As winter and spring continue to play tag in the nations capital, it is easy to forget that pollen season is just around the corner. Most of us welcome the return of longer, warmer days and happily watch our perennial plants re-emerge from the ground like long lost friends. For others the first flourish of tree blossoms heralds the onset of a cluster of symptoms, known as seasonal allergic rhinitis, seasonal allergies or more commonly, hay fever.
What is hay fever?
Hay fever could be described as an inappropriate overreaction of the immune system to a stimulus, in this case pollen, and sometimes moulds. The pollen acts as a trigger to stimulate an immune response and this leads to an inflammatory response. The body tries hard to get rid of the trigger by flushing it away and bringing a number of its own chemicals to the site to neutralise the pollen. It is those chemicals, mainly histamine, that are responsible for the familiar signs and symptoms.
If pollen were a harmful irritant, then it would be a brilliant immune system strategy that would serve a person well. However, pollen is not a threat to the human body, so the reaction to pollen is not helpful while instead, hindering wellbeing and quality of life.
According to a report released by Health Canada in February 2018, in the event of increased air temperatures, subsequent increases in allergens in the air could significantly impact the number and severity of allergies. Indeed, the report goes on to say that ragweed season is now one month longer due to warming temperatures and 50% of children now suffer from hay fever. It appears that it is the night temperatures that are failing to drop to previous lows.
Hay fever is part of a triad of allergic conditions, the other two being eczema and asthma and these conditions tend to run in families.
What are the symptoms of hay fever?
It can be a miserable time for sufferers who can develop a variety of signs and symptoms that may include
- runny nose
- itchy eyes, nose or throat
- loss of the sense of smell and taste
- poor sleep quality resulting from nasal congestion and snoring
- daytime sleepiness and fatigue resulting from the immune response itself combined with the lack of sleep, and this can interfere with work or study
There are a number of tree, grass and flower pollens, as well as some moulds that can provoke symptoms. The time of year that particular pollens are released will determine when symptoms begin and end for an individual.
In general, tree pollens are released in spring; grass pollens in summer and flower/weed pollens are released in late summer into fall. The first frost usually ends hay fever season. Ragweed is the most common flower pollen and because the pollens are so small they can be carried on the wind for over 600km, although most are dispersed locally.
Spring March to May Tree pollens – birch, ash pine, maple
Summer May to August Grasses
Fall August to October Flower/weed pollens, especially ragweed
A note on Oral Allergy Syndrome
Some pollens associated with hay fever have a similar structure to proteins found in some foods. When eaten, the food may cause itching of the lips, mouth and throat in hay fever sufferers, especially during the hay fever season and when eaten raw. Cooked foods generally do not usually cause a reaction as the protein loses its structure when heated and is no longer similar to the pollen.
The most common cross-reaction is with birch so if you suffer from spring allergies you may be more susceptible. If you suspect oral allergy syndrome may be affecting you, talk to your health care provider. Canadian Food inspection Agency has a great information page on Oral Allergy Syndrome if you would like to learn more. You do not have to avoid these foods unless you notice that they give you symptoms, as described above. The following foods are commonly associated with the following allergens:
- Birch pollen: apple, almond, carrot, celery, cherry, hazelnut, kiwi, peach, pear, plum
- Grass pollen: celery, melons, oranges, peaches, tomato
- Ragweed pollen: banana, cucumber, melons, sunflower seeds, zucchini
A 2017 study found that some, but not all, probiotics may safely help alleviate symptoms and improve quality of life for hay fever sufferers.
Including foods that encourage and support the proliferation of healthy gut bacteria may be useful. A mix of soluble and insoluble fibres found naturally in vegetables, fruit, whole grains and beans, will encourage the growth of healthy bacteria.
Flavonoids are a group of plant constituents that have been shown to dampen the inflammatory response. Flavonoids are abundant in vegetables and fruit, and some whole grains such as buckwheat.
Quercetin is one of the most abundant flavonoids in food and has been extensively studied in humans. Recent studies appear to conclude that quercetin has anti-inflammatory and anti-allergic properties, partly by reducing the release of histamine. Foods rich in bioflavonoids and especially quercetin, include onions, garlic, white pith of citrus fruits, almonds, apples, berries, grapes and black and oolong tea.
Vitamin C and flavonoids usually coexist in vegetables and fruit. Vitamin C has also been shown to have antihistamine and anti-inflammatory activity. Consuming a variety of colours of vegetables and fruit daily provides both vitamin C and flavonoids. Good sources include peppers, broccoli, cabbage, citrus fruit, guava, papaya, kiwi, and oranges.
The types of fat consumed in the diet can influence inflammatory responses. Some fats, omega-3 and omega-6, are essential to health as we lack the ability to make them in the human body. A few simple ways to change the balance to ensure intake of more anti-inflammatory fats, while minimising more inflammatory ones includes:
- reducing pre-packaged processed foods
- reducing commercially prepared baked goods, cookies, cakes, muffins
- increasing foods rich in omega 3 such as cold water fish such as salmon, mackerel, skipjack or yellowfin tuna, sardines, flaxseed oil, ground flaxseed, hempseed, walnuts, soy beans, omega-3 fortified eggs, DHA fortified soy beverage
- choose extra virgin or virgin olive oil, walnut oil, grapeseed oil, safflower oil, hemp oil and flaxseed oil
- limit saturated fats found in full fat dairy products, red meat, coconut oil
- replace 2-4 meat based dinners with fish or a vegetarian option each week
Vitamin A contributes to the health of the mucous membranes found lining the nose. Beta-carotene is a carotenoid found in some vegetables and fruits that can be converted to vitamin A by the body. Ensuring an adequate intake of beta- carotene by eating a variety of yellow, orange, red and green vegetables and fruit may be helpful. Particularly rich sources include carrots, cantaloupe, squash, broccoli, peas, and spinach.
Vitamin A itself is found in liver, fish, fortified skimmed and semi-skimmed milks, and fortified plant based beverages.
There are a number of herbs that are useful for relief from seasonal allergies. Some herbs are used to modify the allergic response while others are chosen for their anticatarrhal and mucous membrane tonic effects.
Nettle (Urtica dioica) is one of my favourite herbs for hay fever. Other herbs I might include in a prescription include ribwort plantain (Plantago lanceolata), eyebright (Euphrasia officinalis), goldenrod (Solidago virgaurea), chamomile (Matricaria recutita), elderflower (Sambucus nigra), echinacea (Echinacea purpurea/angustifolia rad/fol) or liquorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra). Chamomile belongs to the same family as ragweed, so should be used cautiously in late summer into fall allergies.
Herbalists take many factors into consideration when choosing which plants to use in a herbal formula tailored to the individual. Strategies aimed at prevention and building the immune system are best begun about six weeks before the expected onset of symptoms.
If you would like to discuss which foods and herbs may work best to meet your needs at this time, I would love to work with you. You can either book an appointment online or call 613 233 2040 to book your appointment. To ask a question you can click here. We try to answer all enquiries same day or within 24 hours.
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