Can I Fight Allergies Naturally?

Are there any natural ways to prevent allergy attacks?

Photo: fhm / GettyImages

Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.

Q: It’s April, and I’m bracing myself for allergy season. Why does pollen make my nose run and eyes itch? Are there any nature-made ways to prevent allergy attacks?

A: For more than 18 million adults and 7 million children, the arrival of itchy eyes, runny noses and headaches means hay fever, also known as allergic rhinitis or seasonal allergies, is here. (Hay fever is actually a bit of a misnomer, because neither hay nor fevers are commonly involved.)  Allergies are on the rise in Western countries, though for reasons not fully understood.

Allergic tendencies can be hereditary, but seasonal allergies may also stem from a weakened immune system. People’s immune systems react differently when it comes to pollen. In some people, pollen causes no problem at all, but in others it triggers a rise in histamine, a protective substance released by the immune system when it mistakes everyday pollen for something harmful and goes into overdrive. It’s the flood of histamine that sets off the miserable drippy, sneezy, itchy symptoms that make people instantly reach for an antihistamine. But these drugs can have side effects (for instance, some may cause drowsiness, headaches, nausea and dry eyes). Besides, we think prevention is always better than treatment, so the best plan is to strengthen your immune defenses before allergies begin.

Prevention starts with a healthy lifestyle. Inadequate nutrition, exercise or rest can weaken the immune system and worsen allergic reactions. So can stress. Eliminating foods and behaviors that challenge your system can help strengthen your immunity before allergies begin. For everyone, that means avoiding fried foods, saturated fats, tobacco and excess sugars. In addition, if there are any specific foods you’re even somewhat sensitive to—red wine, peanuts, corn, cows’ milk, eggs and the gluten in wheat and rye are common offenders—be particularly careful to avoid them now.

Q: Are there supplements that can help?

A: We often recommend Astragalus membranaceus. More research is needed, but preliminary studies show promising immune-enhancing activity. We suggest trying 3 to 5ml of an astragalus tincture three times per day, starting about two weeks before hay fever season— or as soon as you realize it’s here—and continuing in a two weeks on/two weeks off pattern until the season is over.

Q: Can foods worsen allergies?

A: In a way. About three-quarters of Americans who are sensitive to pollen are also allergic to ragweed, which grows throughout the United States. Ragweed belongs to the botanical family that includes chamomile and sunflowers, so people who are allergic to ragweed may also react to chamomile tea or sunflower seeds. Certain fruits and veggies (watermelon, banana, honeydew, cantaloupe, zucchini, and cucumber) cross-react with ragweed pollen and can cause itchy, tingly feelings in the mouth. So during the six to eight weeks of hot, dry weather when ragweed peaks, watch what you eat.

Q: If I get an allergy attack, are there any vitamins or herbs that can help ease the symptoms?

A: There are a few that act similarly to antihistamines—without their possible side effects.

  • Quercetin capsules are our top choice. This antioxidant inhibits the production and release of histamine. It’s found naturally in some foods, such as apples and onions. We suggest 1 to 2 grams daily, taken in two to four doses spread out over the day.
  • Vitamin C helps lower histamine levels. It’s readily available in red, orange and yellow fruits and vegetables, as well as dark leafy greens. Typical anti-allergy doses start at 1 to 3 grams daily, but cut back if it causes diarrhea.
  • Butterbur extract is as effective and less sedating than one commonly prescribed antihistamine, according to research published in the British Medical Journal in 2002. Choose butterbur extracts that are free of pyrrolizidine alkaloids— substances that can be toxic to the liver. Adult doses range from 50 to 100mg, taken twice daily with meals.
  • Stinging nettle (Urtica dioica) helps some of our patients, but again, more research is needed. Dried nettle leaf can be bought in capsules; a typical adult dose is 300mg daily. All of these doses are for adults. For kids, we use Clark’s Rule, which states that the child’s weight in pounds should be divided by 150 to obtain the correct dosage. For example, a 50-lb. child would receive one-third of the adult dosage. But before beginning any new supplement regimen, consult your health care provider.

Q: Are there any other alternative treatments? And what about exercising in allergy season—can it bring on attacks?

A: There are other options for easing allergies—some people find acupuncture helpful—but our recommendations here are the most consistently effective. As for exercise, it doesn’t seem to aggravate allergies. That said, avoid outdoor exercise until after 10 a.m., especially on hot, sunny days with light winds and no rain. But keep on moving—it will help you feel better overall!