Although normally considered the body’s best friend, for those suffering from seasonal allergies the immune system can seem more like an enemy — the relentless cause of all those runny noses and watery eyes. Ever know a child who sustained a minor scrape and screamed bloody murder? The immune system overreacts similarly in hay fever-type allergies. When germs invade, the immune system attacks and usually destroys them. But in people with allergies, the immune system mistakes harmless things, such as pollen, for germs, and unleashes an unnecessary but furious attack. Allergy symptoms — congestion, runny nose and watery eyes — are not caused by the allergy trigger (or “allergen”) but rather by the forces of the immune system, notably immunoglobulin E (IgE) and histamine. Common allergens include pollens, molds, dust, animal dander and microscopic bugs called dust mites.
Some 35 million Americans suffer from allergies. While not classically genetic, allergic sensitivities tend to run in families, with some members affected in every generation. Allergies can develop at any age. It all depends on the allergens you’re exposed to. People who never had allergies in one place often develop them when they move. Similarly, moving may eliminate others’ symptoms. The elderly often notice that their symptoms seem less severe as they age, probably because the aging immune system attacks allergens less furiously.
To what, specifically, are you allergic? You can learn the answer(s) with allergy tests administered by a physician who specializes in allergic conditions, known as an allergist/immunologist. Most common is the skin test, in which the doctor injects a small amount of common allergens under the skin, and your personal allergens cause minor swelling and redness. The doctor also may take some blood for testing.
Once you know what you’re allergic to, avoid your personal allergens like the plagues they are.
For many people, spring is hay fever season. But depending where you live and what you’re allergic to, pollens may trigger allergy symptoms year-round. In the Northeast and Midwest, most trees release pollen from March through June, and grass pollens fill the air from May through July. Weed pollens fly from July to October. Elsewhere, pollen seasons may be different. For pollen seasons in your area, check with your local affiliate of the American Lung Association (www.LungUSA.org). To avoid pollen:
• Schedule outdoor activities for the afternoon or evening. Tree, grass and weed pollen counts are highest from 5 a.m. to 10 a.m.; they drop considerably in the afternoon.
• Watch out for wind. Wind means extra pollen. On windy days, plan indoor activities.
• Use air conditioning whenever possible at home and in cars. It helps filter pollens (and mold spores) out of the air, especially when set on “recirculate.” Have air conditioners serviced regularly to assure good filtration.
• Consider investing in a high-efficiency particulate accumulating (HEPA) air filter at home. About the size of a window fan, HEPA filters pull most pollens, as well as other toxins, out of the air. HEPA filters are available from medical supply houses.
• During your personal pollen season, consider giving yourself a break by planning a vacation to a low-allergen place. For people with serious pollen allergies, cruises usually are a good bet. Pollen counts are low over oceans.
Molds, technically fungi, are plantlike organisms that lack the roots, stems, leaves and green pigment of higher plants. They cause mildew and the spots that develop on old bread and long-forgotten refrigerator items. Molds reproduce by releasing microscopic seedlike spores into the air, which can trigger allergies. But unlike the various pollens, which rarely fill the air for more than a few months each year, mold spores are with us year-round. They grow almost anywhere that’s dark, damp and poorly ventil-ated. To limit your exposure to mold spores:
• Kill all visible mold in and around sinks, plumbing, garbage cans and bathrooms by periodically wiping those areas with chlorine bleach.
• Increase ventilation. Keep a window open in your bathroom, basement and garage, and consider installing fans.
• Increase illumination. Install lighting in your closets, and add lighting in your basement, garage and any sheds.
• Minimize dampness by removing all carpeting from basements, garages and bathrooms. If your basement is usually damp, consult a contractor about water-sealing. In the bathroom, keep your shower curtain open across the tub, not bunched up in a corner.
•• Drain standing water from your plants’ trays and underdishes, as houseplants are magnets for molds. People with severe mold allergies might benefit from eliminating their houseplants. You also might switch from leafy plants that like damp soil to cacti and succulents that thrive in drier soil.
• Hire a gardener. Mowing lawns and raking leaves stir up mold spores.
• Use mold-retardant paint when painting your home.
• Look for a new home when in the market to buy; newer is better than older. Older homes have more nooks and crannies where mold can grow.
Stinging nettle (Urtica dioica) has a long history as a treatment for respiratory problems. Researchers at the National College of Naturopathic Medicine in Portland, Oregon, gave 98 hay fever sufferers either a placebo or daily capsules of freeze-dried nettle (600 mg). The nettle users reported fewer and milder hay fever symptoms. Since this study, stinging nettle has become a popular herbal allergy treatment. “It’s my first choice,” says Andrew Weil, M.D., a professor at the University of Arizona College of Medicine and a leading mainstream advocate of complementary therapies. “I use stinging nettle myself during the spring ragweed season in southern Arizona and rarely need anything else.” Weil says freeze-dried nettle is more effective than air-dried. Freeze-dried nettle capsules are available at most health-food stores. Use 600 mg a day.
Butterbur (Petasites hybridus) leaves and roots have been a European folk allergy remedy for centuries. Swiss researchers tested the herb head-to-head against the prescription antihistamine Zyrtec. Sixty-four allergy sufferers took the pharmaceutical, while 61 took the herb (8 mg of the active compound, petasin, four times a day). Both treatments produced similar benefit, but the herb was less sedating. The recommended dose is 4.5 to 7 grams of butterbur root daily.
The caffeine in coffee (and tea, maté, guarana and, to a lesser extent, cocoa and chocolate) is a potent decongestant that can help ease breathing when your symptoms flare up. If you’re not used to drinking caffeine, 1 cup daily might be enough to help; if you regularly drink 2 cups of coffee or tea daily, you might need to add another cup.
For itchy, watery eyes, you might try a compress of eyebright (Euphrasia officinalis). Make a tea using 1 teaspoon of eyebright leaf to 1 cup of boiling water; steep for 10 minutes, then strain, cool and apply as a compress. Rinsing with plain warm or cool water also can help relieve itchy eyes.
Dietary changes won’t provide instant allergy relief, but over time, they help. The most important dietary recommendation is to eat more plant foods, because of their high concentration of vitamin C. British researchers surveyed the diets and lung function of 1,346 residents of Nottingham, England, over nine years. The congestion caused by allergies impairs lung function. Those whose diets were highest in vitamin C had the best lung function.
Plant foods also contain compounds called flavonols, notably quercetin. Flavonols reduce the release of histamine, a key player in allergic reactions — and the reason antihistamines help. Flavonols are natural antihistamines. In a laboratory study, Tufts researchers exposed the human cells that release histamine to a variety of compounds. Several flavonols, including quercetin, reduced histamine release by half. Finnish researchers have found that as dietary quercetin intake increases, risk of asthma, often related to allergies, decreases. The best sources are fruits, vegetables, whole grains, tea, nuts and seeds.
Finally, fish is a good bet for people with allergies. Many kinds of fish contain omega-3 fatty acids. A German study shows that as dietary intake of omega-3s increases, risk of hay fever decreases. The best bets are fatty fish, such as salmon, mackerel and herring.
A diet rich in vitamin C boosts lung function. Italian researchers have shown that vitamin C supplements blunt the lung’s reactions to histamine. They gave a placebo or vitamin C (2,000 mg) to 16 people with hay fever and then exposed them to histamine, which provokes allergy symptoms. One hour later, the vitamin C group showed significantly better lung function and less reaction to the histamine. Take the dose used in this study, 2 grams a day.
Diets rich in quercetin, a natural antihistamine, reduce allergy symptoms. Weil, who has allergies, takes quercetin supplements starting a few weeks before pollen allergy season. He recommends 400 mg twice a day. Pregnant women should not take this supplement.
Researchers at Howard Hughes Medical Institute in San Francisco exposed pollen-allergy sufferers to ryegrass pollen and then measured the extent to which it caused runny nose. The subjects then took 3.5 grams of omega-3-rich fish oil daily for eight weeks. When subsequently challenged with ryegrass pollen, the fish oil group experienced less runny nose. Take the dose used in this study. Note: Fish oil has anticoagulant action. If you notice that you bruise easily, reduce your dose.
A large European survey published in 2003 showed that a diet high in vitamin E reduced allergy symptoms. A 2004 Israeli study showed that in addition to pharmaceutical allergy medication, vitamin E (800 mg a day) reduced allergy-related runny nose. Note: Vitamin E has anticoagulant action. If you notice bruising, reduce your dose.
Homeopathy is among the most controversial alternative therapies because its medicines (often herbal) are microdoses so small that conventional pharmacology says they could not possibly have any effect. However, many studies show that homeopathy’s vanishingly small doses can, in fact, produce significant benefits. Several studies show that homeopathic treatment of allergies produces significant benefit. In the most recent trial, in Scotland, researchers gave 50 allergy sufferers either a placebo or a homeopathic remedy. Those treated homeopathically showed significantly improved breathing. Homeopathic medicines are prescribed individually. To obtain treatment, consult a homeopath.
San Francisco health writer Michael Castleman is a frequent contributor to Herbs for Health. Visit his website at www.mcastleman.com.
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