Sneezes, watery eyes, itching, hives. If these symptoms sound familiar, you might be one of the 24 million Americans suffering from allergy season every year.
Americans spend over $3 billion annually treating and managing seasonal allergies with interventions like allergy treatments, prescriptions, and over-the-counter medications. If you’ve tried all of the “typical” treatments but are still looking for more, functional medicine offers additional, evidence-based, natural ways to provide seasonal allergy relief, from acupuncture to diet to herbs.
If you’ve tried pills, shots, medications, and more but still need help, this article is a high-yield guide through the natural, complementary, and alternative methods to not only managing seasonal allergies but guide on preparing your body to handle and ward off the allergens as you are exposed.
Common Seasonal Allergy Triggers
During different times of the year, different pollens and mold are present in the air we breathe. When we’re allergic to these pollens, we can get symptoms that are characteristic of seasonal allergies (reviewed below).
But what exactly are pollens and molds? And which ones might you be reacting to?
Pollens are small particles that are produced by plants. They typically look like tiny yellow dots, and you can sometimes see them floating in the wind or deposited as fine dust on a car windshield or outside surface.
Pollen allows plants to reproduce and spread their genetic material. Once released, they can be inhaled and irritate sinuses, leading to allergic symptoms like itchy eyes, runny nose, and more.
Pollens are generally produced during times of the year when the temperature is warm enough for plants to grow. In most of the United States, trees usually begin pollinating (spreading their pollen) in the spring. During the summer, grasses are the predominant pollinators. In later summer and fall, plants like ragweed release their pollen. If you are allergic to one of these pollens, chances are a particular season is more intense for you than the others.
Much of this seasonal pattern of pollen spread is determined by temperature and rainfall. If it’s a very cold spring, plants may pollinate later in the year than usual - once temperatures warm up. After a rainy season, many plants grow quickly and bloom all at once, making allergies worse than expected. Additionally, periods of heavy rain can lead to the growth of mold, which can also trigger allergy symptoms.
As you can see, a lot goes into seasonal pollen patterns, but generally, they can be grouped into the following predictable patterns.
Common Triggers for Seasonal Allergies Throughout the Year
Unlike pollen, molds are not produced by plants. Molds are fungal growths that spread via spore form and grow in damp, moist conditions. They are present in the environment mainly in fall and winter when wet leaves cover the ground and after heavy rains. They can exist in home environments that contain excess moisture. If you’re allergic to mold, then winter and damp conditions may flare your symptoms of seasonal allergies, which we’ll discuss in more detail below.
Seasonal Allergy Signs & Symptoms
Seasonal allergies typically affect the ears, eyes, nose, throat, skin, and respiratory system. Rarely, they can also affect other body systems, like the cardiovascular and gastrointestinal systems. Common signs of seasonal allergies include
- Nasal congestion
- Runny nose
- Post nasal drip and sore throat
- Itchy eyes
- Watery eyes
- Red, puffy eyes
- Skin rashes
Some people experience pollen allergies when they ingest pollen particles from foods. The symptoms of pollen-food allergy syndrome usually occur within 5-10 minutes of eating raw fruit or nuts and include:
- Tingling around lips
- Burning around the mouth
- Difficulty breathing
- Oral blisters
- Swelling of the lips, tongue, or throat
One root cause of allergy symptoms is histamine - a vasoactive neurotransmitter released by mast cells in response to an allergen. Histamine can cause the production of excess mucus and itchiness that we so commonly associate with an allergic presentation. Thankfully, there are several natural ways to reduce histamine and stabilize mast cells to reduce allergy symptoms long-term.
Root Causes That Can Make Your Seasonal Allergies Worse
There’s an analogy in functional medicine: Your body has a histamine “bucket” – a limited capacity to handle histamine. When the “bucket’s” capacity is exceeded, symptoms spill over in the form of allergy symptoms like the ones above. In reality, the “bucket” is the liver and the body’s detoxification pathways (known as emunctories). Symptoms begin to occur when we have more histamine than we can break down and excrete at one time.
The key to managing histamine symptoms is to “empty the bucket.” This can be done in several ways.
- First, don’t add more histamine than necessary. Slow the flow of histamine-producing substances into the body via food allergens, inhaled allergen exposure, and direct contact with allergens.
- Second, we can speed the rate at which the body can drain the “bucket” by ensuring the liver and emunctories have what they need to perform things like biochemical detoxification (primarily vitamins, minerals, and amino acids).
The root cause of histamine-related symptoms is generally things that either add to the histamine bucket or slow the rate at which it drains. These include:
- Undiagnosed food allergens will keep IgE and histamine levels chronically elevated.
- Exposure to dust, mold, pollen, and other allergens in a home without proper air filtration.
- Nutrient deficiencies including B vitamin deficiencies, vitamin C insufficiency, insufficient protein intake, and more.
- Genetic SNPs, including those in DAO, HMNT, and MTHFR, may play a role in the rate at which your body breaks down histamine.
- Dysbiosis affects histamine tolerance.
Functional Medicine Labs to Test for Root Cause of Allergies
If you’re unsure what pollens or molds you may be reacting to; there are two main ways to test for these allergies.
One method involves a provocation test, where a small amount of the allergen is placed under your skin, and an allergist will measure the reaction. The pros of this test are that you can see instantly if you react to something without waiting until it’s in the air or if you are exposed naturally to measure your reaction. The downside is that it can only be done in-office, often takes hours, and can be uncomfortable. An additional pro of this type of testing is that it can inform allergy desensitization treatment, which is usually done by an allergist.
Another method of testing for allergies involves a blood draw for total IgE. This screening test shows if you have elevated levels of the immunoglobulin responsible for producing seasonal allergy symptoms. The pros of this test are that it can check for many allergies quickly, can be ordered by most clinicians without needing an allergist referral, and can be performed at most standard labs. The cons of this test are that it cannot pick up an allergen you are not currently exposed to. If you have this test performed in the winter, for example, it may show that you are not reacting to grass because grasses are not in season.
Doctors typically run whole blood histamine or tryptase to test for high histamine levels.
As mentioned above, the liver plays a pivotal role in degrading histamine. To assess liver function, a physician will often order a comprehensive metabolic panel that includes liver enzymes.
To screen for root-cause contributors to high histamine, a doctor may test your
- Gut microbiome to rule out dysbiosis, SIBO, or other gut disorders
- Food allergies and food sensitivities
- Screen for mold exposure
- Screen for genetic SNPs that could be affecting histamine levels
- Screen for nutrient deficiencies with tests like
- Methylmalonic acid (MMA), which screens for B12 deficiency
- Homocysteine, which screens for folate deficiencies or metabolism issues
- Vitamin D regulates mast cell sensitivity and the production of histamine
7 Proven Ways to Get Seasonal Allergy Relief
1: Lifestyle: Don’t Fill the Histamine Bucket: Reduce Allergens in the Home
Limiting environmental allergens is an excellent first step toward preventing allergy symptoms. This approach is known as allergy hygiene. It includes filtering the air to trap pollen, dust, and dander before they reach your sinuses - preventing allergens from entering the home in the first place - as well as a few other tips for reducing reactions.
To filter the air in your home and office, use a HEPA (high-efficiency particulate air) filter. You can purchase two types: one for your central air unit and a standalone in-room filter. I recommend that my clients keep a room filter in the rooms they spend the most time in (offices and bedrooms).
To reduce the number of pollens in your home, it’s recommended that you keep your windows closed and remove shoes and outerwear (which can carry pollens and molds) upon entering the house. If you’re a fresh air lover, don’t fear! You can still go outside or pick one room in the home to air out and shut off the central air vents.
To reduce allergens you’re exposed to at night, shower before bed, change bed sheets frequently, and wash bed sheets and pillowcases in hot (not warm or cool) water to kill dust mites when you do laundry.
2. Reduce Exposure to Allergens in the Outdoors
To reduce exposure to pollens when outdoors:
- Wear a mask when doing lawn chores like lawn mowing.
- When possible, try to do outdoor activities in the evening, when it’s not windy, and even while it’s raining to reduce exposure to pollen.
- Use a pollen count checker like pollen.com to check pollen counts in your area before planning outdoor activities.
- When you return from outdoor activity, shower and change your clothes to remove pollen from your hair and skin.
3. Reduce Allergens and Histamine in the Diet
In my clinical practice, I find that identifying true food allergies, removing them from the diet, and then working hard to establish sound foundations of health (sleep, hydration, nutrient status, movement, gut health optimization) is enough to resolve most people’s symptoms without the need for additional dietary restrictions.
Avoiding histamine through the diet is also very important. Common histamine triggers include alcohol and fermented foods. Limiting the diet beyond these two items can put you at risk for nutrient deficiencies, so please work with a functional medicine nutrition specialist to design the right plan for you.
4. Take Herbs & Supplements
Evidence suggests that certain supplements can reduce allergy symptoms, including
If you find that histamine reactions occur after eating high histamine foods. A DAO supplement can be beneficial to help increase deficient levels in patients.
Certain nutrients, including copper, vitamin B6, and vitamin C, may also help to support histamine degradation and DAO production.
Butterbur or Petasites hybridus is an herb that has been well-studied for improving allergy symptoms and migraines. It can be safe and effective when used in a form that has the pyrrolizidine alkaloids removed.
NAC or n-acetyl-cysteine can thin mucus and help relieve symptoms of nasal and pulmonary congestion. It is also an antioxidant associated with improved outcomes in pulmonary disorders and infections. NAC is the acetylated form of the amino acid cysteine and is the precursor to glutathione, one of the body’s major antioxidants. It has few reported side effects except mild gastrointestinal distress in large doses and is generally considered safe. Food sources of cysteine include typical sources of amino acids and poultry like beef and eggs.
Quercetin is a mast-cell stabilizer and can decrease the release of histamine, interleukins, prostaglandins, tryptase, and more from mast cells in response to an allergen. Put simply, they calm down the body’s response to allergens and thereby reduce symptoms. Quercetin is a flavonoid found in plant foods like broccoli, onion, fruits, and tea.
Stinging nettles, Urtica Dioica, is a plant that can improve symptoms of allergic rhinitis. Standard preparations are made to remove the stingers from the plant leaves so they can be used medicinally.
Spirulina is a form of blue-green algae that is high in vitamins and minerals and can be ingested as a supplement. Studies show that spirulina can reduce symptoms of allergic rhinitis / seasonal allergies, including nasal discharge, congestion, sneezing, and itching.
TCM Herbal Blends
Traditional Chinese Medicine herbal blends have also been studied to reduce the severity of allergic rhinitis. It’s best to work with a Licensed Acupuncturist to get a personalized formula based on your specific symptoms.
*You should work with your provider to determine which herbal and nutritional supplements may be effective for managing your seasonal allergies.
5. Focus on Gut Health and Nutrition
Optimizing the Microbiome Can Improve Immune Function
Having a healthy gut microbiome includes having an abundance of probiotics or “good bacteria.” There is strong evidence that probiotics can reduce seasonal allergy symptoms through their ability to regulate several immune system mediators, including interleukins and cytokines.
Dietary fiber is very important in the diet as it feeds beneficial bacteria in the gut and contributes to a healthier gut microbiome. Dietary fiber also reduces the instance of allergic reactions by a variety of mechanisms, including the regulation of mast cells/histamine release, as well as a regulation of T-cell function. Top sources of dietary fiber per serving include things like lentils, beans, prunes, figs, berries, seeds, broccoli, cauliflower, nuts, and potatoes.
Reduce Inflammatory Fats
Overconsumption of inflammatory fats is linked with an increased risk of allergic symptoms. This may be because linoleic acid converts easily to prostaglandin 2 (PGE2), which in turn upregulates the synthesis of immunoglobulin E - the driver of allergic reactions. Another possible connection is when patients tend to eat a higher fat diet, they also commonly reduce carbohydrates, reducing fiber consumption.
To put this research to use in your own life, chat with your nutrition or functional medicine professional about designing a food as a medicine plan that includes an appropriate amount of anti-inflammatory fats like omega 3’s.
6. Use Water: Get Steamy and Clear Your Nasal Passages
The Allergy Shower
Something as simple as a hot shower can help relieve the nasal congestion often associated with allergies by thinning mucus. But there are other ways to amp up the superpower of a shower to give you even more benefits.
First, you can add herbs like eucalyptus to showers to add a natural and potent antimicrobial and mucolytic (mucus thinning) effect to the steam from your shower. Place some dried eucalyptus in a bunch above the head of your shower, or leave some essential oils of eucalyptus or oregano, thyme or mint in a bowl at the back of your shower and let the hot water hit them to create scent-filled steam. Make sure to only use a drop or two of essential oils during each shower, as they are powerful!
Nasal Lavage for Seasonal Allergies
Using a neti pot to perform nasal lavage can also help to reduce the amount of pollen in your nasal passages and therefore reduce symptoms. Use a neti pot before bed or when returning inside from an outdoor activity to get the best benefit. Always use distilled water that has been sanitized when using a neti pot, never water from the tap, to avoid introducing contaminants to the nasal passages. The FDA has compiled a safe resource for nasal irrigation techniques.
Acupuncture can be used to reduce allergy symptoms successfully. In one study of over 400 people, acupuncture treatment helped reduce the number of days they had to use antihistamines to manage allergy symptoms by half.
Another study suggested that acupuncture can help reduce nasal congestion symptoms even in those already taking allergy medication.
If you feel like you’ve tried everything to reduce seasonal allergy symptoms, don’t give up! There are a number of natural methods that are proven to provide seasonal allergy relief safely and effectively. From acupuncture to supplements and lifestyle changes to the foods you eat - the options for managing allergies outside the allergy office are endless. We hope this article gives you hope and a great starting place.
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