There are a lot of people who have allergies, especially this time of year. Depending on what you read, allergies affect from 10-20% of the population.
No one knows why some lucky people get allergies and others don’t, but for sure there is a genetic connection. Allergies can be from all kinds of things, including dust, mites, feathers, animal dander, molds, pollens, grasses, and foods.
As you may already know, medications for allergies aren’t always the best solution. One journal looked at the current treatments for allergies and reported that only 26% of allergy sufferers believed their symptoms were “well-controlled” or “completely controlled.”
And that’s not the only problem allergy sufferers face.
Allergy medications have a long list of side effects, and many people just can’t take them. Here are the most common: increased thickness of lung secretions that can aggravate asthma and COPD, rapid heartbeats, irregular heartbeats, blurred vision, urinary obstruction, insomnia, confusion especially in elderly, dizziness, dry mouth, and loss of appetite.
Of course, the most common side effect is drowsiness. Even when drowsiness isn’t a big problem, allergy medications can significantly impair brain function. This can affect reaction time and the ability to drive an automobile or operate machinery. These are the side effects you hear about. But there are lesser known side effects of these drugs that you don’t hear much about.
Dr. Javed Sheikh, MD is the clinical director of Allergy at Beth Israel Hospital and is on the full-time faculty at Harvard Medical School. Dr. Sheikh has detailed a few less-common side effects of allergy medications that you might not know about. In some people they can cause a decrease in libido, alter taste and smell, and lead to anxiety and depression. They can even cause infertility in women. And there are also plenty of contraindications to allergy medications. These include certain medications, heart disease, enlarged prostate, hyperthyroidism, glaucoma, and diabetes.
So if you’re taking an allergy medication and don’t have any of these conditions or side effects, then great. No reason to stop. But if you aren’t in that lucky group or if you just want something natural, there’s hope. There are all kinds of effective, safe, and natural ways to reduce and even eliminate allergy symptoms. Let me tell you about some supplements that can be very helpful with allergies. And every one of them are not only free of side effects, but also have other health advantages besides helping with allergies. One such herb is stinging nettle (urtica dioica).
One study on stinging nettle and allergies looked at 69 patients with the typical hay fever symptoms of sneezing, runny nose, and itchy eyes. The researchers gave some of them stinging nettle and gave the rest a placebo. The study only went on for a week. But in even that short time, 100% of the patients said it worked better than the placebo at controlling their symptoms. And 58% said it was effective in relieving their symptoms. Another 48% said it was equally or more effective than the anti-histamine medication they had been taking. So I think it’s pretty clear that stinging nettle can be a very effective treatment for allergies, but how does it work?
Recently scientists looked into the answer to this question and discovered an amazing thing. Stinging nettle actually contains histamine molecules similar to the allergy-causing histamine our immune cells make. So how can a plant that contains histamine decrease allergy symptoms caused by histamine? It’s through a process known as competitive inhibition. Herbs often work this way.
What that means is that the histamine in stinging nettle reacts with the histamine receptors on the cells that produce the allergy symptoms in such a way that it blocks out the histamine that the immune cells make. The result is an antihistamine effect without the symptoms typically caused by antihistamine drugs. But stinging nettle has another way of decreasing allergy reactions. Stinging nettle is a mast cell stabilizer.
Mast cells are special immune system cells that contain histamine. In an allergic reaction, the membranes of the mast cells become destabilized. This causes the mast cells to release their histamine along with a host of other inflammatory molecules. The result is the symptoms of hay fever. Stinging nettle decreases the release of the histamine stored in mast cells by acting to stabilize mast-cell membranes even in the face of allergic substances. This blocks allergy symptoms. Between the antihistamine action and the mast cell stabilization action of stinging nettle, it’s no wonder that it’s so effective.
The authors summed up their findings by stating that “bioactives have been identified in nettle that contribute to the inhibition of pro-inflammatory pathways related to allergic rhinitis [hay fever]. These results provide for the first time, a mechanistic understanding of the role of nettle extracts in reducing allergic and other inflammatory responses.”
Like stinging nettle, another plant substance called quercetin is also a mast cell stabilizer. Quercetin is one of my favorite all-time plant-based remedies. It’s a bioflavonoid found in a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, and herbs. And it is a potent anti-inflammatory remedy. I use it any time I want to decrease inflammation in a patient. And it works great for allergies too.
One study compared how well quercetin was able to stabilize mast cells with one of the most commonly used mast-cell stabilizing drugs, sodium cromoglycate. The researchers collected mast cells from the nasal lining of individuals with active hay fever. They exposed some of the cells to quercetin and others to sodium cromoglycate. They not only found that quercetin was effective at preventing the mast cells from releasing their histamine, but they also discovered that it was almost twice as effective as the drug.
You probably know about silymarin (from milk thistle) as one of the best remedies for liver disorders. But did you know that a recent article described it as an excellent remedy for inflammation, cellular protection, and cancer prevention? And in one study that measured the antioxidant capability of a long list of natural compounds, silymarin was the best. But that’s not all this marvelous herb does. It’s also good for allergies.
Scientists published a study in the journal of the American Academy of Otolaryngology that looked at 94 men and women with hay fever who were already taking various antihistamine medications. Before they started the study, they measured the patients’ allergy symptoms using a 20 question survey called the Sino-Nasal Outcome Test 20. Then they gave half the group silymarin. They gave the other half a placebo.
When the one month study was over, all of the patients — even the placebo group — reported relief of their symptoms. But the patients who had received the silymarin had more than four times the level of improvement. The researchers concluded, “Considering the statistically effective role of silymarin in alleviating the severity of allergic rhinitis symptoms, applying this herbal antioxidant along with other medications may result in better management.” But I don’t recommend using it with drugs. Instead, try it with bromelain. Because when you combine bromelain with other allergy remedies, it makes them all work better.
Bromelain is a protein that is found in the stems of pineapples. I use bromelain for a lot of different things. It can reduce swelling and inflammation, especially of the nose and sinuses. For the same reason, when combined with quercetin, it’s also good after surgery or an injury. It’s also helpful with ulcers, colitis, and arthritis. And you’ll be especially happy to know that it reduces something called plasma kininogen and stimulates another biological substance called plasmin.
You’ll be happy about that because allergy sufferers hate edema and inflammation. And according to one author, “The depletion of kininogen and the activation of plasmin are essentially the pharmacological effects thought to reduce the edema and inflammation associated with allergic rhinitis [hay fever symptoms].” While I don’t recommend using it with drugs (because there’s no need to and you don’t want the side effects), no matter what remedy you take for your allergy symptoms, bromelain will make it work better.
The last anti-allergy herb I want to tell you about is astragulus. Astragulus has been a popular traditional herbal treatment for allergies in Korea, Japan, and China for centuries. Studies have shown that it’s able to affect the TH-1 immune system I mentioned above to decrease the allergy response. It’s also great to remember that astragulus is one of the all-time best herbs to strengthen the immune system against infections and cancer.
Researchers looked at 41 men and women with “moderate to severe seasonal allergies.” They gave half of them an herbal/mineral combination with the chief ingredient being astragulus. They gave the other half a placebo. Before and after the six-week study, the patients filled out a total symptom score and a quality of life score.
The end result was that “the analysis of changes from baseline inside the groups for total symptom score, quality of life score, and four main symptoms of seasonal allergy were strikingly in favor of the active treatment [astragulus]. In patients with seasonal allergy due to weed pollen allergy HMC [the astragulus remedy] significantly improved primary variables, reflective total symptom score, and quality of life.”
I’ve been using bromelain, stinging nettle, and quercetin for years to treat allergies. And I can’t tell you how many people I have been able to get off antihistamine medications in that time. This combination really works.
Bakhshaee, M., F. Jabbari, et al. “Effect of silymarin in the treatment of allergic rhinitis.” Otolaryngol Head Neck Surg. 2011 December;145(6):904-9.
Fields, Jennifer. “Allergy Medicine: 8 Surprising Possible Side Effects,” November 24, 2010, Updated May 25, 2011. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/
Matkovic, Z., V. Zivkovic, et al. “Efficacy and safety of Astragalus membranaceus in the treatment of patients with seasonal allergic rhinitis.” Phytother Res. 2010 February;24(2):175-81.
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