Learn more about allergy causes — from mold and pollen to cockroaches and pet dander — and natural allergy remedies to relieve and prevent allergic reactions.
Ever know a child who sustained a minor scrape and screamed bloody murder? Our immune systems similarly overreact to hay fever. When germs invade, the body’s defenses attack them. But with allergies, the immune system furiously attacks often harmless substances, among them: pollen, pet dander, microscopic bugs, and dust mites. Seasonal allergies such as hay fever are not medically serious, but they are uncomfortable or even maddening — just ask the nation’s 35 million allergy sufferers.
The first step to controlling allergies is to avoid the allergy causes that are your personal triggers. To identify yours, consult an allergist-immunologist for testing. Then, protect yourself from them like the plague they are. Finally, look into conventional and natural allergy remedies as outlined below.
Trees and grasses release pollen from early spring through midsummer. Weed pollens fly from late summer into autumn.
“Dander is not hair,” says University of Virginia immunologist Andrew Murphy, M.D. “Short-haired animals are as allergenic as long-hairs.” Dander is a class of proteins in pet saliva and urine, and on skin cells. Dander is easily airborne. Cats produce more than dogs, so they’re more allergenic. To avoid pet allergies:
We constantly shed tiny flecks of skin. Dust mites eat them. Add some humidity, and you get hordes of these microscopic bugs. At 75 degrees Fahrenheit with relative humidity at 70 percent, the typical home contains 1,000 dust mites per gram of household dust. The particles seen in a shaft of sunlight are dead mites and their waste. Mites live in mattresses, pillows, carpets, bedding, upholstery, and even stuffed animals. To avoid them, follow the tips below.
Certain proteins in cockroach feces and saliva can cause allergic reactions in some people. Roaches burrow into cracks. Watch to see where they come from and go.
Molds release microscopic, seedlike spores that become airborne allergens. But unlike seasonal pollens, mold spores are with us year-round. They grow almost anywhere that’s dark, damp, and poorly ventilated. Nonetheless, molds have an annual cycle that runs from bad to worse: Spore counts are highest in July, August, and September. From November through May, they’re comparatively low, but still high enough to cause hay fever symptoms. To limit your exposure:
Eat more fruits and vegetables and fewer animal foods. This is no quick fix, says noted alternative medicine expert Andrew Weil, M.D., but over time, it helps. Animal foods — meats, poultry, fish, milk, cheese and eggs — are high in protein. A high-protein diet makes the immune system more reactive, and thus more likely to erupt in allergic reactions. Eating less meat reduces protein intake, which helps calm the immune system.
Many Americans think a low-protein diet is unhealthy. It isn’t. In fact, Americans eat much more protein than they should. A high-protein diet is strongly associated with the nation’s leading causes of death: heart disease, cancer, and stroke. Meanwhile, many studies show that a vegetarian or near-vegetarian diet substantially reduces the risk of these diseases — as well as diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure, and Alzheimer’s disease.
Fruits and vegetables are our main sources of antioxidant nutrients. Researchers at the South Florida College of Medicine in Tampa reviewed the research and concluded that as antioxidant intake increases, allergy symptoms decrease. Antioxidant nutrients include vitamins C and E.
Vitamin C. Doctors treat allergies with antihistamines. Vitamin C is a natural antihistamine, says Melvyn Werbach, M.D., and author of Nutritional Influences on Illness. Italian researchers gave hay fever sufferers either a placebo or vitamin C (2,000 milligrams/day). In the vitamin group, nasal symptoms improved significantly. In another study, vitamin C improved nasal symptoms by 74 percent.
Vitamin E. Israeli scientists gave 112 hay fever sufferers either a placebo or vitamin E (800 milligrams/day). The vitamin helped, and the researchers called it “a valuable addition” to hay fever treatment.
Nettle. Dr. Weil suffers from hay fever, and says his first choice for treatment is stinging nettle. For centuries, nettle has been used to treat respiratory problems. In a classic study, researchers at the National College of Naturopathic Medicine in Portland, Ore., gave 69 hay fever sufferers either a placebo or freeze-dried nettle (Urtica dioica, 300 milligrams twice a day). After one week, the nettle users showed significant improvement. Weil says freeze-dried nettle works better than air-dried or nettle tea. Freeze-dried nettle capsules are available at most health food stores.
Butterbur. Swiss scientists gave 125 allergy sufferers either a popular antihistamine (Zyrtec) or butterbur (Petasites hybridus, pyrrolizidine-free), 50 milligrams four times a day. The herb worked as well as the drug, but the drug caused drowsiness in 75 percent of users. The herb did not.
British researchers analyzed six rigorous trials of butterbur for hay fever. It worked as well as standard antihistamines.
Butterbur contains pyrrolizidine alkaloids that harm the liver. Look for products that say pyrrolizidine-free or contain a carbon dioxide extract, as it’s used to remove pyrrolizidines.
Homeopathy. At the University of Glasgow, Scotland, researchers gave 144 people with pollen allergies a placebo or a homeopathic preparation of mixed grass pollens. Those who took the homeopathic preparation showed a significant reduction in symptoms, and their antihistamine use dropped 50 percent.
Quercetin. For hay fever, Dr. Weil also takes the bioflavonoid quercetin (400 milligrams twice a day). Japanese researchers gave 20 hay fever sufferers either a placebo or quercetin (200 milligrams/day). Quercetin provided significant relief, especially of eye itching and tearing. Quercetin works best, Weil says, when taken between meals. Begin about two weeks before the expected start of the season of the pollen you’re allergic to, continuing until the season ends. Quercetin is available in tablets and capsules at most health food stores.
Allergy shots. An immunologist injects tiny amounts of your allergens, and over time — up to a few years — you become desensitized. Allergy shots don’t work for everyone, but if your body responds, you eventually suffer less.
As annoying as allergies can be, they also have a silver lining. They mean you have a robust immune system. By using natural remedies, you can calm runaway allergic reactions while maintaining your immune function so it’s there when you really need it.
Michael Castleman is one of the nation’s leading health writers, according to Library Journal.
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