Just about everyone knows the usual symptoms of seasonal allergies:
• Itching of the nose, eyes, mouth, throat, or skin
• Runny nose
• Impaired sense of smell
• Sore throat
• Teary eyes
But did you know allergies can also cause:
• Stomach cramps
• Feeling dizzy, especially around electronic devices and cell phones
• Lesions on the genitals that can be mistaken for STD’s
• Skin tumors (under tattoo ink)
• Dark “age” spots on the skin
• Swollen tongue
• Baboon syndrome, bright redness on the buttocks and/or around the anus
Allergies are among the most common of all health problems. Animal dander, dust mite droppings, pollen, grass, mold spores, and the infamous ragweed trigger annual episodes of hay fever, sinusitis, and itchy eyes for nearly 50 million people in North America alone. Many people with allergies of the eye, ear, nose, and throat are also allergic to certain foods. They may experience symptoms from eating allergens in such foods as dairy products, eggs, nuts, shellfish, or wheat. Even when the air is filled with pollen and dust, the overwhelming majority of airborne particles cause no harm. The nose is an efficient filtration system, trapping potentially offending allergens in mucus. The tiny hairs known as cilia in the linings of the nasal passages, however, beat rhythmically to transport mucus away from the nose and into the throat. Some of the captured allergenic particles arrive in the lower throat where their tough outer coats are partially digested. Allergenic particles are partially dissolved even before they reach the base of the throat.
Once its tough outer coat is dissolved, a liberated allergen makes contact with a specialized white blood cell known as a mast cell. The allergy particle attaches to a recognition site known as an immunoglobulin, specifically immunoglobulin E (IgE). This immune receptor site identifies it as a foreign substance and a potential toxin or infection. Mast cells break open to release histamine to cause tissue to swell up around the allergen. Some of the fluid swelling the tissues around the allergen leaks out and “runs” into the mucus. At this point IgE sends out a chemical message to attract white blood cells known as basophils, eosinophils, neutrophils, and monocytes to infiltrate the linings of the nose and throat and isolate the allergen. The basophils release other chemicals to dissolve the healthy tissue surrounding the allergen so it can be swept away with mucus. IgE is a memory system known as a “perpetual mediator,” so every repeated exposure to the allergen produces a swifter and greater response.
While allergies are often treated as an inconvenience rather than an illness, they can have profound influences on productivity and quality of life. A nationwide study conducted in the early 1990s confirmed what was already well known, that allergy sufferers lose sleep and have difficulty concentrating and are tormented by having constantly to blow their noses. Another study published in 1997 found a significant impairment in verbal learning, decision-making speed, and psychomotor speed in people who suffer from allergies, resulting in either chronic absence from work or substantial decreases in work productivity.
Which natural products assist in recovery from allergies? You don’t necessarily need all of these, but any of them can help:
• Butterbur (also known as Petasites): 50-75 mg of butterbur extract daily. The product label should state that it is free of pyrrolizidine alkaloids.
• Bromelain: 500 mg 3 times a day.
• N-acetyl cysteine (NAC): 500–1,000 mg daily.
• Quercetin: 250–600 mg 3 times a day, taken at the same time as bromelain.
• Vitamin C: 2,000 mg daily for up to a week
• Stinging nettle (the herb Urtica dioica): 300 mg 3 times a day, taken with food.
If you buy an over-the-counter allergy medication, chances are you will be taking a first-generation anti histamine such as diphenhydramine (Benadryl), brompheniramine (Dimetane, Dimetapp Allergy, Nasahist B, ND-Stat, Oraminic II), clemastine (Antihist-1, Tavist, Tavist Allergy), or chlorpheniramine (Aller-Chlor, Chlor-Trimeton Allergy, Teldrin), which are found in products marketed under over 100 brand names.
These drugs work by attaching to the cholesterol-derived coat of nerve cells. They deaden nerve fibers in the nose, throat, and sinuses that tell the mast cells to break open and release histamine. They also deaden fibers in the brain, causing discernible drowsiness in about 1 out of every 4 people who use them. First-generation antihistamines can cause dizziness, irregular heartbeats, lassitude, euphoria, blurred vision, double vision, muscle tremors, and general klutziness, and even when they do not cause these symptoms, they increase your risk of accidents while driving or, as the warning label says, operating heavy machinery.
Medical science attempted to address these problems by creating a second generation of antihistamines that are not attracted to cholesterol and do not cross the blood-brain barrier into the brain. Most of the antihistamines in this class are chemically similar to the active chemicals in anti-inflammatory herbs, such as comfrey. The problem is that these antihistamines (and, for that matter, comfrey) have to be used with extreme caution by people who take certain prescription drugs. While certirizine (Zyrtec), fexofenadine (Allegra), loratadine (Claritin), and the now banned astemizole (Hismanal) and terfenadine (Seldane) do not cause drowsiness, they can cause serious and potentially deadly cardiac arrhythmias when mixed with certain prescription drugs. These side effects can occur when the antihistamines are taken with the antibiotics erythromycin (sold as Benzamycin, Staticin, and under 2 dozen other trade names) and troleandomycin (TAO), or when they are taken with certain treatments for yeast infections such as itraconazole (Sporanox) or ketoconazole (Nizoral), or when they are taken by someone with liver disease.
Nasal sprays present their own problems. These topical decongestants reduce the flow of blood to the mucous membranes of the nose. This deprives mast cells, nerve cells, and other tissues of their normal supply of oxygen and nutrients, making them too weak to create an allergic reaction. Continuous use of nasal decongestants can cause atrophy of nasal tissues. Discontinuing nasal decongestants can result in a rebound reaction in which the linings of the nose and sinuses swell in response to their newly restored blood flow. There are also less commonly prescribed anticholinergic drugs that paralyze the nerves that control memory, but also interfere with memory, coordination, visual perception, and reaction time.
In general, medications control the symptoms of allergies but lower quality of life. Fortunately, there are natural therapies that can be used by themselves to control mild symptoms, without side effects. They can be used with over-the-counter and prescription medications to make it possible to control symptoms with a lower dose.
No single herb does more to relieve allergy symptoms than butterbur. If you are going to take just one natural product for allergies, this should be it. In one study, 330 people were given either butterbur, fexofenadine (Allegra), or a placebo. The study found that butterbur and Allegra were about equally effective (and both were superior to the placebo). In another study, 125 people were given either butterbur or certizine (Zyrtec). Butterbur and Zyrtec were rated as equally effective.
If butterbur is “equally effective” with standard allergy treatments, why not just take the standard allergy treatments? The advantage of butterbur is that it also treats headaches, including migraine headaches, and it won’t make you sleepy.
Bromelain is a protein-dissolving enzyme refined from the stem of the pineapple plant. In everyday language, bromelain turns sticky mucus into runny mucus. It dissolves the proteins that make the sloughed-off dead cells in mucus stick together. Bromelain also helps restore circulation to clogged sinuses and nasal passages. The tissue damage inflicted by the immune system in response to an allergen activates the clotting system in the blood supplying the affected membrane. Fibrin forms around the area of inflammation to deprive it of oxygen and nutrients, trapping the fluids that cause swelling. Bromelain stimulates the production of plasmin, a chemical that causes the protein chains that make up fibrin to unlink. This restores circulation. Bromelain also counteracts the bradykinin system that makes the healthy capillaries near the site of inflammation “leak” fluid. Stopping the release of bradykinins keeps them from causing swelling and pain. Since bromelain restores circulation and nasal decongestants cut off circulation, you do not want to use both products at the same time. The first time you use bromelain, you may have to find the right dosage through trial and error. Start with the lower dose and work upward to the maximum if you do not notice changes in the thickness of mucous discharge. Allergies to bromelain are very rare but are not unheard of. Allergic reactions to this supplement are most likely in people who are already allergic to pineapple, papaya, wheat flour, rye flour, or birch pollen. There has never been a report of an anaphylactic reaction to bromelain. There have been isolated reports of heavy menstrual periods, nausea, vomiting, and hives when bromelain is taken in very large overdoses (2,000 mg and higher).
N-acetyl cysteine (NAC) is an amino acid derivative and a potent antioxidant. Like bromelain, NAC does not stop the production of mucus, but it helps reduce the viscosity of mucus so it may be more easily coughed or sneezed out of the respiratory tract. NAC has been documented as an effective mucolytic (mucus-dissolving) agent in people who have asthma, chronic bronchitis, cystic fibrosis, pneumonia, and sinusitis. It has not been scientifically documented for the specific indication of hay fever, but there are anecdotal reports that it is helpful and it makes scientific sense to believe them.
No one in good general health should take NAC on an ongoing basis. At least one long-term study suggests that the antioxidant effect of NAC can actually interfere with some of the actions of the immune system against bacteria. You should only use NAC during your allergy season, or, if you have allergies all year round, for no more than 3 months at a time. Smokers who have had bronchitis for 2 years or less should not take NAC unless they are quitting. There is some evidence that NAC may activate eosinophils, the white blood cells that may cause smoker’s cough to develop into emphysema. NAC may cause headaches if taken with sildenafil (Viagra). There have been a few reports of people overdosing NAC and developing cysteine-crystal kidney stones. Diabetics with very poor blood sugar control may find that taking NAC causes false readings in urine tests for ketones. However, if you do not use Viagra, do not have uncontrolled diabetes, and do not have a history of cysteine-crystal kidney stones, NAC and bromelain together can be your most effective decongestant.
Quercetin is a flavonoid compound found in a wide variety of vegetables and herbs. It stops inflammation caused by the neutrophils. It also blocks the action of hyaluronidase, an enzyme that breaks down collagen in the linings of the walls of capillaries so that they can leak fluid and cause swelling around a point of allergic irritation. Keeping collagen intact also keeps mast cells from releasing their packets of histamine—without having any effect on the nervous system.
Japanese scientists studied mast cells taken from the nasal passages of volunteers who had yearly bouts of hay fever. Quercetin significantly reduced allergen-stimulated release of histamine, twice as effectively as the placebo. Quercetin’s effect was almost twice that of sodium cromoglycate (Nalcrom) at the same concentration.
For best results, take bromelain and quercetin together 5–10 minutes before meals. Bromelain increases the absorption of quercetin. Use quercetin with caution if you take certain prescription drugs listed in the entry for Quercetin in Part Two.
Vitamin C prevents the secretion of histamine by mast cells and accelerates its degradation. 11 Laboratory experiments have found exponential increases in the release of histamine when vitamin C is deficient. If you tend to get colds after you have allergies, taking 2,000 mg of vitamin C at the first sign of symptoms will make your cold less severe and help you get over it more quickly. Clear or white mucus is a sign of an allergy, while yellow or green mucus is a sign of a cold. Be sure to take vitamin C if your mucus turns yellow.
The very best form of vitamin C for treating allergies is an inhaler. One clinical trial gave hay fever sufferers a nose spray containing either vitamin C or a placebo. After 2 weeks, 74 percent of the volunteers given vitamin C solution were found to have decreased nasal secretions, blockage, and edema. Improvement was seen in only 24 percent of volunteers given a placebo. One of the revelations of the test was that vitamin C was most effective in an alkaline environment. Diets high in carbohydrates and refined sugars produce acidity, so if you are going to take vitamin C, your best results will come if you also restrict sugars and refined carbohydrates.
Therapeutic dosages of vitamin C for treating seasonal allergies have not been scientifically established, but experts agree that 2,000 mg a day for up to a week is adequate. Very few people experience any side effects with this dosage, and those who do are only likely to have diarrhea or abdominal swelling for a few days after beginning the vitamin. The reason you should not take this dosage of vitamin C for more than a week at a time (skipping it for at least a week) is that since vitamin C is water-soluble, your kidneys eliminate it. Not only does ingested vitamin C mostly get flushed down the toilet (remember, vitamin C sprays are best), your kidneys get used to eliminating it so that when you switch back to a lower dose or no vitamin C at all, if you have been taking high doses for several weeks or longer, you can actually be vitamin C-deficient.
Take vitamin C with caution if you also take certain prescription drugs. Vitamin C taken in the form of vitamin C with bioflavonoids can interfere with the liver’s ability to process statin drugs for controlling cholesterol, calcium channel blockers such as nifedipine (Procardia) for hypertension, or cyclosporine for preventing transplant rejection.
Stinging nettle acts as an antihistamine, strangely, by providing histamine. Freeze-dried stinging nettle leaf contains histamine and serotonin, two chemicals released in small amounts during an allergic reaction. Providing the body with large amounts of these chemicals, however, sets up a local anti-inflammatory reaction. (Doctors inject histamine to treat cluster headaches associated with hay fever, allergic arthritis, penicillin reactions, and “cold” hives. ) Clinical tests have confirmed that stinging nettle has an antihistamine effect in treating hay fever—without inducing drowsiness. Never take stinging nettle on an empty stomach. The serotonin it contains can cause mild stomach cramps.
There are many herbs that can relieve allergic irritation, including chamomile tea, ginger teas and candies, horseradish, and rooibos tea. Use these herbs as desired for additional relief.
More Tips for Coping with Allergies
• An apple a day helps keep allergies away. Apples are rich quercetin, which is a natural antihistamine. The quercetin is concentrated in the peel.
• Teas and capsules with the Ayurvedic herb amrita (Tylophora) sometimes get amazing results in the treatment of allergies. In fact, the benefits are so amazing and unbelievable that many Western-trained herbalists tend to reject their use.
• Low vitamin D levels are associated with allergies to birch, oak, and ragweed allergies in children and teens but not in adults. It may help to give children and teens a vitamin D supplement (up to 1,000 IU per day) starting six weeks before allergy season.
• Echinacea relieves symptoms of cold and flu, but not allergies.
• An alternative to allergy shots called sublingual immunotherapy involves placing tablets of allergy-causing substances underneath the tongue in graduated, increasing doses, to build up immunity to the allergen. The technique requires at least two months to generate any benefits; it may be necessary to continue treatments for 2 to 3 years for maximum benefits. Sublingual immunotherapy is useful for preventing allergic reactions, if started 2-3 months before allergy season, and stopping the development of new allergies in children and teens. It is sufficiently accepted that it is even covered by some health insurance.
• Conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), taken in a dosage of 3 to 5 grams per day, helped prevent allergic reactions to birch pollen in one study. CLA is usually marketed as a weight loss supplement, for example, Tonalin by Vitamin Shoppe and Vitacost, or TotalLean by GNC.
• Allergy-causing pollens are carried by the wind. To reduce your exposure to pollen, close windows, and run the air conditioner in the home and car. Stay indoors when pollen counts are high, especially on sunny, breezy days.
• The timing of your sneezing season gives you some idea of what you are allergic to, even without allergy testing. In most of North America, spring allergies are most commonly due to tree pollen. Allergy-invoking trees that are common to many areas include birches, elms, junipers, maples, and oaks. Summer allergies are usually due to grasses—Bermuda, Johnson grass, timothy, and bluegrass are the most frequent offenders. Ragweed is the most common source of fall allergies.
• Don’t hang laundry out to dry during your allergy season. Pollen and molds can stick to cloth surfaces.
• Outdoor air is most heavily saturated with pollen and mold between 5 and 10 a. m. , so early morning is a good time to limit outdoor activities.
• A HEPA (High Energy Particulate Air) filter or an electrostatic precipitator may help clean pollen and mold from the indoor air.
• Wear a dust mask when mowing the lawn, raking leaves, or gardening.
• Dust mites live in bedding, curtains, carpets, upholstered furniture, and stuffed animals. Wash all bedding in hot (130A1F or 55A1C) water every week. Vacuum at least twice a week to remove dust mites from the carpet and furniture. Cover pillows, box spring, and mattress with allergy-proof encasings. Your vacuum cleaner should be fitted with a HEPA filter.
• Mold thrives in warm, damp, dark places, especially bathrooms, basements, and garbage cans. Keep all rooms clean and dry to prevent the growth of mold. Reduce indoor humidity by running your air conditioner or dehumidifier during the high-humidity seasons. If you use a humidifier in the winter, make sure the humidity remains around 40 percent. Keep garbage cans covered.
• There is no such thing as a nonallergenic cat or dog. Dander is a collection of microscopic skin cells shed by animals. It can stick to carpet, upholstery, and drapes long after a pet has left the room. Vacuum drapes and upholstery when you vacuum carpets, and keep pets out of your own sleeping quarters.
• Allergy shots have been used to treat inhalant allergies since 1912, when Dr. Noon injected boiled grass pollen into hay fever sufferers. The method has been refined so that it is now used to treat allergies to virtually every airborne allergen with a medically acceptable rate of success. Allergy vaccines work by “confusing” your immune system so that it eventually turns off the IgE system that causes allergic reactions. Overall, allergy shots have provided effective relief for millions of patients. They do not cause cancer, kidney disease, autoimmune disease, or any other illness in the millions of patients who receive them. They are not, however, inexpensive. They can only be taken under professional supervision. While you may get some benefit after taking shots for only a few months, you typically would need to take shots for 3–5 years to have an 80 percent chance of protection.