Author and humorist James Thurber once quipped, “I used to wake up at 4 AM and start sneezing, sometimes for five hours. I tried to find out what sort of allergy I had but finally came to the conclusion that it must be an allergy to consciousness.”
Kidding aside, if you're one of the 25 million Americans who suffer with seasonal allergy flare-ups (or if you deal with year-round respiratory allergies), you want relief from the itchy, watery eyes, sneezing, and runny nose—and fast. Let’s review a few tips that will ease you through the season and help tame allergies for good.
It may seem like a no-brainer, but the first step in the treatment of any allergy—airborne, contact (skin), or food—is to avoid allergens that trigger symptoms. These can include:
- Dander from household pets
- Strong odors
Of course, avoidance is a little tricky if pollen is your hot button. After all, you can’t control Mother Nature. However, you can minimize exposure.
Pollen counts are highest between 5:00-10:00 AM and at dusk, so close your windows and avoid exercising outdoors during those times. Be aware that pollen sticks to your shoes, clothes, and pets—dogs in particular are pollen magnets—and take care not to track it into your home. Use a vacuum cleaner with a HEPA filter, which picks up minute particles like pollen, and wash or rinse your hair often, especially before you turn in for the night so you don’t take allergens to bed with you.
Pollen Blockers, Nasal Irrigation & More
Rub a little Vaseline or Aquaphor under and just inside your nostrils to trap pollen before it has a chance to get in. And to remove the irritants that do get in, irrigate your nasal passages with a neti pot (a small, teapot-like device). This safe, inexpensive, and natural allergy remedy gently flushes irritating substances out of the sinuses.
The most basic nasal irrigation involves a mixture of salt and lukewarm water (boil water, stir in ¼ teaspoon of salt per eight ounces of water, and cool), held in the cupped palm of your hand and “snorted” up into one nostril while blocking off the other. Tip your head back slightly and allow the solution to flow through the nasal cavity, then out of the other nostril. Repeat a few times in both nostrils over the sink or in the shower, as it can get messy.
For serious allergies, taking steps to clean indoor air can be helpful. I recommend a HEPA filter air purifier for your home and possibly your workplace to help control pollen and other common triggers.
Finally, consider getting a few house plants. Virtually all indoor plants clean the air and work as natural air purifiers by absorbing impurities and chemicals into their leaves and transporting them into the soil. Once in the soil, these harmful vapors are broken down into plant food by microorganisms. Philodendrons, Peace Lily, Lady or Area Palm, Trichina Margined and Corn Plant are among the best air purifiers, but all leafy plants will help to some degree.
The Gut Connection
You also need to clean up your diet. What does this have to do with respiratory allergies? Plenty, as it turns out. If your allergies are acting up, your immune system is already on overdrive, and bombarding it with food allergens makes matters even worse.
More important is the close relationship between the gastrointestinal, respiratory, and immune systems. Approximately 70 percent of your immune system resides in your gut, and a robust microbiome—a good balance of intestinal bacteria—is critical for all aspects of health. Hundreds of studies link alterations in the gut microbiome with a hyperactive immune response and increased sensitivity to allergens. Much of this research involves children and illustrates how early exposure to a less than pristine environment improves microbiome diversity and reduces risk of developing allergies. However, studies have also found low diversity and imbalances in the gut bacteria of adults with seasonal allergies and concluded this might be targeted to improve allergy treatment and prevention.
Support your gut bacteria by eating lots of healthy fiber-rich and fermented foods, cutting out junk food and artificial sweeteners, and taking a probiotic supplement daily. Lactobacillus paracasei is one particular beneficial strain of bacteria that has been shown to help relieve allergies by supporting the immune system.
Pros and Cons of Allergy Drugs
If you’re searching for immediate relief, you’ll probably head to the drugstore for an over-the-counter (OTC) product. Treatment guidelines from the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology recommend that the most effective way to quell allergy symptoms is an inhaled corticosteroid nasal spray, such as Nasacort or Flonase, which reduces inflammation in the nasal passages. This shift from previous guidelines, which recommended an oral antihistamine plus a corticosteroid spray, is based on research showing that the addition of an antihistamine provided no greater relief than the corticosteroid alone.
I am pleased that antihistamines have been demoted. Although these meds do help with runny noses, scratchy throats, sneezing, coughing, and itchy eyes, they have a downside. Benadryl (diphenhydramine) and other first-generation antihistamines are notorious for causing drowsiness, slower reaction time, and increased risk of accidents. Newer “non-drowsy” Allegra, Clarinex, and Zyrtec have fewer side effects, but like all antihistamines, they may cause mouth, nose, and throat dryness; low blood pressure; headache; urination problems in men with enlarged prostates; and confusion, especially in people over age 60. Furthermore, antihistamines are anticholinergic drugs, and studies have linked long-term use of all anticholinergics with increased risk of dementia.
I do not recommend OTC multi-ingredient allergy products. Many combination products contain antihistamines as well as decongestants, which most allergy sufferers do not need. Decongestants such as pseudoephedrine have amphetamine-like effects and can leave you feeling wired and jittery, interfere with sleep, and cause palpitations and high blood pressure. And overuse of nasal sprays like Afrin and Dristan (oxymetazoline) that promise 12-hour relief leads to serious rebound congestion and promotes dependency.
Several supplements also reduce allergy symptoms, and I suggest you try them first. For maximum protection, begin taking a month or so before allergy season begins, or as soon as symptoms appear.
- Quercetin, a flavonoid in onions and apples, inhibits the release of histamine from mast cells, thereby dampening the allergic response. It also reduces production of leukotrienes, inflammatory compounds that stimulate airway constriction. And it’s a natural antioxidant—quercetin helps mop up free radicals generated during the allergic reaction. The suggested dose is 500 mg two to three times daily.
- Bromelain, an enzyme from pineapple, is a potent anti-inflammatory that dramatically enhances quercetin’s absorption. Bromelain also reduces tissue swelling, helps break up mucus and has been shown to produce measurable improvements in respiratory congestion. The suggested dose is 500 mg two to three times a day.
- N-acetyl-cysteine (NAC) is another antioxidant that is highly regarded as a natural allergy remedy. NAC is a precursor to glutathione, one of your body’s premier free-radical scavengers. It is also one of the best expectorants and mucus thinners around, helping to reduce congestion. I recommend taking 300 mg two to three times daily.
- Vitamin C is another well-studied natural allergy remedy. It is is sometimes referred to as nature’s antihistamine. In one clinical trial, allergy sufferers who took 2,000 mg of vitamin C daily for two weeks had 40 percent reductions in blood histamine levels. Taking just 500 mg of this vitamin, however, had no significant effect. So be sure to take 2,000 mg in divided doses each day.
- Nettle extract (Urtica dioica) is found in many natural allergy remedies because of its potent anti-inflammatory effects. It has been shown to reduce sneezing and itching in people with hay fever. The suggested daily dose is 200 mg two to three times per day.
- Butterbur (Petasites hybridus) relieved symptoms as effectively as a popular antihistamine drug in clinical trials. The suggested dose is 50 mg two to three times daily.
- Pycnogenol, extracted from the park of French maritime pine trees, dampened the immune system’s reaction to pollen when taken several weeks prior to exposure. Take 50 mg two to three times daily.
I also recommend omega-3s (2,000 mg EPA/DHA daily), and vitamin D3 (2,000–5,000 mg per day), as a D deficiency is associated with increased risk of allergies.
Finally, good ol’ H20 acts as a natural antihistamine, making it an easy and therapeutic natural allergy remedy. To keep your body well hydrated, aim for a minimum of eight, 8-ounce glasses of water daily.
These natural therapies may not produce results as rapidly as OTC drugs, but when taken daily, they support your body’s ability to blunt the allergic response and help you get through allergy season with fewer sniffles and sneezes.
Now that you’re armed with an arsenal of natural allergy remedies, you can face the seasonal onslaught with your best foot forward.