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A sweet cure for hay fever

Reading time: 5 minutes

Tackling hay fever from the inside out can ease seasonal sneezes and more, says Dr Jenny Goodman

Jonathan was in his early 40s when he came to see me. It was mid-May in central London. His eyes were red and streaming, and he was deeply fed up.

His hay fever was getting worse, he told me, year-on-year. He didn’t want to take antihistamines as they made him feel groggy and he was concerned about long-term risks.

Jonathan knew pollen wasn’t the only culprit. He lived and worked in the city, but his parents had recently moved to the countryside, and he spent most weekends there. It was remarkable, he told me, how little he sneezed at their house although it was surrounded by grass, trees and plants of all sorts.

Hay fever, despite its name, was rare or unknown before the Industrial Revolution.

In Japan, where the Industrial Revolution occurred about 100 years later than in Britain, hay fever also appeared about 100 years later than in Britain.1 In Japan, people developed allergic reactions to the pollen of Japanese trees, in particular the cedar tree.

In the UK, similarly, people become allergic to the pollen of their local grasses or trees, though different people get ill during different parts of the hay fever season, depending on when their particular “demon pollen” is most plentiful in the air.

Hay fever and pollution

This is an example of TILT—toxicant-induced loss of tolerance.2 In other words, inherently toxic substances (in this case car fumes) are causing the body to react to an inherently harmless substance (in this case pollen) as though it were dangerous. This phenomenon is a big contributor to the rise of allergies in general, not just hay fever.

There are at least three possible mechanisms to explain why hay fever is worse in polluted urban areas. Firstly, exhaust fumes damage the shell of pollen grains, so they split open and release their contents, namely pollen powder composed of particles so tiny that, unlike the whole pollen grain, they can enter our lungs.

Secondly, many pollen grains can get stuck to a single particle of air pollution, making pollen more concentrated in urban air.3

Thirdly, pollen grains released in a natural environment would simply fall to the earth and be absorbed into the ground or washed away by rain. But when they fall on concrete, they get blown around by the wind; they hang around longer and don’t disappear.

All these mechanisms suggest air pollution is intensifying what would otherwise be a mild and transient immune response and turning it into a disabling condition.

My holistic treatment plan

I took a detailed medical history from Jonathan and found hay fever wasn’t his only problem. He also had acne on his back as well as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).

A stool test showed an almost complete absence of Lactobacillus (important friendly bacteria) and an overgrowth of two types of yeast. Jonathan was moving his bowels four or five times a day, with some urgency and with soft, improperly formed stools.

He wasn’t thrilled to hear that the lungs, skin and immune system are profoundly affected by the state of the gut and we had to start there to treat his hay fever. Ideally, of course, he would also have moved out of town to a less polluted area, but that wasn’t practical for him.

Jonathan agreed to cut sugary snacks out of his diet, including breakfast cereals, and to eat proper meals with fish, eggs, vegetables and whole grains rather than the white bread, white pasta and white rice he was living on.

Whole grains make some people’s IBS better and others’ worse—you have to try them and see—but a basic guideline is that if your gut is behaving badly, the way you’re eating now isn’t working for you.

I asked Jonathan to make these changes slowly to allow his gut and its bacteria to get used to new foods, more fiber and sugar withdrawal. He was, however, rather impatient and made all the changes immediately.

Unsurprisingly, he got diarrhea, but within three or four days that settled down, and he told me at our second session, “I’m only going two or three times a day, and it’s proper formed poo!” He did lose weight though, and, being thin, could not afford to.

He hadn’t followed my instruction to replace the calories from sugar with calories from healthy fats, such as avocados, nuts, seeds, hempseed oil (raw) and coconut oil (to fry with). Many people find it easier to cut out bad foods than to put in new and better foods. It’s vital to do both.

Gradual improvements

With some good-quality probiotics and grapefruit seed extract, Jonathan’s gut continued to improve till he hardly recognized himself. At our fourth session (by then hay fever season was over, so we couldn’t yet judge our results) he declared himself free of IBS.

His acne, at that point, was just beginning to improve. It did clear, but it took several more months. You can’t clear the skin (of acne or eczema) without first treating the gut. That’s how it works—from the inside out.

Our penultimate consultation was in April the following year. Jonathan’s hay fever was milder but still present. I could help him control what he ate, and that helped, but I could do nothing about the air he inhaled.

I had him on only two supplements now: vitamin D to calm the overreactive immune system, and vitamin C in high doses to tame his hay fever symptoms.

Sweet success

At our final appointment, Jonathan said he had found a remedy for his hay fever that, on top of all the other changes, more or less finished off the seasonal sneezes. It was local, raw honey.

He was still in the city but had found a beekeeper on an allotment nearby who used honey from his hive to ward off his own hay fever. It made sense to Jonathan, and it worked for him too. It’s a natural form of desensitisation.

But it must be local honey; the bees must live within half a mile of you so they are feeding from the same local plants whose pollen is affecting you. Supermarket honey won’t do (it’s usually labeled “produce of more than one country”).

“But isn’t honey full of sugar?” I hear you cry.

Yes. But we had already successfully treated Jonathan’s gut, so it was no longer crawling with hostile, sugar-grabbing yeasts. He was taking only half a teaspoon a day, and that was now his sole sugar intake. It was only for three or four months of the year, and it’s non-processed sugar.

My thanks to Jonathan and the wise urban beekeeper. Let’s preserve our bees; we need them for so many reasons.

Adapted from Staying Alive in Toxic Times: A Seasonal Guide to Lifelong Health by Dr Jenny Goodman (Yellow Kite, 2020)

Jonathan’s supplement plan


Suggested dosage: Follow the label instructions

Grapefruit seed extract

Suggested dosage: 400 mg once daily for the first week, twice daily for the second week and three times daily thereafter

Vitamin D

Suggested dosage: 4,000 IU/day (but it’s best to get blood levels tested first)

Vitamin C

Suggested dosage: Start with 500 mg twice a day and increase by 500 mg daily until you find your maximum tolerated dose—the dosage level below the one that gives you loose stools

How to find local honey

Searching online for “local honey near me” should bring up relevant results, or visit in the US or (the British Beekeepers Association) in the UK. Alternatively, check out your local farm shop, farmers’ market or health food store.

What do you think? Start a conversation over on the... WDDTY Community

  1. Chem Immunol Allergy, 2014; 100: 268–77
  2. J Nutr Environ Med, 2001; 11(3):181–204
  3. Atmos Environ, 2007; 41(2): 253–60
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