Nothing to sneeze at
Get going now on functional foods to stave off springtime sniffles

Nothing to sneeze at
Anna Marija Helt - 03/09/2023

Weepy eyes, runny noses and sneezing are just around the corner as junipers, box elders and other trees release pollen and the spring winds start to whip.

Allergies are when the immune system attacks stuff it mistakenly sees as dangerous, be it pollen, doggie dander or peanuts. These and other allergens provoke immune cells to release histamine and other substances that cause inflammation along our airways. The inflammation, in turn, causes symptoms ranging from the annoying (snot and sneezing) to the life-threatening (throat swelling).

Now is the time to add some supportive foods to your allergy season toolbox. “Functional foods” are not as strong as allergy medications, many of which are antihistamines. But they may help dial down reactivity and be especially helpful for those for whom allergy meds are damned near useless or else have annoying side effects. Here are some foods to consider…

• Onions and shallots share molecules that benefit the immune system and respiratory tract in multiple ways. Such molecules include quercetin and sulfur-containing compounds that do multiple things to reduce the misery of allergies. (The sulfury compounds are also why your breath may be rank after a nice salad topped by red onions.) Onions and shallots have been used for centuries for respiratory and immune health, and were shown to reduce allergy symptoms in a few, small human trials. Multiple mechanisms of action may underly the benefits, with more than just antihistamine effects. Consider adding them to your diet several times per week. Don’t like onions or shallots? Try garlic, leeks or other members of the Allium family.

• Apples are also used in traditional medicine for promoting healthy airways and immune function.  Population studies have linked eating two to five apples weekly – so not even an apple a day – with reduced incidence of reactive airway disorders and better respiratory health overall. Apple polyphenols are chemicals concentrated in the peel but also found in the flesh, and they were shown to ease sneezing, runny nose, and nasal swelling in a small clinical trial of allergy sufferers. The juice, not so much, so eat whole apples with the skin on. Different apple varieties have somewhat differing collections of “active ingredients,” so mix it up. Maybe Idareds one day, and Jonagolds or Fujis the next.

• Berries have been employed in traditional medicine for inflammatory issues; for instance, strawberries for inflamed lungs. Strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, cranberries and other berries are a great source of vitamin C, quercetin and many other compounds that counter mediators of allergy symptoms. If store-bought fresh berries are too spendy, grab a bag of frozen berries instead. And unlike raw onions, eating berries on a first date isn’t a big deal. 

Berries, apples, and onions and other alliums improve the health of other bodily bits that influence how reactive we are to allergens, including the liver, and the gut and its resident microbes. In several cultures, spring is considered a great time to eat liver-loving foods. Note, however, that foods beneficial for some folks may be allergens for others. For example, over 70% of people allergic to birch pollen cross-react to apples. And cooked onions can provoke a strong allergic response in some individuals. For most any food item, you can find someone out there who’s allergic to it. 

A final note: It’s easier to add healthy foods to your diet than it is to remove problem foods. Consider focusing on adding the good stuff. Then, work on minimizing items such as sweets, fried or greasy foods, white flour-based foods, and non-fermented dairy. These items can trigger production of some inflammatory molecules that cause allergy symptoms.  

Be well!

Anna Marija Helt is a biologist and certified practicing herbalist. The information here is not intended to treat or cure any disease or to supplant the advice of a licensed healthcare provider.