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Achoo, achoo! If the advent of a new season leaves you with a runny nose, watery eyes, and congestion, make space on your plate for these foods that may help stop allergies.

Amanda MacMillan
March 29, 2017

For people with hay fever and other seasonal allergies, sneezing and itchy eyes can make it difficult to enjoy spring's longer days and warmer temperatures. Doctors recommend medications or allergy shots as a first line of defense, says Randy Young, MD, director of pulmonary, allergy, and critical care medicine at Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center. But, he says, how you eat may also affect how you feel.

"If I have a patient who's looking to minimize the amount of medicines they're taking, I don't discourage them from trying food-based remedies," says Dr. Young. There's not a lot of published research on foods' effects on allergies, he adds, but there's also not a lot of risk involved: "Following a healthy diet is probably not going to make anyone's symptoms worse, and some people do feel that it helps." Here are a few things experts say might make a difference.

Photo: Jennifer Causey

Eating more omega-3s

"Omega 3 fatty acids, whether they come from fish or from a fish-oil capsule, have anti-inflammatory properties," says Dr. Young. "We know they're beneficial to overall health—and since allergies have to do with inflammation, it makes sense that they might be helpful in this area, as well."

Research supports this theory: In 2005, German scientists found that a diet high in alpha-linoleic acid—a type of omega-3 found in nuts and seeds—was associated with a decreased prevalence of allergy symptoms. And in 2007, a Japanese study reported that intake of eicosapentaenoic and docosahexaenoic acids (omega-3s found in oily fish like salmon, mackerel, and sardines) was linked to fewer seasonal allergies, as well.

 

Adding probiotics to your diet

"Yogurt and other foods that contain probiotic bacteria help maintain the microbiome of the intestinal tract, and they tend to be anti-inflammatory as well," says Dr. Young. "There's a little bit of evidence that these foods can be helpful for treating allergies."

A 2017 study from the University of Florida—sponsored by a supplement manufacturer—found that people with mild to moderate allergies reported fewer nasal symptoms and better quality of life after taking a supplement containing the probiotics lactobacilli and bifidobacteria. Other studies have reported promising results, too, although experts say more research is needed before real recommendations can be made.

Photo: Randy Mayor

Cutting back on booze

Alcohol contains natural histamines, which can trigger allergy symptoms like sneezing, congestion, and a runny nose—so if you're already suffering this spring, skipping your evening glass of wine may help you from feeling even worse. (Wine and beer also contain sulfites, which can also cause allergy-like symptoms for some people.)

Women seem to be more sensitive to alcohol-induced sniffles than men, according to a 2005 Swedish study. And in a 2008 study on Danish women, researchers found that having more than 14 glasses of wine a week almost doubled the risk of developing allergic rhinitis over an 8-year period, compared to women who had less than one drink a week.    

Watching out for trigger foods

Some people with seasonal allergies can experience a strange reaction when eating certain fruits and vegetables; it's called oral allergy syndrome, and it can cause itching or swelling in the mouth after eating raw produce.

These symptoms are caused by proteins in the fruit that are similar to proteins in pollen. People who are allergic to birch tree pollen (a common cause of spring allergies) may be sensitive to carrots, nuts, celery, peaches, and other pitted fruits. People who react to grasses in the summer or ragweed in the fall, on the other hand, might feel itchy after eating tomatoes, melons, oranges, banana, and zucchini.

Getting more fruits and vegetables

Aside from those rare cases of oral allergy syndrome, however, fruits and veggies are probably one of the best ways you can fight seasonal allergies with food. Why? They're packed with antioxidants like Vitamin C, a natural antihistamine and immune booster that can help the body fight off allergies and keep you from getting sick on top of seasonal symptoms. 

Photo: Christopher Testani

More Mediterranean, less margarine

A 2007 study found that children on the Greek island of Crete who followed a Mediterranean diet were 66% less likely than those who ate a less traditional diet to have symptom of allergic rhinitis (the technical term for hay fever). That's not surprising, considering the popular diet is high in anti-inflammatory and antioxidant-rich foods like nuts, seeds, fish, and fruits and vegetables.

Compared to the typical Western style of eating, the Mediterranean diet is also much lower in omega-6 fatty acids—a compound found in red meat, vegetable oil, and margarine that promotes the formation of inflammatory chemicals called prostaglandins. In fact, children in the study who ate a lot of margarine were more likely to have allergies and asthma than those who ate very little.

And one that probably won't work: honey

It's probably the most well-know food-based remedy for seasonal allergies, but unfortunately there's little evidence to support the idea that eating honey helps fight hay fever. Raw honey contains small doses of pollen, so eating it could theoretically help you build up a tolerance to it, says Dr. Young.

But the type of pollen found in honey (from flowers) is different from the type of pollen that most people are allergic to (from trees, grass, and ragweed), he says, and filtered, store-bought honey often contains no pollen at all. For honey to work at all, it would have to be raw and locally sourced, says Dr. Young, "but even then, I'm not aware of any serious data that supports this."

In rare cases, experts warn, honey that contains pollen could actually cause allergic reactions. And while honey is generally safe for adults and children over 1 year of age, any unprocessed food can carry a risk of contamination—so always buy from a provider you trust.