Your immune system, designed to protect you when bacteria, viruses, and other foreign substances enter your body, sometimes seems to get confused. It becomes unable to differentiate an enemy from something harmless, like pollen, dust, certain foods, drugs, cosmetics, animals…the list is enormous. The result is an allergic reaction in your body, an allergy for short, with some fairly predictable symptoms ranging from the mildly annoying to the genuinely life threatening. Although conventional medicine provides many ways to deal with allergies, some of the therapies (like allergy shots) are inconvenient and expensive, while others (like antihistamines) cause unpleasant side effects. Our WholeHealth Chicago integrated approach just might allow you to control your allergies all by yourself.
What are Allergies?
An allergy is an overreaction of the immune system to a normally innocuous substance that enters the body. Sneezing, a runny nose, and itchy eyes are symptoms characteristic of allergic rhinitis, the medical name for a common allergic reaction to a variety of airborne particles. The specific irritants, or allergens, that trigger rhinitis vary from person to person. Seasonal allergies (commonly called hay fever) are generally caused by airborne pollens and outdoor mold spores that proliferate in warm weather, from spring to fall. Perennial allergies, triggered by such allergens as dust, animal dander, or mold spores, can flare up at any time of the year. Although the symptoms of both types of allergies are the same, those who suffer from allergic rhinitis may be less resistant to sinus infections, colds, flu, or other respiratory illnesses. Allergic rhinitis may develop anytime after birth, but usually peaks in the pre-teen or teen years and tends to diminish later in life. It affects as much as a quarter of the young adult population. Whether seasonal or perennial, allergies are not a serious health problem, but they can make life miserable during an attack. Fortunately, symptoms can be controlled with herbs and nutritional supplements as well as over-the-counter or prescription medications.
Runny nose (usually with a clear, watery discharge) and swollen, congested, itchy nasal passages
Red, watering, puffy, itchy eyes, sometimes with dark circles around them
Itching in the throat or roof of the mouth, often with a scratchy or sore throat
Coughing and wheezing in some cases
Occasional headaches, due to sinus congestion
Ear congestion or discomfort
Skin itching or rashes
What Causes Allergies?
Allergic rhinitis originates in the inability of the body’s immune system to distinguish between disease-causing bacteria or viruses and harmless particles, such as pollen or dust. When an allergen enters the nose, throat, or eyes of someone who is susceptible to it, the body responds first by developing a sensitivity, then, upon further exposures, by releasing illness-fighting histamines and other inflammatory compounds (designed to fight off this foreign “invader”) into the affected areas. The resulting inflammation of the mucous membranes produces the symptoms of hay fever.
Allergic reactions can be triggered by many different allergens. Seasonal allergies are most often caused by pollen–from trees and grasses in the spring, from ragweed and other weed pollens in late summer and early fall, and from outdoor mold spores during spring and fall. Mold spores, animal dander, tiny mites in household dust, cigarette smoke, certain cosmetics, and feathers can produce allergy attacks throughout the year.
What causes the immune system to overreact to certain allergens is not known. Genetics may play a role, since allergic rhinitis seems to run in families. Other factors that may predispose a person to allergies include poor nutrition, exposure to environmental pollutants, overuse of decongestant nasal sprays, hormonal disturbances related to pregnancy, the use of oral contraceptives, and thyroid problems.
Treatment and Prevention
The primary way to treat allergic rhinitis is with antihistamines–substances that can control allergy symptoms by blocking the histamines that cause them. Antihistamines are available in over-the-counter and prescription medications, but these drugs can have various side effects, including drowsiness and dry mouth. Certain supplements, on the other hand, can also act as antihistamines, helping to control allergy symptoms without producing annoying side effects.
Except for the herb ephedra, which should not be taken with certain conventional drugs, such as medicines for high blood pressure or other decongestants, all the supplements recommended by WholeHealth Chicago for allergy relief can be taken together, preferably for the duration of the allergy season. The supplements alone may be sufficient to bring relief. If not, they can also be taken in combination with any prescription or over-the-counter medications your doctor recommends.
Prevention is also important. If at all possible, try to eliminate or avoid exposure to known allergens. Your doctor or an allergy specialist can help you identify the cause of your allergies. And if it’s not possible to totally avoid an allergen, you can at least try to limit your exposure to it–for example, stay indoors when the pollen count is high and use an air conditioner.
Just a reminder: If you have a medical condition, always check with your doctor before beginning a supplement program.
How Supplements Can Help
Unlike conventional antihistamines, which try to counter the effects of histamines after they’ve already been released, the flavonoid supplement quercetin actually helps prevent the body’s release of histamines in the first place, and quercetin doesn’t have side effects. It’s particularly effective when combined with the anti-inflammatory enzyme bromelain, derived from the pineapple plant, which help soothe irritated mucous membranes.
Quercetin also works well with the herb nettle, also called stinging nettle, which helps stop the sneezing and itching that often accompanies an allergy attack. Nettle also helps reduce the swelling of nasal passages.
Take vitamin C and the B vitamin pantothenic acid throughout the allergy season, with either quercetin or conventional antihistamines. Vitamin C boosts the immune system and is also thought to have anti-inflammatory and antihistamine properties. Pantothenic acid may help relieve nasal congestion.
Ephedra (also called Ma huang) helps open respiratory passages clogged by severe cases of hay fever. You can combine ephedra with quercetin and nettle, but not with over-the-counter or prescription decongestants. Because high doses of ephedra can raise your blood pressure, check with your doctor if you have high blood pressure, heart disease, heart rhythm disorders or are taking MAO inhibitors for depression before taking this herb for your allergies.
Anise, ginger, and peppermint are natural herbal antihistamines. Ginger and peppermint are also natural decongestants. Sipping teas made from these herbs, singly or in combination, can help relieve allergy symptoms. Parsley, for instance, inhibits the secretion of histamine, and ginkgo biloba contains several chemicals that interfere with platelet activating factor (PAF), which plays a key role in triggering allergies. In Chinese medicine, ginkgo has a long use for asthma and bronchitis.
Be aware of daily pollen counts, and try to stay indoors with the windows closed when pollen counts are high. Use an air-conditioner at home and in the car, and clean the filters regularly.
If your allergies are triggered by dust and dander, get rid of carpets and put your cat up for adoption and use only washable furniture slipcovers and allergy-proof pillow covers and mattress. Replace feather pillows with synthetic ones. To eliminate the dust mites that collect in bedding and slipcovers, and wash the fabrics in very hot water once a week.
Eliminate damp areas in the home that can foster the growth of mold.
When to Call a Doctor
If you start wheezing and your breathing becomes difficult. (These could be signs of an asthma attack, which requires immediate medical attention.)
If nasal discharge turns yellow or green, or if you have a headache that gets worse when you bend over. (These symptoms could indicate a sinus infection.)
If your allergies begin to interfere with everyday activities despite treatment with over-the-counter medications or supplements.
David Edelberg, M.D. at WholeHealth Chicago: How you treat your allergies depends on which type you have. Some people only need supplements during the pollen season, and others need a year-round regimen.
All the supplements recommended by WholeHealth Chicago for allergy relief can be taken together. The supplements alone may be sufficient to bring relief. If not, they can also be taken in combination with any prescription or over-the-counter medications your doctor recommends. The only exception is the herb ephedra, which shouldn’t be used if you’re taking a conventional decongestant.
How to Take the Supplements
If your allergies are seasonal, start taking the bromelain/quercetin, the herb nettle, pantothenic acid (one of the B vitamins), and vitamin C at the first signs that your allergies are returning, and simply continue them until your season ends or at the first frost.
If your allergies are active year-round, get your symptoms under control with the doses recommended, then begin reducing the amounts of all the supplements until you find the lowest effective dose. Then maintain yourself on these all the time.
For more severe cases of hay fever, you can try the herb ephedra, which may help open up congested respiratory passages. (Do not use it, however, with prescription or over-the-counter antihistamines or decongestants; or if you have heart or blood pressure problems, or if you take MAO inhibitors for depression.)
Also useful is the herb ginkgo biloba, which has a long history in Chinese medicine of helping to prevent allergy attacks and ease bronchial spasms.
If stress seems to be a contributing factor in triggering an allergy attack, try adding some kava (250 mg 3 times a day) for several days. In fact, stress can exhaust the adrenal glands, your body’s source of natural anti-inflammatory agents. Thus, keeping your stress response at a minimum may be helpful in controlling your allergies as well.
If you’re female and your allergies seems to predictably worsen during the week or so before your period, then treating your PMS may also benefit your allergies. A good solution is a PMS herbal combination (two capsules twice a day starting 10 days or even longer prior to flow, and stopping during actual menstrual flow itself).
If your allergies are particularly mild or particularly severe, consider using an allergy combination product (follow label directions). These capsules often contain smaller amounts of several helpful herbs and nutrients (namely, vitamin C, bromelain, quercetin, or nettle). For very mild allergy symptoms (or during the off-season), a combination product by itself may be sufficient to control your allergy symptoms. Conversely, if your allergy symptoms are severe, you may find one of these products particularly beneficial as an “add-on.” The Healing Path for Allergies provides more extensive therapeutic information about this condition.
We at WholeHealth Chicago strongly recommend that everyone take a high-potency multivitamin/mineral and well-balanced antioxidant complex every day. It may be necessary to adjust the dosages outlined below to account for your own daily vitamin regimen. All of our supplement recommendations also assume you are eating a healthful diet.
Be aware that certain cautions are associated with taking individual supplements, especially if you have other medical conditions and/or you’re taking medications. Key cautions are given in the listing below, but you need to see the WholeHealth Chicago Reference Library for a comprehensive discussion of each supplement’s cautions and drug/nutrient interactions.
For product recommendations and orders click here for the Natural Apothecary or call 773-296-6700, ext. 2001.
David Edelberg, MD