Relieve Allergies the Natural Way
If spring and fall send your seasonal allergies into a spin, many experts say look to Mother Nature for relief that can be as comforting and easy as a day at the beach.
By Colette Bouchez
Reviewed By Cynthia Haines
Whether it's the long-awaited change of winter into spring, or the quiet fading of summer into fall, for many folks the changing of the seasons means more than just vacation plans and a new wardrobe -- it signals the start of seasonal allergies.
Sneezing, wheezing, runny nose, and itchy, watery, red eyes -- these are just some of the symptoms that more than 35 million Americans face each year as the pollen from trees, grass, flowers, and plants makes it way into the air.
For many, relief is just a drugstore counter away -- with a wide array of traditional medications available to help. However, for an increasing number of allergy sufferers the road to relief is best paved by Mother Nature, with a variety of all-natural treatments that studies show can help -- often without many of the troubling side effects ascribed to traditional care.
"Using nature-based products can be a very useful way to handle mild allergies and a useful adjunct for more significant allergies, and there are many types of treatments you can safely try," says Mary Hardy, MD, director of integrative medicine at Cedars Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.
Among those generating the loudest buzz right now is the European herb butterbur (Petasites hybridus), which, says Hardy, "has had some very impressive clinical trial results."
In one study, published recently in the British Medical Journal, a group of Swiss researchers showed how just one tablet of butterbur four times daily was as effective as a popular antihistamine drug in controlling symptoms of hay fever -- without the traditional symptom of drowsiness that sometimes occurs. In a second study, presented in March 2003 at the 60th annual meeting of the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology (AAAAI), a group of British researchers put their stamp of approval on butterbur's effectiveness in quelling symptoms of grass allergy.
Other herbal supplements proving helpful, says Hardy, include freeze-dried nettles and a tonic made from the herb goldenseal, which she recommends adding to still one more natural treatment -- a saline (salt water) nasal spray.
"The saline works to wash out pollen and reduce or thin mucous -- the goldenseal has astringent and local antibacterial properties which can aid in this process," Hardy tells WebMD.
In addition to herbs, many naturopathic doctors also believe certain nutrients can be helpful in quieting seasonal symptoms. Among the most popular are grape seed extract and a flavonoid compound known as quercetin. Although both occur naturally in many foods -- and are especially abundant in red wine -- when used in supplement form they can be extremely helpful in reducing allergy symptoms, particularly in conjunction with vitamin C, says James Dillard, MD.
"There is even some evidence that quercetin may control the release of histamine and other chemicals that help initiate the allergic response," says Dillard, clinical advisor to Columbia University's Rosenthal Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, and assistant clinical professor at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons.
Turning the focus from the medicine chest to the kitchen cabinet, you might want to try cooking up some allergy relief in the form of hot, spicy foods. The reason: Experts say the spicier the dish, the more likely it is to thin mucous secretions, which in turn can clear nasal passages. Among the most frequently recommended spices for this purpose include cayenne pepper, hot ginger, and fenugreek, as well as the traditional onion and garlic.
Interestingly, what you don't eat may be even more important than what you do eat. The reason, according to Hardy, is that food intolerance may be far more intimately entwined with seasonal allergies than we realize.
"You have to really look at your diet and cut out any foods that seem to provoke even a mild sensitivity, such as occasional hives or even stomach upset, " says Hardy. In doing so, she says, you can literally lighten the burden on your immune system, which in turn may help reduce the impact of seasonal allergic reactions.