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.
According to New York University allergist Clifford Bassett, MD, if you suffer from ragweed or other weed pollen allergies, "you should avoid eating melon, banana, cucumber, sunflower seeds, chamomile, and any herbal supplements containing echinacea, all of which can make symptoms much worse," he says.
Seasonal Allergies From the Inside Out
If your seasonal allergies are causing you to spend more time indoors than out, you may be tempted to try an air filtration system, which many say can remove irritating dust and pollens from your personal space, and in the process improve seasonal allergies. But according to a recent report from the Agency for Health Care Research and Quality, while these sometimes-costly units may clear the air, once an allergy is in progress they don't appear to have much impact on symptoms.
What may work somewhat better, however, is donning a paper dust filter when outdoors in high pollen conditions.
In addition to whatever natural treatments you try on your own, you may also find significant relief visiting a practitioner of the ancient Chinese medical practice known as acupuncture. Based on the idea that stimulating points outside the body can change or initiate reactions inside, in this case treatment is thought to affect the immune system, where allergic reactions begin.
In a small but significant study of 26 hay fever patients published in the American Journal of Chinese Medicine, acupuncture reduced symptoms in all 26 -- without side effects. A second study of some 72 people totally eliminated symptoms in more than half, with just two treatments.
"Acupuncture can be particularly useful if you are suffering from multiple allergies, since it works to quiet the areas of the immune system that are overstimulated by exposure to multiple irritating factors," Dillard tells WebMD.
Though many nontraditional treatments can be extremely helpful, allergist Marianne Frieri, MD, cautions that natural doesn't always mean better -- or safer. She points out that it's possible to overdose on even the most seemingly mild preparations, and it's important to remember that almost anything in nature's pharmacy could cause a toxic reaction if you use too much.
More important, she says, is never to mix alternative treatments with traditional drugs without your doctor's approval.
"If, for example, you are taking the allergy drug Allegra -- an antihistamine -- at the same time you decide to try a natural substance with antihistaminic properties, you can end up with far too much antihistaminic activity -- which can result in some significant problems," says Frieri, chairwoman of the department of allergy and immunology at Nassau University Medical Center in East Meadow, N.Y.
In addition, both Hardy and Frieri caution that if allergies are moderate to severe, you should not self-treat -- even with seemingly benign natural products -- without checking with your allergist first. When you are ready to try some alternative care, Hardy says one key to success is starting treatment before allergy symptoms kick in. The ideal time to begin, she says, is "three weeks before allergy season is scheduled to start."
Medically Updated August 2004.
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