Can Food Heal Spring Allergies?

May in Minnesota is off to a chilly and often cloud-covered start, but I do vividly recollect a too-hot-to-touch steering wheel in April and a stretch of 40-plus degree days in March that turned feet of snow to vapor. According to the St. Paul Pioneer Press, this is the first year since 1878 that nary a smidgen of snow has fallen during March, a notable anomaly considering that historically, Minnesota receives its heaviest snow during this month.

Not only has this phenomenon significantly affected our farmers, but it has also had a near crippling effect on seasonal allergy sufferers. The symptoms are formidable: fatigue, itchy and burning eyes, sneezing, headache, runny nose, sore throat, brain fog, nasal congestion, depression, and digestive disruption. As snow melts and the spring rains come on, the ground becomes muddy. If the earth is holding on to more water, then so too shall we, causing congestion and allergies for many folks.

Two cries I’ve oft heard these last few weeks: “My allergies are worse than they’ve ever been in my life,” and, “I’ve never suffered from allergies until this year.” A potent force is upon us that is certainly to be reckoned with.

There is a reason this is occurring. Hello, climate destabilization (a.k.a. global warming)! And what we’ve been handed is nothing short of a double whammy. Elevated concentrations of carbon dioxide already hasten plant growth; add to this the early onset of spring, and presto. We’re swimming in a sea of ragweed and tree, grass, and flower pollen. (Pollen and ragweed levels vary depending on location, season, and weather conditions. Check your local levels here.)

According to Bryan Walsh, Time Magazine's environmental columnist, “Thanks to an unusually cold and snowy winter, followed by an early and warm spring, pollen counts are through the roof in much of the U.S. As the climate warms, it is likely to favor trees that give off pollen -- like oaks and hickories -- over pines, spruces and fir trees, which don't.” (Read Walsh’s full article here: Allergies Worse Than Ever? Blame Global Warming.)

Tiny Yet Mighty

Why is it that we fall prey to these minute invaders? As we inhale allergens, they accumulate in our bodies, are seen as the foreign substances that they are, are thus attacked by immune cells, and eventually an immune reaction is triggered. Antibodies are produced, which generate histamines and other chemicals to fight the battle. Histamines cause the blood vessels and tissues in your nasal passages and sinuses to swell, become inflamed, and produce excess mucus.

While many experience this assault from the chest up, others have a whole-body reaction, including joint pain and stiffness and general malaise. As the body huffs and puffs to exterminate these unwelcome visitors, severe fatigue can set in.

Your Dietary Coat of Armor

Because an allergic reaction is largely an inflammatory response, it’s best to eliminate or greatly reduce inflammatory foods: highly processed, denatured, and sugar-laden foods, processed grains, pasteurized dairy (more on this in a minute), pesticide-laden fruits and vegetables, trans fats, alcohol, and caffeine.

Fortunately, Mother Nature beautifully sets us up for success with spring’s cleansing, astringent, and detoxifying foods, including leafy greens, radishes, asparagus, onions, and peas. For more information about spring’s natural detoxifiers (forget The Master Cleanse!), please see my article Spring Into Cleansing.

While I touted the health benefits of naturally-occurring dietary fats in my previous Simple, Good and Tasty post, Food Fear Factor, the truth is that it’s best to eliminate pasteurized dairy if you’re sneezing and sniffling. According to Dr. John Douillard, D.C., Ph.D., and author of The 3-Season Diet, “Spring calls for roughly 10 percent of your diet to come from fats, about 60 percent from carbs, and 30 percent from protein.” However these percentages should not require you to carry a gram counter in your pocket. The basic premise is to eat more proteins in winter, more salads, sprouts, greens, and berries in the spring, and copious amounts of fruits and vegetables in the summer.

One of the most powerful ways to diminish the severity of your allergies is to boost your defenses with immune-enhancing foods, containing high levels of quercetin, vitamin C, magnesium, and beta-carotene.

  • Quercetin-rich foods are bioflavonoid-rich foods (meaning high in antioxidants), have an antihistamine effect, and significantly decrease inflammation. Foods rich in quercetin: onions, spinach, kale, cabbage, grapefruit, apples, cranberries, grapes, pears, and buckwheat
  • Vitamin C is also a natural antihistamine and prevents an inflammatory response. Foods rich in vitamin C: spring greens, cabbage, potatoes, citrus fruits, kiwi, radishes, asparagus, strawberries, Brussels sprouts, kale, and bell peppers
  • Magnesium-rich foods have been shown to reduce constricted nasal passages by relaxing the muscles surrounding bronchial tubes. They also mitigate the acidity that accompanies an allergic reaction. Foods rich in magnesium: nuts, seeds, legumes (peas and beans), spinach, avocados, oysters, brown rice, buckwheat, and millet
  • Beta-Carotene is a powerful antioxidant, strengthens immunity, and keeps the respiratory system working optimally. Foods rich in beta carotene: sweet potatoes, mangoes, papaya, kale, spinach, carrots, squash, and collard greens

Additionally, ginger acts as a decongestant and antihistamine and may provide relief by expanding constricted bronchial tubes. Garlic (also known as “Russian penicillin” because of its ability to treat respiratory disorders) is another robust immune booster.

A Medal for Nettles

Stinging nettles have a superhero-like effect on allergies, particularly hay fever. It grows naturally and can often be harvested around the city, but take heed and wear gloves, as there is a reason it’s called “stinging” nettles!

According to Wild Man Steve Brill, “Nettles usually appear in the same places year after year. Look for them in rich soil, disturbed habitats, moist woodlands, thickets, along rivers, and along partially shaded trails.” This time last year, a friend who lives in Linden Hills gave me an armload from her property; I dried some and made my own nettles tea and also made yummy and nourishing nettles soup. (Recipes for both are below.) And I have to say, I was breathing easier! You can also make the tea with the freshly harvested plant versus drying the leaves.

The Dairy Conundrum

While the debate over pasteurized vs. unpasteurized dairy rages on, it is worth noting that many people, including severe allergy sufferers, are able to handle (and thrive on) unpasteurized dairy. This is a topic that I have personally struggled with, as there are risks in consuming raw milk. Here is one of the most unbiased, unopinionated, and informative articles I’ve read on this topic. (For the record, I’m not advocating raw milk, as my personal jury is still out on the subject.)

To quote the author, “Where the misinformation occurs with milk is when people start making blanket statements: ‘Milk is linked to allergies, cancer, contains antibiotics etc.’ This is true for conventional, pasteurized milk, but doesn’t have anything to do with real milk.”

One of the most significant take-aways for me is that the majority of organic dairy, while free of antibiotics and hormones, is still pasteurized and homogenized. These processes significantly alter the milk proteins, making it difficult to digest for many people, causing in and of itself an immune response. For allergy sufferers, this is but another double whammy.

Forget the Drugstore

While it’s tempting to retrieve the quick fix from your local Walgreens, I implore you to investigate treating your seasonal allergies with whole foods. Drugs often mask symptoms, leaving the offending condition to lurk within. With the right nutrients, natural antihistamines, and antioxidant-rich foods, you can show these seasonal invaders who’s the boss.

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Recipe for Nettles Tea

  1. Locate patch of naturally growing stinging nettles, away from car traffic, pesticides or animal waste. Riverbanks and woodlands are great places to look.
  2. Bring your gloves, bowl and scissors.
  3. Carefully snip off the very tops of the nettles, called the tips. The tips will often be a lighter shade of green than the rest of the plant. You can use more of the plant, but the tea will be more bitter.
  4. Roughly chop the nettle tips in the bowl with the scissors.
  5. Bring out a cooking pot or a cafetiere (French press coffee maker). Place the chopped nettles in the pot or the cafetiere. You need one cup of water per loose-cupped handful of chopped nettles. You don't need exact measurements to have a good cup of tea.
  6. Bring water to the boil in a kettle. When it boils, add it to the nettle-filled pot or cafetiere.
  7. Let the tea steep for 10 minutes. Then either strain into a cup (if using a pot), or press the plunger down and pour into a teacup (if using a cafetiere). Usually, you do not need sweetener.

Source: Rena Sherwood

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Recipe for Nettles Soup

1 onion, peeled and chopped

3 garlic cloves, peeled and finely minced

Olive oil or coconut oil

8 cups of chicken or vegetable broth

4 to 6 potatoes, peeled and cubed (more potatoes makes the soup thicker and creamier)

6 to 8 cups of packed and washed nettle leaves

  1. In a large soup pot, heat oil until hot, add the onion. Sprinkle a little salt in and sauté until the onion starts to soften (about 5-7 min.). Add the garlic and sauté for a minute or two more.
  2. Add the broth and potatoes and bring to a simmer, turn down heat and simmer for about 20 minutes, or until the potatoes are soft. (If using homemade broth, salt it a bit at this stage.)
  3. Add the nettle leaves, and cook for about five more minutes. For a rustic soup, mash a bit with the back of a wooden spoon, or puree it into a smooth soup. Salt and pepper to taste and serve.

Source: The Nourishing Gourmet

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More Resources:

The Complete Guide to Natural Healing by Tom Monte

Staying Healthy with the Seasons by Elson M. Haas, M.D.

The New Whole Foods Encyclopedia by Rebecca Wood

Jill Grunewald
is a Minneapolis-based Certified Holistic Health Counselor, health writer, and passionate advocate for sustainable agriculture. After fumbling through a career in architecture, she graduated from the Institute for Integrative Nutrition in 2006. Her practice, Healthful Elements, focuses on bio-individual health and whole-foods therapy, with specialization in the endocrine system and hormones, particularly thyroid and adrenal health. She loves tractors, Frye boots, her Mom’s pie, classical piano, bluegrass, mid-century furniture, tea, co-ops, great design, clean sheets, and bacon.