By Karen Asp, Natural Solutions
Do you know what’s causing your runny nose and watery eyes? Hint: It’s not only the pollen count. These five surprising triggers could be making your sniffle season worse. Here’s how to outsmart them.
Pollen and ragweed have been deemed the obvious suspects of allergies, but in fact, they are merely triggers in the allergy bomb; the real culprit is the immune system. “An allergy is essentially an exaggerated reaction of your immune system,” says Holly Lucille, ND, RN, a naturopathic doctor in Los Angeles, who says that anybody with a compromised immune system–even someone who’s never experienced symptoms before–can suffer from seasonal allergies.
How can something designed to protect you–your immune system–cause you so much grief? By being overworked, that’s how. If the immune system is on constant alert combating food allergies, stress, toxins in the environment, and even prescription medications, it begins to lose its ability to distinguish between dangerous invaders and relatively harmless things, such as pollen or dust.
“When your immune system is weak, it sees seasonal allergens as foreign bodies and launches an inflammatory response, releasing chemicals like histamine, to attack them,” says Daniel Monti, MD, director of the Jefferson-Myrna Brind Center of Integrative Medicine at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia and author of The Great Life Makeover (Collins Living, 2008). Histamines cause the sneezing, wheezing, and coughing you associate with allergies–the mechanisms the body uses to expel the allergens. The amount of histamine your body releases depends on how compromised your immune system is. For instance, if your immune system is in good shape, your body may handle allergens without you even knowing it, says Lucille. If it’s not, your body may release a flood of histamine, increasing the chance you’ll be downright miserable.
Allergy Trigger #1: Your diet
Adopting an anti-inflammatory diet is one of the first steps Monti tells his patients to take during allergy season. “If you eat inflammatory foods, your seasonal allergies will be much worse,” he says, “especially if you’re already sensitive to a particular food.”
Two types of foods can cause an inflammatory reaction that overtaxes your immune system, Monti explains. First are the foods you can’t digest well; ones you may not even know you have a problem with. Wheat, milk, eggs, and peanuts are the most common problem-foods for allergies. If, for example, you’re sensitive to wheat, your immune system readies itself for a “fight” and remains in a heightened “attack mode” for as long as you eat that cereal grain or cheese. Then along come seasonal allergens, which your immune system would normally perceive as mild irritants. But because it’s already on high alert from dealing with your wheat sensitivity, it overreacts and your allergy symptoms spiral out of control. Follow a diet that minimizes inflammation in your body and creates little or no stress on your immune system, and your body won’t react so violently to external allergens.
Saturated fats, processed foods, and heavily refined carbohydrates are the second type of inflammation-causing foods. These affect everyone–no food sensitivities needed. Monti tells his patients to cut out all of these products, especially during allergy season, and instead eat lots of fruits, veggies, and whole (gluten-free) grains.
So how can you tell if you have an underlying food sensitivity that is making your seasonal allergy symptoms worse? Eliminate the suspect–wheat or dairy, for instance for a week. On the eighth day, bring that food back and eat it three or four times. For the next three days, watch for signs like increased mucus production, asthma-like symptoms, skin rashes, gas, bloating, heartburn, headaches, fatigue, or mood changes, says Laurie Steelsmith, ND, LAc, a naturopath and acupuncturist in Honolulu and author of Natural Choices for Women’s Health (Three Rivers Press, 2005). If any of these symptoms arise, or you just don’t feel as well as you did when you were avoiding the food, nix that food from your diet. Repeat this process with any other foods you suspect may cause you problems.
Don’t expect immediate results once you’ve eliminated a food from your diet, however, says Randy Horwitz, MD, PhD, an allergist and medical director of the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona in Tucson. Two to four weeks may pass before you notice any relief. Also, unless you’re allergic to the food–think peanut allergies or celiac disease–you may be able to add it back to your diet once allergy season has ended.
Allergy Trigger #2: Stress
Research has linked unrelenting stress from work, family, financial problems–or just from life in general–to a number of chronic diseases, but it has also discovered that stress can make your allergies worse. Why? Because the hormones and other chemicals released during extended periods of stress cause damage that triggers an immune response.
What’s worse, the continual flow of stress hormones also causes nutrient depletion. “Your body actually uses nutrients, including antioxidants and vitamins, to defend your body against stress,” says Lucille. “So when stress becomes constant–like it is for so many of us–the body needs more nutrients to keep it going. But the more stress we have, the more likely we are to make poor food choices and not get enough sleep. When you think about it this way, you can see how stress throws the immune system off balance.”
It’s unrealistic to think you can ditch stress completely and still function in today’s world, but getting regular exercise, enough sleep, and practicing mind-body techniques, such as yoga and meditation, can certainly help you manage it. Taking a daily multivitamin and eating five to nine servings or more of fruits and veggies a day will also ensure that your immune system has an adequate arsenal of nutrients at hand.
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