If you turn to natural medicine for allergy relief, it’s important to select herbs that will help you, not make your misery worse. To assess the ability of herbs to ease your seasonal suffering, start by taking stock of your symptoms.
If you’ve suffered most of your life from year-round allergies and such symptoms as hives, eczema, fluid retention, dark circles under the eyes, dermatitis, coughing, and/or rapid reactions to minute amounts of some foods, then you may have allergies that are more than seasonal. Testing for allergies to identify what’s causing them is the first step in treatment.
On the other hand, if your symptoms are mainly seasonal, then easing your suffering may be simple, as the tips below suggest. Allergy season “stuffiness” can lead to respiratory infections that tend to linger, so using natural approaches to decrease the severity of allergies can help you feel better and keep you from getting sick. You may wish to add the recommended herbs to your medicine chest, depending on your symptoms and the advice of your herbally informed health-care provider.
If you’ve been using antihistamine medications to control allergies, then herbs rich in bioflavonoids offer a natural alternative. Allergens (substances that the body perceives as foreign) provoke certain cells to produce histamine, a biochemical that is responsible for the characteristic watery eyes, excess mucus, and runny nose that accompany allergies. These responses are the body’s means of flushing out the offenders, but for people with allergies, the body’s reaction gets out of hand and causes discomfort.
Bioflavonoids are found in flowers, leaves, and fruits. When taken internally, they affect humans; in this case, they help prevent the formation of histamine, as opposed to common antihistamine medications, which interfere with histamine’s action after it’s been produced. Many bioflavonoids are also antioxidants, meaning that they fight cancer formation, and are anti-inflammatories, meaning that they decrease the swelling of tissues associated with allergic reactions.
Quercetin is one of the most effective bioflavonoids to use when fighting the effects of histamine and allergens. It is found in high concentrations in onions, garlic, cayenne, apples, and tea. You can eat a lot of these foods in order to increase your quercetin intake, or you can take quercetin in capsule form. I advise my patients to take at least 1,000 mg daily when their allergies act up. (For more information about quercetin, see “Inside plants” on page 18 of the March/April 1997 issue of Herbs for Health.)
Other anti-allergenic and bioflavonoid-rich herbs include chamomile flowers, feverfew leaves, yarrow flowers and leaves, Baical skullcap leaves and stems, lemon balm leaves, grapes (leaves and fruit), and the leaves of many mints. I suggest that you work with your health-care provider to see which of these might work best for you (you’ll want to avoid Roman chamomile—Chamaemelum nobile—for example, if you’re allergic to ragweed and other members of the aster family, of which chamomile is a part; German chamomile or Matricaria recutita rarely causes allergic reactions). A general dosage guideline is six to eight 500-mg capsules or four cups of tea daily (an infusion is made using 1 tablespoon of the herb for every cup of boiling water).
Black cumin, licorice, ginkgo, and essential oils of orange, tangerine, lemon, cardamom, cinnamon, rosemary, and many mints are antihistamine, anti-allergenic, and help relax the nasal passages and airways. Don’t take this to mean that swilling essential oils is safe, though; it’s not. Instead, make an herbal infusion made from 3 tablespoons dried or 4 tablespoons fresh herbs and a cup of hot water throughout the day, or add up to 1/8 teaspoon of an essential oil to a beverage once a day.
I also recommend that anyone with these symptoms take 1,000 mg of vitamin C three or four times daily, especially during pollen season. Vitamin C is a powerful antihistamine and poses little risk of side effects even in large amounts, although some in the health-care professions dispute this. To be comfortable, talk with your physician.
When your sinuses are congested, it’s best to thin the mucus so that it drains out of the body, rather than let it sit and block passages, prolonging discomfort. Antihistamines and excessive amounts of vitamin C can do more harm than good in this case, because they tend to thicken mucus so that it can’t drain (if you’re experiencing a lot of coughing and see that your mucus is heavy and yellow-green, you should consult your health-care provider). Ma huang (Ephedra sinica), the source of the medication known as ephedrine, is the most effective herbal decongestant. The alkaloids in ma huang work like the common asthma drugs known as “beta-agonists”, which dilate the bronchial tubes and make it easier to breathe. But ma huang should be avoided by those with hypertension, pregnant women, and people with heart conditions.
My favorite way to clear my sinuses is to eat hot peppers. You can take hot peppers in capsule form, but in my experience, they work best when eaten—so a love of hot food is a plus. More mild but effective decongestants include warm cups of sage, yarrow, rosemary, lemongrass, ginger, peppermint, and spearmint teas (1 tablespoon per cup of boiling water) taken four times daily. Essential oils of camphor, eucalyptus, lemon grass, and tea tree are also effective decongestants—but they can be toxic when taken internally, so rather than risk doing yourself more harm than good, I suggest using essential oils as steam vapors. Add 1/2 teaspoon of an oil or combination of oils to a vaporizer (use it at home or near your desk at the office). Or put the oils in a large kettle of gently boiling water, cover your head with a towel, and breathe the vapors for 5 minutes every hour. If these methods are inconvenient, essential oil inhalers are available commercially.
Prolonged exposure to pollen, dust, mold, tobacco smoke, and other environmental pollutants can lead to hacking coughs and bronchial irritation. Bronchitis may also linger after a serious respiratory infection has waned. The Chinese herb fritillary (Fritillaria spp.) has been shown to be an excellent herb for these conditions and is available alone or teamed with loquat and licorice in commercial cough syrups. Traditional American cough preparations containing wild cherry, slippery elm, marshmallow, and horehound can also effectively relieve bronchial irritation.
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