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Condition - Seasonal allergies - a positive strategy

By Alison Belcourt BA (Hons) Dip ION MBANT NTCC Nutritional Therapist

For most people, the first signs of spring and summer bring hope, joy and happiness that the cold winter days are over and that spring is on its way. For others, it is an early warning that the hay fever season is about to begin and, with it, the constant misery of sore eyes, blocked nose, itching and sneezing.

Hay fever, or seasonal allergic rhinitis, is an acute, allergy-related condition that is estimated to affect one in four of the adult population. It involves immune activity producing inflammation of the mucosa of the nasal passages, throat and the eye membrane (conjunctiva), due to inhaled allergens released from local trees, grasses and flowers.

These airborne particles enter the body, passing into the blood stream through the lining tissues of the nose, throat, lungs and gut. The immune system, perceiving these particles as foreign, produces IgE antibodies which are primed to remember these foreign particles in the future. They attach to larger mast cells that contain histamine. When the same particles enter the body a second time, these primed IgE-attached mast cells release histamine, which acts like a fire alarm at the local fire station, sending signals to up-regulate the immune response, in order to eliminate these foreign invaders. The symptoms experienced are due to this over-stimulated immune activity. Many people resort to anti-histamine medicines in an attempt to control symptoms but these can leave you feeling dry, drained and drowsy. Luckily, there are more natural ways that you can help maintain immune balance.

The first is simple; keep hydrated by drinking plenty of water. Histamine is used in the body as a water regulator. If the body is dehydrated, more histamine will be produced, naturally, to serve this role. There are foods that naturally contain high amounts of histamine. These include shellfish, matured cheeses, red wine, spinach, strawberries and chocolate which, if eaten in large amounts, may add to, or aggravate, the condition. Preservatives and food colourants may cause the release of histamine so eating a more natural diet, full of fresh fruits and vegetables, is also important.

Some foods contain natural compounds, which appear to stabilise the hyperactivity of mast cells. Quercetin, found in onions, garlic, leeks, spring onions and green tea is one and sulphur, found in onions, leeks, garlic and eggs is another. People with low levels of vitamin C appear to produce higher levels of histamine. Nut and seed oils, olive oil, fish oils, red, blue and purple fruits, bromelain (found in pineapple), cayenne, ginger and turmeric have natural anti-inflammatory properties, which may reduce or tone down the activity of the inflammatory response. Dairy foods are generally more pro-inflammatory and may result in a higher level of mucous production so are best avoided.

Research indicates that seasonal allergy is more common in people with a family history of allergies or a personal history of eczema and asthma. Others appear to suffer from food allergy or intolerance of some kind. This could be related to undigested food particles slipping through gaps in the intestinal wall, the so-called ‘leaky gut’, which should not happen if the digestive tract is strong and healthy. These undigested food particles can up-regulate the immune response, stimulating other IgE mast cells’ activity.

The role played by the beneficial microflora living in the mucosal lining of the digestive tract in reducing food intolerance is well known, as is their ability to prime, but also balance, the activity of the immune system. The digestive tract is one of the main gateways whereby pathogens can enter the body. The immune system produces secretory IgA to help protect the mucosal lining and it is here that beneficial bacteria live. These good bacteria also ferment fibre, providing short chain fatty acids that support the integrity of the gut wall. A healthy gut wall lowers the potential of an immune reaction to food. Glutamine also supports this process.

Your immune system contains a sub-set of white blood cells, called dendritic cells, that are placed at specific points within the immune-producing mucosal layers in the body. These cells, if activated, are potent stimulators of immune cells called T cells. T cells either up-regulate the immune system or calm it down.

The presence of the good gut bacteria appear to stimulate the production of more regulatory or calming immune cells in the system. So, although the particles that cause hay fever are airborne, the existence of these regulatory T cells in the digestive system may reduce the overall activity of the immune response to these airborne particles. Daily probiotics will help replenish and maintain the good bacteria in the digestive tract which, in turn, help to maintain a strong immune system.

Folklore suggests that a daily teaspoon of locally-produced, unpasturised honey, five to six weeks before the hay fever season starts, may help to de-sensitise the reaction to the local pollen. This has not been proven but may be worth trying out, together with these other natural strategies, to reduce the misery which hay fever brings. 

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