a medication they’ve used in the past is no longer working. If you suffer from itchy eyes one summer, eye drops will do the trick, but the next summer you might also suffer from a runny nose so you’ll need a nasal spray.”
While science still has a long way to go to prove whether foods such as honey can ease hay fever symptoms, experts agree that diet does play a part. The evidence suggests that a Mediterranean-style diet, high in green vegetables, wholegrain, olive and omega-3 oils, might help to reduce symptoms if employed early enough. “The results won’t be immediate, but with some consistent dietary modifications you can see an effect on the severity of symptoms and improvement in quality of life,” says Dr Macciochi. “Specifically, dietary polyphenols are plant-based compounds that have been shown to have anti-inflammatory properties capable of influencing multiple immune functions involved in allergies.” Dr Rupert Critchley, GP and founder of Harley Street’s VIVA Medi Clinics (vivamediclinics.com) suggests specific foods might help to control symptoms alongside conventional treatments. “Garlic is a fantastic source of quercetin, which has been used throughout history to alleviate symptoms of common viral infections,” he says. “You can also try turmeric. “The active ingredient in turmeric is curcumin, which blocks mast cells from releasing histamine. It reduces inflammation and removes excess mucus in the sinuses and respiratory tract,” says Dr Critchley.
Some foods can worsen your symptoms. “Dairy and refined and processed foods stimulate mucus, which can build up in the throat and make hay fever symptoms worse,” says airborne allergies expert Max Wiseberg. “In particular, margarine can increase the risk of nasal allergy symptoms and wheezing, due to the fact it is made with unhealthy fats that boost inflammation.” Foods high in histamines can also activate or strengthen the allergic response so it’s best to avoid alcohol, caffeine, chocolate, processed and cured meats, dried fruits, aged cheeses, nuts and smoked fish when hay fever strikes. Apples are thought to cross-react with birch pollen to cause oral allergy symptoms. “Histamine isn’t always present in specific food products, but can be present in the bacteria that grows around them,” adds Dr Critchley. “Fermented foods such as sauerkraut, vinegar yoghurt or canned fish can often end up being a big source of histamine.”
Up your vitamins
It’s not always possible to get all the nutrients we need from our diets. Nutritionist Sarah Flower, from Power Health (powerhealth.co.uk), suggests adding the following to your shopping list to keep yourself better protected this summer. “Biotin is a B vitamin that helps to maintain the healthy function of mucous membranes in your nose, sinuses, throat and even the tear ducts,” she says. “You can also try a probiotic. “A multi-strain one helps to repopulate the gut with healthy bacteria which in turn helps to boost the immune system. Sarah explains that there have also been studies to show that lactic acid producing bacteria can help reduce hay fever symptoms. Finally, don’t forget your vitamins. “Vitamin D deficiency has been linked to the development of allergies and autoimmune disease. Ideally you need 1000-3000iu per day,” she adds.
Keep it clean
“Cleansing your nose by sniffing or rinsing the nasal passages with a saline solution will wash pollen away from the mucous membrane and cilia in the nose and thus reduce the allergic reaction,” says Dr Critchley.
Alongside changes to your diet and medications, lifestyle changes can also help soothe the sneezes. A 2010 University of Worcester study found that hay fever sufferers who did the most exercise were more likely to have mild symptoms. Also, ensure that you bathe more. “My tip would be to have a shower and wash your hair at the end of every day, particularly if you have long or thick hair. Pollen can settle on your skin and in your hair during the day, making it difficult to sleep,” says Dr Glass. “Equally, brush down pets when they come indoors.” Also, don’t smoke. Dr Critchley says: “Smoking irritates the lining of your nose, eyes, throat and airways, and can make your reaction to pollen worse.” The University of Worcester has also found that as stress levels fall, so does the severity of symptoms, and it’s thought the stress hormone cortisol may negatively affect the immune system. Finally, why not go on holiday? “Get yourself to the beach – pollen levels are lower by the sea!” says Sarah Flower
Dr Rupert Critchley BM MRCGP is Director of VIVA Medi Clinics. vivamediclinics.com
Dr Jenna Macciochi PhD is an expert in immunology. instagram @dr_jenna_macciochi
Dr Max Wiseberg is an airborne allergy specialist and the owner of HayMax. haymax.biz
Sarah Flower is a nutritionist, health campaigner and author. sarahflower.co.uk
Dr Kim Glass is a GP for Bupa Health Clinics in London. bupa.co.uk