With ragweed season upon us, it’s time to consider swapping hay fever misery (or never-ending allergy medications) for natural remedies. The sooner you start, the better, but some herbs lend a hand even during an allergy attack.
Petadolex: This extract of butterbur (Petasites hybridus) removes the liver-toxic pyrrolizidine alkaloids from the roots. It’s one of the best-researched herbal supplements for seasonal allergies and tends to work well for asthma and migraines. In clinical studies, it performed as well as Zyrtec and Allegra, without drowsy side effects.
Nettle: Even though this plant contains histamine and other inflammatory compounds in its stinging hairs, when taken as a supplement, nettle (Urtica dioica) decreases inflammation and has an antihistamine response, acting via multiple allergy pathways. Try a milliliter or two of fresh plant tincture as needed and preventively. You can take it solo or combine it with other allergy support herbs.
The following herbs have not been put up to scientific scrutiny, but they have a long history of use for allergies and excessive mucus. Goldenrod (Solidago spp.) helps thin and drain mucus. It also offers some antihistamine support and blends well with nettle. The intensely bitter horehound (Marrubium vulgare) thins and drains mucus particularly well in situations like annoying postnasal drip. Like nettles, both work best when the tinctures are made from fresh plant material.
Another set of plants are known as “anticatarrhal,” which means they help remove excess mucus, often with a more drying effect compared to the previously mentioned “water movers.” Berberine-rich herbs such as barberry (Berberis spp.), Oregon grape root (Mahonia spp.), goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis), and coptis (Coptis spp.) fall into this category and can also be added to a neti wash to fight sinusitis and sinus infections.
Other useful anticatarrhal herbs include eyebright (Euphrasia officinalis syn. E. rostkoviana), purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria), and bayberry (Myrica cerifera) root bark. Be aware that goldenseal, eyebright, and some stands of coptis and Oregon grape root are threatened in the wild. Seek organically cultivated sources. Most of these herbs work best (and fastest) as tinctures, but you will also find many of them in encapsulated allergy blends.
Prevention & Long-Term Support
Allergies occur when the immune system is irritated and malfunctioning, eliciting an immune response to otherwise harmless substances. Over time, you may be able to decrease incendiary inflammation and retrain the immune system so that you’re less reactive to pollen and other allergens in the first place. While you can begin making changes during allergy season, it’s often more helpful if you start a few weeks or months prior. And if you’re an intensely allergy-prone person, give yourself a year or more of TLC.
The Hygiene Theory
Several studies suggest that the immune systems of those in first-world countries begin to overreact to harmless substances like pollen because we live in an environment with too much sanitization. The immune system lacks the opportunity for normal, healthy pathogenic challenges and instead gets an itchy trigger finger.
This may also tie into microbiome research that links the well-being of beneficial bacteria in our bodies (particularly in the large intestine) to overall well-being, including immune function. For example, one Swedish study found that children who grew up in households that washed dishes by hand (versus with a dishwasher), ate fermented food, and focused on food that came directly from farms were less likely to have allergic conditions, possibly due to microbial exposure.
While this research is still new, adding probiotic supplements and/or fermented foods like sauerkraut to your diet may gradually improve your microbiome, and immune function, and make you less reactive (although 1 percent of the population may find that fermented foods actually aggravate an underlying histamine intolerance).
Medicinal mushrooms including reishi, chaga, and shiitake, as well as astragalus root, appear to send your immune system back to boot camp by giving it a healthy challenge so that it gradually begins to behave more properly. You can take these in various supplement forms, but I also like simmering them into broths or tea that can be frozen or concentrated down into ice cubes for regular use in recipes. Simmering them for hours in water helps extract the beneficial polysaccharides.
Think of reactivity like a bucket that’s apt to overflow if you put too much into it. Food allergies and sensitivities are particularly common in people with seasonal allergies. I often see seasonal allergies (and eczema and gut issues) disappear when we sleuth out and remove personal trigger foods such as dairy or gluten. It also makes sense to eat a clean diet loaded with fresh produce, reduce stress and exposure to environmental toxins and pollutants, sleep well, and heal the gut if it’s inflamed or “leaky.”
Quercetin: This bioflavonoid is particularly helpful if started a few weeks before your typical allergy season. Quercetin acts as an antihistamine. It blends well with the previously mentioned allergy herbs as well as the enzyme bromelain (when taken on an empty stomach, it seems to help break down allergy-related inflammatory compounds) and boswellia (Boswellia serrata) a potent anti-inflammatory and immune-regulatory herb resin related to frankincense.
- “Allergy in Children in Hand Versus Machine Dishwashing” by B. Hesselmar et al., Pediatrics, 3/15
- Body into Balance: An Herbal Guide to Holistic Self Care by Maria Noël Groves ($24.95, Storey Publishing, 2016)
- “Complementary Therapies in Allergic Rhinitis” by I. Sayin et al., ISRN Allergy, 11/13
- “Histamine Hack: How to Safely Eat Fermented Foods,” https://BodyEcology.com
- “Natural Treatment of Perennial Allergic Rhinitis” by S.M. Thornhill and A.M. Kelly, Altern Med Rev, 10/00
- “Treating Intermittent Allergic Rhinitis: A Prospective, Randomized, Placebo and Antihistamine-Controlled Study of Butterbur Extract . . .” by A. Schapowal, Phytother Res, 6/05