Seasonal allergies, also known as hay fever or more scientifically allergic rhinitis, affects 10-30% of the population worldwide, from small children to the elderly. Symptoms are often cold-like and include: sneezing, congestion, runny nose, itchy/watery eyes and some of us also suffer from headaches.
This article is about the mechanisms and science—in reference to histamines, mast cells and inflammation—behind the hay fever symptoms. It is an important topic to discuss as:
“Take away the cause, and the effect ceases.” Miguel de Cervantes
When we don’t know the cause of something, we are only masking the symptoms. To find the cure we need to better understand the underlying cause in order to stop its effect. When it comes to seasonal allergies, the major consensus that pollen is the main cause. However, more and more studies show that pollen is not the factor! Pollen is harmless, it is the body’s response to this allergen that we need to heal.
Disclaimer — This article along with all others posted on our blog and/or social media are for information only. We strongly advise you to discuss any diet changes with/without natural remedies with a qualified professional prior to implementation.
Dupi’s personal journey towards hay fever relief
I am a seasonal allergy suffer; you can learn more about my journey at The No-Diet Book. During my search for a seasonal allergy / hay fever cure, I have tried most over the counter and prescribed medications from anti-histamines to steroid nasal sprays. I visited a number of specialists and contemplated everything from immunity shots to sinus surgery.
But, it was a realization that I needed to get to the root of the problem rather than masking the symptoms, which finally led to continuous relief and overall improvement of quality of life.
Few years ago, I started my search for healing allergies the natural way, as over-the-counter and prescribed medicines failed to provide relief. This is when I decided to visit a naturopath. Here, I learned about Mast Cells and the importance of stabilizing them to truly heal from seasonal allergies.
Naturopathic remedies came at an expensive cost of $100/session, every week for 6-8 weeks. The main remedy was a “vitamin and mineral injection” that included magnesium, B-Vitamins, vitamin C along with others. In addition, my supplements included capsules containing well published natural remedies, Quercetin and Nettles.
Quercetin is a flavonoid and a natural anti-histamine, found in most fruits and vegetables like: apples, blackberries, blueberries, citrus fruits, dark cherries, onions, parsley and sage. It is also an anti-oxidant molecule that neutralizes harmful free radicals—released in part due to inflammation.
Nettles are leaves of a plant that may have anti-histamine properties and reduce inflammation.
Some other powerful anti-oxidants are:
Vitamin C found in: Broccoli, green peppers, red peppers, oranges, papaya, strawberries.
Beta-Carotene: Carrots, collards, spinach, squash, sweet potatoes.
Vitamin E: almonds, bran cereal, hazelnuts, peanuts, sunflower oil, sunflower seeds, wheat germ.
For myself, I did experience some relief from the natural medicines but felt depended on the injections. The naturopath injection seemed to work less during the following allergy season than the year before. This is also the time, my Mom introduced me to some Indian home remedies to fight inflammation and improve internal functions of the body by using herbs and spices.
As a Scientist, I gathered all the information from my naturopath, old wives tales from my mom, “bro-science” from the internet and began researching the science behind it all. Of course, I found tons of research linking a variety of plants and certain compounds in them—herbs, spices, fruits and vegetables—to be beneficial as antioxidant, anti-inflammatory agents amongst many other health benefits.
After reviewing the scientific findings along with trial and error experimentation, I concluded that the basis of natural remedies is the addition of variety of vitamins and minerals to your diet. So, as a natural and cheaper alternative to medicine, I turned to eating mostly whole foods like whole wheat grains and pulses, legumes, along with fruits and vegetables while minimizing consumption of processed carbs. These adjustments resulted in significant positive changes towards my hay fever symptoms, especially during high allergy season.
Here’s the science behind it all.
Quality of Life
People with chronic or even seasonal hay fever symptoms are living with illness that routinely affects their mental focus, vitality, sociability, and performance—central components in overall quality of life.
Seasonal allergies are much more then just disease affecting the eyes, ears, nose and pharynx. Nasal symptoms and its associated fatigue, irritability and sleep disturbances compound the impact for any allergy sufferer during night or day.
Understanding your immune system is the prerequisite to curing hay fever. Seasonal allergies are the result of series of breakdowns within functioning immune state.
Immune system is a complex group of cells, organs, and chemicals that work to clear the body of infectious invasions. Part of it’s adaptive ability is to produce large quantity of immune products.
At first response, the immune system interacts with the allergen—pollen.
Identifies it as an invader, and creates antibodies.
These antibodies bind to mast cells, laying in waiting for subsequent exposure to that same allergen; ready to go aggressively engage the antigen to protect the body.
As a result, the second introduction of pollen generates a much larger (amplified) immune response than the first in order to eliminate the foreign substance.
Each time your immune system encounters an allergen, it produces more antibodies than it did the time before—and it produces them more quickly. This results in an exaggerated adaptive immune response—hypersensitive reactions—something that is meant to protect the body, but is now not working properly. The result of such response is inflammation and tissue damage.
This response is not only specific to pollen, but towards any entered foreign object perceived as dangerous by the body. An antigen is just that, a toxin or other foreign substance that causes an immune response in the body. In the case of seasonal allergies, allergens like pollen or mold spores enter the body via nasal passage coming in contact with certain cells.
Mast cells are specialized cells found in the connective tissues throughout the body, most abundantly in the submucosa layers—gastrointestinal and respiratory tract. Simply put, majority of mast cells are found in organs that are in contact with outside environment; that is, the skin, gut and airways. This also happens to be the entry way of most allergens: either through contact with the skin, respiratory track during breathing, or passing into and through the GI track during feeding.
These cells contain histamines and other chemical mediators. Once mast cells are activated, by antigen binding to a receptor on the cell, they release their content, which are involved in immediate hypersensitivity reaction.
Most of us have heard the term Histamines and likely taken Anti-histamine medicine. However, few of us know exactly what these terms mean and how they affect the body. Here is a simple, yet effective explanation: the antigen (pollen) binds to the mast cells thereby activating them. Activated mast cells sense danger and release a chemical called Histamine.
Histamine is the key mediators (middleman) chemical in allergic rhinitis. In the skin, histamines provoke itching; in the nose, itching and sneezing; and in the lungs, primarily constricting airways—resulting in coughing, wheezing and shortness of breath.
Anti-histamine are the pills commonalty taken to combat an allergic response. These chemicals act like a competitor to a histamine. Remember, histamine is just the middleman and works by telling other cells that an intruder is present and get to work in eliminating it. When an anti-histamine is present, both histamine and anti-histamine race or compete to interact with the same cell area (binding site). Whichever gets to the next cell first will cause the desired response. Histamine binding will start the immune system response and allergy symptoms. Anti-histamine binding will just stop that interaction from happening and things remain the same or stable.
However, anti-histamine effect is not as simple as above mentioned. This is just one theory, there are many other projected theories but little research has been done to identify the exact mechanism of effect. So for now, experts state that different anti-histamines work differently. Some anti-histamines relieve symptoms by competing for the same binding site as body generated histamines, while others may directly come into the mast cells and stop the histamine release at it’s core, thereby stabilizing the mast cell.
As a result of either above mentioned theories anti-histamines stop the immune response as well as its inflammatory effect. Therefore, many anti-histamines also classify as anti-inflammatory agents. This point is discussed next.
The number one cause of discomfort and poor quality of life from seasonal allergy symptoms is associated to inflammation. This is the body’s natural way to dealing with a perceived as harmful allergen. Inflammation is a natural response by the immune system. However for seasonal allergy sufferers, inflammation significantly impacts daily life, lasting for weeks and at times can be as severe as during viral or bacterial infection.
Dr. J. Psenka in his book states:
Allergies are prime examples of chronic inflammation in the body. Research has shown that people with allergies don’t just experience inflammation during a flare; they actually have a higher baseline inflammation level at that time, particularly during the two months following allergy season. This minimal persistent inflammation, as it is called, then makes allergy sufferers more vulnerable to an allergy attack—and to having even more inflammation—when allergens do show up.
In this article, we aimed to simplify the science behind seasonal allergies, from harmless pollen entering nasal cavity to internal steps leading to inflammation. Inflammation is the underlying cause of discomfort for seasonal allergy sufferers. One way to control inflammation is through a whole foods diet, eating more fruits and vegetables, that are naturally high in anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant properties. Limiting consumption of processed food products has also shown to decrease overall inflammation.
If you are ready for a step-by-step guide towards introducing whole foods into your diet and cleansing your palate from processed salty, sweet and fatty products—be sure to learn more about The No-Diet Book.
Krouse et.al. Allergy and Immunology: an otolaryngic approach. 2002. Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.
Relevant chapters: 16. Seasonal and Perennial Rhinitis; 17. Rhinosinusitis and Allergy; 26. Quality of Life in Allergic Patients; 27. Role of Nutrition in Allergy Management; 28. Complementary and Alternative Medicine in Otolaryngic Allergy.
Pesenka, J. Dr. Psenka’s: Seasonal Allergy Solution. 2014. Rodale Inc.
Levi-Schaffer et al. Mast Cell Stabilizing Properties of Antihistamines. Journal of Investigative Dermatology (2009) 129, 2549-2551.
Metz et. al. Mast cells – key effector cells in immune responses. TRENDS in Immunology. Vol.28 No.5