By: Sam Kramer, MS, RD, LDN, CSSGB, CISSN
‘Tis the season for sniffles and sneezes, especially from allergies. But before we dive into how to fight them, we should understand what allergies are.
According to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, an allergy is when the body’s immune system mistakenly identifies a benign foreign substance as harmful and kicks into overdrive to get rid of it. The foreign substance, known as an antigen, is identified by your immune system and generates a specific indicator known as an antibody. Your body generates different types of antibodies, but the one associated with allergens is known as immunoglobulin E (IgE). When the antigen is identified, the antibody releases a chemical to attack the antigen, which in turn produces a varying degree of symptoms associated with allergies, such as itchy or runny nose and eyes, rashes, swelling and sneezing.
So, what can you do to combat seasonal allergies? Besides the obvious solution of avoiding specific allergens, you can also consume foods to increase your defense mechanisms and protect yourself against allergen triggers. Here are five types of foods that help boost your immune system and help you fight seasonal allergies:
1. Citrus Fruits
Tangerines, oranges, grapefruit, limes and clementines, oh my! While all fruits are beneficial, citrus fruits are particularly potent in an imperative micronutrient known as vitamin C. Also known as ascorbic acid (don’t let the chemical name scare you, it is natural!), vitamin C serves many functions in the body, including collagen production and energy metabolism. Most notably, however, it plays a role in immune health. Vitamin C is a power antioxidant, which means that it helps stabilize harmful compounds known as free radicals or radical oxygen species. While free radicals are a part of a healthy immune response, excess amounts can lead to detrimental effect on your cells and thus your immune system. Vitamin C also regenerates vitamin E, another powerful antioxidant in the body. Talk about a two-for-one deal!
Your parents always told you to eat your vegetables, and for good reason! Not only are vegetables packed with essential nutrients like fiber, vitamins, and minerals, they also contain lesser-known functional nutrients known as phytonutrients that can support your immune system. Most notably, vegetables are rich in carotenoids, a class of phytonutrients that are responsible for the beautiful colors of your red, yellow, and orange vegetables like carrots, red peppers and squash. Carotenoids can support a healthy immune response and act as antioxidants to keep those free radicals at healthy levels.
3. Yogurt & Fermented Products
People are searching for convenient ways to obtain their nutrition. Yogurt and other fermented products such as kefir, tempeh and kombucha are bountiful in live healthy bacteria known as probiotics. These little buggers, pun intended, have other names such as the microbiome, microbiota and flora. These monikers are all talking about the commensal bacteria that thrive within your gastrointestinal tract to support a myriad of physiological functions.
Gut health is one of the final frontiers of Nutrition Science research, and there is still a lot the scientific community does not know about this area. What has been recently discovered, is the gut-brain axis or gut-brain highway. It has been revealed that your gut acts as a second brain, known as the enteric nervous system, and can act independently and symbiotically with the brain in your noggin. This may make the phrase “trust your gut” that much more powerful.
While the true mechanism of probiotics related to immune health is unknown, research has demonstrated that probiotics may directly play a role in regulating genes and proteins that impact the immune system. Additionally, probiotics may also play an indirect role in immune health by generating short-chain fatty acids (SCFA) in the gut which promote immune health and intestinal integrity.
If these foods do not seem appealing to you, probiotic supplements are also an option. While there is no “perfect” probiotic supplement, it is generally recommended that the potency be at least 1 Billion Colony Forming Units (CFUs), a wide variety of species within the genus (i.e. Lactobacillus, Bifidobacterium), and some form of technology enhancement to improve the survivability of the bugs as they pass through the acidic environment of the stomach. One can also pair the probiotic with a prebiotic, which are short-chain fibers that act as food for the probiotics help them thrive and survive.
4. Omega-3 Rich Foods
Perhaps you have heard that omega-3s are essential fatty acids. In nutrition, “essential” means that the body does not make enough of a nutrient and therefore must be consumed in the diet through food or supplementation. Omega-3s are important for immune health because they are anti-inflammatory. They are particularly critical because they do not exist in most foods in the typical American diet. They exist primarily in fatty fish like salmon, mackerel and eggs. The animal form contains the “active” primary omega-3s known as EPA and DHA.
If you are vegan or vegetarian, have no fear, because omega-3s can also be found in flax and chia seeds. However, in plants, the omega-3 exists as the parent fatty acid known as ALA. Consequently, if you do consume the plant-based form, keep in mind that the conversion rate from ALA to EPA/DHA is very low, especially in men, so your volume of these foods needs to be a little bit higher than that of animal sources.
Turmeric, also known as curcumin, is one of the many spices that has been used for thousands of years in traditional Eastern culture. Previous centuries were inherently knowledgeable, because turmeric has been known to decrease immune response. It can be easily added to most cuisines, adding an eye-catching hue to any meal and also can be taken as a supplement that is clinically researched and dosed.
With these top foods in your tool box, you will be armored against those pesky allergies and continue to thrive throughout all months of the year. Stay ahead of the curve and stock up your household with these whole-food defenders.
Disclaimer: This information is educational only and not providing healthcare recommendations. Please see a healthcare provider.