When you think about controlling allergies or hay fever, you probably think about avoiding pollen, freshly mown grass, your friend's cat or a moldy basement. In many cases, this avoidance strategy is effective. Often, however, the allergy triggers remain elusive and there's a possibility you may be overlooking an important one-what you eat and drink.

Eat, Drink And Be Miserable?

Since allergic sensitivities may be, in effect, cumulative, certain foods and beverages can make you more vulnerable to allergy symptoms such as sneezing, sniffling, congestion, skin irritations and red, watery eyes, confirms Andrew L. Rubman, ND. In his opinion, it's simplistic to just suppress these symptoms with medication. Instead, he advises looking deeper into dietary connections to potentially "cure" the problem rather than simply mask it. Dr. Rubman shared more of his thoughts on food allergies, along with advice on what can be done about them…

In most cases, what we commonly refer to as food "allergies" would be more accurately described as food "sensitivities." On occasion, a person may experience a true food allergy—in the worst case, a life-threatening allergic reaction (anaphylaxis) to foods such as shellfish or peanuts, Far more commonly, however, a runny nose, sneezing, hives and other sorts of allergy symptoms reflect a sensitivity to certain foods that are difficult for the body to process. The foods that typically are hardest to digest-cow's milk and gluten grains (wheat, barley, rye)-are the most likely to cause problems.

How does a glass of milk and a sandwich on whole-wheat bread—a meal digested in the gut—cause symptoms in the nose? According to Dr. Rubman, the body has several mechanisms for dealing with digestive challenges. Normally, food residues are effectively contained within the intestine, through which nutrients are absorbed while the remainder passes efficiently and completely from the body. However, when factors such as disease, stress, excessive alcohol, medication or foods containing dairy proteins/ sugars or gluten cause inflammation, the intestinal wall may "leak," permitting tiny partially digested food particles to escape. This causes the body to produce antibodies that attack the unknown particles (called antigens).

One surprising response to the presence of these microscopic food particles is rhinitis—inflammation of the nose's mucous membranes. Nasal defenses normally handle airborne challenges, deftly filtering out and destroying millions of irritating pollutants, particles and chemicals in the air you breathe. But they can also respond to intestinal permeability (or what's called leaky gut). The mucous membranes react by producing extra mucus (hence, the sniffles).

Strategy To Reduce The Symptoms

Mainstream medicine generally treats allergy symptoms with antihistamines, decongestants or immunotherapy. Dr. Rubman, however, advises allergy sufferers to examine and change their diet as necessary. Consume more whole foods—such as fresh vegetables and fruits and legumes, deep-water fish like salmon and tuna, and poultry without skin—and fewer processed foods laden with additives, saturated fats and sugar, all of which can worsen allergy symptoms and leaky gut. In particular, limit intake of cow's milk, milk products and products with gluten because these have the greatest capacity to disrupt the gut lining, particularly the large intestine.

Dr. Rubman's recommendations…

  • Leave cow's milk to baby cows. Every species of mammalian mother produces special milk to feed their young, so it is not surprising that some people are allergic to the specific proteins in cow's milk-they are different from what humans naturally digest. Other people are unable to digest lactose, a milk sugar. Cow's milk can cause digestive disturbances, mucus build-up in the sinuses, immune system reactions and more

Note: Cultured dairy products like cheese and yogurt are more easily tolerated in the lactose sensitive or intolerant.

Worried about getting enough calcium if giving up your daily glass of milk? Try the many other rich—and more readily digestible—sources of calcium, including broccoli, kale, spinach, turnip greens, salmon and canned sardines with bones.

  • Cut back on products containing gluten. Gluten—the complex protein in grains like wheat, barley and rye—can cause disturbances in the structural and functional performance of the intestine, explains Dr. Rubman. This can result in both intestinal (gas, bloating, diarrhea, for example) and non-intestinal symptoms (e.g., fatigue, irritability, and bone and joint pain in addition to the allergy symptoms), ranging from mild to severe.

Opt for gluten-free alternatives such as quinoa, amaranth, buckwheat or brown rice. Look for gluten-free labels on processed foods (such as soy sauce, ketchup and salad dressings, products that often contain hidden gluten). Or, better yet, forego the processed foods altogether.

Not Such An “Extreme” Makeover

When you've explored the obvious causes—such as pollen and mold—and your allergy symptoms still bother you, it's time to wonder whether your diet might be the real problem. Since dairy and gluten products are naturally challenging to the human digestive tract, says Dr. Rubman, it is likely that everyone is affected to varying degrees by a dairy and/or gluten sensitivity.

In fact, the question may not be "if", but rather "how much" milk or cereal it will take to trigger symptoms. Often, the answer depends on one's overall health. Dr. Rubman advises taking these factors into account…

  • How pumped is your immune system? The healthier you are, the better prepared your body will be to meet the challenge of processing hard-to-digest food and drink.
  • How old are you? Sometimes, the older you get, the less robust immune protection you have, compared with younger people.
  • Is your body coping with seasonal airborne irritants (pollen, ragweed, etc.)? If so, on occasion, this will leave you especially vulnerable to the ill effects of digestive challenges, due to systemic inflammation that can affect intestinal permeability.

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