How To Support Your Immune System During Allergy Season

allergies May 13, 2023
By Patrick Zitt




April showers bring May…..ALLERGIES!?!?

Allergy season is a challenging time for more than 25% of adults in the US. The constant onslaught of sneezing, itchy eyes, runny nose, headache, and congestion can make daily life a struggle. Between late winter and early summer, with a peak in the spring, your immune system is working hard to fight off allergens such as pollen, dust, and mold spores, which can trigger allergic reactions.

The immune system is the body's natural defense system, and it plays a crucial role in protecting us against infections, diseases, and allergens. However, it can become overwhelmed and thus weakened during allergy season, making us more susceptible to illness and other health issues.

Therefore, it's important to take steps to support and protect your immune system during allergy season. Let’s explore some practical tips and strategies to help you better manage your allergies so you can enjoy the season to its fullest.


What Are Allergies?

Allergies are a common condition where the immune system reacts abnormally to a harmless substance. There are several types of allergies, including:

  • Environmental allergies: This includes seasonal allergies, also called hay fever or allergic rhinitis, which occurs when certain plants release pollen into the air. This is the type of allergy we will be focused on in this article. Environmental allergies also include dust (mites), mold, and pet dander.
  • Food allergies: These occur when the immune system reacts to certain foods. Most commonly nuts, eggs, dairy, wheat, or soy. A person may produce IgG antibodies in response to a food which often results in delayed and typically mild symptoms, usually known as a “food sensitivity”. If the body produces IgE antibodies in response to a food, the result is often a quick onset of more serious symptoms, often referred to as a “true allergy”.
  • Skin allergies: These occur when the skin comes into contact with an allergen, such as poison ivy, latex, or nickel. This usually manifests in the form of a rash, itching, burning, redness, hives, bumps, or swelling.
  • Drug allergies: Occurs when the immune system reacts to certain medications, such as antibiotics or pain relievers. This is not to be confused with a drug’s side effects or adverse reactions that do not involve an immune response.
  • Insect allergies: This is a response of the immune system to the sting or bite of an insect. In addition to a swollen and painful sting site, the immune response can range from symptoms that mimic the common cold to anaphylaxis.

Understanding your allergy symptoms is essential to managing your allergies effectively. Common allergy symptoms include:

  • Sneezing
  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Itchy or watery eyes
  • Scratchy or sore throat
  • Coughing
  • Irritated ears or ear infections
  • Brain fog
  • Wheezing or difficulty breathing
  • Skin rash or hives
  • Eczema
  • Swelling of the face, lips, or tongue
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Headache or sinus pressure

Symptoms can range from mild to severe, and in some cases, allergies can cause a life-threatening reaction called anaphylaxis. It's important to seek medical attention immediately if you experience symptoms of anaphylaxis, including difficulty breathing, swelling of the face or throat, and a rapid heartbeat.


The Role Your Diet Plays

By now you may have heard that 70-80% of the immune system is located in the digestive and gastrointestinal tracts (henceforth known as “the gut”). The gut is home to trillions of microorganisms, including bacteria, viruses, and fungi (the microbiota), and it plays a crucial role in the immune system in several ways:

  • Barrier function: The gut lining serves as a barrier between the body and the external environment, preventing harmful pathogens and toxins from entering the bloodstream. The gut microbiota helps to maintain the integrity of the gut barrier by producing mucus and other protective substances.
  • Immune regulation: The gut microbiota communicates with the immune system to help regulate immune function. The microbiome stimulates the production of immune cells and antibodies and helps to prevent the immune system from overreacting to harmless substances.
  • Inflammation: The gut microbiota helps to regulate inflammation in the body. An imbalance of gut bacteria, known as dysbiosis, can lead to chronic inflammation, which can weaken the immune system and increase the risk of infections and other diseases.
  • Nutrient absorption: The gut microbiota plays a key role in the absorption and metabolism of nutrients, including vitamins and minerals that are essential for immune function.


When supporting the immune system through diet, consider these key strategies:

Feed your gut microbiota – the bacteria, viruses, and fungi that live in your gut are hungry bugs! They require a wide variety of fiber in abundance and are especially fond of fermented foods.

  • Aim for at least 5 servings of vegetables each day.
  • To encourage a diverse microbiota, try to consume up to 30 different types of produce each week (It is easier than it seems. Fruit, herbs, and aromatics count!)
  • Incorporate fermented foods such as kefir, sauerkraut, some varieties of pickles, yogurt, kombucha, or raw apple cider vinegar whenever possible.

Focus on nutrient rich foods – Certain foods contain compounds known to improve allergy sumptoms such as bromelain, curcumin, and quercetin. Vitamin A, C, and E are especially important to the maintenance and balance of the immune system. Stock your fridge with:

  • Citrus fruits
  • Orange produce (carrots, sweet potatoes, squash, apricots)
  • Leafy greens
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Bell peppers
  • Pineapple
  • Turmeric
  • Red onions
  • Broccoli
  • Blueberries
  • Tomatoes

Avoid ragweed cousins – If you have a ragweed allergy, the following foods may trigger an allergic response and should be avoided:

  • Melons
  • Bananas
  • Cucumbers
  • Sunflower seeds
  • Echinacea
  • Chamomile

Avoid foods you are sensitive to – some foods may worsen allergy symptoms by triggering an allergic reaction or causing inflammation. Common food sensitivity triggers include:

  • Eggs
  • Dairy
  • Gluten
  • Gluten free grains
  • Soy
  • Corn
  • Legumes
  • Nuts
  • Food colorings or preservatives

Food sensitivities can be hard to pin down, as the symptoms usually occur one to three days after the consumption of the trigger food. Be on the lookout for any of these symptoms:

  • Bloating or gas
  • GI distress
  • Headaches
  • Brain fog
  • Joint pain
  • Congestion
  • Exhaustion or malaise
  • Eczema, rashes, or itchy skin

If you suspect a food intolerance, begin keeping a food journal. Write down all the foods you eat in addition to how your body is feeling. After a few weeks, you may be able to see a pattern emerge. If you would prefer a food sensitivity test, ask your functional medicine practitioner to recommend a reliable test.


Exercise, Sleep, and Stress, Oh My!

By now I believe we can all agree that exercise, sleep, and stress have an influence on just about every aspect of health, including your experience of seasonal and environmental allergies! How you ask?

Exercise: Regular exercise helps to reduce inflammation in the body and increase circulation, which can help to reduce allergy symptoms. It has been shown to boost the production of antibodies, which are essential for fighting off allergens.

  • Aim for a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate exercise each week (that’s just a 22-minute brisk walk each day). However, be mindful of exercising outdoors during peak allergy season, as exposure to allergens can worsen allergy symptoms.

Sleep: Sleep deprivation weakens the immune system, making us more susceptible to infections and allergens. It also causes the body to release more histamines, the chemicals responsible for symptoms such as itchy eyes and runny nose. Additionally, lack of sleep can worsen allergy symptoms by causing fatigue, irritability, and congestion.

  • You need a minimum of 7 hours of sleep every night, though most would benefit from 8 hours when possible.

Stress: As with sleep deprivation, chronic stress can weaken the immune system and worsen allergy symptoms by causing inflammation and increasing histamine production.

  • Manage the stress response through relaxation techniques such as meditation, yoga, time in nature, or engaging in enjoyable activities.


Supplements Can Help Too

There are several types of supplements that may influence your experience of seasonal allergies, including:

  • Stinging Nettle: a natural histamine that is reported to work as well or better than over the counter anti histamines. It can be taken on an as needed basis for short term relief. Look for “freeze dried stinging nettle”.
  • Quercetin: a flavonoid with anti-inflammatory properties that may reduce allergy symptoms by stabilizing mast cells and reducing the release of histamine. This is commonly used as a long term preventive measure.
  • Vitamin C: an antioxidant that can help to reduce inflammation and support the immune system by reducing histamine levels.
  • Probiotics: beneficial bacteria that can help to support the immune system and reduce inflammation – see the above section on diet for all the awesome reasons why.
  • Butterbur: Butterbur is an herb that has been shown to reduce allergy symptoms. Some claim it works as well as Zyrtec! Make sure to only purchase butterbur that does not contain pyrrolizidine alkaloids (PA free) which can be detrimental to your health.
  • Curcumin: Naturally occurring in turmeric, curcumin is an antioxidant and anti-inflammatory that is particularly effective for the relief of sneezing and nasal congestion.

It is important to note that supplements have a profound effect on our systems – that is why they are so effective. That is also why they must be taken with care, preferably under the guidance of your functional medicine practitioner.  

Some supplements may be inappropriate under certain conditions (such as high/low blood pressure or pregnancy) or may interact with certain medications.

The recommended dosages for supplements may vary depending on the specific supplement and individual needs. It's important to consult with your functional medicine provider for personalized recommendations.


Set Your Environment Up For Success

With seasonal allergies, your immune system is already on overdrive. Help it out by reducing the antigens in your environment:

Dust and vacuum regularly: Dust and vacuum your home regularly to remove allergens such as dust mites, pet dander, and pollen. Use a vacuum with a HEPA filter to trap allergens and prevent them from circulating back into the air.

Take off your shoes: Keep allergens from being tracked throughout your home by taking your shoes off right when entering.

Wash bedding and curtains: Wash your bedding and curtains in hot water to remove allergens. Use hypoallergenic bedding and dust mite covers.

Use an air purifier: An air purifier can help to filter out allergens from the air, reducing your exposure to them. Make sure to choose an air purifier with a HEPA filter for the best results.

Keep you’re A/C clean: Change return air filters at least every 3 months, but more often if needed. Consider having your air ducts professionally cleaned every several years.

Close your windows: While I recommend opening your windows often during most times of the year, keep your windows closed during peak allergy season to prevent pollen and other allergens from entering your home.

Avoid fragrances: Items like scented candles, air fresheners, and perfumes can aggravate allergies.


If you are still struggling with seasonal allergy symptoms, please feel free to reach out to me so we can discuss other options or potential underlying causes.


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