Seasonal allergies are a nuisance! Millions of people experience the sneezing, runny nose, and itchy eyes that go along with seasonal allergies. The trigger for seasonal allergies depends on what you’re allergic to. For some folks, it’s ragweed or other plants or it could be animal dander. But the underlying process is the same. When you’re exposed to an allergen, your immune system goes into overdrive, immune cells release histamine, and you get those annoying symptoms that make spring and summer activities such a challenge.
Allergy medications, such as antihistamines, can offer relief from the symptoms but they have side effects. Some people experience sleepiness even when they take non-drowsy types of antihistamines. Plus, antihistamines commonly cause a dry mouth and dry eyes. Is there a non-sedating alternative? Some scientists wonder whether probiotics, live bacteria you take as a supplement or get from fermented foods, could be beneficial for seasonal allergies.
Why would scientists think probiotics are beneficial for seasonal allergies? Seventy percent of your immune system is in your gut and probiotics can affect the gut immune response. It’s not unreasonable to think probiotics might suppress the immune response that triggers allergy symptoms since probiotics influence the immune system.
Some studies already show that probiotics modestly improve seasonal allergy symptoms. In one study, researchers gave older adults a probiotic supplement with 3 strains of probiotic bacteria linked with health, including Bifidobacterium longum, Bifidobacterium bidifum, and Lactobacillus gasseri. The study was a randomized controlled trial that was also blinded, so participants didn’t know whether they were taking a probiotic or a placebo. The participants took the probiotic supplement twice daily.
The outcome? At the end of the study, subjects that took the probiotic supplement reported an improvement in symptoms and quality of life. In contrast, the group that took the placebo didn’t experience an improvement in symptoms. Also, the subjects who took the probiotics reported less constipation.
Should You Take Probiotics if You Have Seasonal Allergies or Hay Fever?
The improvement in symptoms from taking probiotics was modest in the study, although there was some benefit. The participants had relatively mild allergy symptoms at the start of the study, so it’s not clear whether probiotics are helpful for severe allergy symptoms.
Probiotics may have other health benefits, although there are a few downsides to taking them. Some people experience mild gas when they first pop a probiotic supplement, but this often subsides once your intestinal tract adapts.
As with any supplement, it’s best to talk to your physician before starting on probiotics. If you get even modest benefits from probiotics, you may be able to reduce the quantity of allergy medication you take. Taking fewer medications is a smart move, especially if you experience side effects, but check with your doctor before stopping medications.
Choose Your Probiotics Carefully
Not all probiotic supplements are the same. To get the full health benefits, the bacteria need to be at a high enough concentration and still be alive at the time you take them. Choose a probiotic with an enteric coating to protect the organisms from the acid in your stomach. Look for a probiotic supplement that has at least one billion bacteria per gram.
Buy probiotics from a reputable manufacturer. Independent testing of supplements, including probiotics, shows supplements don’t always contain what they claim on the label. Even if they do, it may not be in the amount stated.
One study found that 5 out of 19 probiotic supplements had bacterial counts lower than what was listed on the label. Some probiotic supplements are dried with heat and they require refrigeration while freeze-dried ones do not. Note the expiration date too.
Don’t buy a product close to expiring since the bacterial count may decline as it approaches expiration. Stick to reputable companies and don’t be afraid to call the company and ask questions about their product.
Dietary Probiotics and Prebiotics
You can get probiotics without swallowing a pill by adding more fermented foods to your diet. Good sources of probiotics include fresh sauerkraut (in the refrigerated section of grocery stores), miso, tempeh, kefir, kimchi, and yogurt with active bacterial cultures. These are foods most people don’t eat on a regular basis but should. It’s especially important to consume more of these foods if you take a course of antibiotics.
Another dietary component that fosters a healthy gut microbiome and supports probiotic bacteria is prebiotics, a fermentable form of fiber. Although you can’t digest prebiotic fiber, bacteria in your gut can. When they do, they produce short-chain fatty acids and other beneficial components that are healthy for the gut and the bacteria residents that live there. Some research suggests that short-fatty acids made by bacteria that feast on fiber lowers the risk of colon inflammation and cancer. These fatty acids have anti-inflammatory activity.
Good sources of prebiotics include dandelion greens, bananas, garlic, unripe bananas, asparagus, onions, and Jerusalem artichokes. If possible, increase the probiotic and prebiotic content of your diet for better health and, potentially, less severe seasonal allergy symptoms.
The Bottom Line
Probiotics have potential benefits, and one of those benefits may be less severe seasonal allergy symptoms. Even if you don’t have seasonal allergies, it’s smart to add more fermented foods and prebiotic, fiber-rich food to your diet as probiotic bacteria are beneficial for the health of your digestive tract. They also help regulate your immune system. Having a healthy gut and body starts with what you put into it. Make sure you’re feeding your gut healthy, whole foods rather than ultra-processed junk. Your body will thank you for taking extra measures to keep it healthy!
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