Are Food and Seasonal Allergies Related?

This year the onset of seasonal allergies in the Bay Area was earlier than it’s usual time frame of late March to early April. Many of my patients, were caught off-guard and rushed for various combinations of over-the-counter anti-histamines, supplements, homeopathic remedies, nasal sprays in a desperate attempt to seek relief. The common symptoms of seasonal allergies such as headaches, uncontrollable sneezing, post-nasal drip, sore throats, itchy eyes & runny nose, and fatigue are a source of major discomfort for many people and frequently result in low productivity or even time-off from work and school. The rates of occurrence of allergies have been steadily increasing and in the US, nasal allergy symptoms are known to affect about 6.1 million children and 20 million adults.
Have you ever wondered why you experience these symptoms while others such as your colleagues (and maybe even your boss!), friends and family members cruise through spring without so much as a sneeze or sniffle? Why do even the best of medications seems ineffective in some years and force you to find a new source of relief?  What could you do to prevent these symptoms from returning each year, other than taking pills for symptom relief? 

The answers to those questions may be inside you…in your gut.
For me, as a naturopathic doctor, investigating the digestive system is part of treating the whole person. It provides an ‘inside-out’ picture of the system which is the primary source of our sustenance. It holds answers to the underlying cause of multiple health issues including seasonal allergies.

Connection between seasonal allergies and the digestive system
Numerous studies have shown that there is a link between gastrointestinal (GI) inflammation and an allergic response to environmental triggers such as pollen.  Studies have also tried to investigate whether there is a correlation between the intensity of inflammation in the GI tract with hay fever symptoms. In my practice, I am yet to see a case where allergies are not linked to the GI tract.

Treating the underlying GI inflammation results in a corresponding decrease in the severity of allergic symptoms. Based on patient feedback, their need for allergy medication and supplements decreases over time and becomes limited to days with a high pollen count rather than all throughout the change of season. The sustained GI inflammation often causes the person’s immune system to remain in an up-regulated or over-stimulated state. Once this immune activation is addressed, the inflammation decreases and can lead to a higher threshold for allergies to environmental triggers.

To be clear, safe and effective allergy medications such anti-histamines, and supplements such as quercetin, vitamin C, nettle extract,  should definitely be used when needed for an allergy attack and for immediate symptom relief.  However, after years of chronic use, most people report the need to change the type of medication, increase the dose of the medication or change in the combination of allergy shots that they have been receiving, as the previous combination of treatments starts to seem ineffective.  Therefore, when the underlying overactive immune system is addressed, a lower dose of these medications may still be effective, when used on an as-needed basis.

Causes of inflammation in the gut.
The inflammation in the GI tract can stem from one or more of the following, and each factor needs to be addressed in order to lower the inflammation:

  • Food intolerances, sensitivities and allergies
    • These are very common in persons suffering from severe seasonal allergies like hay fever, and should be identified first. There are several tests available to determine the foods that may be burdening your immune system. Blood tests that report both IgE (immediate sensitivity) and IgG (delayed sensitivity) to a range of foods are recommended. Skin-prick tests and oral food-challenge tests can be used additionally to determine a person’s true set of food reactions. As always, correlating blood test values with clinical findings is important and clinical discussion is warranted before eliminating foods. Since elimination diets can be perceived as limiting, a thorough review with patients on what can be eaten is critical in order to ensure a balanced diet and especially, avoid nutrient deficiencies.
  • Dysbiosis
    • An imbalance in the healthy cohort of bacteria that reside in our GI tracts can stimulate inflammatory cytokines, causing the GI Tract to be constantly inflamed. Treating this imbalance with the appropriate change in diet and supplementation with probiotic strains can lower the overall inflammation in the gut. Prevention of dysbiosis is possible if effective measures are taken while undergoing treatment with antibiotics for any infection.
  • Infections
    • Some infections in the gut may not cause overt symptoms such as diarrhea, fever, cramps, heartburn or gas, but can contribute to the imbalance in the microbiome. I often refer to these as ‘latent infections’ that may present themselves when the conditions are right, for example, when the healthy set of bacteria may be lowered in concentration after the course of antibiotics or a stressful event.
  • Unhealthy diet
    • Eliminating allergenic foods is not the only factor involved in creating a healthy diet plan. A diet also needs to be well-balanced for the specific needs of each individual. As you are probably aware, there is much debate in the medical world right now about what constitutes a truly healthy diet. For the purpose of this article, rather than get into a lengthy discussion, it seems appropriate to highlight the common aspects of an unhealthy diet as agreed upon by most doctors. These aspects of an unhealthy diet are listed below:
      • High in processed foods with additives, colors, preservatives, salt, sugar, trans fats
      • Low in fiber, healthy fatty acids, necessary vitamins and minerals
      • Low in fruits and vegetables, that sustain the healthy microbes in the gut
      • High intake of caffeine, alcohol, carbonated beverages
      • Inadequate water intake

On a side-note,  the concept of ‘histamine-intolerance’ is being investigated by researchers. Some people have a genetically reduced ability to break down histamine and may need anti-histamine medication on a regular basis to keep their allergies at bay. More research is needed to support this idea. Also, as already established research indicates, genes are not your destiny. They can be turned on and off with changes in the cellular environment, which in turn can be affected by a myriad of factors, including your microbiome and overall, gut health.

In conclusion, keeping your gut healthy by eliminating common food allergens and attending to other gut health factors, can have a tremendous impact on your tolerance to the seasonal increase in pollen, mold and other environmental triggers. You do not have to suffer from allergies! To take control of your health, initiate the first step and begin the healing your gut inflammation. As your gut/GI inflammation improves,  you may actually become that person who gets through allergy season without a sneeze or a sniffle! 

Blog Source: Core Integrative | Are Food and Seasonal Allergies Related

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