As winter passes and our noses alert us to the realities of spring growth, those of us with allergic tendencies may be all too aware of the disadvantages of the growing season. But don’t give up hope and turn to another drug in your medicine cabinet—consider some natural allergy fighters. While they may not provide the quick and easy solution that pharmaceutical antihistamines do, herbs can help treat the problem without the jitters and malaise.
Often some of the most frustrating aspects of allergies are the sore throat, nose and sinus cavity. Somewhere along the way you may likely be in search of fast relief rather than a long-term remedy. Try the soothing qualities of chamomile (Matricaria recutita) and clear your nasal passages with eucalyptus (Eucalyptus globulus), peppermint (Mentha ¥piperita), pine (Pinus spp.) or thyme (Thymus vulgaris).
Horseradish (Armoracia rusticana) is another good head-clearing herb. Its sharp aroma is sure to aid in clearing your sinus congestion. And while its zingy flavor is not likely to tempt your taste buds as a tea, grate the fresh root into a boiling soup broth.
In addition, cinnamon (Cinnamomum verum) and gingerroot (Zingiber officinale) may also provide relief for a dry, scratchy throat. Make a tea of fresh, sliced gingerroot or add honey and a few drops of cinnamon tincture to a cup of hot water. You may also want to turn to herbal throat lozenges that contain lemon balm (Melissa officinalis), sage (Salvia officinalis), peppermint or thyme.
The runny nose and buildup of mucus in the nasal and sinus cavity can be frustrating as well. Mullein (Verbascum spp.) tea (1 teaspoon of dried flower heads per cup of boiling water) serves as an expectorant to thin and loosen mucus. Elder (Sambucus canadensis, S. nigra) also has expectorant qualities. You’ll find that elder is a common ingredient in the herbal cough syrups available at your local health-food store. Sage and Chinese sage (S. miltiorrhiza) may help slow the sniffles. Try them in tea or tincture form.
Also, try vitamin C and spirulina for your seasonal allergies. Both block the release of histamine, and research indicates that people with higher intake and blood levels of vitamin C have lower levels of histamine. Good sources of this antioxidant and immune-enhancing vitamin include bright-colored fruits and vegetables like citrus fruits and peppers, dark-green leafy vegetables and rose hips.
Spirulina is a type of blue-green algae that is rich in protein, vitamins and essential fatty acids. While test-tube studies suggest its histamine-inhibiting qualities, no specific studies have proved its effectiveness for people with allergies.
The ancients used valerian (Valeriana officinalis) as a diuretic, to bring on menstrual periods and to treat epilepsy. Later, it was prescribed as an antispasmodic, calmative and sleep aid as well as to counter fatigue. These later uses are most common today, and in Europe a host of preparations containing valerian are available over the counter. An infusion of the fresh or dried roots can be drunk before bedtime as a relaxing, if bitter, tea.
Other conditions which valerian has been called upon to treat include dandruff, coughs, constipation, cholera and flatulence. No wonder some people have called it all-heal.
Valerian’s mild sedative action, by depression of the central nervous system and by relaxation of smooth muscle tissue, has been confirmed by scientific studies. Research is ongoing to determine which of several constituents of valerian are the active ones—some of them may act in combination—and the mechanism of their interaction. Overdoses may cause headache, vomiting, muscular spasm, dizziness and depression.
In England in the Middle Ages, a poultice of dead nettle (Lamium album, L. maculatum) was used to treat the King’s Evil (scrofula—tuberculosis of the lymph glands), thought to be cured otherwise only by a king’s touch. Mixed with wine, the herb was applied as a plaster to “remove the harness of the spleen,” allegedly the seat of melancholy. A distillate of the flowers was said to “make the heart merry” (perhaps needed if the plaster failed to soften the spleen). Another popular way to administer the flowers was in a conserve: a pound of flowers to 21/2 pounds of sugar, which would be sweet enough to mask almost any degree of bitterness. Dead nettle contains tannin; its use (as a tincture) to treat diarrhea and wounds probably has some pharmacologic basis.
Cows won’t eat dead nettle, but you can. Cook the young shoots as a potherb either alone or mixed with other spring greens; try them in a cream sauce lightly spiced with curry powder and cinnamon.
Rue (Ruta graveolens) is an herb of many connotations. It’s known also as herb-of-grace (herby-grass) because it was used in holy water by the Roman Catholic Church to wash away sins. (Hyssop was the herb of choice in the Middle Ages, but rue was also used, perhaps because of its longstanding reputation as a disinfectant.)
Besides a musty odor, rue leaves have a bitter flavor. Nevertheless, the oil and fresh or dried leaves have been widely used in perfumes and foods of all sorts. The seeds were used in early Roman cooking. In the Middle Ages, the leaves were a strewing herb believed to dispel insects, scorpions and serpents. Holding a sprig up to one’s nose was thought to ward off plague, and a sprig hung around the neck was thought to protect against disease as late as the mid-19th century. Courtrooms in England were strewn with rue to protect the judges from “jail fever.” Today, both the herb and the oil are used as a “flavor component” of a wide variety of processed foods and beverages, though in minute quantities. Rue still figures in the diet of some cultures. Not only does a little go a long way because of the bitterness, but more than a little is toxic, causing gastrointestinal and other symptoms similar to some of those for which it was given as a remedy.
Medicinal uses are legion and diverse. Warts, cancer, poor eyesight, worms, scarlet fever and nervousness as a result of witchcraft are a few of the conditions which rue has been summoned to treat. It’s likely that rue’s reputation as a medicinal herb arose because of its strong smell and bitter flavor. The fibrous roots reminded some people of the blood vessels in the eye, which may account for its use in treating eyestrain.
Nevertheless, some medicinal uses have a scientific basis: rutin, a substance known to be effective in combating fragility of the capillaries, was first isolated from rue, and the herb’s effectiveness as an antispasmodic has been confirmed. Rue has been used in many cultures to bring on delayed menstrual periods and abortions, and several of its constituents have been shown to have abortive properties. Needless to say, pregnant women should not take it internally.
Besides causing possible internal toxicity, contact with the volatile oils in the leaves may cause blistering, itching and burning of the skin. It makes sense to wear gloves, long-sleeved shirts and long pants when working around rue plants. On the other hand, country folk used to apply crushed rue leaves to bee stings and rheumatic joints.
Despite rue’s long history as a medicinal and culinary herb, it is grown today primarily as an ornamental, and ornamental it is, with its blue-green, oval-lobed leaflets and tiny, yellow four-parted flowers from midsummer to fall. Be careful when trimming rue hedges if you are sensitive to the oil.
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