Natural remedies can help ease allergy symptoms and let you enjoy the season.
by Eric Schneider
Spring—with increased daylight, warmer temperatures and resurgence of natural life—is a season that almost everyone anticipates. But for those who suffer from seasonal allergies, commonly known as hay fever, springtime can also mean the arrival of irritated eyes, coughing, sneezing, runny nose, nasal congestion and severe sinus pressure. In addition to the immediate discomfort, these symptoms can dramatically affect a person’s overall quality of life by causing sleep deprivation, irritability and fatigue.
Nature, by simply going about its business, is the culprit behind seasonal allergies. Certain vegetation—trees, weeds, grasses—create tiny, ultra-light pollen grains that float freely through the air. These particles are generally harmless. But in people with hay fever, the immune system overreacts to them, resulting in symptoms. (Other allergens, such as pet dander and house dust, can result in allergic reactions year-round.)
Seasonal allergies affect everyone differently, largely depending on each person’s health issues and the kinds of allergens present. The first step is to learn which allergens trigger your symptoms and do what you can to avoid them. This can be accomplished in part by keeping a symptom log to try to find the source (or sources) of the allergens: Where are you when symptoms occur and what types of symptoms do you experience? Other ways to cut down on exposure to pesky pollen include cleaning household surfaces with warm soapy water, and regularly washing and vacuuming your car. The recirculating feature in your car’s air-conditioning system can help keep allergens out of your vehicle.
Even the most basic elements of healthy living can help prevent or ease hay fever symptoms. “Adequate rest, a balanced emotional life and exercise will help regulate the hormonal system, which impacts responses to all allergens,” says Rise Finkle, ND, LAc of Stone Ridge Natural Medicine in Stone Ridge, New York (www.stoneridgenaturalmedicine.com). “If a person is constantly in stress mode, the cortisol [hormone] levels shift, and there is an increased physiologic response to stimuli such as allergens.”
Luckily for people who want to avoid allergy medications, a number of natural alternatives are available. Fred Pescatore, MD, author of The Allergy and Asthma Cure (Wiley), recommends the use of a neti pot, available in many health food stores. Resembling a miniature watering can, a neti is used to irrigate the nasal passages with warm saline (salt) solution. “Everyone with allergies, asthma or sinus issues needs to be using this simple device,” says Pescatore.
Another option, and a very sweet one at that, is local honey. Evidence supporting this idea is anecdotal. But Finkle believes that honey produced close to one’s home, especially in raw form, is good for hay fever: Since trace amounts of local allergens are found in the honey, they may help the body acclimate to area pollen and reduce allergic reactions.
Dietary supplements also offer a variety of allergy-fighting possibilities. Pescatore suggests a number of options, including quercetin (500 mg three times per day), a flavonoid found in some fruits and vegetables that has antioxidant properties. Pescatore also recommends AHCC (500 to 1000 mg three times per day), a medicinal mushroom extract (active hexose correlated compound) that helps bolster the immune system, and Pycnogenol (50 mg three times per day), a pine-bark extract that features potent antioxidants. Vitamins factor into Pescatore’s regimen, most notably vitamin D3 (2,000 IU per day or more), vitamin C (3,000 mg per day), and vitamin A (up to 20,000 IU per day). Stinging nettle (200 mg three times per day) is a beneficial plant extract.
India’s Ayurvedic healing tradition also relies on medicinal plants to help alleviate allergy symptoms.
The most famous of these is ginger (Zingiber officinale), a known anti-inflammatory that may help fight allergic asthma (International Immunopharmacology 12/08). Ayurveda employs two kinds of pepper: Long pepper (Piper longum) is used to treat coughs and respiratory infections such as bronchitis, while black pepper (P. nigrum)—the same species used as a table spice—contains piperine, an anti-inflammatory compound. Bibhitaki (Terminalia bellerica) helps stop spasms and open airways, haritaki (T. chebula) is a stress-fighting herb used for cold-related coughs and lebbeck (Albizia lebbeck) has shown an ability to fight allergies in lab studies. Indian gooseberry, also known as amla (Phyllanthus emblica), is traditionally used for hay fever and asthma. A remedy containing all of these herbs has been found to have anti-inflammatory properties (International Journal of Tissue Reactions 2004).
Surprisingly, a key factor in dealing with hay fever rests in the digestive system. Beneficial bacteria located in the digestive tract, known as gut flora, is an essential component in the body’s defenses.
As Finkle notes, 85% of the immune system is in the gut, so re-establishing gut flora through probiotics, commonly found in yogurt as well as in supplement form, can get to the root of allergies. Maintaining “a balanced diet and avoiding foods that a person is sensitive to will decrease the body’s allergic load and assure proper digestion, and, in turn, decrease allergic reactions in general,” Finkle explains. Pescatore agrees, saying, “Seasonal allergies can be eliminated if one changes their dietary habits.” Among the dietary alterations that he suggests are cutting out sugar, yeast and simple carbohydrates, as well as eating more organic foods including lean proteins, healthy fats and fresh vegetables.
You can’t avoid every sneeze and sniffle that seasonal allergens can provoke. But by taking a natural approach to hay fever you may be able to avoid the relentless assault of allergy symptoms—and welcome spring with heartfelt enthusiasm.
Unstuffing Inflamed Sinuses
Springtime allergies can do more than just make you miserable for a few weeks or months every year. If unchecked they can lead to sinusitis, an ongoing inflammation of the air-filled cavities around the nose and eyes that help filter and humidify the air you breathe. Sinuses can also become inflamed as the result of an upper respiratory infection, a situation that can impair sinus drainage, or food allergies. Emotional distress is another factor. According to Robert Ivker, DO, who has spent nearly 30 years researching sinus problems, “repressed anger, particularly, is the single most important determinant in whether someone develops chronic sinusitis.”
Sinusitis symptoms include congestion, facial pain, headache, fatigue and a sense of mental fogginess. Thick, yellow-green mucus is a sign of possible infection. If you feel like you have a cold that simply won’t quit, or allergies that are running much longer than usual for you, sinusitis may be present.
Permanent sinus relief comes from eliminating the root causes of chronic inflammation. Keep the air in your home as clean as possible through use of a filter; in the winter add a humidifier to counteract the dryness of heated air. Use a saline nasal spray or neti pot to wash out your nasal passages; a steam inhaler can help flush out mucus. Drink a lot of water and eliminate potential allergens and irritants from your diet, including sugar, alcohol, dairy, wheat and processed foods.
Supplements can also help. Rose Paisley, ND, who practices in Portland, recommends vitamins A and C, bioflavonoids, selenium and zinc. (A practitioner such as a naturopathic physician can order blood tests that will indicate which dosages would be most helpful in your case.) Herbs can also help; Ivker suggests echinacea, garlic and grapefruit seed extract. Eucalyptus and peppermint oils, inhaled from a tissue or steamer, help control inflammation and promote better blood flow.