Skies are blue and the birds are singing. Then it starts. You begin sneezing, your eyes water and your head pounds. Hay fever season has arrived. Most people with hay fever and other airborne allergies wait out their misery with patience and antihistamines. But there is another way. The herbal kingdom and its many subjects, like nutrition, offer several options for relieving allergy symptoms.
Allergy is a general term describing the body’s aggressive attack on benign or even beneficial compounds. Allergies can be induced by eating certain foods, touching particular chemicals and other substances, or breathing irritants like pollen, spores and animal dander. Airborne allergies, which mainly affect the respiratory system, are especially difficult to control.
Hay fever is the most common and familiar form of airborne allergies. The coughing, sneezing, itching throat and eyes, and sinus headaches associated with it are usually seasonal. This doesn’t mean that hay fever is restricted to one season though. If you suffer from spring hay fever, then tree pollens are most likely responsible. Summer sneezing begins when grasses and weeds release their pollen. Ragweed contributes to autumn nose blowing.
Regardless of the time of year, the symptoms are the same. The nose runs with a clear, watery discharge. This is different from a cold or other infection where nasal mucus is usually yellow or green and thicker. All types of allergies are also exhausting. It’s no wonder that most sufferers are irritable or even depressed. For many, food is unappealing and sleep is hard to come by even though they’re tired. While red, scratchy eyes often accompany hay fever, sometimes only the eyes are affected.
Airborne allergies don’t have to be seasonal. If your nose is always runny, you may have perennial allergic rhinitis: sneezing all year round. Unlike hay fever, symptoms may wax and wane. Many times eyes are unaffected but hearing, especially in children, may be decreased due to blocked eustachian tubes. For this condition look for irritants that are constant like pets (animal dander is a common allergen), mold or mildew (fungal spores can cause allergies) or even a dusty house. Cigarette smoke is also a culprit.
Bronchial asthma can be triggered by a variety of stresses like exercise, infection, gas fumes, cold air or even a change in temperature. The shortness of breath, coughing, wheezing, tightness and chest pressure, anxiety and fatigue of asthma can also be sparked by the same airborne allergens that cause hay fever in others. Allergic asthma is more prevalent in babies and children than adult asthmatics.
Finally, there’s the complications of airborne allergies. Because this condition is so draining, bodily resistance is not up to par. Less immunity means the door is open to infection and illness in general. Bacterial sinusitis with its fever and chills, headache and nasal congestion can easily take up residence in sinuses that are weak, clogged and swollen, as in ongoing allergies. Chronic sinusitis may even be mistaken for allergies; conversely allergies are commonly found among those with chronic sinusitis.
Although Ma Huang, or Ephedra sinica, is a primitive plant, it’s a well established anti-allergy herb. This rigid, tufted shrub has been used as an asthma remedy for at least 5000 years. The ephedrine in ephedra soothes the bronchial spasms that characterize an asthmatic attack and open airways for five hours. Ma Huang is equally useful for the runny nose and other symptoms of hay fever.
While ephedra is an especially effective and fast working herb, it has its drawbacks. Like some of the over-the-counter drugs that contain ephedrine, ephedra offers symptomatic relief only. It’s not a long term answer to hay fever or asthma. Ephedra loses its effectiveness after extended use, and may even weaken the adrenal glands. If you plan to take ephedra, look for a product that includes adrenal supporting herbs and nutrients like licorice, ginseng, magnesium and vitamin C.
Some people are better off avoiding ephedra. The ephedrine in this plant can cause insomnia, anxiety, and an increased heart rate and blood pressure in sensitive individuals. If you already have high blood pressure, diabetes, thyroid disease, coronary thrombosis or difficulty urinating due to an enlarged prostate, don’t take ephedra. Anyone on antidepressant or antihypertensive medication should also avoid this herb. If you’re pregnant, don’t take this (or any other herb) without professional guidance.
The elder, a small tree that reaches a maximum height of 30 feet, has been popular since ancient Egypt. The Sambucus nigra fruit makes sumptuous jams and pies. Elton John sang about elderberry wine. The juice is used for dyeing cloth or coloring lips and cheeks. The pretty white flowers are attractive when planted as hedgerows. Some like to soak these tiny, flat topped blossoms in lemon juice overnight for a cool, summer drink.
Those who look to the elder for health reasons consider it to be a medicine chest unto itself as each part of this plant has a different application. For airborne allergies, elder offers a variety of helpful actions. Elder leaves are expectorants, allowing congested lungs to expel excess mucus. Both the flowers and berries ease the congestion and inflammation seen in hay fever and sinusitis. Children who suffer from deafness due to blocked eustachian tubes respond well to this remedy.
Golden rod, with its expectorant and anti-inflammatory abilities, complements elder when taken for hay fever and other respiratory allergies.
The yellow flecks and purple stripes of the Euphrasia offincinalis flower resemble a bloodshot eye. And fittingly, Euphrasia, or eyebright, is most noted for aiding eye conditions. First introduced during the Middle Ages, this small annual plant decorated with white flowers relieves hay fever and other respiratory ailments.
Although eyebright prefers a meadow over a backyard garden, it’s well worth hunting down for its anti-catarrhal effects. The pale, boggy mucous membranes that result from airborne allergies respond well to eyebright. As might be expected, allergic conjunctivitis, the red, scratchy tearing eyes of allergies, feel much better when treated to an eyebright compress.
Eyebright combines well with golden seal or elder. When eyes are affected, mix eyebright with ephedra.
Hay Fever Doesn’t Respond to Herbs Alone
Botanicals are wonderful medicines for airborne allergies. But for the most part they don’t take care of the underlying problem. The simplest way to treat allergies is by removing the allergen or substance that’s causing you misery. Where airborne allergies are concerned, sometimes this can be done, sometimes it can’t. If you’re allergic to cats or dogs, it’s easy enough to avoid those animals. However, if you have hay fever, the problem is harder to solve.
One way to ease allergy symptoms is by building your constitution. Let’s pretend your body is a table. Each leg of your table represents a different aspect of your lifestyle: one is diet, another is exercise, the third is stress and the fourth sleep. The more you take care of each of these legs, the stronger your table is. If, however, you eat poorly or don’t exercise, then your table’s legs become shaky.
The top of your table is your genetic makeup. What you put on top of the table are your allergies. If you have many allergies (most allergic people are allergic to more than one thing), your table has to hold a heavier load. If your lifestyle or legs are weak, then your table may collapse when many allergies are piled on top. So there are two ways to ease allergy symptoms: by shoring up your lifestyle and by diminishing your exposure to allergens.
People who have hay fever are more likely to have eczema too. Both of these conditions are also linked to food allergies. An Italian study suggested that individuals with eczema tend to have hyper-responsive bronchi, a symptom of asthma (1). At Johns Hopkins University, researchers concluded that people with food sensitivities release more histamine than non-allergic individuals (2). Histamine, a necessary substance when the body is injured, causes allergic symptoms when the body overreacts to an allergen.
If pollens and other airborne allergens bother you, chances are you may also be sensitive to some foods. Identifying these foods and avoiding them may help with hay fever and other allergic symptoms. As often is the case, taking of your health will undoubtedly ease allergies too.
A Recipe for Allergies
Many of the foods we regularly eat are medicines-in-waiting. Onions, garlic and chili peppers are all foods that therapeutically soothe hay fever symptoms. Try cooking the following spicy sauce and see if it clears up your stuffy head and nose.
5 medium onions, diced
5 cloves of garlic, diced
1 tsp dried chili peppers (more if you can stand it)
2 15 oz cans of tomato sauce
1 15 oz can of tomatoes or 2 fresh tomatoes, chopped up
1 tsp dried oregano
1 tsp dried basil
1 tsp dried thyme
1 tsp dried allspice
dash of vinegar
1 tbsp olive oil
Gently saute diced garlic in olive oil in a large pot over low to medium heat for one minute. Add onions. Saute onions until they’re translucent, stirring frequently. Add rest of ingredients. Stir thoroughly. Cover with lid. Turn heat down to low and let sauce simmer all day. (Use a slow cooker if you have one).
When sauce is done, serve over your favorite pasta with a fresh green salad and garlic bread covered with plenty of fresh garlic.
Have a cup of green tea after dinner, a wonderful anti-asthmatic beverage.
- Corbo GM et al. Bronchial hyperresponsiveness in atopic dermatitis. Allergy 1989;44:595-598.
- Sampson HA, Broadbent KR, Bernhisel-Broadbent J. Spontaneous release of histamine from basophils and histamine-releasing factor in patients with atopic dermatitis and food hypersensitivity. The New England Journal of Medicine 1989;321:228-232.