Ah, spring. Pink puffs of blossoms decorate trees, daffodils stretch open their buttery frills to the sun and ― what’s that? Sorry, I was too busy sneezing to finish my thought.
If your nose runs so much that your most notable spring accessory is the tissue that’s always tucked into the wrist of your shirt sleeve, you’re likely in need of some relief from seasonal allergies. While you should see an allergist to properly diagnose and treat you, a few remedies in your own kitchen can help you breathe easier (and they’re doctor-approved).
You probably already know that spicy foods like jalapenos and wasabi can make your nose run. But have you wondered why? And are spicy foods actually helpful in the long run? What if you’re not a fan of a good burn? Are there nonspicy foods and drinks that can help, too? We spoke with experts to get the answers and to debunk some myths you may have been buying into (ahem, expensive honey).
The mechanics of snot: How seasonal allergies can congest your sinuses
Before you assume you have seasonal allergies, remember what assuming does to U and ME. Dr. Morris Nejat, an allergist and immunologist at the New York Allergy & Sinus Centers, explained to HuffPost that “a lot of times, people can’t diagnose it properly themselves, so you need to identify what it is you’re reacting to, whether it’s pollen, animals, dust, etc.”
Nejat said it’s entirely possible that you’re not suffering from allergies at all, but either a sinus infection, a deviated septum or each of those on top of allergies. “By seeing your allergist, you’ll be able to get proper testing and get an exam to make sure you’re getting the right treatment,” whether that be medication or allergy shots, Nejat advised.
If you do indeed have seasonal allergies and your sinuses are producing snot like it’s their job, consider that it actually is their job. When your body comes into contact with something it’s allergic to, Nejat explained that your body says, “Hey, that tree pollen is kind of weird, I’d better be aware of what’s going to happen next time,” and forms immunoglobulin E (IgE) antibodies, which attack that tree pollen the next time your body encounters it. Those IgEs make your body release histamines, causing allergic symptoms like congestion, itchy eyes, runny nose, mucus production and redness. And without treatment, your body will do this every time it encounters that tree pollen for the rest of your life.
Why spicy foods can alleviate allergy symptoms
You know the feeling after you’ve taken a bite of wasabi, ginger, horseradish or jalapeno ― your nose constricts, your eyes burn and tears start running down your face. Nejat explained that this happens because certain foods trigger the body’s nervous system “to innervate different parts of the body, reversing some of the effects of histamines, which can be a natural relief to some of the symptoms of allergies.”
Jalapenos and some other peppers, for example, contain a chemical compound called capsaicin, an active ingredient found in many nasal sprays. It helps to decongest and provide sinus relief by stimulating certain nerves to loosen mucus and help it run. Chili peppers aren’t the only foods that contain effective chemical compounds. Other spicy foods, such as wasabi, horseradish and ginger, each contain their own compounds that trigger a similar reaction.
But keep in mind that spicy foods bring short-lived relief, much like many over-the-counter allergy medicines. “It does work, but I don’t see it as a good long-term treatment,” Nejat said. You don’t want to be downing wasabi six times a day during allergy season.
But eating spicy foods in moderation won’t hurt your sinuses, either. Nejat said spicy foods are “a natural alternative to going to the pharmacy and getting allergy relief meds, especially if you like these foods. If you like wasabi and it makes you feel better, go for it.”
Not a fan of heat? Try herbs.
Paul Kempisty, a board-certified herbalist and founder of Peekay’s Herbs, explained that many herbs can pack an even stronger punch than foods. “Herbs are quite incredible for dealing with congestion, allergies and many mucus-related problems,” he explained. “Herbs are like foods that went to college. They generally have a far more complex and powerful nutrient profile. So, while herbs do not really nourish us with the same level of macronutrients (fats, proteins, carbs, etc.) found in foods, their potency is a lot closer to the powerful effects of certain medications, but with far fewer side effects and risks.”
You can certainly try single-ingredient herbs (Kempisty’s favorites are stinging nettle, turmeric, elderberry and flower, shisho leaf, chrysanthemum flower, ginger root, cinnamon, cardamom and dried citrus peels). But combinations of ingredients, he said, are more powerful. “Instead of using massive dosages of single ingredients or single drugs, a sound herbal approach would be to use moderate dosages of several similar botanicals in order to achieve a well-rounded and beneficial result,” Kempistry explained.
Dr. Clifford Bassett, an allergist who’s the founder and medical director of Allergy & Asthma Care of New York, said that studies have shown both curcumin (which is found in turmeric) and ginger to be helpful in reducing symptoms of seasonal allergies. Another study found that consuming curcumin can improve nasal breathing in patients with seasonal allergies.
You can add fresh herbs to your cooking, but you can achieve a higher potency if you purchase a liquid tincture or concentrated granular extract in a capsule or tablet, which can be added to hot tea or water. (Examples of such recipes are Peekay’s Clean As A Whistle allergy session support or Sinus Solution nasal and throat support.) And yes, drinking foods and soups that are hot really does go a long way toward loosening up your mucus and helping things get moving.
“In general, when trying a new herb on your own, start low and go slow,” Kempisty advised. “Meaning, start any new herb with a low initial dose and then increase after you’ve seen that your body tolerates it.”
Why honey won’t necessarily help with seasonal allergies
The belief that honey can treat allergies is based on a hypothesis similar to the concept of allergy shots ― by exposing someone to an allergen, the person becomes less sensitive to it over time. But allergy shots deliver allergens in high doses. The amounts of pollen in honey are far too small to prove effective, and this treatment is purely anecdotal.
The other claim is that honey’s antibacterial properties can combat allergies, but Nejat reminds of us one important fact: “Allergies aren’t a bacterial issue.” So, if honey soothes your throat and tastes good, go ahead and spoon some into your tea. But don’t expect it to cure your allergies.
Foods to avoid when you suffer from seasonal allergies
The big food group to avoid is dairy. Studies show that cow’s milk protein sticks to mucus, which can make allergy symptoms about as unpleasant as reading this sentence. “If you have a lot of mucus from allergies, and then you eat cow’s milk protein in the form of cheese or milk, it makes the mucus thicker,” Nejat explained. “It doesn’t feel comfortable. But even worse, it can potentially block drainage pathways and lead to sinus infections.”
There’s also a small chance you could experience an itchy mouth or throat when you eat certain fruits and vegetables that cross-react with birch pollen ― apples, peaches, plums, nectarines, cherries and even vegetables like carrots ― because some people have very strong tree pollen allergies, especially to birch.
This is called Food Pollen Allergy Syndrome, or FPAS. While it’s typically not dangerous, it will most likely affect you if you eat those foods in raw form. If you eat a raw apple, for example, your mouth may itch. But if you eat a slice of apple pie, you’ll be unaffected. Seeing an allergist will help differentiate between having food pollen syndrome and having a food allergy.
If you think you may have seasonal allergies or FPAS, seeing an allergist could relieve a lot of anxiety. “Part of an allergist’s job is to educate you and relieve your anxiety, because you have control,” Nejat said. “Knowledge is power, really ― understanding what you’re allergic to, what it really means, what you need to do, what the risks are (if any) and how to control it.”