Preparing for pollen season

It was such lovely weather this weekend – It feels like Spring is nearly here…. With that however comes the start of pollen season, and for the one in five of us that suffers from hayfever this may not be such welcome news. With tree pollen season typically starting from late-March – and weed pollens not clearing the air before the end of September, now is the time to start considering if there are things you could be doing to support your body so that you can enjoy your Summer more.

Approaches to hayfever

The blocked or runny nose, sneezing, watery eyes and general malaise associated with hayfever, a.k.a. allergic rhinitis, is primarily triggered by histamine release from immune cells following the body’s production of IgE antibodies against pollen. Typically treatment includes anti-histamine medications, which block the ability of histamine to bind to its receptors and so interrupting its ability to cause symptoms.

However, if you consider the whole process of immune reactivity from start to finish, there are many additional places that you may be able to intervene – and as a nutritional therapist, I am particularly interested in interventions involving diet, lifestyle and supplements.

Questions I may ponder when working with a client with hayfever include:

  • Could you reduce your exposure to pollen or other allergens?
  • Could you strengthen the barriers between you and the outside world (e.g. nasal membranes), so that the pollen is less able to trigger an immune response?
  • Have you got all the factors in place to help regulate immune function (as ultimately we need these regulatory processes to work well so we don’t react as readily/vigorously to things that are non-threatening)?
  • Is there anything else contributing to your histamine load that could be adding to your symptoms?

Reducing allergen exposure

Generally those with allergies are aware of the importance of reducing exposure. The Met Office publishes pollen count data along with the weather reports so you can arrange your activities, or shut your windows, accordingly. Not hanging washing outdoors whilst your pollen nemesis is abroad, changing your clothes when you come inside, and using an air purifier – in the bedroom at least – can all help to keep your indoor environment a low-pollen place to be. Using a sinus rinse can also help to clear pollen from your nasal passages. I also tend to talk to my clients about dust and mould, as reactivity to other respiratory allergens can mimic hayfever symptoms.

Supporting barrier function

It is helpful to think of our mucous membranes as barriers between us and the outside world – keeping out those things that are not beneficial to us through a combination of factors including barrier cells that are tightly joined together, mucus, secreted antibodies and resident bacteria.

The population of bacteria are particularly important to consider here, as not only do they produce fatty acids which fuel the barrier cells – ensuring better maintenance of that boundary – there is huge amounts of communication between these microbes and the immune system. A healthy balanced microbiome can help to regulate your immune system, so it doesn’t start reacting inappropriately. A microbiome that contains high levels of inflammatory bacteria can ramp up immune responses (and indeed increase the permeability of the barrier).

And though it may seem that it is the nose and eyes that are most involved with hayfever – what is going on in your gut also matters: the immune molecules and the fatty acids produced there can move throughout your body. One positive of this is that we can more readily influence our gut bacteria population through what we eat. Certain prebiotic foods can support Bifidobacteria and Lactobacillus populations, for example – and higher levels of both of these in the large intestine are associated with reduced likelihood of developing allergy symptoms.

The easiest way to support your gut bugs is to gradually increase a wider range of fruit and vegetables to your diet: the more colour, and the more variety, the better. Beans, lentils and wholegrains can be helpful if you can tolerate them – and here I mean actual grains not a processed food with a sticker on saying it’s got wholegrains in it… Inulin rich foods like onions, garlic, asparagus, leeks and Jerusalem artichokes are also great fuel for bacteria. Start slowly if you are not used to prebiotic foods, as they can lead to bloating – and if you are struggling to tolerate them at all, it may be worth getting some more support.

Regulating immune function

The star of the show when it comes to vitamins required to regulate the immune system is vitamin D – and low levels tend to be associated with worse hayfever symptoms. If you haven’t been supplementing vitamin D through the winter (or jetting off to sunnier climes), it would be worth testing your levels to see if you could do with some additional support here – as the quality of light in the UK means we can’t manufacture vitamin D ourselves between about October and April.

BioCare offer testing services through Neovos, along with a phone consultation to assess how much vitamin D would be appropriate for you. If you are on medications or have underlying conditions then consulting with a nutritionist before supplementing would be wise. Note that you can also overdo vitamin D (so never just whack in a high dose supplement without testing).

For some people, adding in plant foods to their diet that are rich in flavonoids which stabilise the histamine-releasing mast cells, so that they become less jumpy can really help. Red apples, red grapes, red onions, capers, watercress and berries are rich in quercetin; radicchio, bell peppers, artichokes, celery and rooibos tea are rich in luteolin; Broccoli, kale, pumpkin, cauliflower and dill are rich in kaempferol. There are loads more – so really the best advice here (again) is to consider how many colourful fruit and veg you are eating – and add more if you can.

Some plants also have natural anti-histamine properties, e.g. sage and garlic. And adding nettle or chamomile tea to your regime may also be supportive here.

Obviously when it comes to adding in foods to your diet, do be mindful if any seem to increase your symptoms, as there can be cross-reactivity between pollens and some plant foods.

Histamine load

Histamine is not just involved in allergy and inflammation – it also acts as a neurotransmitter to support wakefulness and it stimulates stomach acid secretion. Though allergic responses will spike histamine levels, high basal levels of histamine caused by increased production or decreased clearance can also contribute to allergy-type symptoms, like nasal congestion and itching, as well as insomnia and reflux.

Making sure that you are getting enough of the vitamins and minerals required to support histamine breakdown is wise. These nutrients include folate (from leafy greens) and vitamin B12 (mainly from animal products). Gut health comes into play again here, as there is an enzyme called diamine oxidase that sits on the gut wall and breaks down histamine coming in from the diet – any gut inflammation can reduce the ability of DAO to do its job, and foods that are high in histamine such as fermented foods, alcohol, smoked fish and processed meat products could then trigger symptoms.

Drinking enough water is also important as dehydration can stimulate histamine release. Other considerations are managing long-term infections or inflammation (think gum health, for example) and managing stress (which when pollen is high and you’re not sleeping can be easier said that done!).

Getting help

There are so many more factors that could be helpful to address, and if you would like some one-to-one support so you can get ready for pollen season, then email me at gemma@intunenutrition.co.uk or book a discovery call. I offer nutritional therapy appointments from the White House Health and Wellness Centre in Epsom or Brighter Spaces in Guildford well as online via Zoom.

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