This post has been updated since it was originally published in spring 2017. Since I'm hearing people complain about horrendous allergies right now, I thought it would be a good time to re-share it.
Are seasonal allergies getting you down? Do allergies even have a season anymore? Whether it’s hay fever or not, people who have never suffered before are sneezing away. Of course, winter colds and the flu are still lingering around. It almost makes you want to stay in bed.
So what’s going on? Is it a higher-than-normal pollen count? Our compromised immune systems? Pollution? Global warming?
Most likely it's all of the above, but the real question is: How do you get relief?
What causes seasonal allergies?
Seasonal allergic rhinitis, otherwise known as hay fever, occurs during pollination season, primarily in the spring, summer, and/or fall (as opposed to perennial allergic rhinitis with mostly year-round symptoms caused by indoor allergens such as dust mites, animal dander, and mold spores). But global warming has extended the usual pollination seasons. Along with persistent air pollution, you may never get a break.
When pollen or another pathogen is inhaled, histamine is released as part of the body's immune process. As the histamine does its work expelling the foreign invader, it induces an inflammatory response. This inflammation manifests in what we think of as the classic allergy symptoms: runny nose, sneezing, watery eyes, congestion, and sometimes hives.
Unfortunately, allergies can have a wider effect on our quality of life. Feeling like a zombie or in perpetual brain fog is a common association with seasonal allergies. Trying to function at work or even socially becomes stressful and exhausting. Your energy tanks. If allergies continue untreated, they can go on to trigger asthma and respiratory or ear infections, as well.
Most of us can't stand it. We seek relief and the easiest, most accessible way is to pick up some Claritin, Zyrtec, or other OTC pill. While antihistamines and decongestants can help, they have a lot of downsides, too.
A Different Way of Treating Seasonal Allergies
Even if you decide to occasionally use an OTC pill to alleviate a particularly bad period of symptoms, you should know that there are other ways to take care of yourself during hay fever season.
Focus on prevention
Avoid inhaling pollen in the first place.
To do this, find out when pollen counts and pollutants are at their worse and stay indoors, if possible. Keep your windows closed during this time. Check out the Weather Underground app for listings in your area.
Ease up on your immune system
It’s working overtime to clear the pollen out of your system. If you also eat foods that you’re sensitive to, you’re adding another burden to its heavy load.
You can read all about food sensitivities by clicking here. Either eliminate any foods that you suspect you might be sensitive to, or get tested and know for sure. I highly recommend EverlyWell for reliable home testing.
Eat low histamine-releasing foods during allergy season.
In addition to avoiding foods that you’re sensitive to, foods that are high in histamine can tax your immune system when it’s already struggling. While your allergies are raging, try to eat less foods from the list below. This article takes a deeper dive into this subject than I'll go into here.
Fermented foods and drink, such as wine, sauerkraut, yogurt, kombucha, vinegar, cheese, chocolate (yes, chocolate is a fermented food)
Certain vegetables, such as avocados, eggplant, spinach, tomatoes
Nuts, such as cashews, walnuts, peanuts
Pollen clings to everything, so if you’ve been walking through clouds of it outside, you’ll want to rid yourself of as much of it as you can. When going to work, wear a coat or jacket that you take off inside. Giving your hair a good brushing is really helpful—or wear a hat! And once you’re back home, never underestimate the power of your shower!
Soothe with saline or other spray
Who knew the substance you sprinkle on food to make it taste good could be so comforting? Using a rinse or spray with salt helps to physically remove allergens in your nose, while calming down and moisturizing the inflamed passageways.
Make your own solution to use with a neti pot (this one's actually charming) or nasal aspirator--or buy a pre-made spray (I love this one that uses xylitol which appears to have an even greater effect than saline alone).
Sniff some essential oils
Do you remember Vick's VapoRub? You can harness its power (without smearing its other synthetic ingredients on yourself) by inhaling eucalyptus essential oil. Other helpful EOs for hay fever are peppermint, lavender, and lemon.
You can use any of these in a room diffuser, mix a few drops into some epsom salts for your bath, shake a drop or two onto a hankie and inhale, or even just take a whiff directly from the bottle. Of course, there's always a pre-made option, but it's much more expensive.
I push this advice regularly, but it's even more important during allergy season. Being dehydrated leads to greater histamine release, which means worse symptoms. And mild dehydration negatively affects our mood and cognitive processing--not good when you're already feeling like a zombie.
Drink a glass every hour, if possible. Expect to pee more. Isn't that better than being a stuffed-up mess?
Bonus: An easy morning practice that really helps!
Did you know that breathing through your mouth causes nasal blood vessels to become inflamed and enlarged? That's a recipe for discomfort even before histamine-release symptoms get involved.
I learned this exercise in The Oxygen Advantage by Patrick McKeown. Doing this every morning--along with cleaning up my diet--has greatly reduced my allergy symptoms. Greatly. This practice is very simple and doesn't take any extra time (you do it while going about your usual a.m. routine).
Nose Unblocking Exercise
Please don’t practice this exercise if you're struggling to breathe (go to your doctor!), or if you have high blood pressure or other cardiovascular issues, diabetes, or pregnancy, or any other major health concerns.
This is best done first thing in the morning, on an empty stomach.
Inhale and exhale normally through your nose
After exhaling, gently pinch your nose with your fingers to hold your breath
Walk or move with your breath held
When you feel the need to inhale, release your nose and exhale through it--it should already feel more clear
Allow your breath to calm down as you continue to breathe through your nose. If your breathing doesn't return to normal within a few breaths, you held it for too long
Wait 1-2 minutes before repeating the breath hold
Repeat for a total of 6 breath holds, seeing if you can hold your breath a bit longer each time
You can repeat this throughout your day, whenever you need some relief. If you're in public and don't want to hold your nose, you can just hold your breath without using your fingers. The more you practice this nose unblocking exercise, the longer you'll be able to hold your breath, and the better and more enduring your results will be.
Don't feel like you have to do every single one of the above things to get through this season--but if you can, lucky you! Like with anything, some practices will be easier and more effective for you than others. Experiment.
For me, avoiding most of the high-histamine foods, staying hydrated, and practicing the nose unblocking exercise daily keeps me from suffering for now. As the pollen count increases, I'll pay more attention to when I take my walk and I plan on trying the Xlear spray.