Allergies plague millions of Americans at one time or anther, accounting for up to $6 billion in direct healthcare costs each year. The Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America calls allergies the nation’s most common yet overlooked disease, affecting one in five Americans. And the prevalence of allergies has been increasing steadily for decades.
Allergies are characterized by an immune system overreaction to foreign proteins. The overreactions are complex, involving an excess release of numerous immune system components, including histamine. The offending proteins may come from virtually any source, including pollen grains, mold spores, foods, dead skin cells, and dust mite or even cockroach droppings.
Allergies can be divided into two broad categories: inhalant allergies (producing symptoms such as sneezing, running nose, nasal congestion, and excess mucus), and food allergies, which produce symptoms that are annoying and unpleasant at best, and life-threatening at worst.
Although countless prescription and over-the-counter antihistamines, decongestants, and other products crowd the marketplace, there is no cure for allergies. Given the side effects of some drugs, it’s no wonder people seek relief through natural remedies.
A number of botanicals have been suggested as possible treatments, although few have been investigated thoroughly.
Butterburr (Petasites Hybridus)
The extract of this Native American healing herb has been shown to reduce the activity of specific immune system components that contribute to the allergic response. Known as leukotrienes, these immune system compounds play a key role in producing—and sustaining—the swelling, inflammation, and nasal passage stuffiness that all characterize inhalant allergies.
Also known as sweet coltsfoot, butterburr has long been used to reduce inflammation. Studies suggest that butterburr reduces the symptoms of allergies with effectiveness comparable to various prescription antihistamines, but with fewer undesirable side effects. Unlike some drugs, butterburr does not induce drowsiness. So-called leukotriene inhibitor drugs were hailed, upon their introduction in the early 2000s, as the first breakthrough in allergy treatment in decades. Unfortunately, they are associated with significant side effects.
Milk Thistle (Silybum Marianum)
Milk thistle is a venerable plant used for thousands of years to treat a number of conditions. Scientists have intensively investigated milk thistle extract (called silymarin) and have discovered that it contains a handful of highly active compounds that offer a variety of health benefits. Chief among these is silybin, a potent antioxidant compound that may help cut down on the production of proteins called immunoglobulins, which are implicated in the allergic response. It is well established that silymarin helps the liver regenerate supplies of the important natural antioxidant, glutathione, boosting the liver’s ability to detoxify foreign chemicals.
One well-controlled study conducted in India concluded that this herb from the traditional Indian healing system, ayurveda, significantly decreased all symptoms of allergic rhinitis (hay fever) compared to a placebo. Other studies indicate that tinospora stimulates the immune system, even in people with weak immune function. Unfortunately, few if any follow-up studies have been reported to corroborate these findings. The suggested dose is 300 mg, three times daily.
Stinging Nettle (Urtica Dioica)
In one controlled clinical trial, investigators gave freeze-dried stinging nettle, or a placebo, to nearly one hundred people with allergic rhinitis. Subjects rated the effects of the nettle preparation as superior to the placebo after one week of therapy. Follow-up studies are needed to confirm this finding.
Subsequent laboratory studies have shown that stinging nettle extract helps block the production of many of the immune system compounds involved in the allergic response. These inflammatory compounds tend to flood the nasal passages during episodes of seasonal allergy, causing many of the worst symptoms of hay fever. In the clinical trial, subjects took 600 mg per day of freeze-dried nettles for one week.
At least one clinical trial in Europe concluded that six weeks of treatment with this herb significantly relieved the symptoms of seasonal allergic rhinitis (pollen allergies affecting the nasal passages and sinuses), compared to a placebo. The chief effect was a noticeable decrease in runny nose among people taking the herb. Few studies are available to confirm this conclusion, however. Astragalus extract is included in a Chinese herbal combination therapy for allergies, and at least one study showed that this component helped suppress immune system components involved in the allergic response. Suggested dose is 160 mg, two times daily.
Various sources have recommended supplemental vitamin C for the relief of allergies, but little scientific evidence exists to support this recommendation. On the other hand, it seems clear from the medical literature that a plant-based diet—such as the Mediterranean diet, which emphasizes fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fish, legumes, and olive oil (and plenty of natural vitamin C)—is associated with fewer or less severe allergies.
So it may help to increase your intake of these foods, while cutting down on your intake of foods not included in the Mediterranean diet, such as fatty or fried foods, preserved meats, processed foods, etc. Interestingly, the Mediterranean diet has been linked to a lower incidence of a wide range of diseases, including heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and arthritis. Because of the high percentage of natural antioxidants, and anti-inflammatory compounds such as omega-3 fatty acids from fish, it’s likely that such diets’ benefits are linked to their overall anti-inflammatory effects in the body.