Bright summer flowers are in full bloom, grasses and weeds are going to seed, bees and insects are hard at work...and millions of people around the country are battling runny noses, sneezing fits, and itchy eyes.
Commonly known as hay fever, this irritating and sometimes debilitating condition is caused by the body’s immune system overreacting to pollen, dust and other allergens in the air. Ravi Shetty, a 38-year-old chartered accountant in New Delhi, says he suffered from seasonal allergies for six years, popping anti-allergen pills every day during the pollen season. “Finally I went to nutritionist Ishi Khosla, and she suggested I take raw crushed garlic, turmeric paste and a spoonful of cold-pressed coconut oil every morning,” he says. “Since I started doing that, every single symptom is gone, and I’ve never had to take another pill again.”
Zoom in: To boost immunity, eat leafy green vegetables.
For people with severe pollen allergies, hayfever can cause breathing difficulties and aggravate asthma. Medical science has no cure, only a plethora of anti-allergen pills, nasal sprays and decongestants for temporary relief. However, as in Shetty’s case, anecdotal evidence from nutritionists suggests our day-to-day diet can ease the symptoms and fortify us against seasonal allergies.
Boost your immunity
While noting that there is no scientific evidence for a diet that can fight a seasonal allergy, Nalin Nag, senior consultant, medicine, Indraprastha Apollo Hospitals, New Delhi, and a specialist in allergies and immunology, agrees that a good diet can help in that a healthier body copes with the allergy better. A stronger immune system reacts less to allergens and doesn’t go into overdrive as readily.
“We suggest that people take plenty of fluids and a diet which is rich in vitamins and minerals; omega-3 fatty acids also boost immunity. Drink natural, sugar-free fruit juices on a daily basis. Oily fish or cod liver oil are the best sources of omega-3 fatty acids,” says Dr Nag.
To this, Khosla, a clinical nutritionist and director, Whole Foods, New Delhi, suggests adding anti-inflammatory foods, such as coconut, fenugreek (methi) seeds, garlic, onion seeds and turmeric, to reduce the load on your immune system. “All have antimicrobial properties, and some amount of antibacterial and anti-fungal properties,” she says. “They also boost the immune system. Coloured fruits and vegetables also fall into this category.” Fruits with dark colours, such as pomegranates, red grapes and various berries, are also excellent sources of antioxidants, which fortify the immune system and make you less susceptible to seasonal allergic syndromes, says Khosla.
She also recommends adding yogurt or buttermilk to your daily diet: “Probiotics in yogurt promote ‘good’ bacteria and flora in the gut, thus helping the digestive system stay healthy, which also helps to reduce the effects (irritable digestion, weakness, sneezing fits) of seasonal allergies. Probiotics also strengthen the cell membranes and prevent allergens from crossing into the cells in your stomach.”
Foods to avoid
Reducing the intake of sugar, wheat and flour products such as breads and pasta can help keep seasonal allergies at bay. “All these foods foster the growth of yeast and fungus and can aggravate allergies,” Khosla says. “They disturb gut integrity (the physical and functional structure of the intestine) and aggravate gut infections and even respiratory infections.”
Shubnam Singh, clinical allergist and director of medicine, Max Healthcare, New Delhi, says certain pollens and foods cause cross-reactions in susceptible people. Once the sufferer has an allergic reaction to any of the pollens or foods in a given group, an allergy to other related plants and foods becomes more likely. Some tree pollens and certain foods such as walnuts and almonds contain a common chemical structure and this leads to cross-reactivity, Dr Singh says. Similarly, ragweed pollen (a common hay fever trigger in the US) shows cross-reactivity with bananas and watermelon seeds.
While many institutions globally are researching cross-reactivity to pollens and foods, India-specific species are obviously not on their radar yet. “Though we have no scientific evidence to back this (yet),” says Dr Singh, “our clinical experience shows that it helps patients if they avoid pickles and whole seeds.”
Include at least three cups of various chopped fruits a day in your diet to build immunity and get antioxidants. One helping can be substituted with a glass of juice.
For the right dose of vitamins to strengthen immunity, add a citrus fruit and leafy green vegetables to your diet.
It’s not a summer crop in most of India, but if you can get it, broccoli stands in its own league—rich in minerals and vitamins, it is also the only known food which contains almost all the major antioxidant agents found in food.
Add one portion of oily fish or fish oil capsules to your daily diet. Vegetarians can try flaxseed (or its oil).
Steer clear of tree nuts, whole seeds and pickles to avoid potential allergens.