Ahhh, Springtime. Sunshine, birds chirping, green grass growing, flowers and trees in bloom-sounds wonderful! But for many people-about 50% of americans to be exact-springtime also means the dreaded ALLERGIES! Runny nose, congestion, itchy eyes, chronic cough-not fun! The number of children and adults suffering from seasonal, environmental and food allergies seems to increase each year. SOMETHING needs to be triggering this. And there must be SOMETHING that we can do right? RIGHT!
Because it’s springtime and nature will be in full bloom soon, we’ll focus mainly on seasonal allergies. So what are allergies and what is going on in the body to cause all the unpleasant symptoms? Basically, allergies are our bodies response to a perceived threat. This can result in something as minor as a runny nose or as major as anaphylaxis. In response to this perceived threat coming in contact with our mucous membranes (think eyes, nose, throat, chest), our immune system starts to activate and release certain chemicals, including histamine, a pro-inflammatory chemical, to try and get rid of this agent that the body doesn’t like. Some inflammation to fight off infections and protect the body is good, but not when it leads to anaphylaxis or trouble breathing! This immune process is all well and good when there is actually something to be threatened by- but pollen? grass? ragweed?-hardly a major threat to the body.
So why the major reaction to such minor things? Well, a weakened immune system is to blame! If our immune system, which is our bodies major defense mechanism against threats, is weakened, it does not take much to set it off and mount an attack against just about anything! So what is leading to this weakened immune system? Many things can, but the major players are nutrition and gut health.
Lets talk nutrition first. Many people have heard that increasing vitamin C intake when you are sick can help boost your immune system-and it can! Many vitamins and minerals can boost the immune system, decrease histamine and inflammation, and keep the bodies defense mechanism working optimally.
For example, studies have shown that vitamin D deficiency ( a major problem here in the North)has lead to increased IgE (an antibody that is elevated in people with allergies and asthma) levels in children and adolescents. Vitamin C and bioflavinoids (the color pigment found in foods- think eating a rainbow of color each day!) boost the immune systems function and keeps it working optimally while decreasing histamine levels. Vitamin B5 is an anti-stress vitamin, and when the body is stressed, the immune system can go haywire! Last, Omega 3 fatty acids, found primarily in seafood, flax and avocados, is anti-inflammatory and can reduce the inflammation that occurs when the immune system is not functioning properly.
In terms of gut health, certain foods, including gluten and dairy, can increase mucous production ( a nasty symptom of allergies) and too much sugar can decrease white blood cells (immune cells) leading to a weakened immune system.
So what can we do to boost the immune system and decrease seasonal allergy symptoms?
Medications such as anti-histamines and steroid nasal sprays will relieve symptoms and are often the only thing prescribed or discussed when it comes to allergies. Either that or avoid the allergens all together-which means for most, staying indoors! No one wants that in the springtime! So while anti-histamines certainly help with symptoms and should be used if necessary, they do not treat the primary cause of the allergies to begin with.
So, think nutrition! It really is as simple as eating a whole foods diet. Try and eat a variety of fruits and vegetables per day and aim to get one food from each color of the rainbow daily, which will give you the bioflavinoids and vitamins you need for optimal immune health. Decrease gluten and dairy in the diet, which are pro-inflammatory foods and decrease sugar intake, which weakens the immune system.
Making sure you get adequate vitamin D ( think sun! or a supplement), vitamin C, B vitamins, omega 3s and bioflavinoids in your diet can keep your immune system in check and prevent allergies from occurring in the first place!