Eat to Ease Your Allergies

Medically Reviewed by Neha Pathak, MD on April 11, 2019
3 min read

Seasonal allergies can make you sniffle, sneeze, and feel congested. The main cause is pollen. Unfortunately, no diet will cure allergies. But could what you eat affect how bad your symptoms get? Here are some of the foods that researchers are studying to see if they might help -- or make matters worse.

The key here is polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs): omega-3 fatty acids and omega-6 fatty acids. Your body needs both of them. Researchers are studying omega-3s to see if they have any benefits on allergies in children.

Food sources of omega-3s include cold-water fish such salmon, mackerel, tuna, and sardines (which actually get their omega-3s from algae), flaxseeds, chia seeds, and walnuts. PUFAs may ease inflammation, and the theory is that that, in turn, may lower the risk of childhood asthma and allergy.

In a Swedish study, children who had a higher level these fatty acids in their blood at age 8 were less likely to have gotten nasal allergies by age 16. It’s not clear if the PUFAs were the only reason for that.

You’ve probably heard of the traditional Mediterranean-style diet, which is rich in plant foods (fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and nuts), olive oil, and fish. One large study of children in Crete (part of Greece) found that the more closely children stuck to the Mediterranean diet, the less likely they were to have hay fever. The researchers found that local grapes stood out and note that antioxidants in those grapes may have helped.

Part of it may also be about the gut. “In the United States, the abundance of highly processed food in the diet alters the gut microbiome [a mix of bacteria and other microbes] in a negative way that can increase the severity of allergy symptoms,” says Jeffrey Demain, MD, founder of the Allergy, Asthma & Immunology Center of Alaska and a pediatrics professor at the University of Washington. “The Mediterranean diet seems to help tip the balance toward healthier bacteria in the gut, which may account for there being lower rates of allergies in countries that eat that way.”

“There is no convincing scientific evidence that honey relieves seasonal allergies,” states the website of the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, which is part of the National Institutes of Health.

There hasn’t been a lot of research on the topic. Two small studies found that it might help, but both were too small to draw conclusions from.

Edith Schussler, MD, a pediatric allergist at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York, says some of her patients swear that eating local honey has helped them. The theory is that you’re exposed to small amounts of the allergen until your body learns to tolerate it. “If the bees that make the honey are bringing back the same pollen that is causing your allergies, then it makes sense that if you’re eating low levels of that pollen regularly, it will decrease your sensitivity to it,” Schussler says.

Whether science bears that out remains to be seen. If you do try honey, only use a little bit -- like any form of sugar, it’s best to limit it. And never give honey to a baby less than 1 year old, due to the risk of botulism.