Blooming flowers and longer, warmer days are great and all—but the allergy symptoms that often come along with them? Not so much. And while we all know pollen as the culprit behind those springtime sniffles, what we might not realize is that the food we put on our plate plays a role, too.
Food And Seasonal Allergies
Turns out, there are two potential ways in which the food we eat can actually exacerbate allergy symptoms.
The first: a condition called Pollen Food Allergy Syndrome (PFAS), which is caused by cross-reacting allergens found in raw fruits, vegetables, and some tree nuts, explains naturopathic doctor and clinical nutritionist David Friedman, N.D., D.C. “In people with PFAS, the body mistakes a certain protein in specific foods for pollen, which can trigger an immune response and create or escalate spring and fall allergies,” says Friedman.
Luckily, “people affected by PFAS can usually eat the same fruits or vegetables in cooked form because heat distorts the proteins,” he explains.
The second, and more common: histamines found in foods. “Histamines are chemicals produced in our body by immune cells that help mediate inflammatory responses,” explains The Vitamin Shoppe nutritionist Rebekah Blakely, R.D.N. “When a foreign invader, such as pollen, enters the body, histamine is released into the bloodstream to help rid the body of the threat, causing itching, sneezing, runny nose, coughing, and swelling in the process.”
If you’re already struggling with a histamine response, like seasonal allergies, consuming large amounts of histamines in your diet might worsen symptoms, Blakely warns. (Don’t worry, though; they might be tolerated well during other times of the year.)
While most foods contain at least some histamines, some are much higher than others, notes The Vitamin Shoppe nutritionist, Karen Cooney, M.A., C.N., C.H.H.C. Plus, since all foods produce more histamines the longer they sit, even eating leftovers from a few days ago or food that’s been sitting out for hours means taking in more of these compounds.
Foods that make your allergies worse
1. Fermented foods
Fermented foods and beverages, such as kimchi, sauerkraut, and kombucha, have gut-boosting benefits thanks to their ability to help restore good bacteria. However, they are unfortunately high in histamines, points out Blakely. As a result, they may just worsen symptoms during allergy season.
2. Aged cheeses and smoked or processed meats
Spring is the season for picnics in the park accompanied by fun charcuterie boards, but you may want to leave out the aged cheeses and smoked or processed meats. “Similarly to fermented foods, these items are high in histamines and may worsen symptoms for those struggling,” explains Blakely. Instead, she suggests choosing fresh protein sources and cooking them yourself to avoid sneezing galore.
3. Cow’s milk
Milk that’s derived from cows can worsen seasonal allergies because it contains arachidonic acids, which increase the body’s production of chemicals called leukotrienes that impact the bronchial tubes, according to Friedman. The casein protein found in cow’s milk may also contribute to histamine production, he suggests. If allergies are dragging you down in the springtime, consider making the switch (at least temporarily) to almond, cashew, oat, or coconut milk.
It’s no secret that excess sugar intake is linked to myriad health issues, including heart disease, obesity, and diabetes, according to the American Heart Association (AHA). Refined sugar, the kind found in cakes, cookies, and bread, also puts stress on the immune system and raises insulin levels, which causes blood sugar to spike and then plummet, explains Friedman. “The spike in blood sugar that precedes the plummet is stressful to the body and can severely impact your immune systems’ ability to fight off environmental allergens like pollen or dust,” he says.
While it’s always a good move to minimize the sugar in your diet, you might notice that opting for stevia, monk fruit, xylitol, or coconut sugar in any sweets you eat is extra helpful during allergy season.
Foods that can help ease allergies
1. Vitamin C-rich Foods
Foods high in vitamin C, such as citrus fruits, can work wonders to help bolster your immune system and reduce histamine formation, according to The Vitamin Shoppe nutritionist, Brittany Michels, R.D.N. “Low levels of vitamin C may actually impair the immune system and increase both respiratory infection and allergy risk,” she says.
Michels recommends including vitamin C-rich foods (think bell peppers, broccoli, and melon) in your routine throughout the day.
2. Quercetin-rich foods
The plant flavonoid quercetin, which is found in all sorts of foods, including apples, onions, red grapes, cherries, and broccoli, has natural antioxidant and anti-histamine effects, making it potentially useful for those with allergies, explains Blakely. “Onions are one of the highest quercetin-containing foods, so add them to omelets, salads, dressings, sauces, and stir-fries throughout the day,” she suggests. Consider blending cherries into your smoothies, roasting up broccoli for dinner, and snacking on an apple with nut butter to avoid that afternoon slump.
3. Vitamin D-rich foods
Foods high in vitamin D, such as fresh-caught salmon, UV-exposed mushrooms, and freshly cooked eggs can help modulate the body’s immune system response, explains Blakely. Considering vitamin D deficiency affects 40 percent of the U.S. population, Blakely recommends including vitamin D-rich foods every day—though you should still get out in the sun to make your own.
Listen up, skeptics! Honey has actually been shown to help alleviate allergy symptoms, according to research published in the Annals of Saudi Medicine. “Bee pollen may carry immune-supporting benefits,” explains Blakely.
Your ideal move: “Buy local honey because the bees will carry trace amounts of the types of pollen in your environment back to their hives, meaning that some gets into the honey,” she says. She recommends starting with a small amount (around a teaspoon) per day and increasing as needed and tolerated. “Keep in mind, honey is still sugar, so I wouldn’t exceed a couple of tablespoons daily,” she says.
Can’t find local honey? “Bee pollen granules can be taken by the spoonful or added to smoothies, salads, yogurt, or hot cereals,” Blakely suggests.