The onslaught of itchy eyes, runny noses, congestion, never-ending sneezes and fatigue has taken the United States by storm. According to the Asthma & Allergy Foundation of America, an estimated 50 million to 60 million Americans now suffer from allergies. For 35 million of us, seasonal allergies — an adverse sensitivity to tree, grass or ragweed pollen more commonly known as hay fever — are the most prevalent. Although the majority of hay fever misery occurs from spring through fall, allergy-causing pollen can torment sufferers at any time of year, especially in warmer climates.
Allergy symptoms are a consequence of an immune system gone wild. Instead of recognizing an otherwise-innocuous allergen, such as pollen or mold spores, as benign, the immune system misidentifies the substance as sinister. In response, the immune system produces IgE-type antibodies designed to defuse foreign invaders and protect the person from future exposure. Upon the first exposure to an allergen, no symptoms occur. But when a person comes in contact with the same allergen later, the IgE antibodies stimulate specialized mast cells to release a load of histamines, leukotrienes and other inflammatory chemicals. This overblown defense reaction is the sniffling, sneezing, itching, dripping unpleasantness we all recognize as allergies.
Cause and Effect
During the past several decades, the incidence of allergies has increased considerably. According to a review published in 2002 in the Annals of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology, that increase is most likely due to the changes in the environment.
“In this day and age, we’ve become exposed to more than 60,000 different chemicals that can accumulate in the body’s tissues and organs,” Vicki Swanson, a chiropractor based in Los Angeles, says. In the United States alone, more than 2.2 billion pounds of toxic chemicals were released into the environment in one year (1994). This chemical buildup in the body is referred to as the rain-barrel effect. “The buildup increases to a point where the last drop finally drips over the top and your body can no longer cope with the extent of toxicity contained within your body,” Swanson explains. “When that happens, your immune system develops hypersensitivities that trigger allergic reactions.”
For some allergy sufferers, over-the-counter and prescription decongestants and antihistamines are losing their effectiveness in treating the increasing severity of symptoms. While their effectiveness may at times be weakened, the ensuing side effects often are not, ranging from cold-like symptoms to anxiety, insomnia or debilitating drowsiness. If you’re looking for a safer and more natural option, botanicals, supplements and other alternative remedies may be your ticket to relief.
Super Immune Supporters
Probiotics, such as Lactobacillus acidophilus (found in cultured yogurt), are friendly bacteria that help normalize immune function and improve, or possibly even prevent, allergic responses. Researchers surmise that these good bacteria show the immune system how to better discern between harmless substances and dangerous invaders. “This is in keeping with the ‘too clean for our own good’ theory of why the incidence of allergy is growing exponentially in the developed world,” notes master herbalist Earl Mindell, R.Ph., Ph.D., a registered pharmacist from Beverly Hills, California, and author of Earl Mindell’s Allergy Bible (Warner, 2003).
The vitamin-like compound Coenzyme Q10 not only exhibits immune-boosting abilities, it’s a powerful antioxidant that enhances the effect of other anti-allergy supplements. “Allergy sufferers typically have low levels of antioxidants, especially during allergy season,” Mindell explains.
For a more hands-on approach, some people opt for acupuncture, which stimulates various points that support and stabilize immune function and how the body reacts to antigens. Several studies have documented the effects of acupuncture therapy in treating seasonal allergies. The results from a 2002 study published in The American Journal of Chinese Medicine indicate a significant improvement in hay fever sufferers treated with acupuncture, with complete remission of symptoms in 25 percent of acupuncture patients. More recently, an Italian study of 90 patients with chronic allergic rhinitis (hay fever) showed a significant reduction of IL-10 cytokines (chemicals that help induce an allergic response) in acupuncture-treated patients. A reduction of the IL-10 component decreases the allergic response.
“Each acupuncture point stimulates different parts of the brain, which is so integral to the immune system and in controlling allergies,” says Larry Altshuler, M.D., owner and medical director of Balanced Healing Medical Center in Oklahoma City and author of Balanced Healing (Harbor House, 2003). Altshuler, who practices both conventional and alternative medicine, has experienced a 90 percent success rate in his clinic by treating allergies exclusively with acupuncture and herbs, both Western and Chinese. “Usually the vast majority of symptoms are relieved within four to six acupuncture treatments,” he says. Some people remain symptom-free for several years after six to eight treatments.
By suppressing the production of histamines, you often can prevent, or at least reduce, the symptoms of seasonal allergies. Vitamin C and various bioflavonoids are immune-enhancing, plant-based antioxidants that provide natural antihistamines and anti-inflammatory effects. According to a 1991 study published in the Ear, Nose & Throat Journal, ascorbic acid (vitamin C) reduced allergic rhinitis symptoms in 74 percent of patients.
Bioflavonoids, which work to stabilize cell membranes so histamines aren’t as easily released, are found in citrus fruits and berries of all kinds, as well as in certain herbs and spices, like parsley and turmeric. Drinking several cups of green tea daily may help keep you symptom-free. Green tea contains potent flavonoids called catechins, which in laboratory tests prevent key cell receptors from triggering an allergic response. Grape seed extract contains all-star antioxidants called proanthocyanidins and Pycnogenol (a flavonoid also abundant in pine tree bark). Researchers at Trinity College in Ireland found Pycnogenol from the bark of French maritime pine to inhibit the release of histamine from mast cells as effectively as sodium cromoglycate, better known as cromolyn sodium (Nasalcrom) in the United States.
Quercetin (found in apples, berries and grapefruit, as well as onions, cabbage-family members, tea and red wine) is another potent flavonoid. Researchers at Japan’s Nippon Medical School found a decrease in histamine release by up to 96 percent from nasal scrapings of people with seasonal allergies. Quercetin is better absorbed when taken with bromelain, a mix of enzymes naturally found in pineapple. Mindell recommends taking one 400-mg quercetin capsule with one 100-mg bromelain capsule and 500 mg of vitamin C with meals, up to three times daily.
Research in Italy suggests that milk thistle (Silybum marianum) — a powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory better known as the herb for liver health — also may inhibit the release of histamines, thereby preventing an allergic reaction. Additionally, milk thistle contains silymarin and silybin, hardworking flavonoids that protect cells by neutralizing the effects of free radicals.
Botanicals and nutritional foods can be a great source for reducing inflammation, a side effect of allergies that, in turn, can provoke symptoms. A review published in the June 2002 issue of Primary Care notes that diets high in omega-3 fatty acids — abundant in certain fish, flaxseeds, pumpkin seeds, nuts and whole grains — may benefit asthma and seasonal allergy sufferers.
Stinging nettle (Urtica dioica) contains a host of anti-inflammatory substances along with flavonoids, vitamins and minerals. In a double-blind, placebo-controlled study conducted at the National College of Naturopathic Medicine in Portland, Oregon, 58 percent of participants treated with freeze-dried nettle leaf reported a moderate or significant reduction in hay fever symptoms. Or give butterbur (Petasites hybridus) a try. In a 2002 study published in the British Medical Journal, researchers found butterbur to be as effective and less sedating than cetirizine (Zyrtec), a prescription antihistamine. Be sure to use only butterbur products with labels stating the product is free of unsaturated pyrrolizidine alkaloids (UPAs), substances that may cause cancer or possibly damage your kidneys or liver.
Other herbs with anti-inflammatory properties might even be as close as your kitchen. Compounds in peppermint (Mentha ¥piperita) tea help thin mucus and break up congestion, thereby relieving nasal symptoms. Garlic (Allium sativum) is rich in flavonoids like quercetin, as well as selenium, which acts as an antioxidant enzyme. Adding a freshly chopped garlic clove to your soup can reduce mucus and congestion. In addition to its traditional use in loosening phlegm, thyme (Thymus vulgaris) helps calm a cough by soothing irritated bronchial tubes.
Just as it’s important to include healthy foods rich in antioxidants, flavonoids and omega-3 fatty acids in your anti-allergy arsenal, it’s equally imperative to avoid foods that inflame or aggravate your symptoms.
“There’s a great lack of awareness that saturated fats, such as red meat and full-fat dairy products, in the diet can indirectly influence allergies by setting a background of inflammation,” says Roberta Lee, M.D., medical director at the Continuum Center for Health and Healing at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York. Limit your intake of refined foods containing white flour and sugar, as well — they also can make inflammation worse and weaken the immune system.
Several Italian studies suggest seasonal allergy sufferers might do better if they steer clear of foods with protein allergens that are similar to their offending plant allergens. According to researchers, people who react to grass pollens also may react to certain vegetables and fruits, especially tomatoes, onions, garlic, peaches and melons, as well as peanuts, eggs and pork. If you think certain foods might be aggravating your symptoms, try eliminating suspected items from your diet for two to three weeks to see if your symptoms improve.
As with most conventional allergy treatments, natural remedies used to prevent allergies or allergy symptoms from occurring work best when taken before the fact — from one week to one month before the start of allergy season — and continued until your specific allergy season is over. Even after allergy season has passed, a healthy diet and regular exercise will help keep your immune system going strong.
Kris Wetherbee is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to The Herb Companion. She lives in the hills of western Oregon with her photographer husband, Rick Wetherbee.