Itchy eyes, scratchy throat, and sneezes that nearly knock you off your feet over and over (and over!) again: Most of us have experienced the telltale signs of dreaded seasonal allergies at some point in our lives. But for many of us, allergies are a year-round affair—and when you consider the ragweed and mold in the fall; pet dander and dust mites in the winter; and tree, grass, and flower pollen in the spring and summer, allergies can feel like a never-ending season of misery.
Unfortunately, a lot of the factors that influence seasonal allergies—like the weather, where you live, humidity, and rainfall amounts—are completely out of your control. But here’s the good news: Even though you don’t have a say over if and when seasonal allergens may strike, you do have control over how your body reacts to them…and it all starts with your gut health.
Understanding the allergy-immune system connection.
So where do allergies come from in the first place? Simply put, allergies happen when your immune system overreacts (in varying degrees) to an external substance. It’s not something everyone experiences, but it’s indeed a sign that there’s some imbalance in your immune function. When this important system is weakened or suppressed, your first line of defense might not adequately defend you from bacterial attackers, which leaves you susceptible to all the detrimental germs that surround us. That being said, if it’s too sensitive, your immune system can overreact, producing antibodies to attack what it perceives as a “dangerous” substance, even if it’s just a fragrant flower. This is when you’ll find yourself with a runny nose, watery eyes, itchiness, skin reactions, and other traditional allergy symptoms.
So what exactly does the gut have to do with all this? You see, nearly 80 percent of your immune system resides in your digestive tract, and it turns out that the trillions of microbes that also live there—known collectively as your gut microbiome—have a huge influence on the balance and performance of your immune function, including:
- Crowding out and killing the bad guys. Your friendly flora (called probiotics) produce antimicrobial substances and acids—like lactic acid—that can eradicate bad bacteria and other microbes that can make you sick.
- Protecting your gut barrier. Your intestinal barrier is an important part of your immune system that protects your bloodstream from the external environment of your gut (and all that goes into it!). The good bacteria in your microbiome help increase your gut barrier’s protective mucus layer, and they work to fortify and seal gaps in the intestinal wall.
- Increasing antibody levels. Beneficial bacteria promote antibody secretion, and they also increase levels of cells that produce immune-boosting antibodies like SIgA.
It’s clear that your gut microbiome plays a big role in how your immune system handles true threats like harmful bacteria or viruses—but we now know that a lack of enough beneficial bacteria in the gut can contribute to the immune system’s inability to distinguish friend from foe, leading to the dreaded immune system overreactions known as allergies.
Uncovering the root cause of allergies: the gut.
From the moment we’re born, we’re exposed to an endless number of microbes—from our mom’s birth canal, in breast milk, from skin-to-skin contact, and from our environment—that begin to form our microbiome. In fact, the microbes we encounter in our first few years are crucial to determining how well our immune system functions for the rest of our life, and researchers are finally beginning to understand why.
It turns out that the more microbial exposure we have at a young age—and the more diverse our microbiome—the healthier we are long-term, because all those microbes we encounter in our early years train and challenge our immune system to respond appropriately, whether that means taking action against toxins and harmful microbes or laying low when confronted with harmless allergens.
In one study, scientists discovered that a lack of bacterial diversity in the guts of 3-month-old babies was associated with a high risk of developing asthma, which is often triggered by an allergen. In another, babies without certain gut microbes at just one month of age had a three times higher risk of developing allergic reactions by age 2 and asthma by age 4!
The implications on immunity, allergies, and lifelong health of not having a diverse microbiome as a small child are huge—and all the more reason to do all you can to support your baby’s microbial healthfrom the get-go. But what can you do as you age to keep your immune system from overreacting to every little thing?
Fortunately, research shows that beneficial bacteria have a regulating effect on your immune system throughout your life, and replenishing your microbiome with probiotics now can ward off and treat annoying seasonal allergies. In a trial of 173 adults suffering from seasonal allergies, eight weeks of probiotic supplementation led to improved quality of life and fewer allergy-related nose symptoms. Other studies show that probiotic supplementation can reduce nasal congestion, prevent and treat atopic eczema, and lessen symptoms of allergic rhinitis.
If you’re one of the 20 million adults in America who struggles with hay fever (or you’re a parent to one of the more than 6 million kids who are afflicted), this is great news!
Finding a connection between seasonal allergies and food allergies.
There’s no doubt that probiotic exposure very early in life—primarily from a vaginal birth and exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months—helps to seal the “open guts” of babies, thereby preventing foreign substances like food particles from escaping through the intestinal wall into the bloodstream and stimulating allergic immune reactions that can last a lifetime.
But exciting new research is showing that by modulating the immune response, probiotics may be able to lessen allergic responses to foods later in life as well! In a randomized trial conducted in 2013, researchers gave 62 kids with peanut allergies either placebo or probiotic Lactobacillus rhamnosus combined with increasing amounts of peanut protein for 18 months. At the end of the study, more than 80 percent of the children in the probiotic group were able to tolerate peanuts, compared to less than 4 percent in the placebo group. Even better? The researchers completed a follow-up studyand found that nearly 70 percent of the probiotic kids were still able to eat peanuts four years later, and almost 60 percent showed long-lasting tolerance to peanuts. (And this is several years after stopping probiotic treatment.) Keep in mind that you should always talk to your doctor.
Although there’s a definite need for more research on how probiotics can help decrease true (often frightening) allergic reactions to food, studies show that probiotics are able to decrease and improve symptoms of food sensitivities, such as gluten sensitivity and lactose intolerance.
Healing your gut and kicking allergies to the curb.
Whether you’re deep in the throes of allergy season, are just looking to fortify your system for the next pollen onslaught, or simply want to start enjoying that one food again that seems to always cause irritation, making sure your gut health is in tiptop shape is the key to preventing over-the-top immune reactions. Here’s how:
1. Take a high-quality, effective probiotic supplement.
Replenish your microbiome so it can support your immune function by taking a daily, multi-strain probiotic supplement. The only way your immune system can benefit from a healthy microbiome is if you have enough of the good guys in your digestive tract working on your behalf to make a real difference. Ingesting billions of these hardworking gut bugs day in and day out will create armies of immune-regulating bacteria that are ready to stand guard and go to battle for you.
2. Feed your probiotic armies.
Your beneficial bacteria need to eat—a lot—and their favorite food is the prebiotic fiber available in many whole, plant-based foods, like bananas, onions, garlic, and asparagus. To keep your gut bugs flourishing and able to excel at their immune-regulating jobs, fill your meals with as many prebiotic fiber-packed foods as possible. Since it’s nearly impossible to get as much fiber as you need to adequately fuel your trillions of microbes, aim to include at least one scoop per day of an organic, food-based prebiotic powder supplement.
3. Embrace the dirt and welcome the bugs.
The alarming and epidemic rise of allergy and asthma rates in the United States can be explained by one relatively simple concept (aka the hygiene hypothesis): Our environment has become far too clean. Remember how our immune system needs the challenge of microbial exposure to learn how to respond to both perceived and real threats? As the obsession with sanitizing and antimicrobial everything has become ingrained in our society, we have much less exposure to those all-important immune-challenging microbes that teach our immune systems how to behave. So do whatever you can to get a little more dirty—refrain from using antibacterial cleaners, get a pet, spend time out in nature, hand wash your dishes, and garden in the mud. By adding a little more dirt (and many more microbes) to your life, you may just be giving your immune system the exact provocation it needs to become more balanced!
When you look at them from an immune perspective, allergies are just like an overly sensitive, hypervigilant child who hasn’t yet been taught how to respond to all the stimulation that comes his way. With patience, guidance, and a lot of prebiotic and probiotic love (and don’t forget, a healthy dose of dirt!), your childlike immune system can begin to mature into the wondrous, intelligent foundation of health it was meant to be. Now bring on those summer picnics in the grass!