Spring’s just around the corner—is it time to break out the picnic supplies or time to start popping antihistamines, decongestants, and steroids? Are you gearing up to plant flower beds, or are you instead practicing how to pry the tops off pill bottles?
If you suffer from allergic rhinitis, more commonly called hay fever, you’re probably focused on the latter. But these medications—which are expensive and in many cases have side effects—aren’t the only path to allergy relief.
Help for itchy eyes, headaches, sneezing, clogged sinuses, and tightness in the lungs may be as close as the colorful fruits and vegetables in your refrigerator. Air filters can help you breathe more easily at home. Nutritional supplements such as antioxidants, essential fatty acids, and anti-inflammatory herbs can quell symptoms before they start. And, best of all, a holistic allergy program can soothe your problems at their source—an imbalanced immune system.
What causes allergies?
Millions of Americans (estimates range from 10 to 17 percent of the population) suffer from allergic rhinitis. For some, the problem only occurs during one or two seasons, but for those with “perennial” allergies, the symptoms can come and go all year long.
Allergy symptoms indicate that the immune system—a complex, highly regulated system—has gotten out of balance. The symptoms resemble a bad cold that doesn’t go away. All parts of the respiratory tract can be affected, including the nose, sinuses, ears, and throat. When the lungs are involved, persistent coughing or wheezing results, a condition called asthma.
Underlying these symptoms is an inflammatory disorder—a problem that results from excessive inflammation in the body. It’s as if the eyes, nose, and lungs are “on fire.” Even though the symptoms may be confined to the respiratory tract, the whole body is involved.
In simple terms, inflammation is the normal physiologic response to injury. When inflammation occurs in response to a trauma or infection, it’s usually beneficial. For example, when a virus lands inside your nose, the immune system releases chemical signals, summoning an army of white blood cells ready to battle the invader. More blood flows to the area, raising temperature and creating swelling. This inflammatory response keeps the infection from spreading throughout the body.
Sometimes, however, the immune system overreacts. Instead of cooling off after the virus is gone, it continues to act as if it were under attack. The inflammation becomes chronic and the immune system becomes an agent of destruction. The fire gets out of control and normal tissue gets damaged.
Allergic rhinitis is thought to be a “hypersensitivity” syndrome, a genetically determined condition in which the immune system overreacts to common substances floating around in the atmosphere such as foods, dust, molds, pollens, and animal dander. These substances may be harmless to a person without allergies, but the immune system of an afflicted person sees them as a threat and attacks them with a vengeance.
Why holistic treatment?
From a conventional medical viewpoint, treating allergies means avoiding the offending agents and suppressing the symptoms with drugs. While this may help a lot of people, it can also create a sense of frustration and helplessness. Changing seasons, dusty attics, and feather beds become a source of fear. Relationships can be negatively impacted: “Either the cat goes, or I go!” Drugs can help suppress symptoms but are often expensive and bring with them a host of side effects. The side effects of antihistamines include drowsiness, dry mouth, and interference with normal heart rhythm; the side effects of decongestants are insomnia, rapid heart rate, nervousness, and weight loss. It is not unusual to develop a tolerance to these medications so that the effect wears off. Allergy shots work through an entirely different mechanism. They can be very effective in some people but are expensive, necessitate numerous visits to the doctor, can take years to work, and require injections, which some people find unpleasant.
Given these concerns, wouldn’t it be preferable to examine the problem more holistically? We can’t change our genetic framework, but mounting evidence suggests that the right combination of dietary factors—including herbs and nutritional supplements—can strongly influence the way our genes are expressed. The more we understand what causes the symptoms, the better able we are to design a comprehensive, nontoxic approach to treatment.
A holistic approach focuses on what has gone wrong with an individual’s immune system or biochemistry, according to Leo Galland, M.D., in his book Power Healing (Random House, 1998). Galland identifies several areas worthy of attention, including genetics, triggers (allergens), and chemical messengers in the body. The interplay between these areas explains why people react in such vastly different ways to the same substance. (For more information, see “Where an allergy comes from,” to the left.)
Where an allergy comes from: the holistic view
Healing at the source
A few basic changes in one’s environment and diet can help calm the excessive inflammatory response and restore balance to the immune system.
Purify your bedroom. For a person with allergic tendencies, a clean environment is crucial. This is especially true for the bedroom, which is where most people spend half of their lives. Run an air ionizer and air filter at all times. Keep pets out of the room. Use hypoallergenic coverings for mattresses and pillows. (Be aware that down pillows tend to collect dust and mites.)
Rinse—yes, rinse—your nose. Good nasal hygiene keeps allergens from aggravating sensitive nasal membranes. Flushing the nose out with salt water twice a day using a bulb syringe or Neti pot can have a remarkable effect in reducing congestion and drainage. A typical formula for the flush solution is four ounces of warm water, 1/4 teaspoon of salt, and 1/8 teaspoon of baking soda.
Consider what you eat. Although your symptoms may be confined to your nose, you may suffer from undiagnosed food allergies that feed the fire of inflammation. Gluten, dairy products, and yeast are common offenders. Many techniques exist for identifying these allergies, including elimination diets and blood testing. For details, contact a holistically oriented health-care provider.
However, even if you don’t have any food allergies, diet still plays an important role in your health. Sixty percent of the immune system resides along the lining of the intestines, so it’s doubly important to keep the gut healthy. Eliminating refined carbohydrates is the first step in maintaining good intestinal function. One way to do this is to increase dietary fiber from whole grains, nuts, and seeds. Many people are allergic to gluten in wheat and rye, so use these particular grains with caution. The outer bran layer of whole grains and seeds is rich in fibers, which encourage the growth of healthy bacteria such as acidophilus and bifidus. Brown rice and flax meal are particularly good in this regard.
Wipe out free radicals. Another way that diet helps with allergies is by providing a source of antioxidants. One of the most potent mediators of inflammation is a group of toxic substances called free radicals. Free radicals are unstable molecules produced as a normal byproduct of respiration. They are also made by immune cells that use them to kill off viruses and bacteria. In excessive amounts, free radicals fuel the flame of inflammation and damage healthy tissue. Antioxidants neutralize these free radicals and prevent them from doing further mischief.
One clue that foods and herbs contain antioxidants is their intense color. The rich blue, green, yellow, orange, and red pigments found in fruits and vegetables are all antioxidants. About 35 percent of these pigments are from the carotenoid family, including beta-carotene, lutein, and lycopene. The remaining 65 percent are flavonoids—quercitin, found in the rind of apples and red onions, and proanthocyanidins, the source of the blue in blueberries and the red in cranberries. As it turns out, flavonoids have a number of beneficial effects in preventing and treating allergies. In addition to their antioxidant properties, they act as anti-inflammatory agents that help balance and restore normal immune function.
Control inflammation. Essential fatty acids (EFAs) are another group of beneficial chemicals found in foods. The immune system converts essential fatty acids into chemical messengers called prostaglandins, which are intimately involved in controlling the inflammatory response.
There are many different types of EFAs, and not all of them are beneficial. However, it appears that the “omega-3” EFAs found in flax oil and deep sea fish such as salmon, haddock, and cod tend to act as anti-inflammatory agents. Another beneficial EFA, called gamma-linolenic acid (GLA), is found in evening primrose, borage, and black currant seed oil. Many nutritionists and herbalists find that the combination of omega-3 EFAs along with GLA creates a more potent effect for decreasing inflammation.
While a diet containing all of these substances is crucial for bringing immune function back to normal, a person with full-blown allergies may need to take higher doses of antioxidants and essential fatty acids in a supplement form. A general recommendation for daily use in a person with allergies would include the following anti-allergy supplements.
Allergy: an autoimmune disease?
Bock, Kenneth Elliot, and Nellie Sabin. The Road to Immunity: How to Survive and Thrive in a Toxic World (Pocket Books, 1997).
Firshein, Richard. Reversing Asthma: Breathe Easier with this Revolutionary New Program (Warner, 1998).
Galland, Leo. Power Healing: Use the New Integrated Medicine to Cure Yourself (Random House, 1998).
McLain, Gary, with the Natural Medicine Collective. Asthma and Allergies (Dell Books, 1995).
Pizzorno, Joseph. Total Wellness: Improve Your Health by Understanding and Cooperating with Your Body’s Natural Healing System (Prima Publishing, 1996).