While most of us look forward to the longer, brighter days of summer, this season can spell misery for Britain’s twelve million hay fever sufferers. This year is a particular worry, as pollen counts are predicted to be at an all time high. According to Professor Roy Kennedy of the National Pollen and Aerobiology Research Unit, as a result of a cold spring, the pollen burst will now happen in a condensed burst, producing the highest pollen levels for decades.
Hay fever symptoms, such as a runny nose and red, itchy eyes, are a result of an allergic reaction to pollen causing histamine release. This is why antihistamines are the most common medication for the condition. For those who would like to try a natural approach, dietary changes and nutritional supplements can also alter levels of histamine in the body, helping to reduce symptoms and reduce the need for over the counter drugs.
One example of a natural antihistamine is Vitamin C (1), which has been used both nasally and orally to treat nasal congestion. Studies showing the vitamin’s antihistamine properties have used doses up to 7g daily, although I recommend staying within the safe upper limit by taking up to 1500mg supplemental Vitamin C daily, together with Vitamin C rich foods such as oranges, kiwis, broccoli, tomato juice and peppers.
Bromelain is a protein-digesting enzyme derived from pineapple stem. It has anti-inflammatory benefits and also has mucolytic properties (2), meaning that it helps to thin mucous. Bromelain blocks the action of fibrin and kinins, which cause nasal swelling and irritation.
Another natural agent which has been shown to benefit to hay fever sufferers is quercetin (3-5). Quercetin is a flavonoid naturally present in foods such as onions, apples and kale. It works by reducing the release of histamine from immune system cells known as mast cells.
For hayfever sufferers, it may be particularly beneficial to use both quercetin and bromelain together. I normally prefer to supplement them in a combined formula, together with Vitamin C. Formulas such as Biocare’s Quercetin Plus can be helpful in this regard. As both quercetin and bromelain thin the blood, they not be used by those on anti-coagulants such as warfarin.
The link between food intolerance and hay fever is unproven. As a nutritional therapist I do however sometimes advise clients to avoid the most common dietary irritants, such as dairy, wheat and alcohol for a period, as many people find that their symptoms abate after eliminating these foods. Any food that irritates the digestive tract can result in increased mucous formation. It may also be that food intolerance causes local inflammatory reactions, making the tissues around the eyes and nose more sensitive to pollen.
Other nutritional strategies include boosting your body’s levels of calcium, magnesium, methionine and flavonoids in order to discourage the production of histamine. Foods such as nuts, sunflower seeds, onions, cabbage, blackberries and apples are recommended in this respect. Anti-inflammatory foods such as oily fish, flaxseed oil, milled flaxseed or a regular fish oil supplement, may also be of benefit.
For anyone wanting to avoid troublesome hay fever symptoms, the most important fact to remember is that anti-histamine measures need to be applied regularly and consistently in order to be effective. For this reason, following a well-planned anti-inflammatory diet alongside regular natural anti-histamines such as Vitamin C, quercetin and bromelain may prove the best strategy for beating hay fever naturally.
- Hagel AF (2013) Intravenous infusion of ascorbic acid decreases serum histamine concentrations in patients with allergic and non-allergic diseases. Naunyn Schmiedebergs Arch Pharmacol May 11. [Epub ahead of print]
- Suzuki K, Niho T, Yamada H, et al. Experimental study of the effects of bromelain. Nippon Yakurigaku Zasshi 1983;81:211-216.
- Hirano T et al. (2009). “Preventative effect of a flavonoid, enzymatically modified isoquercitrin on ocular symptoms of Japanese cedar pollinosis”. Allergology international : official journal of the Japanese Society of Allergology 58 (3): 373–82.
- Kawai M et al. (2009). “Effect of enzymatically modified isoquercitrin, a flavonoid, on symptoms of Japanese cedar pollinosis: a randomized double-blind placebo-controlled trial”. International archives of allergy and immunology 149 (4): 359–68.
- Mainardi, T et al (2009). “Complementary and alternative medicine: herbs, phytochemicals and vitamins and their immunologic effects”. The Journal of allergy and clinical immunology 123 (2): 283–94