As 40 million sneezing and wheezing allergy sufferers can attest to, this spring has turned out to be quite possibly the worst pollen season ever. And while hitting the drugstore aisles in pursuit of fast relief may be one method for dealing with the allergy-induced onslaught of congestion, inflammation and watery eyes, a good diet is also a good defense.
“We’re not going to tell people to not take their medication and see their doctor, but there is some evidence that certain ways of eating, like the Mediterranean diet, can be beneficial for allergies,” says Clifford W. Bassett, M.D., medical director of Allergy and Asthma Care of New York. That’s because diets rich in antioxidants and phytonutrients may bolster our immune system and decrease inflammation in the body—all of which can lessen those annoying allergy symptoms.
So grab a grocery cart and make sure your fridge is stocked with these foods. They may just stave off those sniffling, sneezing symptoms.
When it comes to fighting springtime allergies, the Mediterranean diet may be a good bet, according to one study. Published in the journal Thorax, researchers found that children from Crete who consumed a diet full of grapes, oranges, apples and fresh tomatoes—staples on the island—had decreased rates of wheezing and rhinitis. In fact, their diet, consisting mainly of fish, fruits, vegetables and nuts, may explain the relative lack of allergic symptoms in this population, say researchers.
Apples, especially their peels, are rich in quercetin—a flavanoid that has natural antihistamine and anti-inflammatory properties. In a test tube study, researchers found that quercetin prevents immune cells from releasing histamines, chemicals that cause allergic reactions. Therefore, quercetin may help reduce symptoms of allergies, including runny nose, watery eyes, hives and swelling of the face and lips. Other foods containing this allergy-fighting gem include citrus fruits, onions, red wine and dark berries.
Rich in magnesium, bran can act as a bronchodilator and aid in lung function with antihistamine-like effects. “It is thought that perhaps foods rich in magnesium may provide some dietary assistance in asthma, and it has been studied in various emergency departments,” explains Dr. Bassett. That’s worth noting since up to 85 percent of asthma is triggered by springtime allergies, according to Bassett. Soybeans, dark chocolate and cashews are also good sources of magnesium.
Any time you introduce hot, clear liquids into the body, they can help thin nasal passages. This happens mainly through the introduction of steam—the same effect as filling a sink with hot, steamy water and putting a towel over your head to breathe it in. Bonus: Ginger tea and green tea are also anti-inflammatories that can help reduce overall allergy woes.
Fatty fish that contain Omega-3 fatty acids are thought to help improve allergies and asthma symptoms, according to several studies in Europe and as part of a heart-healthy Mediterranean diet, notes Bassett. Omega-3s have anti-inflammatory properties and can help strengthen your immune system. “If your immune system is in its peak mode, spring allergies won’t bother you,” he explains. “But a lower immune system means more response to allergens. There’s a definite connection between the two.”
Bring on the heat! Hot peppers, cajun spices and even horseradish can stimulate the nasal passages to break up and relieve congestion associated with springtime allergies.
Research shows a promising connection between vitamin D and its ability to control asthma and wheezing. “We believe those with low vitamin D levels may correlate somewhat with lower lung function,” says Bassett. Milk is often fortified with vitamin D, but if dairy doesn’t agree with your gut, you can try vitamin D fortified orange juice or fatty fish (such as salmon, tuna or mackerel), which are naturally rich in vitamin D. Or simply soak up a few minutes of sunshine.
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