Addressing hay fever with functional medicine can make such a difference, and I speak from experience. I used to suffer really badly with hay fever, starting in my early teens. I know the sneezing, the itchy and red eyes, the stuffiness in your nose, the itchy skin rashes, the insane irritability, the tiredness. It’s not called hay-FEVER for no reason. You just feel really ill. And if your symptoms are severe, then life during spring and summer can become really difficult…
And by the way, hay fever is also sometimes called seasonal allergies or allergic rhinitis (when it’s caused by pollen).
What happens with hay fever in the body
With hay fever, your body is overreacting to something within your environment that is actually harmless: pollen. We know that pollen from grasses, flowers and trees are perfectly harmless, but if you are suffering from hay fever then your body is misinterpreting pollen as harmful threats to your health. As such, it triggers an immune response in an attempt to protect you.
It tries to protect your body by making IgE antibodies against the pollen, which then triggers the release of inflammatory chemicals into your blood stream. And you might have heard of one of them: histamine. Histamine then acts on your eyes, nose, throat, airways, or skin, and that’s what causes the typical allergic symptoms.
And since my whole clinic and work are geared towards mental health, you might find it interesting that there’s a link between allergic rhinitis (AR) and depression:
“Evidence suggests that AR often occurs co-morbidly with mood disorders, such as depression, and suicidal behaviors. AR is more prevalent in patients with major depression and those having family history of depressive disorder. In adolescents, a pediatric diagnosis of AR is predictive of an adult diagnosis of major depression or bipolar disorder.” Click here to read the whole article.
But why does the body overreact in the first place?
The big question is of course why the body is overreacting to harmless agents in your environment in the first place. And it’s not entirely and fully clear, but it’s likely a combination of your genetics and your environment.
Often allergies run in the family. Not necessarily the exact same allergy to the same type of pollen or food for example, but rather the tendency for allergies in general.
What’s more, eczema (or dermatitis), hay fever and asthma are often seen together. All these three conditions are typical atopic conditions, referring to this exaggerated IgE immune response I mentioned earlier.
A lot of researchers believe that an exposure to a diverse range of “friendly” bacteria in early life is necessary to train the human immune system to react appropriately to things in our environment, such as pollen and food. I completely agree.
So find out whether you have been breastfed and how long for. Find out whether you were given antibiotic medications in the first few years of your life, or any other drugs for a long time. Ask what your diet was like. Reflect on the physical environments you were in whilst growing up: did you play outdoors in unpolluted areas? Did you live in a very clean (some might say sterile) home with harsh cleaning products? Were there any major stressors in your life in your early childhood?
There are a lot of factors that can influence your microbiome, but the first 3 to 4 years are particularly important as that’s when the microbiome establishes and immune system completes its training.
And believe it or not, but around 70% of your immune system is actually located in the gut! It does make sense when you consider that your gut is the main route of contact with the outer world. Every day you are eating and drinking numerous times and your immune system has to be able to cope with all of the substances that are coming it. Constantly checking for any potential pathogens such as harmful bacteria, viruses or fungi, as well as any toxic substances. So it makes sense that your immune system largely resides in the gut, as it needs to react as soon as there’s a threat to your health.
recommendations for hay fever from a functional medicine perspective
If so much of your immune system resides in the gut, then it makes sense to focus on the health of your gut in order to address hay fever. Improving your digestion, the state of your microbiome and the overall shape of your gut are paramount. Not just for any allergies but all of your health and wellbeing. If you are generally struggling with your digestion or your gut, then I really recommend working with a trained nutritional therapist. I don’t say this to make a profit, but simply because I can’t give you any recommendations without knowing you, your body and how it works.
But fundamentally, when you suffer from hay fever you want to decrease the body’s inflammatory response. And so the focus is very much on calming the body. (This might seem logical to you if you often feel very hot as a result of the hay fever!)
- Remove any foods you know you react to, whether’s that’s a true food allergy or sensitivity. (Again, ideally with a qualified practitioner who can help you to identify those)
- Avoid sugar
- Avoid alcohol and potentially fermented foods too as they are rich in histamine (Google histamine rich foods if you are interested)
- Try to eat an anti-inflammatory diet, such as the Mediterranean style diet. So go for lots of different coloured vegetables, nuts and seeds, oily fish, quality protein and herbs and spices.
- Drink a big glass of water right after you get up, and stay hydrated throughout the day. This is so important for hay fever!
- Try cold showers, or hot-and-cold showers finishing with cold water
- Try supplements such as quercetin, bromelain, nettles, vitamin C. (Again, ideally work with a practitioner but the Natural Dispensary is my favourite place for supplements)
- Reduce your stress and focus on getting enough sleep as stress and lack of sleep can worsen symptoms of hay fever. So here’s another reason to not overlook your self-care and make your wellbeing matter more!
- See whether your GP might run a skin prick test to check which specific pollens you react to.
Once you know, you can then also investigate potential cross reactivities with certain foods. I know for example that eating strawberries triggers hay fever symptoms for me, particularly if I eat too many!
I hope this post has been useful to you. I used to suffer pretty badly from hay fever and now feel that I have it mostly under control without the use of antihistamines that you can cause unwanted side-effects.
Right during spring and summer it’s important to focus on symptom reduction so that your quality of life can improve. But hay fever always tells us that your immune system is overreacting and you are likely feeling this in other ways too. As such, dealing with those underlying drivers is important not just in the warmer months of the year, but in autumn and winter too.
If you are interested to work on this with me, feel free to get in touch here.