If you’re one of the 50 million Americans who deal with the pain of seasonal allergies every year, the past few weeks might have been rough for you. While many people associate season allergies with the blooms of spring, fall allergies can be particularly debilitating too. The most common fall allergy is ragweed—specifically, the pollen from ragweed.
Ragweed plants only live in the fall, but they produce a huge pack of pollen in just that short window. A single plant can produce up to 1 BILLION pollen grains! Our ongoing climate crisis is certainly making it worse too. With rising temps and higher carbon dioxide levels, the ragweed plants are able to live longer and produce much more pollen. So if you feel like your seasonal allergies each year are getting worse and/or lasting longer, you’re not wrong.
To understand why pollen screws up your days so bad, let’s talk about what pollen is first. Pollen is a tiny grain that comes from grass, some flowering plants, trees, and weeds, and quickly becomes airborne. Plants release pollen to fertilize the other same-species plants near them. When plants are fertilized (or pollinated) by insects, like bees, they usually do not release pollen into the air. But with insects and bees highly impacted by changes to our impact and climate, you can see again how allergies are getting worse each year.
How does pollen cause allergic reactions?
If you have a pollen allergy (sometimes called hay fever), your immune system identifies the pollen in the air as a threat. Your immune system then sends a message to your skin, lungs, nose, mouth, gut, and blood saying “Release the histamines!” Histamines are natural chemicals in your body whose job is to protect you from allergens by boosting blood flow in the impacted area. But in their effort to protect you, histamines end up causing a decent amount of inflammation.
Inflammation tells other chemicals in your immune system to jump in and help. This causes, as you can imagine, a lot of activity in your body. For example, let’s say you breathe pollen in through your nose. Your immune system would then shout to the histamines in your nose, “Get to work please!” So the histamines thin out the membranes in your nose so you can produce more mucus with the goal of excreting those allergens. So it’s the histamines themselves causing things like a runny nose or sneezing.
Is there hope for allergy sufferers? (Yes!)
To alleviate your allergy symptoms, you need to reduce the inflammation that causes them. Let’s talk through several methods for doing just that.
Go with your gut
The majority of your immune system is housed in your gut. Your gut is like school for your immune cells, where they learn to identify allergens and how to respond to these invaders they consider harmful. The bacteria in your gut is what helps it identify those harms. If the bacteria in your gut are healthy and diverse, you will have a more balanced immune response. But if your bacteria (aka your gut’s microbiome) are reduced, you’ll see negative effects. Things like a poor diet, stress, and environmental toxins can all lead to poor microbiome health.
So improving your gut health can help reduce the allergy symptoms you feel each season, and there are several ways to do that. First, eliminate foods that irritate your gut, like highly-processed snacks, meat, or artificial sugar. Replace those foods with ones that promote healthy gut function (like whole foods) and pre- or probiotic foods, which have live and active cultures to help your microbiome thrive. If you’ve depended on things like antibiotics or other medications, increasing your supply of culture-rich foods is especially crucial to help re-balance that bacteria.
Stress also takes a toll on your gut health, by depleting the bacteria you need and causing your body to spike its cortisol production. If possible, work on reducing or eliminating the stress triggers in your life. Or try responding to them with mindful activities, like yoga, meditation, or relaxing walks.
A lack of sleep, whether it’s caused by stress or leading to more stress, also impacts your gut’s health so make sure you’re practicing good sleep hygiene.
Boost and support your immune system
Because your allergy symptoms are actually caused by a reaction from your immune system, making sure your immune system is healthy will help reduce your sniffles and sneezes. Keep your immune system strong by eating a diverse array of whole foods, like vegetables, fruits, and grains.
Make sure your diet is packed with immune-boosting nutrients, like vitamin C, magnesium, and zinc, as well as omega-3 fatty acids.
Take care of your indoor environment
While nature’s an easy culprit to blame, your symptoms might actually be coming from inside the house. Your home’s air circulation could be repeatedly exposing you to outdoor allergens, as well as indoor ones like dust, pet dander, and other irritants.
Tackle this challenge by investing regularly in quality HEPA air filters, that will remove the irritants harming you. Make sure your fans, filters, and air ducts are clean and debris-free.
Also, make sure you’re washing your clothes and bedding often—as allergens can hide out on fabrics. In fact, those pesky pollen particles can even hitch a ride into your house with you on the clothes you’re wearing. If you’re coming in from a long period of being outside, it could help to remove those clothes as quickly as possible and change into recently laundered ones that haven’t been exposed.
When it comes to cleaning though, avoid cleaners and chemicals with artificial fragrances as those can trigger more allergic responses and impact your gut’s reaction.