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Life experiments: An unexpectedly effective treatment for allergies

[ 8 ] May 13, 2011 |
A flower that produces a pollen that's a common allergen.

Image by to.wi via Flickr. Licensed under Creative Commons 2.0.

I have really bad pollen allergies every March and September. Over-the-counter drugs are only enough to take the edge off. To be functional during those two months of the year normally costs several hundred dollars in prescriptions, money I’d really rather put into my freedom fund.

I’m really into locally grown food, and one of my favorite area farmers posted his story, including having cured his own allergies by giving up sugar. Could that really work? Although it sounded kind of wacky, I figured, hey, it’s free. I’ll try it.

Cutting out sweets

I have a huge sweet tooth, so the most obvious part would be giving up desserts. No more brownies, cookies, ice cream, cake, and most importantly, chocolate. Frankly, the only way I could talk myself into trying this was to promise that it would only be for a month. I didn’t want to have a bunch of temptation in the house, so during the last week of February, I wallowed in sugar to finish up all the treats.

I have quit sweets before, and every time I do, the first three days are filled with intense cravings and a general squirmy feeling. I won’t be surprised at all if scientists eventually conclude it’s an addiction. But knowing it only lasts three days makes it much easier. If I thought I’d have a whole month like that, I might not have done it, but for something so short-lived, you can just power through pretty easily. I had done it before, so I knew I could do it.

Cutting out the rest of the sugar and high-fructose corn syrup

The part I was expecting to be really difficult was not giving up sweets, but avoiding all of the other products where sugar or high-fructose corn syrup is an unexpected ingredient. My favorite bran flakes, spaghetti sauce, ranch dressing, and crackers all contain one or the other. In fact, almost all processed food does. Next time you eat something that came from a bottle, box, or can, check the ingredients. If it’s got seasoning of any sort, or is a seasoning, or contains whole grain, you can bet it will also have sugar or corn syrup in it.

After a big Michael Pollan kick last year, I have been intending to eat less processed food anyway, so I took this as a chance to combine two goals.

It was actually easier than I expected. For breakfast, instead of bran flakes, I had oatmeal with cinnamon, pecans, banana, and honey. (I’ve heard other home remedy theories suggesting that eating raw, local honey will cure your allergies, so I decided to exclude honey from the sugar ban. I don’t really like the taste of honey, so I didn’t eat much, which is why bananas became essential, even though they’re the antithesis of local food–they’re sweet.)

The other things I normally eat that contain sugar were similarly replaceable:

Instead of… I ate
box cereal oatmeal
Wheat Thins Triscuits
Ragu home-made spaghetti sauce
store-bought Ranch dressing home-made Ranch dressing
peanut butter or almond butter ground almonds with salt, honey, and oil mixed in
dessert fruit

What I learned

I really never had any idea how easy it is to make your own spaghetti sauce and salad dressing before, but both are super easy! My dad used to make tomato sauce when he made lasagna, and I recall it being an all-day job, but Rachel Ray’s quickie tomato sauce (part of a recipe for stuffed shells) take about half an hour and tastes fantastic! I assume it’s the fresh herbs that make it taste so good, so I bought a basil plant so I don’t go bankrupt making spaghetti sauce. And ranch dressing is even easier–you just mix up a pile of spices and then stir it into a buttermilk/mayo blend. (Oops, it turns out mayo has sugar in it, though. D’oh!)

The homemade versions of these things aren’t much more trouble than the premade “convenience” versions, and I’m a big fan of skipping all the chemicals and weird stuff in processed food. I call that a win. (Did you know that most canned or frozen food loses most of its flavor during processing, so appeal is added back in with artificial flavors and colors? The same labs in New Jersey that make the scents for deodorant and laundry detergent also manufacture the flavor of TV dinners and packaged food. Yum!)1

The results

I have to say, I’m totally amazed at how well this worked. Normally, even with the expensive pills, March isn’t a great month for me. When I was a grad student and could only afford knock-off Claritin, I was miserable. It barely took the edge off.

During the experiment, I quit eating sugar/corn syrup March 1. I took the knock-offs for the first week and didn’t experience a whisper of a symptom. After that, I quit the drugs too, yet my sinuses were completely clear the whole month. The effects were dramatic. I felt healthier than I feel during the good parts of the year! On top of that, I lost five pounds.

After the month ended, I was so impressed, I was planning to stick with the no-sugar diet forever. I carried it on pretty well for a couple of weeks, especially since I wasn’t sure exactly when the worst tree pollen ended–that varies from year to year.

However, forever is a long time, and I really like sweets. Since my sugar fast ended, I’ve had days with sugar and days without, and I’ve observed a very strong correlation between sugar and sinus annoyances. I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t tried it, but the effects have been dramatic and obvious.

A few puzzling observations

The things that surprised me most during this experiment were:

  • How effective it was. I wouldn’t have guessed not eating something I’ve always eaten and loved could make me feel so much better.

  • How crazy it seems to outsiders. Even my boyfriend, who is a pretty scientific kind of guy, seemed to think it was a really nutty idea and appeared unimpressed even in the face of the results.

  • How much easier it was to go cold turkey rather than just cutting back. “Eating less sugar” has been one of my perpetual goals for years, but I never seem to do it. “Eating no sugar,” on the other hand, was a bit of a hassle but somehow easier to do. Maybe it’s because “no sugar” is more concrete than “less sugar,” and because “not have allergies” is a much clearer expected reward than “be healthier and hopefully less fat or something,” which was generally the idea behind eating less sugar. Even free donuts in the break room were resistable on the sugar fast.

  • How much I craved milk shakes. This is a weird one. I think I normally have a milk shake every month or two, if that. But even after the three-day sugar madness wore off, I had a persistent longing for milk shakes all month. I drank a lot of milk, and I was eating plenty of fatty stuff, so it would seem that I was getting all of the nutrients my body could be desiring from a milk shake. If I had been craving chocolate, I wouldn’t be surprised, but milk shakes? It seems odd.

  • How much I associate junk food with comfort, and fun. When I was really upset about something, I found myself reflexively wanting sweets–I never realized what a strong automatic response that has become for me. And when I was around other people and said no to sweets, I was surprised to find myself feeling like a huge party pooper and no-fun person, like I was spoiling everyone else’s good time. Is a brownie less fun if you’re the only one eating it?

  • How much I’ve gone back to eating sugar, even though I feel a lot crappier when I do. I love Ben & Jerry’s. I love s’mores. I love soft chocolate chip cookies with oatmeal and Heath bar bits. I love Cadbury eggs. But I also love breathing easily, waking up clear-headed, and feeling energetic. I know the connection now, and every time I eat sweets, it’s proven again: I feel like crap. So why do I keep trading a few minutes of pleasure in my mouth for hours of grogginess, and sometimes sinus headaches on top of that? Do I really have so little ability to defer gratification and do what’s best for myself? I wouldn’t have guessed that.

Obviously, nobody is ever going to fund research on this–the manufacturers of processed food have too much to lose, and nobody is going to make any money selling you “don’t eat sugar.” It’s free. I’m very curious as to whether the effects I’ve observed are due to something weird about my body, or whether it would work for anyone. I definitely recommend trying it for anyone with bad allergies–it worked incredibly well for me, and it costs nothing and has no side effects (unless you count my surprise bonus weight loss). If you try it, please let me know what happens–I’d really like to know.

Even if you don’t have allergies, I think it’s worth pondering what you can and can’t live without. Courtney Carver wrote a really interesting post about this here–she caught herself thinking “I could never give up wine for 30 days,” and didn’t like the idea that a substance had that much power over her. So she did give up wine for 30 days, and was surprised to find that she really didn’t miss it. My experience with this experiment was very similar–I thought I could never give up sugar, but I did, and it wasn’t that hard.

What about you? “I could never give up _______ for the next 30 days.”–what’s in that blank for you?


1Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation: Why the Fries Taste Good (Excerpt reprinted by PBS)

About Cara Stein: I'm a writer and dreamer with a PhD in self-reinvention. (Or was that computer science?) Whether you're stuck, lost, or just looking to enjoy your life more, I want to help because I've been there!

Comments (8)

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  1. Tina Ciancia says:

    That was quite interesting. I have been complacent about the food I eat. But I would never have guessed that giving up sugar would help with allergies.

    I am not sure what I would give up for 30 days. I’ll have to get back to you on that one.

    It’s a pleasure to read your books and newsletters.

    • Cara Stein says:

      Thanks, Tina!

      I wouldn’t have guessed about sugar, either, but I was really amazed at how well it worked.

  2. bethany says:

    I gave up sugar and every time I cheat I get a runny nose. With that said you are not the only one.
    I also gave up fruit because of the high sugar content. Fruit doesn’t give you a relapse in allergies?

    • Cara Stein says:

      During the month when I tried this (March), I ate a ton of fruit with no problems. Since then, I’ve been on and off the wagon, and now I seem to be back to having a perpetually stuffy head. Fruit would be the next logical step, but I hope there’s a difference between the naturally occurring sugar in fruit vs. the processed sugar in processed food. I don’t really know, though. Thanks for your insights!

  3. Sheila says:

    Thanks for such a thorough post. I really appreciated reading about someone who is going through the same thing. No one told me about this possibility (and I never would have come up with it on my own), but I was doing the low-carb weight-loss thing and I discovered a few days in that my allergies had disappeared! I thought it couldn’t really be true that eating sugar makes me susceptible to allergens. Someone would have told me that years ago, right? So three times now I have given up just candy (yes, chocolates were the toughest) and each time my allergies disappeared. I have allergies to my dogs when they slober all over each other and I get hay fever. At the moment I’m sneezing all over the place and no pollen is in the air. But a day after I cut out the candy, the allergies are gone. Reading your article made me wonder about your own experiment. If you allowed store-bought Ranch and the like back into your diet, did your allergies come back?

    Thanks again for the great post! I will attest that it works exactly as you describe. =)

    • Cara Stein says:

      Thanks, Sheila! I’m glad it works for you, too.

      About the trace amounts of sugar in things like processed Ranch, I haven’t experimented that carefully. I think it’s a threshold sort of thing, and as long as you stay below a certain point, you’re good. I don’t really know that for sure, though. I never seem to do anything between cold turkey and Oreo-fests. I’ve heard of moderation, but I’m not well acquainted with it. 😉

  4. Elvira says:

    I had exactly the same experience you did (without the milkshake craving). My house dust mite and tree pollen allergies come back the day after I succumb to sugar and disappear again very quickly when I resist sugar. In my case, it’s not only the runny nose, it’s also the itchy throat and eyes that come and go depending on whether I eat sugar or not. I still feel like I’m addicted to sugar however, although it’s been a year now that I’m mostly no-sugar. It’s a battle. I miss chocolate especially.

  5. Raheema says:

    Quitting sugar was the best thing ever for my allergies. Like others, when I go back to eating sugar I get a stuffy nose again. I make a “choc milkshake” for my son blending bananas, cocoa powder and milk. He loves it and so do I. I know staying off sugar is the best thing for my health, though I struggle to find things rewarding without celebrating with sugar. 🙈

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