You wake with watery eyes, sniffle your way through the day, and end the night with a nonstop sneezefest before you collapse into bed clinging to a box of tissues: Welcome to allergy season. If you're among the 20 percent of Americans who suffer from spring allergies, the good news is that relief could be as close as your kitchen.
"A number of foods can help ease allergy symptoms without the side effects of drugs," said Beth Reardon, a registered dietitian and director of integrative nutrition at Duke University Integrative Medicine in Durham, North Carolina. Reardon said natural allergy relief is most effective when you make changes to your diet a few weeks before the allergy season even begins. Just a few tweaks can counter the spring pollen invasion.
A number of foods can help ease allergy symptoms without the side effects of drugs.
Beth Reardon, R.D., director of integrative nutrition, Duke University Integrative Medicine
Say Yes to Yogurt
Probiotics, the healthy bacteria in yogurt, have received a lot of buzz for alleviating everything from intestinal woes to colds and flu. And research shows the good bacteria in yogurt could help give spring allergy symptoms the slip too. In fact, this creamy dairy treat may stop your allergy symptoms before they even start.
“Probiotics seem to steer the body’s immune system into a nonallergic mode,” said Dr. Michael Welch, co-director of the Allergy and Asthma Medical Group and Research Center in San Diego and clinical professor at the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine. When University of California researchers fed patients 7 oz. of live-culture yogurt a day, their allergic symptoms declined by 90 percent. Just be sure the container carries the words “live cultures”; they’re the allergy-fighting powerhouses, Welch said.
The probiotic species Lactobacillus appears to be the most effective bacteria for easing the misery of seasonal allergies, according to Reardon. Look for it mentioned on the front of the yogurt container or in the ingredients list on the back.
Spice It Up
Any cook worth her salt knows that spices can jazz up the flavor of food, but spicy dishes may be helpful for allergy sufferers too. The spicier the dish, the more likely it is to thin mucous secretions and clear nasal passages by encouraging the sinuses to run. Try Indian or Thai dishes – they’re loaded with nasal-clearing spices.
Spices also have other allergy-easing properties. “Turmeric, a spice sometimes known as curry powder, is a powerful anti-inflammatory that works as well as some prescription medications but is much safer,” said Reardon, who also recommends ginger for the same effect.
Since allergies are a short-term inflammation of the mucous membranes, the anti-inflammatory action of these spices can help ease your symptoms. Though not technically a spice, butterbur may also be worth a try. Welch said this herb has been shown effective in reducing the severity of seasonal allergy symptoms. A study published in the January 2002 "British Medical Journal" indicated that butterbur was as effective as the popular antihistamine drug cetirizine for treating hay fever -- without the drowsiness sometimes caused by this type of drug.
Another powerful dietary prescription for your seasonal sniffles and sneezes is a dose of fresh fish in your meal plan. The omega-3 fatty acids found in many varieties of seafood are natural anti-inflammatories that can help shrink nasal passages and chase away allergy symptoms, said Reardon, who recommends eating fish two to three times a week.
“Omega-3 fatty acids found in fish contain EPA and DHA, which are building blocks for a series of anti-inflammatory hormones," Reardon said. Cold-water fish, such as salmon, tuna, herring, mackerel and sardines, are the best sources of omega-3s, but they are also found in flaxseeds, flaxseed oil and walnuts. Your body can’t manufacture these essential nutrients, so you must get omega-3s from food or fish oil supplements.
For best effect, prepare fish by baking, steaming or poaching. “Frying could alter the anti-inflammatory properties of omega-3s due to the high heat,” Reardon said. Fish is a better choice than red meat for allergy sufferers because saturated fat found in red meat increases the inflammatory response, according to the Arthritis Foundation.
An Apple a Day
Mom knew what she was doing when she sent you to school with an apple. This crisp red fruit has a wealth of good-for-you ingredients, including a specific one that can help seasonal allergies.
Quercetin, a flavonoid found in apples, helps put the brakes on allergy symptoms by inhibiting the body’s release of allergic compounds called histamines, which contribute to your runny nose and watery eyes. “Flavonoids in many fruits and vegetables have an anti-allergy effect, but quercetin is particularly good at this,” Reardon said. And according to Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, quercetin is thought to have both antihistamine and anti-inflammatory properties, which means it packs a double punch against your allergy distress. But be sure to eat your apple with the peel because most of the quercetin is in the peel. Other sources of quercetin include citrus fruits, onions, parsley, tea and red wine.
The Fluids Prescription
Perhaps the easiest way to wash your allergies away is to simply sip water. Drinking water helps clear the airways by hydrating the mucous membranes.
"When you're dehydrated, the nose produces more mucus," Welch explained. "Staying hydrated has the opposite effect, so you'll feel less plugged up." Warm fluids also help congestion by producing steam. If your nose is stuffed because your allergies are acting up, opt for a bowl of chicken soup, as this dietary decongestant can relieve upper-respiratory ills.
Good News for Dessert Lovers
You now have an excuse to indulge in that pie or pastry calling your name. Baked fruits in pies, tarts and other pastries could actually be beneficial for allergy sufferers. In what's known as oral allergy syndrome, some fresh fruits, including cherries, peaches and plums, can bring on allergic symptoms because they're cousins to plants that produce pollen. However, baking the fruits will eliminate the problem. "The high heat of baking causes the allergic proteins to come apart so they're not seen as allergens by your body," said Dr. Beth Corn, an allergist at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York. And there's an added bonus: The pie crust may help you sleep better. According to a 2007 study in the "American Journal of Clinical Nutrition," consuming carbs within four hours of bedtime will help you fall asleep faster, possibly because they boost levels of two brain chemicals involved in sleep.
It’s best to eat homemade desserts made from scratch. “Frozen and packaged pies and pastries usually have trans fats, which speed up inflammation,” said registered dietitian Beth Reardon. Ditto for boxed cookies and bagged snacks. Steer clear of processed and packaged foods to give your allergies a holiday.