Relief is in Sight

Natural Remedies to Make Allergy Season a Little Easier

It’s springtime, and a young plant’s thoughts turn to pollination. This shouldn’t be a problem, since pollen isn’t actually bad for you. But it can certainly make you miserable.

The American Academy of Asthma, Allergy and Immunology (AAAAI) estimates that nearly 36 million people in the United States have seasonal hay fever, leading to more than eight million visits to doctors’ offices each year. Americans spent an estimated $3.4 billion fighting hay fever in 1993; $2.3 billion of that was for medication.

The bodies of hay fever sufferers are actually doing what they’re supposed to do—fighting off foreign invasions. The only problem is it’s not necessary to fight off pollen. When an allergic body finds pollen in its system, a specific antibody, Immunoglobin E (IgE), greets the pollen with a chemical hug. That IgE-pollen combination bonds well with mast cells, which contain histamines and leukotrienes.

Before the booing starts, understand that mast cells and their contents also help the body. Adam Seller, director of the Pacific School of Herbal Medicine in Oakland, California, explains that mast cells regulate mucous membranes and hydrochloric acid in the stomach. They get the body to make mucous and fluid to protect the tissues and wash invaders away.

With hay fever and similar allergies, this system does too much. Mucous becomes too abundant, the fluid adds up to swelling, and histamines and leukotrienes irritate nerve endings into the familiar symptoms of burning and itching and sneezing.

A Natural Response

Several natural remedies, taken in advance of hay fever season, can help tone that response down. Familiar over-the-counter antihistamines like Benadryl and newer, prescription ones like Claritin and Allegra address allergy problems at the far end of the process. Shaped like histamines, they take up the receptor sites histamines would otherwise excite. The drugs don’t affect leukotrienes, however, which in the lungs can be 1,000 times more irritating. The biggest side effect of these drugs is their tendency to slow down the central nervous system, which translates into drowsiness and mental fog. They can also cause gastrointestinal side effects, dry mouth or dry throat. Michael Moore, director of the Southwest School of Botanical Medicine in Bisbee, Arizona, adds that standard over-the-counter antihistamines can give women slow, crampy periods and can inflame the prostate in some men.

Natural remedies can be strong, too, and need to be used carefully. “Just because something is natural doesn’t mean you can take high dosages,” says Dr. Clifton Furukawa, a Seattle allergist and vice president of AAAAI. “It may also be very potent.” Furukawa worries that herb potencies may be inconsistent. And taking them in combination form can effectively increase dosages of some prescription drugs. This is of particular concern with stimulants and anti-inflammatory steroids like prednisone.

But there are plenty of good reasons to try natural remedies. Many simply feed the body, helping it be less reactive. For Seller, there’s also an ecological argument: It takes fewer resources to make a medicinal tea or tincture than to create a synthetic version of it.

Some things to try:

QUERCITIN: Dr. Walter Crinnion, a naturopath in Kirkland, Washington, recommends quercitin for allergies. The potent bioflavinoid stabilizes mast cells so they don’t release as many irritants. Crinnion says 1,800 milligrams (mg) of quercitin can relieve symptoms all day.

AMBROSIA: Seller’s favorite hay fever quick fix comes from an unlikely source: the same ragweed that inflames so many noses. (The tincture is safe because the process changes the pollen’s shape.) Other constituents in the herb quickly stabilize mast cells. Seller recommends starting ambrosia tincture up to three weeks before allergy season, taking 30 to 60 drops (one or two droppers) three times a day until pollen counts drop. He suggests up to one teaspoon in acute cases—something he says he’s never had to prescribe twice.

NETTLES: Europeans once used nettles for hay fever in the form of fresh juice. Susun Weed, a naturopathic author and director of the Wise Woman Center in Woodstock, New York, recommends steeping an ounce of dried leaves in a quart of boiling water for at least four hours. It’s high in calcium, and it builds both the adrenal and immune systems “so the body literally doesn’t have to be allergic anymore,” she says. Seller says two to four capsules of the freeze-dried herb work well for about two thirds of the people who try it. Crinnion puts that number at 40 percent.

MORMON TEA: (Ephedra viridis, E. nevadensis): American Ephedra is similar to the very controversial ma huang, but doesn’t contain the same speed-related chemicals as its Chinese cousin. It has large amounts of quercitin, and so it helps reduce allergic responses. Seller recommends steeping a third of an ounce of the plant’s green portions in a pint of boiling water for an hour. Mormon tea is a diuretic, so people who urinate frequently may prefer to use ambrosia.

YERBA SANTA: (Eriodictyon species): As a decongestant, Moore favors a tea of yerba santa leaves. Use one tablespoon of chopped leaves in a cup and a half of boiling water and let it steep. Steeping time varies depending on the species you have. If the leaves are fuzzy on both sides, 10 to 15 minutes is enough. If they’re shiny and waxy on one side, steep them for half an hour.

BEE POLLEN: Many people report that their allergies improve when they take local bee pollen or honey to desensitize themselves. Weed says, one teaspoon to one tablespoon of local bee pollen taken daily up to four weeks before allergy season has knocked out some people’s allergies entirely. Others are less convinced. Moore says many of the pollens that cause allergies aren’t ones bees pick up, and it can be difficult to find local pollen or honey. He says bee pollen can actually induce bad allergies in some individuals.

Diet can help, too. Crinnion says people who avoid wheat and sugar during allergy season tend to fare better. Moore recommends cutting out animal fats and saturated vegetable fats because they’re harder on the liver and metabolism, and they increase sensitivity. Weed says people who regularly drink raw goat’s milk often lose their hay fever symptoms completely, although some states ban its sale.

Because natural medicines can be so potent, Weed recommends a common-sense approach of starting with the gentlest things first. She starts with either nettles or bee pollen, moving from there, if necessary, to an ambrosia or eyebright (Euphrasia species) tincture. Only after those fail should people turn to ephedra, the last stop before over-the-counter or prescription drugs.

Orna Izakson leads a natural life as a writer in Eugene, OR.