Q: I am really struggling this spring with allergies. Things like headache, constant congestion, and runny nose. I confirmed the issues are seasonal because the symptoms only appear during spring (mostly) and fall. I already know over-the-counter antihistamine drugs have a lot of side effects. I have a problem with how drowsy and listless the drugs make me feel. Do you know of some natural solutions that really work? There’s a lot of stuff on the internet, but I am not sure if any of them are effective. Or is there a way for me to take the drugs without all the side effects? Thanks in advance for whatever guidance you can offer!
A: You are right about the side effects of typical anti-histamine medications. These drugs often leave a person feeling drugged, sleepy, or foggy-brained. They also can have other potent (but not often publicized) side effects such as dizziness, blurred vision, nausea, or making an enlarged prostate or a yeast infection worse. I encourage you to avoid them whenever possible. And yes, there are several natural choices that I have seen make major improvement. Not only with seasonal allergy symptoms but also asthma and ongoing, chronic allergy.
First of all, keep in mind the simple physiology of allergy.
Our immune system can react with alarm to the protein in a particular type of pollen and develop antibodies to these “foreign invaders”. Think of antibodies as your body’s “Most Wanted” criminal list. Exposure to them then causes our mast cells to release histamine, triggering swelling of mucus membranes and the flow of mucus. Despite the discomfort, our immune system really does have our best interests at heart ! Mucus can flush unwanted substances out of the body and protects delicate tissue. The problem is that our immune systems can get overwhelmed, especially if your members are (1) chronically stressed, (2) consume lots of sugar/sweeteners/chemicals, and/or (3) are not well-rested (three factors which influence our immune system greatly).
In terms of solutions, I recommend quercetin (pronounced kwehr’-suh-tin). A natural extract from plant foods like onions, apples, berries, buckwheat, and citrus fruit, quercetin is technically a flavonol. Remember from prior articles that these polyphenols help to determine a plant’s color – in this case, a bright yellow. Quercetin is a natural anti-histamine without the side effects of many medications! Quercetin actually calms the immune system to reduce or prevent histamine release. Several members of mine over the years with chronic seasonal allergies or asthma have found great relief. As an aside, quercetin is also being researched for circulation and cardiovascular health too, as it’s been shown to increase blood flow via artery dilation, promoting the release of nitric oxide. This action creates greater tissue oxygenation, nutrient flow, and waste removal. For this reason, it may also improve symptoms of fatigue and malaise due to poor circulation or in those with anemia or mild hypertension. Be cautious using quercetin, however, for those already taking blood thinners (e.g. Coumadin, Plavix, or daily aspirin).
In a supplement, quercetin is often combined with bromelain, an extract from pineapples that is a potent anti-inflammatory that also calms the immune system and increases the effectiveness of quercetin. For seasonal allergies, I recommend clients start using quercetin right away to build up levels in their body and continue throughout the full allergy season. Consider starting with 1000 mg, taken twice daily on an empty stomach. Allergic reactions to quercetin are virtually unheard of; I believe this is a safe supplement to explore.
But quercetin has also been heavily studied in recent years because of its ability to heal intestinal permeability. This is especially helpful for those who may be prone to allergies/sensitivities in part because of the ongoing immune insults that having a leaky gut allows. This makes Quercetin a perfect two-solutions-in-one remedy!
Stinging nettle leaf (very important: leaf, not root) has been shown to have effective ‘antihistamine’ action because it makes histamine receptors less sensitive. Because of this mode of action, I tend to use stinging nettle as a synergistic, additive pairing with an antihistamine like quercetin (vs. an agent on its own). This can be a powerful combination for more entrenched cases which don’t find sufficient relief via quercetin alone.
Another excellent choice is the herb Butterbur. This one has actually been formally studied and found to be just as effective as Zyrtec at treating seasonal allergy symptoms. Unlike quercetin, butterbur is helpful because it is an anti-spasmodic remedy. Phytochemicals in butterbur relax swollen nasal membranes and alleviate muscle spasms in the respiratory system. When our immune system reacts to a perceived “foreign invader” (like an allergen), our cells produce inflammatory signaling molecules called leukotrienes (which usually happens in concert with the production of histamine, as mentioned above). Leukotrienes trigger spasms in the trachea which can help us to cough – to expel undesirable substances. Overproduction of leukotrienes, however, causes major inflammation in the respiratory system in the case of asthma and allergy. Butterbur simply interferes with the production of leukotrienes. Short-term use (3-4 mos) is generally regarded as quite safe; long-term use has not been studied. Note that butterbur is not suitable for pregnant or breast-feeding women (or for very young children less than six years of age). A typical therapeutic dose of butterbur extract is about 200mg/day (divided into an AM and PM dose for greater absorption). Mild headache or stomach ache may be side effects of butterbur and can be best avoided by taking it on a full stomach. Before you ask: yes, in very tough cases, it would be quite synergistic to pair these three agents together.
You may enjoy learn about more natural options for allergy management here.
Keep in mind too that dairy foods are mucus-producing in many people. You might embark on a trial, full elimination of all dairy foods (e.g. milk, cream, cheese) to see how it affects you, at least until the worst of the allergy season has passed.
By: Tracy Harrison