Hay fever affects 1 in 4 adults in the UK (1 in 10 children) and research shows that numbers are rising. Throw into the mix some potent pollen, and it seems we’re especially vulnerable to the misery of streaming eyes and a tickling throat. But what is hay fever, why is it affecting more people, and – while there is no cure – what can we do to alleviate the symptoms?
Leapfrog founder Stephanie Drax spoke to Farzanah Nasser, a nutritional therapist and functional medicine practitioner. Farzanah predominantly works with women with auto-immune conditions – in particular Hashimoto’s disease – and uses nutrition and lifestyle changes to rebalance the body. With the right knowledge, Farazanah believes it’s possible to reverse autoimmune conditions – including seasonal allergies – and that it all starts with the gut.
Stephanie: What is the difference between a conventional GP and functional medicine practitioner?
Farzanah: As a functional medicine practitioner, you’re looking at underlying functional imbalances and correcting them. If you go to your doctor with blood sugar issues, for example, the doctor might give you a drug to support your blood sugar. I look at the root cause – the food you’re eating, the gut, the inflammation – and I would look to balance those imbalances.
What is auto-immunity and what are the symptoms?
An auto-immune condition is an imbalance in your immune system. Your immune system mistakenly attacks part of your body as “non-self”. Depending on what part of the body it has created antibodies to, it is called something different; for the thyroid, it’s Hashimoto’s, for the myelin sheath (the protective covering of the nerve cells in the brain, optic nerve and spinal cord) it’s multiple sclerosis, and if it’s skin it can be psoriasis or eczema. The immune system has wrongly identified part of your body as foreign, and the body is doing what it thinks is correct in trying and get rid of it – that’s an imbalance in the immune system.
Up to 80% of the immune system is in the gut, so that’s why the gut is such a big part of autoimmunity. The reason for that is, that it’s where we encounter so many foreign things – we’re consuming foods all the time and the gut is where the body distinguishes between what’s foreign and what’s not foreign.
Do allergies come underneath the “auto-immunity” umbrella?
Yes, it’s all about immune tolerance. You see issues like allergies when the immune system is struggling to tolerate due to an imbalance. When pollen lands on the lining of the nose and throat the body reacts inappropriately, activating mast cells (immune cells) to defend itself against the foreign invader. This prompts the release of histamine to wash it out which makes your eyes watery and makes you sneeze.
What is it that might cause the onset of hay fever?
We all have a bucket that gets filled with insults like stresses and toxins or unhealthy foods. Our body can only tolerate so much, and at some point, it overfills. It could also be a particularly strong pollen count, or even the impact of having had COVID-19. There are studies that show the effect of good gut health on the protection against COVID-19 – the symptoms, and the impact after having it. For some people struggling with long COVID, there may have been mast cell activation, which releases histamine. It depends on each person, however.
Nutrition can help enormously. In Tim Spector’s PREDICT studies (predicting differences between people in their biochemical and behavioural responses to meals with different nutritional compositions using metabolomics and microbiome profiling) they found that people who were having 30+ plant foods a week had a better gut and immune response.
Try to include 2 different plant foods in each meal:
– Add blueberries, nuts or pumpkin seeds to your cereal in the morning
– Add some olives or artichokes to your lunch salad
– Incorporate greens into your dinner
Is there any possibility of reversing allergies and hay fever?
Yes, it is possible. There was a study that said 50% of people who have histamine issues will have gut issues as well. There are some things that you can do to support the gut.
When you have allergies, you will probably reach for anti-histamines that stabilise the mast cells. There are a lot of natural anti-histamines that are sold, such as Vitamin C and Quercitin. Having Quercitin about half an hour before you go outside can help stabilise the mast cell and calm things down. Quercetin is naturally found in red onions, apples, and berries – so there are a lot of foods that are naturally anti-histamine as well. A study showed that Moringa reduced histamine being released by the mast cells by at least 60%. Camomile tea and nettle tea (you can sip them cooled with ice during the day) can also be really good in that way.
Vitamin D is a nutrient that can help to regulate the immune system, and so many of us are low in vitamin D. From the months of October to March, we’re not taking in any Vitamin D because of the way the sun is positioned (the NHS recommends taking a low dose of Vitamin D throughout the year) Your vitamin D could be on the floor when Spring comes, putting you at a disadvantage. Getting your Vitamin D levels tested in October – at the highest levels it’s at – and optimising this will help with immune system regulation. You can do this at your GP or through a test kit. Test your levels again in March to see how well you’ve been able to hold onto it, then you’ll know how often you need to supplement.
Some people also have an issue with their VDR receptor – you may be in the sun but not be able to absorb Vitamin D. I’ve got a “SNiP” (a subtle change in the genetic sequence of the code) for the VDR gene that causes me to not absorb Vitamin D when I’m in the sun, so I need to supplement all year round.
How can we improve the species of good bacteria in our gut?
There’s a lot of food that has been shown to promote the growth of good bacteria in the gut, like brown rice, blueberries, and green tea. The bottom line is that if you’re eating a diverse range of plant foods, you will automatically improve the natural species in your gut. Prebiotics act as food for “good” bacteria in the intestine, and there is a pre-biotic called Gos (galactooligosaccharides) which has been shown to increase bifidobacteria within seven days. [Note: Gos doesn’t suit everyone – if you have IBS, it may irritate and cause more issues.]
THE RULE FOR A HAPPY GUT AND A STRONG IMMUNE SYSTEM:
You need 30 different plant foods a week, and 30 grams of fibre. This is what helps to regulate your immune system. It’s all about good gut bugs, and the best way to support those bugs is to eat the plants and fibres that help feed them.
Are there any other things we can do, aside from nutrition, to relieve symptoms?
Stress is huge. Every time you’re stressed, or you haven’t slept enough, it triggers a histamine response. That’s going to add to the bucket too, and it directly affects your histamine response. So, if you’re more stressed or haven’t slept you’ll notice that your tolerance is lower, and your hay fever is worse that day.
Things to support your stress response can be really powerful. Andrew Weil has a great breathing technique called 4-7-8 breathing in which you breathe in for 4, hold for 7 and breathe out for 8. It’s great for calming down the stress response and bringing you back into parasympathetic mode. It’s an instant way to calm the nervous system and it helps to alkalize the body too – the trick is to have a longer exhale than inhale. You only have to do it once every couple of hours to feel the effects.
Does our environment have an impact on our hormones, like toxic perfumes, candles, detergents, etc?
Again, it’s adding to your toxic bucket. Your house can be your most toxic environment. Opening windows helps – it may not be convenient with the pollen, so if you can afford a HEPA filter, that can be really beneficial. Taking your shoes off before you come into the house, changing your clothes, taking a shower and washing your hair can be helpful for those suffering from a pollen allergy. Also dusting with a damp cloth once a week and hoovering, and tumble drying rather than drying outside can make a difference.
Keep your environment as clean as possible. Lots of plug-in air fresheners can be toxic because they’re putting chemicals and xenoestrogens into the air. A better thing to do is to use essential oil diffusers – they are naturally anti-microbial and anti-viral and keep the air clean.
There was also a study that showed that getting outside and exposing your eyes to morning light helps reduce histamine as well. Higher histamine levels can make you more sensitive to the sun, so do consider a supplement if that’s the case.
Leapfrog’s Lactoferrin consultant, Dr Marian Kruzel, wrote a paper examining the impact of Lactoferrin on seasonal allergies. In the study, they used ragweed, a potent pollen, and it showed Lactoferrin reduced inflammation in the airways. What’s your experience with Lactoferrin?
I love Lactoferrin and I’ve used it in the past. It’s great for bone health, which is an area of interest of mine. It’s really powerful: there was a study in which they put lactoferrin on gauze to heal the skin on a jaw and it healed it in 2 weeks versus 3 months. And it’s a great way to support your immune health as well. It binds the pathogens in the gut and can help the good bacteria proliferate.
And what do you think of Leapfrog?
It’s brilliant. I prefer chewables and powders – I don’t enjoy taking pills as much – so I do love that it’s a chewable. You get compliance too, particularly from children, if it tastes good and is good for you. Leapfrog has Vitamin C too, which is important to support the immune system.