I know many of you suffer from seasonal allergies this time of year. I get letters from readers like you all the time sharing your lengthy list of medications and how they don’t work, how you are still suffering. For years, I was allergic to cats and pollen but by the time I was 31, it all completely went away. Today, at 52, I wipe down the car and outdoor porch furniture from pollen, and play with my friends’ cats all the time. But in my younger years, when my immunity was weak, I dealt with allergies from all kinds of triggers. So I feel for you!
Some health practitioners don’t like antihistamines at all, but I do for seasonal allergies, and not long term. I understand why you would want quick relief from incessant sneezing, runny nose, scratchy throat, watery eyes and congestion. You feel miserable! Some popular “allergy meds” include:
- antihistamines (to inhibit the body’s histamine reaction, which causes inflammation of airways and mucus membranes)
- corticosteroids (to also reduce inflammation)
- bronchodilators (to open airways)
- decongestants (to thin and dry up mucus)
While helpful for a few days, these medications all come with side effects, the most common of which are drowsiness; impaired performance; dryness of the eyes, nose and mouth; restlessness; abdominal distress, unusual bleeding and bruising; heart palpitations; and insomnia. Insomnia can be severe with steroids, and when used long term or with benzodiazepines, can lead to personality changes, aggression and psychosis.
Some of these medications have the potential to cause mental or cognitive side effects that can make you feel slightly drunk or “out of it”, fuzzy-headed, and zombie-like. I’m sure you’ve experienced this effect if you’ve taken a “first generation” allergy drug such as diphenhydramine or chlorpheniramine. These drugs get in your brain by crossing your blood-brain barrier, and interacting with a number of unintended receptor sites. This annoys specific neurons in your brain causing you to feel depersonalized, or hungover, or like you’re drunk. You may begin to bump into furniture, feel jelly-legged, forget things or get sleepy… almost as if you’re drugged up. That’s because you are! You got drugged up, since some of these drugs act on the same neurotransmitters that regulate cognition, sleep and mood.
How ’bout the kiddos?
Seasonal allergies in kids is rather common. The side effects of “allergy drugs” are slightly different in children, including nightmares and overexcitability in addition to the upset stomach, diarrhea, ADHD-like symptoms and impaired cognitive function that adults also frequently experience.
I guess I’m trying to say that as much as I personally approve of the pharmaceuticals for short-term relief and instant gratification, allergy medicines simply aren’t for everyone. If you’ve taken them before you know what I mean. The dry mouth and dry eyes alone are pure misery, not to mention the rapid heart rate and/or constipation.
Furthermore, some of the drugs aren’t recommended for everyone due to past medical history. Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding need to be careful, as well as those with high blood pressure heart disease, kidney or liver disease, glaucoma, or with thyroid problems. That rules out a lot of you, doesn’t it?
Do you want to cover it up or fix it once and for all?
To top it all off, allergy medications don’t even treat the root of the problem—they only manage symptoms. For all these reasons, they should only be one part of a bigger plan that includes practical dietary strategies for minimizing your exposure to the allergens that trigger you and priming your digestive system by choosing foods that empower your body to be better equipped to process allergens without an allergic response.
I want to take just a minute to explain what an allergic response is. When your body is exposed to allergens, it reacts by releasing histamine compounds that attack cells in your body, causing them to swell up and leak some of their fluid. This histamine response is what triggers common allergy symptoms like watery, itchy eyes, sinus congestion, swollen nasal passages, itchy skin, runny nose and incessant sneezing.
I don’t want to make it seem like histamine is all bad. It’s not. You need some histamine because it functions as a neurotransmitter, and it plays a role in sleep and memory. Histamine is also an indicator of dehydration, and when it spikes during an allergic fit, it’s a red flag that you’re dehydrated.
Note: If and when you do take allergy medication, make sure to take it at the right time. Some of them are stimulating due to the inclusion of a decongestant like pseudoephedrine and should be taken in the day, others cause drowsiness like Benadryl or Zyrtec. These are individual reactions. Also, make sure to stay extra hydrated as histamine itself as well as decongestant medications are very drying to the mucus membranes. Claritin is considered neutral and non-sedating but each person reacts differently so over time, you’ll be able to determine how it works for you.
So, what’s my alternative to prescription meds?
Believe it or not, it’s the food you eat! Most people, probably 9 out of 10 people have complete control over the strength of their immune system, and level of reactivity, at least at first. Your immune system is in your gut and you can control how reactive it is to external allergies, as well as food allergies. It takes time and it’s not something people like to hear. Most people will say, “Ah whatever, I’ll eat what I want to, and just take this pill, it’s a lot easier.”
No worries, go right ahead. But there are a subset of you reading this today that are ready to make a change and ready to feel better, and get off the expensive pills and more than that, heal your body. You absolutely can, and it is YOU who I am talking to right now!
Your GI tract is the site of a large portion of your immune system. If you are consistently eating low-quality, highly processed foods, your GI tract is busy processing those foods that don’t offer a lot of nutrition in return. When spring is sprung and large amounts of pollen start entering your already taxed GI tract, it simply can’t handle it and as a result, your digestion gets backed up and those allergens stick around longer making it more likely that your body will have an immune response to them.
Congestion in your colon absolutely is tied to congestion in your sinuses! While this may seem like a bad thing, it’s not, because it means that you can have a big effect on your allergies by eating a whole food, high-fiber diet. Green superfood drinks and smoothies could offer detoxification and improve allergies, without the need for medicine. How’s that for simple?
Organic fruits and vegetables. While there are a couple of fruits and veggies that you want to avoid (I’ll cover those in just a bit), for the most part, fresh produce is loaded with compounds that help regulate the histamine response—meaning, you can essentially eat your anti-histamines. Also, fruits and vegetables are high in fiber, which will help keep your digestion moving. Prioritize eating more of them than you normally do—especially cooked. You can steam, saute or boil but eat as many vegetables as you can. Cooking them reduces goitrogens, which are compounds which can hinder your thyroid function. Also, cooked vegetables are easier to digest and the goal here is that you’re trying to give your gut a break!
Warming spices and aromatics. Garlic, ginger, onions, cinnamon and cayenne pepper help to thin mucous so it can be passed out of your body more easily. Many of these foods also help stimulate digestion and have immune-boosting properties of their own. Definitely, use a heavy hand with these healing helpers when your allergies are getting triggered!
Local honey. It has long been held that eating small amounts of locally-produced honey, which bees create by ingesting pollen and then regurgitating it, helps your body acclimate to the particular strains of pollen that are floating around your area. You can often buy locally grown honey at a Farmer’s Market, or sometimes at your local health food store. The point of eating honey grown locally is that when you breathe in the air where you live, your body doesn’t have as strong an immune response as it otherwise would. Try a teaspoon of locally grown honey every day beginning in February each year and continue it through allergy season. You can even chop up a raw garlic clove or coin of fresh ginger and take it with the honey to make it more palatable.
Bone broth. A broth made by boiling the bones of beef or chicken contains many compounds that help reduce inflammation and promote digestion, which then helps soothe respiratory problems. I prefer pasture-raised because these animals have the healthiest diets and thus more mineral-rich bones. You can add your warming spices to bone broth for a delicious soup that also makes you feel pampered! Don’t try bone broth if you are in benzo withdrawal or sensitive to things like MSG, as the increased glutamate is going to set you back. Bone broth is high in free glutamate.
Pineapple. I know I already mentioned eating extra fruits, but make sure to prioritize pineapple, as it contains an enzyme called bromelain that reduces swelling and mucous production. Bromelain is a common proteolytic enzyme used to help break down inflammatory compounds and is also sold as a supplement.
Apple cider vinegar. This type of vinegar, sold “with the mother”, contains natural probiotics that help boost the immune system. You can mix one tablespoon in a glass of water with a squeeze of lemon for a little extra vitamin C and drink it down, one to three times a day. You could also add your local honey to it to make it more palatable and to kill three birds with one stone!
Dairy. Dairy products contain casein, which has been tied to allergies and asthma, and avoiding dairy seems to offer relief for many chronic sufferers. Also, dairy is associated with mucous production, and at this time of year, you certainly don’t need any more of that!
Wheat and soy. These foods are common allergens, so by removing them from your diet you allow your body to focus more on processing the pollen and other airborne allergens that are floating around. If you want to be more thorough about removing common allergens from your diet, also skip eggs, tree nuts, shellfish, peanuts and strawberries.
Preservative-heavy foods. Many food preservatives, such as sodium bisulfite, potassium bisulfite, sodium metabisulfite, potassium metabisulfite, and sodium sulfite, can trigger asthma-like symptoms, which you definitely don’t need if you are also experiencing the respiratory problems associated with seasonal allergies. For this reason, avoid these common sources of preservatives: farmed shrimp, smoked meats, bologna, dried fruits, and vinegar-containing foods like salad dressing, pickles and relish.
Spinach. This is a highly pesticide-laden food and also high in oxalates, which can contribute to kidney stones. If you’re going to eat spinach, make sure it’s organic and eat it only in moderation – don’t make it your main source of extra vegetables and don’t juice it every day. Be careful, because it’s a goitrogen too.
Kale, broccoli, cabbage and Brussels sprouts. I know, people hail kale as the healthiest of all greens, but in its raw form it contains high amounts of goitrogens, which can impair thyroid function. Same goes for broccoli, cabbage, Brussels sprouts and other cruciferous veggies. You can still eat them, just please cook them first as this removes their goitrogenic tendencies! Don’t slurp down a bunch of kale juice in an effort to protect yourself from allergies because then you could be dealing with the fatigue and brain fog that comes not from anti-allergy medication but from a sluggish thyroid!
A few lifestyle simple changes
A lot of people don’t think of these common sense steps, but they can go a long way toward reducing your exposure to allergens in the first place:
- Take your clothes off before you get in the bedroom, so that any pollens that may have fallen on you while you were outside don’t get into your bedroom, where you spend the most time.
- Keep bedroom windows closed.
- Change sheets and pillowcases often.
- Take a shower before bed, or run a wet brush through your hair before you go to sleep to remove pollen from your hair.
I hope that these strategies will help you have a far better experience of spring this year!
Suzy Cohen, has been a licensed pharmacist for over 30 years and believes the best approach to chronic illness is a combination of natural medicine and conventional. She founded her own dietary supplement company specializing in custom-formulas, some of which have patents. With a special focus on functional medicine, thyroid health and drug nutrient depletion, Suzy is the author of several related books including Thyroid Healthy, Drug Muggers, Diabetes Without Drugs, and a nationally syndicated column.