Allergies: Getting to the guts of the problem

As an avid lover of the outdoors, I get excited about helping people get over their allergies. Constant sneezing, fatigue, runny nose, watering eyes, and scratchy throat: These are not things that make anyone keen to venture outdoors during peak allergy season. Not to mention those who experience asthma attacks triggered by allergies. Though I don’t normally suffer from hay fever, this year I’ve been hit pretty hard. When I experience symptoms in my own life, I take it as a sign from my body that it’s time to tune up my diet, heal my gut and do a little bit of cleansing.  I know from personal experience and from treating patients that this medicine works.

Luckily, there is a lot that can be done to improve the situation using safe, natural techniques. Being proactive is very helpful. In an ideal world, starting this process a couple of months before allergy season allows for the likelihood of experiencing a spring season with much milder or no allergy symptoms at all. But it’s often hard to think about symptoms proactively. As with any illness, it’s when we’re feeling miserable that we’re most motivated to make changes. When it comes down to it, the best time to work on improving your health is as soon as you’re ready.

Why not take antihistamine meds if they work?

Unfortunately antihistamine drugs, while helpful for some, have a number of problems. They can cause side effects ranging from drowsiness, dizziness and blurred vision to nausea, vomiting and depression. What’s more, there is evidence emerging that when used long term, they may increase your risk of Alzheimer’s disease.

Why do allergies happen?

If you want to know more about the why of allergies, keep reading! If you’re feeling more in a TLDR (Too long, didn’t read) mood and just want to know how to feel better, feel free to skip to the bottom.

What’s really going on has more to do with the digestive system than with the eyes, nose, throat or lungs. The culprit is a process called “Leaky Gut” that involves inflammation in the digestive tract from poor diet, stress, use of antibiotics, anti-inflammatory medications like ibuprofen and aspirin, and other irritants. In a cascade effect, leaky gut in turn leads to systemic inflammation.

Seasonal allergies are just one manifestation of excessive inflammation. One category of immune cells called eosinophils are responsible for making antibodies to recognize parasites and tag them for destruction. These immune cells essentially get confused by the inflammatory signals caused by leaky gut and begin attacking whatever you are allergic to (pollen, animal dander etc). They activate another type of immune cell called mast cells, which begin releasing histamine whenever they encounter the allergen. Histamine is the main chemical responsible for all those nasty allergy symptoms.

So, a short-term solution is to decrease eosinophil activation and stabilize the mast cells so they don’t release histamine as easily. The long-term solution is to heal the gut so the source of the inflammation is extinguished. Dealing with the true cause of the problem is the best long-term solution.

If you want to learn more about what’s actually happening with leaky gut, stay tuned for my next blog post in a few weeks.

The good news is that your gut lining begins to heal in as little as THREE DAYS. That means that if you can give your digestive tract a break from irritants for a couple of weeks, it can and will begin to heal. The trick is to remove the irritants and support the healing process.

For Current Allergy Sufferers:

If you’re experiencing allergy symptoms now, these supplements do wonders to help you feel better, and many people are able to switch over completely from over-the-counter or prescription allergy meds. The options listed below generally have no negative side effects, but like conventional allergy meds, they only work while you use them. They don’t address the root cause of the allergies, so you will need to take them each year during allergy season to see benefit.

Beginning to take them before allergy season starts can help you avoid symptoms altogether. You’ll get the best results if you take them daily, but they can be taken as needed as well. You can also take them alongside the 4R program described later on.

Eliminate

Eliminate foods that tend to be inflammatory or increase mucus production such as dairy, sugar, juice (especially orange) and gluten.

Reduce your exposure

Reduce your exposure to dietary and environmental allergens as much as possible. This might mean avoiding foods you know you react to, using a high quality air filter in your home and keeping the windows closed to decrease pollen levels inside.

SALINE NASAL RINSES

Use a Neti pot or NeilMed daily to wash pollen out of the nasal and sinus passages. Always use filtered or sterilized water.

FREEZE-DRIED STINGING NETTLES

The chemicals found in the stinging spines act to stabilize mast cells, thereby preventing them from releasing histamine. This herb acts as a safe, natural antihistamine. Freeze dried nettles work best because the spines are preserved. The capsules are available in most natural food stores.

Dose: 3-6 capsules per day

QUERCETIN

This plant pigment found in many herbs and foods such as onions and apples has strong anti-inflammatory effects and helps decrease the activation of eosinophils.

Dose: 500 - 1000 mg daily

BUFFERED VITAMIN C WITH BIOFLAVONOIDS

This combination also helps to stabilize mast cells and decrease histamine release. I advocate for getting your antioxidants from foods rather than supplements, because they really are more effective in food form. In the case of allergies however, I like to add in the supplement form for the specific anti-allergy benefit.

Dose: 1000 mg per day of vitamin C and 500-1000 mg of bioflavonoids. You can often find them combined in capsules.

The Long Term Solution: Remove irritants and support healing

THE FOUR R PROGRAM

*The first 3 Rs are best done at the same time, and the final R (Reinoculate) can be added in after you’re finished with the others.

REMOVE

This phase is about removing offending foods and other irritants, and is frequently referred to as an elimination diet. It should be followed for at least 2 weeks, though 4 weeks is ideal. It takes some preparation and attention, but is fairly simple given a little planning.

Avoid the most common food allergens and inflammatory foods: gluten, dairy, soy, corn, eggs, coffee, soda, sugar, alcohol and artificial ingredients.

If possible, avoid heartburn medications, antibiotics and NSAIDs like aspirin or ibuprofen. If you struggle with heartburn, try replacing a proton pump inhibitor or H2 blocker medication with 2 tablets of DGL licorice before each meal.

After the 2-4 weeks, begin adding the avoided foods back in one at a time. When you add a food in, for example gluten, eat gluten-containing foods like bread 3 times that day. Once in the morning, and if you don’t notice any major symptoms immediately then two more times throughout the day. If you notice bad symptoms immediately, you have your answer and it doesn’t make sense to keep eating that food. Wait for 3 days and note if any symptoms crop up. If so, know that that food may not be right for you. Wait until any symptoms that cropped up have disappeared before introducing another food.

Keep notes during this time on which food you are reintroducing and any symptoms that come up. This makes it easier to spot patterns, and if you get confused, you can take your notes to a practitioner who can help you troubleshoot.

Note: DO NOT add foods back into your diet that you have ever had an anaphylactic reaction to. An elimination diet is meant to help you identify food intolerances, which are different than food allergies. Food intolerances can cause health problems when you continue eating them, but they do not produce immediately life-threatening symptoms when eaten.

If you want your results to last, it’s important to permanently avoid soda, trans fats and processed foods. These aren’t really food to begin with. They’re “food-like substances” and they simply don’t belong in our bellies.

REPAIR

The repair phase is about helping the lining of your intestines seal back up to stop the inflammatory cycle of leaky gut. 

FOODS:

The foods you choose to eat can have a very therapeutic effect on gut healing as well as an anti-inflammatory effect that addresses allergy symptoms directly. Rather than supplementing antioxidants like vitamin E, vitamin A, carotenoids, and vitamin C, it is much more effective to eat them in your foods. Watch this video to see how the foods you choose have a major impact on how many antioxidants you are getting in your diet. Choose the foods with the richest colors, rotate in new colors each day and try to eat at least 7 servings of fruits and vegetables per day.

In particular, eat cabbage as much as possible. Add it to smoothies and salads. Buy or make your own kimchi or sauerkraut for the added probiotic benefits. Cabbage is high in S-Methylmethionine, which helps heal the lining of the gut.

SUPPLEMENTS:

GLUTAMINE

This amino acid provides healing nourishment to the cells lining your digestive tract. It has very little flavor and disappears nicely into to smoothies or oatmeal.

Dose: 5-10 grams per day, preferably in two doses

ZINC CITRATE OR ZINC CARNOSINE

Important for tissue healing in general as well as immune function.

Dose: 30 mg daily for adults, 10-20mg daily for kids age 8-12, 5-10 mg daily for kids age 4-7.

FISH OIL

2 grams of omega 3 fats per day, or eat wild caught salmon, trout, sardines or anchovies twice a week.

QUERCETIN

helpful for allergy symptoms and for gut healing

Dose: 500 mg twice a day. 250 mg for kids. If you’re already taking it for allergy symptom relief, don’t double up. Safety during pregnancy is unclear.

TURMERIC

This powerhouse anti-inflammatory herb is helpful for gut healing, and decreasing the inflammation produced by leaky gut.

Dose: 1-2 capsules twice a day, or 1 cup of golden milk daily (with non-dairy milk like coconut milk)

The following herbs are soothing and healing to the gut lining. You can choose to use all three or pick two of them to use.

 DGL LICORICE

Dose: 1000-1500 mg per day in two doses. These are chewable tablets that come in different flavors and are easy for children to take. Not for use during pregnancy.

MARSHMALLOW ROOT

Dose: Take 2 capsules twice a day, or make a tea by adding 1 tablespoon of the loose herb to 8 oz of hot water and allowing it to steep for 10 minutes, then strain before drinking. Drink the tea plain (It will be a little slimy) or add it to smoothies or soups.

ALOE VERA JUICE

Dose: 4-12 ounces of juice daily in 2-3 doses. Make sure to choose a juice with just the inner gel of the aloe plant. The external part of the leaf is a strong laxative. This can also be added to smoothies or drunk plain.

REPLACE

For 1 month, take Betaine HCL (supplemental stomach acid) and digestive enzymes with meals. This will aid your body in complete digestion of your meals. Ideally your body should be making plenty of its own stomach acid and enzymes, but sometimes a boost is helpful.

Dose: 1-2 capsules of each before meals

After a month, switch over to 20-30 drops of digestive bitters or 1 ounce of apple cider vinegar taken 15 minutes before meals. Either of these will stimulate your body to produce its own stomach acid and digestive enzymes. Here is one brand of digestive bitters that I particularly like. I have no association with the company. You can usually find good quality bitters at any natural foods or supplement store.

REINOCULATE

After you have followed the above program for 2-4 weeks, add in a high quality probiotic for 1-3 months. Here are a couple I like, though there are many other good ones out there. Again, I have no conflict of interest.

AFTERWARD

After following this program, take some time to make note of what is different. What symptoms are gone or diminished? How is your energy? How is your mood? And of course, how are your allergies? The real test will be sticking to a clean diet and seeing how allergy season goes next year. You can always do a “tune up” a month or two before allergies are due to hit next year. Check in on your diet again and make adjustments as necessary. Add in a few healing supplements.

Try to keep your diet clean and stick to whole, organic foods as much as possible. A big part of the success of this approach is to slowly make permanent, sustainable shifts to your diet and lifestyle. It’s not about perfection, just progress.

Let me know in the comments how this program went for you.

And if you feel like you need individualized support with this process and other health concerns, schedule a visit to work one on one with me. 

Wishing you sunny days with no sneezes,

Dr. Jennea