Probiotics for Hay Fever

Helen Morton BSc (Hons), Nutritional Therapist DipION, BANT, CNHC

For anyone who suffers from hay fever, the pending approach of spring is a double-edged sword. Whilst for everyone else, this time of year is enjoyed for the blossoms, warming sun, and air thick with scent, for those with hay fever these exact things cause pain and discomfort.

Allergy UK estimates that around 18 million people in the UK suffer with hay fever, affecting 10-15% of children and 26% of adults1.

Read on for the ultimate guide to probiotics and hay fever allergies including natural hay fever remedies to help you through the season:

Image of barley
18 million people in the UK suffer with hay fever

What is hay fever?

Many more of us will be experiencing allergy issues from around March onwards and it's often frustrating to not be able to find a way to avoid this allergy. Hay fever renders many people feeling as though they have been knocked down by a bus, popping tablets and frantically using nasal sprays to alleviate some of the frustrating symptoms. Good news for birch pollen allergy sufferers though, as there is research to suggest that taking probiotics in advance of the pollen season may help to reduce the distressing symptoms of this allergy.

As you may already know, hay fever is an allergic reaction to pollen, the fine powder that plants have when they produce seeds. Pollen is transported by insects and the wind, causing problems for hay fever sufferers when it comes into contact with your nose, mouth, eyes and throat. The proper name for hay fever is allergic rhinitis, which means inflammation inside your nose.

Most pollens contain proteins that can cause irritation to the nose, eyes, throat and cause sinuses to swell. As already mentioned, Western societies seem to suffer with hay fever allergies in far larger numbers than the rest of the world, leading scientists to believe the 'hygiene hypothesis' is one of the main causes. This hypothesis suggests that our increasingly hygiene-focused lifestyles, removed from bacteria we would normally be exposed to in nature, has decreased the diversity of bacteria found in our gut and microbiome. The resulting implications for our immune system, which can be unnecessarily sent into overdrive by allergens such as dust mites, animal hair and/or pollen, is a challenge for many people.

Hay fever is a seasonal allergy and the severity and for how long you experience symptoms each year depends on the type of plant that you have an allergy to. Silver birch pollen allergy is one of the most common and tends to occur from March to June, peaking between April and May. Grass pollen is usually in the air from May to July, though it can last until as late as September. Grass is thought to be the most common hay fever allergen.

You can see that it is possible to experience hay fever allergy symptoms for a significant portion of the year if you have an allergy to more than one type of pollen. If the weather is particularly warm and humid then pollen count can rise higher than usual.

Hay fever symptoms

The most typical symptoms of hay fever, which can make the spring and summer months incredibly tiresome, are itchy eyes and constant sneezing and/or runny nose. Symptoms can often feel very similar to a common cold. Some people find that they also experience itchiness, particularly in their nose, throat, mouth and ears, and headaches. All of these symptoms can impact on getting a good night’s sleep, leaving sufferers feeling tired and below par.

Symptoms usually start soon after being exposed to an allergen, such as tree pollen. Most people with hay fever have symptoms that are mild and can be treated easily and effectively. Unfortunately though, for some people symptoms can be severe and persistent, causing sleep problems and interfering with everyday life.

Relief for most comes in the form of antihistamines, but these over-the-counter drugs can leave some sufferers feeling drowsy and overuse can lead to dependency.

You’ll be pleased to hear that symptoms of allergic rhinitis do sometimes improve with time, although it is not guaranteed that symptoms will disappear completely.

Can you suddenly develop hay fever?

Hay fever often begins in childhood or during teenage years, but it can develop at any age. If you have a family history of allergies like asthma or eczema then you are more likely to develop hay fever2.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that for some women going through the menopause, hay fever can suddenly develop. Fluctuating hormone levels impact on your finely tuned immune system making it react differently to previously harmless allergens such as pollen.

Do you grow out of hay fever?

Yes, just as it is possible to develop hay fever at any age, your tolerance to pollen can improve as you age so you may find that symptoms drastically reduce and maybe even disappear completely. Some children find that once they have transitioned through puberty and into adulthood, hay fever symptoms diminish.

Sadly, this will not happen for everyone as we are all individuals. The age at which you grow out of hay fever may well depend on the age at which you first develop hay fever.

How can probiotics help hay fever?

There has been much research into probiotics and hay fever. Studies have found that probiotics can make hay fever symptoms less severe, improving peoples quality of life3. As mentioned already, scientists believe that many allergies are caused by a lack of bacterial diversity in our gut, possibly due to the over-emphasis on hygiene in western societies. In fact, hay fever is a largely western phenomenon.

A team at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine reviewed 23 studies involving 1,900 participants and found evidence that the best probiotics for hay fever decrease the severity of common symptoms4. Scientists think that restoring, or increasing, the diversity of bacteria in the gut can have a positive effect on the immune system and lessen the impact of allergies such as hay fever.

Inflammation is a fundamental part of allergic rhinitis, and one of the ways that probiotics help hay fever symptoms is by balancing TH1/TH2 immune cells response5, resulting in decreased inflammation. Probiotics also lower common inflammatory biomarkers such as C-reactive protein (CRP) and Interleukin 6 (IL-6), which are cells related to immune response that are associated with allergic rhinitis6.

Gut dysbiosis, when there is an imbalance in ‘good’ and ‘bad’ bacteria in the digestive tract, is implicated in hay fever and allergies. Probiotics are known to improve the balance of the gut microbiome, helping to resolve the annoying symptoms of hay fever7.

It is also worth noting that probiotics can have beneficial effects on other chronic diseases, which are almost exclusive to western societies, such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), and skin conditions such as eczema and acne. You may wish to read more about these conditions in our dedicated articles The Best Probiotics for IBS and Probiotics for Acne & Skin Health.

Young girl blowing her nose
Hay fever affects 10-15% of children and 26% of adults in the UK

Best probiotic strains for hay fever

In recent years there has been a lot more interest in and emerging knowledge around specific strains of probiotics. We know that different strains do different things – in this section we discuss the best probiotic strains for hay fever.

One study performed in Finland investigated two elements of probiotics and hay fever symptoms. Firstly, whether firstly birch pollen allergy symptoms are linked with changes in the gut microbiota, and secondly whether probiotics have an effect on this. 47 children with a confirmed birch pollen allergy were chosen at random to receive either a probiotic combination of Lactobacillus acidophilus NCFM® and Bifidobacterium lactis Bl-04, or a placebo. This was a double-blind study, meaning that neither the children and their parents nor the researchers knew which treatment was given. The study was run over a 4 month period, starting one month prior to the birch pollen season in Finland. Symptoms were recorded, and blood samples were also taken to analyse cytokines and eosinophils (markers of immune reaction).

Results were positive for the children in the probiotic group. Researchers found that during the month of May there was a tendency for fewer children who took the probiotic supplement to report having a runny nose, while during June, less of the children in the probiotic group reported having a congested nose8. Eye symptoms tended to be slightly more frequent in the probiotic group during May.

This particular study showed that a daily dose of two probiotic strains, Lactobacillus acidophilus NCFM® and Bifidobacterium lactis Bl-04, reduced the inflammatory response in the nasal mucus membranes to birch pollen and produced results that indicated that respiratory symptoms, such as a runny nose and a blocked nose were alleviated by approximately 20% each. Researchers concluded that the probiotics clearly showed a positive effect.

Healthcare practitioners may wish to read more about these probiotic strains over on our Probiotics Database: Lactobacillus acidophilus NCFM® and Bifidobacterium lactis Bl-04

As always, further research is required, but it does give support to sufferers looking for the best probiotics for hay fever trying these particular strains during the pollen season. Ideally for a month before the pollen season, while the pollen count is high, and then maybe for a month after to help modulate the immune response. I would imagine most pollen allergy suffers would be happy to try this alongside their usual medication as an integrative approach.

Natural ways to ease hay fever

Pop into a pharmacy or health store and you will see many products claiming to help hay fever sufferers. Symptoms are so varied amongst hay fever sufferers that it stands to reason there are a multitude of natural hay fever remedies.

A pharmacist may offer you antihistamine drops, tablets or nasal sprays to help with itchy and watery eyes, sneezing, or a blocked nose. Hopefully we will soon be at the point where pharmacists also offer well-researched probiotic supplements alongside these traditional products.

Other strategies which can be used to minimise symptoms of hay fever when the pollen count is high include:

  • Wearing wraparound sunglasses to stop pollen getting into your eyes
  • Changing your clothes and showering after you have been outside to wash off any pollen
  • Putting a thin layer of Vaseline around your nostrils to trap pollen externally
  • Avoid walking on freshly cut grass or close to trees which cause allergic symptoms

People often want to know how to cure hay fever permanently. Unfortunately, there is no permanent cure for hay fever, it is more a case of managing symptoms. If your hay fever symptoms become more debilitating, you may wish to see your GP for further advice.

Summary – key takeaways

Allergies like hay fever are, unfortunately, common place nowadays. We all want to have a pain free Spring and Summer time and enjoy the change of season and (hopefully) better weather.

To summarise:

  • Hay fever is a seasonal allergy to pollen causing annoying symptoms similar to that of a common cold
  • It is thought that a lack of diversity in our gut bacteria impacts allergies like hay fever
  • Certain probiotic strains, such as Lactobacillus acidophilus NCFM® and Bifidobacterium lactis Bl-04, may help alleviate symptoms alongside conventional medication

We hope you enjoyed reading this article about the best probiotics for hay fever. The following pages on our Probiotics Learning Lab may also be of interest:

Probiotics in childhood
Probiotics for bloating

References

1. https://www.allergyuk.org/resources/allergic-rhinitis-and-hay-fever-fact-sheet/
2. Guo H, An J, Yu Z (2020) Identifying Shared Risk Genes for Asthma, Hay Fever, and Eczema by Multi-Trait and Multiomic Association Analyses. Frontiers in Genetics, 11:270. doi: 10.3389/fgene.2020.00270
3. Jianghua Li et al., (2023) The gut microbiome and allergic rhinitis; refocusing on the role of probiotics as a treatment option. European archives of otorhinolaryngol, 280(2):511-517.
4. Ouwehand AC, Nermes M, Collado MC, Rautonen N, Salminen S, Isolauri E. Specific probiotics alleviate allergic rhinitis during the birch pollen season. World Journal of Gastroenterology : WJG 2009;15(26):3261-3268. doi:10.3748/wjg.15.3261.
5. Liu P et al., (2022) Research Advances in the Treatment of Allergic Rhinitis by Probiotics, Journal of Asthma and Allergy, 15: 1413—1428.
6. Milajerdi A et al., (2020) The effect of probiotics on inflammatory biomarkers: a meta-analysis of randomized clinical trials, European Journal of Nutrition. 59(2):633-649.
7. Hooi-Leng Ser et al., (2022) IDDF2022-ABS-0236 Healing the GUT with probiotics: can probiotics help relieve allergic rhinitis? Gut, 71:A63-A64.
8. Turner, J. H. et al. (2015) A systematic review and meta-analysis of probiotics for the treatment of allergic rhinitis. International Forum of Allergy & Rhinology. Published online ahead of print.