Spring is great. The birds are chirping, the flowers are blooming. The trees are waking up after winter’s slumber. Things are warming up without being too hot. It’s a grand new beginning to the world—unless you have seasonal allergies. Anyone with a severe case of hay fever knows how horrible it is being outside on a windy day with pollen blowing and rapacious bees buzzing around. Your eyes water and swell up. Your nose congests, you go into mouth breather mode. Pressure headaches start. You can’t taste your food. You can’t really see through the tears and redness. Everything above the neck itches. Sneeze attacks seize you. You’re supposed to be in heaven. It’s all so lovely. Yet all that beauty, greenery, and life are lost on you. Spring is your enemy when you have hay fever.
But maybe it doesn’t have to be.
Before I explain some options for treating seasonal allergies, let’s explain what they are.
What are Seasonal Allergies?
Seasonal allergies are an immune response to airborne pollen. When your innate immune system perceives airborne pollen as a threat or toxin, it sends out Immunoglobulin E (IgE) to alert the rest of your body. IgE travels to various cells and tells them to release a flood of histamine which produces all the symptoms we know and hate: runny nose, itchy eyes, nasal congestion, sneezing, headaches, and others.
This type of immune response makes sense with foreign substances that are intrinsically dangerous, like pathogenic microbes, poisons, and toxins, but there’s nothing inherently dangerous about pollen. What gives? Why do the immune systems of people with seasonal allergies have the tendency to overreact to pollen?
What Causes Seasonal Allergies?
A long time ago, everyone had parasites—roundworms, hookworms, pigworms, and others. Heavy loads can cause serious nutrient deficiencies, anemia, stunted growth, impaired neurological development, but from studying modern populations who still carry parasites, we know that these bugs can also confer protection against autoimmune diseases, food allergies, and other immune-related conditions. In moderate doses, they tame overactive immune systems by giving them something to do. The constant presence of parasites keeps the immune system busy, and a busy immune system doesn’t have the time or energy to overreact to harmless intruders like egg whites. This is the basis for helminthic therapy.
Pollen allergies are mediated by IgE, the very same antibody system that responds to parasites. Modern populations with high parasite loads tend to have lower rates of seasonal allergies because their IgE response system is responding to the parasites it evolved alongside. Modern populations without high parasite loads—like the people lucky enough to be reading this blog—tend to have higher rates of those conditions because their IgE has nothing better to do.
Genetics also help determine our immune response to pollen. Neanderthal coprolites show evidence of heavy parasite loads and Neanderthal DNA sequencing shows evidence of innate immunity genes meant to counter parasites. When ancient humans encountered Neanderthals and inter-bred, these immunity genes—which enhanced fitness in the new environment—introgressed into the offspring.1 Sure enough, populations with the most Neanderthal introgression, like those with European and Asian descent, have the most hay fever.2 Their “enhanced” immunity doesn’t have enough to do in the modern sterile environment and seasonal allergies are a common result.
How to Prevent Seasonal Allergies
Before we talk about supplements and things to try for active seasonal allergies, we need to talk about prevention. There are certain early life factors that appear to play a big role in your resistance to seasonal allergies.
Sterility of Childhood Evironment
The sterility of your childhood environment plays a big role, with kids who grow up on farms—with exposure to animals, dirt—tending to get lifelong protection from hay fever and kids who grow up in houses where dishwashers were used having a greater risk of seasonal allergies.3 Part of this is stems from early life exposure to pollen and other irritants, but it could also be the “farm milk”; raw milk consumption is associated with protection against hay fever, even when consumed outside of the farm context.4 Meanwhile, kids who grow up in households where dishwashers were the primary mode of washing dishes grow up to have a greater risk of seasonal allergies, probably because the dishwasher is “too thorough.”5 Handwashing isn’t as “clean,” and that’s a good thing when it comes to preventing seasonal allergies.
Kids born to homes with dogs or cats grow up with stronger resistance to pollen allergies. Of course, there’s also some reverse causation going on here: kids with a predilection for allergy often have dog or cat allergies, and so families will get rid of the animals because of the allergic reactions. Still, even in those situations, early life exposure to furry pets increases resistance to pollen allergies later in life.67
Maternal Vitamin D Status
Vitamin D, one of the primary immune modulators, plays a role in allergy. Seasonal allergy sufferers have lower vitamin D levels.8 And though we don’t have good evidence for using vitamin D supplementation as an adult to lower seasonal allergies, moms who supplement with vitamin D during the third trimester or eat high-vitamin D foods during pregnancy have kids with greater resistance to seasonal allergies.910
How to Treat Seasonal Allergies
Once you have seasonal allergies, is there anything you can do to reduce them?
Eat Plenty of Fish
Omega-3 status seems to matter. Higher EPA in red blood cells and more ALA in the diet both reduce incidence among German adults, and in Japanese females, increased intake of fish fat reduces the incidence of hay fever.1112 Virgin cod liver oil might be a nice thing to try as well, since it provides omega-3s, vitamin D, and vitamin A which all modulate the allergic response.13
Fix Your Gut
Your gut health is likely important, as the gut influences everything. Food allergies and intolerances are well-known consequences of poor gut health and increased gut permeability, but those leaky guts may also allow non-food allergens into circulation to stimulate immune responses. There’s a lot of circumstantial evidence to suggest this is the case:
Certain probiotics have been shown to improve hay fever symptoms. Probiotics used in the studies include B. longum, B. lactis, L. paracasei, and L. acidophilus.14
Irritable bowel syndrome frequently accompanies or even predicts hay fever, though it most likely doesn’t cause it. Still, the common factor is poor gut health.
Anecdotally, folks who give up grains and other gut irritants often report their hay fever stops. This happened to me.
Quercetin, a natural antihistamine that can reduce histamine release and improve hay fever symptoms, also improves intestinal permeability.15
We’d need further research, but it looks promising to me.
Eat Raw Local Honey
Introducing small amounts of pollen through the consumption of raw local honey can improve allergic sensitization and reduce hay fever symptoms. But it has to be the pollen you’re actually allergic to. Researchers found that eating birch pollen honey before the season commenced reduced birch pollen allergy symptoms and resulted in less usage of antihistamines when compared to eating preseasonal non-birch pollen honey.16
Older studies have found that magnesium supplementation in people with seasonal allergies reduces IgE levels and allergy symptoms proportionate to the subsequent increase in red blood cell magnesium levels.17 Since most people are magnesium deficient these days, this is a safe thing to try—and it’s likely quite effective.
Spirulina is a form of microalgae that thrives in tropical and subtropical lakes (so it’s more like “lakeweed” than seaweed). In specific regions of Latin America, Africa, and Asia where it occurs naturally, spirulina has been highly valued as a nutrient-dense food source, abundant in protein, vitamins, fats, and minerals. It’s also a potent immunomodulator that has shown some efficacy in reducing the symptoms of seasonal allergies, even compared to an over the counter anti-histamine drug.18
Try Black Seed Oil
Black seed oil is the “healthy seed oil,” a powerful medicinal substance that has been used for thousands of years across dozens of different cultures to treat oxidative stress, inflammation, and allergies. Nasal application of black seed oil has been shown to reduce symptoms of seasonal allergies.19
Stress could worsen hay fever. According to research, hay fever sufferers with the worst symptoms are most likely to report being “stressed.” Those who are “relaxed” tend to have milder symptoms. The causation could be reversed, of course, with severe hay fever causing increased stress. Or it could be circular, with stress levels and hay fever severity both feeding each other. Besides, we know that stress makes gut health worse.
Another important strategy to alleviate hay fever symptoms is to steer clear of alcohol, which can create similar seasonal allergy symptoms in susceptible individuals.20 Wine seems to be the worst offender here, with sulfites the likely cause. If you still want to drink wine, you could try natural wines, which have no added sulfites.
Overall, the entire Primal Blueprint way of life will probably improve your allergy symptoms. My own nearly debilitating seasonal allergies literally disappeared when I got rid of grains, cut the chronic cardio, starting walking and lifting more, got a handle on my stress levels, focused on sleep, and began limiting seed oils high in omega-6 fats. The common factor was an overall reduction in inflammation and oxidative stress.
If you have questions about this, feel free to drop them down below, send me an email, or ask on Twitter or Instagram.
Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.