Flowers are blooming, the sun is shining, and spring is in the air. As beautiful as those blossoms may be… for many people, the changing seasons mean allergy symptoms. And when I say many people, I mean it. There are between forty and fifty million Americans that suffer from allergies. Symptoms may occur seasonally, typically in spring and fall, or be present year round.
In order to understand the best ways to treat allergies naturally, it helps to have a basic understanding of immunology… don’t worry, it’s not too technical. The membranes that line our nasal and bronchial passages contain immune cells called mast cells. These cells respond to allergic triggers by releasing histamine and other chemical mediators that stimulate a cascade of reactions that cause those uncomfortable allergic symptoms. The most common (and most annoying) are post nasal drip, dark circles under eyes, (allergic shiners), itchy eyes, throat, and/or ears, sneezing, sinus pressure, runny nose, fatigue, headaches, and swelling of the bronchial membranes which can exacerbate asthma.
Patients often complain that many prescription and over the counter allergy medications become habit forming or have unwanted side effects, such as drowsiness, nasal irritation, or the feeling of being “wired.”
Here are a few easy ways that you can reduce your exposure to allergens and manage allergy symptoms naturally.
Identify Allergens: Blood tests and skin scratch tests can help you identify which allergens may be provoking your symptoms. There are no tests that are 100% accurate, but allergy testing for common allergens specific to your region can be a good start. It also pays to get to know a little bit about local botany… and learn what is blooming when. Although it can be extremely difficult to avoid exposure to pollen, it does help to know what will be waiting for you when you go outside.
Immunotherapy: Knowing what your triggers are also paves the way for individualized “immunotherapy,” which can be administered in several ways. Many people are familiar with allergy shots… which are essentially weekly injections of purified and diluted extracts of the allergens that provoke symptoms in an individual. However, you should also talk to your doctor about allergy drops which have been popular in Europe for decades but are only recently gaining popularity here. Allergy drops (also called sublingual immunotherapy or SLIT) are based on the same principles as allergy shots but they are taken daily under the tongue without the hassle, the risk, the cost, or the agony of weekly injections.
Allergen Avoidance: Reduce your allergic burden by limiting exposure to as many irritants or allergic triggers as possible. There are many substances that can trigger reactions in individuals, such as pollens, molds, foods, pet dander, dust mites, exposure to smoke, down fillings in comforters or pillows, or scented body care or cleaning products. While we can’t live in a bubble, there are a few ways to help decrease your exposure.
– Keep windows closed during high pollen counts.
– Use air conditioning while driving instead of having the windows open.
– Consider using a HEPA (high efficiency particulate air) filter in the bedroom to remove airborne allergens.
Note: If you have dust mite allergies, dust-proof your bedroom by removing wall-to-wall carpets, remove down-filled blankets and feather pillows, and wash sheets in hot water to kill dust mites. Consider encasing your mattress and pillow in airtight, dust-proof covers. Wash stuffed animals on a regular basis!
Nasal irrigation: A simple saline rinse can work wonders during allergy season by washing away mucus, pollens and other allergens. Rinsing with a neti pot or saline spray helps to reduce nasal/sinus congestion which can lead to sinusitis. You can make your own solution by mixing ¼-½ teaspoon of sea salt into 1 cup of lukewarm to flush your sinuses. Lean over a sink with your head slightly tilted to one side, then put the spout of a neti pot into one nostril and allow the water to drain out the other nostril. Use about half of the solution, then repeat on the other side, tilting your head the opposite way. Gently blow out each nostril to clear them completely.
Neti pots are available at most health food stores and come with easy to follow directions for use. There are also many video tutorials on YouTube for further instructions. For the faint of heart, or young children, a pressurized saline spray can be substituted.
Rinse nasal passages with a neti pot or saline spray twice a day during allergy season, and after exposure to allergens.
N-Acetyl Cysteine (NAC): NAC is an amino acid derivative that breaks down mucus and doubles as a powerful antioxidant. NAC thins mucus and has traditionally been used as a decongestant. It can be used in combination with nettles, quercetin and vitamin C.
Quercetin: Quercetin is a natural bioflavonoid found in many foods such as onion, apple, tea and wine. Quercetin has antioxidant, anti-allergy and anti-inflammatory activity, and helps to stabilize mast cells and prevents them from releasing chemical mediators such as histamine.
Stinging Nettles (Urtica dioica): The freeze dried leaves of this mineral-rich plant are used to treat allergy symptoms as a natural antihistamine. Be careful handling the fresh plant, as the tiny hairs contain formic acid and live up to the name “stinging nettle.”
Vitamin C plus bioflavonoids: Vitamin C, also called ascorbic acid, can be used in combination with any of the above treatments as a natural antihistamine and powerful antioxidant. Choose a vitamin C with bioflavonoids for synergistic effect.
Bottom line: Figure out what you are allergic to, decrease your exposure, and consider some natural treatments for allergy prevention and treatment. As with any condition, consult with a qualified practitioner if you are pregnant, nursing or taking prescription medications. I hope that this will help you to get out there and enjoy the changing season!
Take good care and… Happy Spring!!!
– Dr. Joshua Levitt