When spring blooms, your body gives the signs: tearing eyes, draining throat, nose persistently on the brink of a sneeze. Pharmaceutical manufacturers respond, too, with a glut of television and print advertisements for pills designed to ease you through the season without the irritation and disruption of allergy symptoms.
Herbal remedies can be a gentle, effective, and often inexpensive alternative to conventional allergy treatments. Some of them may simply be added to your daily diet. If you suffer from allergies year round, herbs can complement other treatments.
Your allergy profile
Before embarking on any treatment program, it is important to identify what kind of allergy you have. This is best done with the guidance of a health-care professional, who will take a medical history and investigate whether dietary and lifestyle changes may also be in order. In my work as a nutrition consultant, I classify allergy-prone clients in three groups:
Victims of the season. Many people suffer from allergies only for several weeks during the spring and late summer when the airborne pollen of blooming plants is most abundant. They also catch several colds each year and perhaps experience bronchitis, sinus infections, or flu. They may feel fatigued, but few complain of chronic respiratory or gastrointestinal disorders. Seasonal allergies afflict men and women equally. It is believed that a predisposition to allergies runs in families but that members may react to different substances or may react differently to the same ones. A well-balanced diet that includes herbs can help people with seasonal allergies; many of the components in common fruits, vegetables, and medicinal plants are just what they need to quit sniffling and start sailing.
Year-round allergy sufferers. Those who sneeze, wheeze, and sniffle year round, not just during pollen season, may be allergic to certain foods, animal dander, mold spores, and/or chemicals. Typically, these people have suffered from allergic reactions almost all of their lives. For some, eating even small amounts of certain foods can trigger severe reactions ranging from hives, rashes, or eczema to asthma, shock, or respiratory arrest. They may complain of chronic digestive or gastrointestinal discomfort. The pattern almost always runs in the family; it is somewhat more common in people with fair complexions, medical researchers have observed, although it is unknown why. People who have these symptoms should be tested for food allergies and avoid any foods that are found to cause trouble. Herbs can help people in this group—but only after ruling out the possibility that they might have an allergic reaction to the herbs themselves. A dietary regime that includes a combination of herbal treatments, vitamins, and pharmaceuticals may be required.
People with chronic infections.Individuals who have many ill-defined allergies and chemical sensitivities with symptoms that run the gamut from a weak immune system and gastrointestinal ailments to irritability and fatigue may have a condition too severe to be helped by herbs alone; most often, these people are female, according to medical observation. The most common of these conditions is candidiasis (a chronic yeast infection), which requires professional care. In many cases, allergies are not a problem after the yeast infection has been cured.
Below are some common allergy symptoms and some herbs that have been shown to be effective treatments for them. In most cases, I take herbal capsules at a dose of one to two capsules (400 to 600 milligrams) three times a day; herbal teas at a dose of one cup of tea (made from one to two tablespoons steeped in a cup of boiled water) three times a day; and capsules containing standardized extracts of 400 to 600 mg of herbs at a dose of up to one capsule three times daily. These dosages, however, are dependent upon allergy history and testing, so consult your health-care provider to make sure you’re taking herbs that will help you, not harm you.
Sneezing, watery eyes, runny nose. Many herbs can alleviate these symptoms because they contain compounds that prevent the formation of histamine, a hormone that is released from cells when a foreign substance (allergen) enters the body or when the body senses it is dehydrated or under certain types of stress. Histamine causes the tearing eyes and runny noses that are the body’s main way of flushing out offending substances; however, for people with allergies, the response gets out of hand, causing mild to severe discomfort. Antihistamines, the drugs most widely used to fight this response, are useful but may possess side effects, including drowsiness, blurred vision, and heart rhythm disturbances, depending on the type of drug.
Herbs containing bioflavonoids (a class of compounds that are widely distributed in herbs and edible plants) can help control the discomfort. Whereas common antihistamine medications work by interfering with histamine after it has been released into the blood and tissues, animal and human studies have shown that bioflavonoids prevent histamine from forming in the first place. Quercetin is the most common bioflavonoid in the human diet and is especially concentrated in onions, garlic, and cayenne pepper, so you can take your allergy medicine in fresh form if you like. It also is available in capsule form. Feverfew, yarrow, peppermint, and spearmint also are rich in bioflavonoids.
Sinus congestion, headaches, postnasal drip, throat irritation. The sinuses are four pairs of air-filled cavities above, below, and behind the eyes. The allergic response can cause tissue lining the sinuses to swell, which can block the outlets of the sinuses to the nose. Mucus buildup in the sinuses can cause headaches, and mucus draining from the back of the nose into the throat (postnasal drip) can irritate the throat. When the sinuses are congested, it is best to thin the mucus and let it drain. Antihistamines may do more harm than good in this case because they thicken mucus so that it can’t drain. Thick, stagnant mucus can encourage the growth of bacteria. If you have reached that point, see your health-care provider. Otherwise, take stock of your herbal options.
Eating hot peppers is an excellent way to clear up sinus congestion—if you can stand the heat. I go straight for the habaneros because, in my experience, fresh peppers are most effective, but capsules of ground cayenne pepper also work. Capsaicin, the active principle that gives hot peppers their pungency, can promote drainage. Cayenne pepper is available in any grocery store.
A warm cup of sage, yarrow, rosemary, lemongrass, or ginger tea makes an effective and pleasant decongestant; these herbs possess volatile oils, tannins, and other chemicals that can soothe an irritated throat and nasal passages. Inhale the steaming vapor as you sip the tea, or place 1/2 teaspoon of the essential oil of one or more of those herbs or of camphor, eucalyptus, or cajeput in a vaporizer and let it run near your bed or chair. (Camphor, eucalyptus, and cajeput oils are toxic when swallowed; keep them away from children and pets and don’t ingest them yourself.) Alternatively, you may put the oil(s) in a large kettle of gently boiling water, cover your head with a towel, and breathe the vapors for five minutes every hour. If neither of these methods is feasible, you may wish to consider buying an essential oil inhaler that fits in your pocket, purse, or briefcase; they are available in some health-food stores.
The teas mentioned above can also relieve throat irritation. Adding honey, wild cherry syrup, licorice, marshmallow root, and/or slippery elm to the tea will make it even more soothing. Slippery elm bark and marshmallow root powder make the tea thick and slimy, however; children especially may not like the texture.
Ephedra is a proven, effective decongestant; its active constituents are ephedrine and pseudoephedrine, which dilate the bronchioles. Ephedra is a strong central nervous system stimulant and shouldn’t be used if you have high blood pressure, diabetes, or thyroid or heart disorders, or if you are taking a monoamine oxidase inhibitor (an antidepressant). It makes sense to check with your health-care provider if you would like to use it.
Coughing, dry sore throat, lingering bronchitis. Prolonged exposure to pollen, dust, mold spores, and tobacco smoke can result in a hacking cough and bronchial irritation. Cough syrups containing the Chinese herb fritillary (a relative of the lily), often in combination with the Chinese loquat fruit and licorice root, can be effective. They are sold in many health-food stores. Traditional American cough preparations containing wild cherry bark and horehound, an expectorant, are also effective.
Allergy-related fatigue. Don’t be surprised if you feel tired when your allergies are acting up: your immune system is on alert and using a lot of energy. Just as when you have a cold, flu, or other mild infection, the longing to slow down and sleep extra hours is normal. Resist the urge to take stimulants because they ultimately drain the body of energy. Instead, I recommend adaptogens, agents that increase the body’s resistance to disease and stress. These include schisandra, long used in traditional Chinese medicine and currently the subject of many scientific studies, and Siberian and American ginseng. You may wish to try them. Then, get some rest.
C. Leigh Broadhurst holds a doctorate in geochemistry and is a nutrition consultant who lives in Clovery, Maryland. With James A. Duke, she writes “Inside plants”, a regular column in Herbs for Health about the chemical characteristics of medicinal herbs.
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