Seasonal Allergies: a Functional Medicine Perspective

Spring is in the air. For some, this means blossoming trees, birds, bees, sunshine, rebirth, regeneration, freedom, and fun-filled outdoor activities. For others, it represents irritation by pollen, ragweed, and goldenrod marked by sneezing, itchy eyes and misery. How can people who live with allergies get relief during this wonderful change of season so that they can enjoy nature without distraction by out of control histamines?

Step One

First step is to understand what your body is trying to tell you. Itchy eyes, scratchy throat, and sneezes that seem triggered by springtime are really flags that your “histamines” are trying to help you. That’s right. Your body is actually trying to protect you from what it thinks is an attack. With that understanding, wouldn’t it be wonderful to re-educate your body so that it no longer sees these as enemies? You can. Histamines are fighters that try to help but wind up causing lots of discomfort. The problem isn’t histamines at all. The true culprit: inflammation.

Conventional medicine blocks histamines with all sorts of medications – both over the counter and prescription. Functional medicine addresses inflammation. Functional medicine practitioners encourage healing of the body to facilitate effective internal communication. This means that lifestyle choices may be used to educate the internal team of organ-systems, including the brain and neurological system, so that you can regain and maintain balance of mind, body, and spirit without distraction by allergies. This brings us to step two.

Step Two

The second step is to understand that inflammation – particularly in the digestive system (aka “the gut”), gets in the way of educating your body. Once you reduce inflammation, you can educate your body effectively. In order to reduce inflammation, we need to understand what triggers it. The answer: lifestyle choices, including food, exercise, beverages, supplements and sometimes air itself.

Food is a conversation we have with our body. It delivers messages. The food that delivers messages to create inflammation – sugar, high fructose corn syrup, “modified” anything, “partially hydrogenated” fats/oils, white flour, wheat flour, milk, and even yogurt – for some people. In order to stop delivering the message to the gut to become inflamed, one needs to read labels carefully and cut out the offending food.

Foods that deliver messages to calm inflammation include wild caught salmon and brightly colored fruits and vegetables (such as red, yellow, and orange peppers; cantaloupe; dark leafy greens, including spinach, collard greens, kale, and Swiss chard). Adding these to your diet, while avoiding the offenders, helps calm inflammation in the gut.

Exercises need to be appropriate for the season and for your body. In general, slow, gentle stretches are helpful during winter months. It is helpful to increase the aerobic and cardiovascular exercises as springtime arrives. Examples of exercises appropriate for springtime include bike riding and walking – briskly or just strolling, according to your body’s needs and ability. Also to be enjoyed are swimming or walking in water waist high. Take care to not overdo, since sprains and strains signal inflammation of muscles, joints and/or tendons.

Beverages that deliver messages to inflame the gut include those with artificial colors or flavors, and/or sugar or artificial sweeteners. Beverages that calm gut inflammation include green tea (cold or hot), drinks with probiotics in them (read carefully to be certain that a by-product of manufacturing is not alcohol if you are sensitive to or otherwise avoiding alcohol for any reason), ginger tea, white tea, and teas with turmeric. (Be cautious about these recommendations if you take prescribed medication. Best bet is to check with your doctor before incorporating any new tea into your daily intake).

Supplements (check with your provider for reliable manufacturers – as you would aim for those with minimal heavy metal contamination) that tend to calm gut inflammation include broad-spectrum probiotics, certain herbs (check with a functional provider for specific ones that work best for you), and omega-3 fatty acid capsules. Keep in mind that nutritional, herbal, vitamin and mineral supplements offer many different messages to the body. You need to understand what messages you want to give your organ systems – and choose wisely. Certain herbal supplements, such as turmeric, may calm the gut but, for some agitate the heart. Certain vitamins, such as Vitamin C, may reduce inflammation in some people but cause gas and bloating in others. Please be an informed consumer and check with your provider for what’s best for you. The chemistry of each system and each human is unique.

Air is essential for life. So is water. Just enough of both can heal you. Too much of either can hurt you. Contamination may cause inflammation. Air contaminated with exhaust from automobiles, as well as from gas and wood-burning stoves, irritates the respiratory system. Pollen is not considered a contaminant; however, a person with an inflamed gut will interpret pollen and all microscopic signs of life and rebirth of springtime as “an enemy” triggering the self-defensive histaminic reaction. Once it goes into overdrive, misery follows. Consider keeping a high quality Hepa Filter on full blast in your bedroom at night – while on medium or low throughout the day, and try to minimize exposure to noxious fumes. You should have at least one active smoke detector in your home, and one or more carbon monoxide detectors – especially if you have gas appliances and/or a wood burning stove. If you must spend daytime hours out and about in polluted air, consider a personal air filter worn around your neck during that time.

To sum it up, as you strive to reduce gut inflammation, it helps to add foods that quiet the gut while reducing dietary substances that offend your body; increase your intake of purified, filtered water (ideally: distilled, for a week or two), and consider using a salt water sinus solution upon waking and at bedtime to wash out lingering allergens. Wishing you and those you love excellent health, reduced inflammation, and a fun-filled spring!

Dr. Nancy Iankowitz is a board certified family nurse practitioner and Director of Holistic and Integrative Healing LLC. She is also host of “Marcy’s World”on Pawling Public Radio. Email your questions to: For more information, call (917) 716-6802, or visit online.