Allergies: If you think of them as nothing more than the occasional, innocuous need to grab a tissue, think again. To the more than 60 million Americans who suffer from allergies each year, according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, this immune response is nothing to sneeze at. Allergies can manifest symptoms including "itchy eyes, nose or throat, nasal congestion, runny nose, watery eyes, chest congestion or wheezing,; [and] skin symptoms like hives, generalized itchiness or atopic dermatitis," says the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology.
Unfortunately, allergies, which the AAFA defines as an "overreaction of the human immune system to a foreign protein substance (also known as an allergen) that is eaten, breathed into the lungs, injected or touched," are on the rise in the United States. "One of the key trends that we've seen is an increase in the number of people suffering year-round. It used to be that we thought spring allergy season was the worst, and then it was spring and fall. Now we have year-round sufferers," says Carole Ruhnke, senior marketing manager at Benicia, Calif.-based InterHealth Nutraceuticals Inc. "Sometimes dry conditions make symptoms worse. When there's a lack of rain, pollen doesn't wash away. On the other hand, when there's a deluge of rain, like in New Orleans, for example, there's an overgrowth of greenery, which means an increase in mold," she says.
Most conventional medications simply mask allergic symptoms, without addressing the root cause—and this is where natural products retailers come in. "People probably don't realize the numerous triggers that surround us—dust, animal hair, mold, specific pollens, food allergies that trigger seasonal allergies, seasonal changes, and so on. It's important to identify what your triggers are and to treat the source. From a conventional perspective, everyone is given an antihistamine, which doesn't address the specific nature of a trigger or sensitivity, but gets rid of symptoms. It doesn't do anything for the body or physiology," says Roy Upton, a Soquel, Calif.-based herbalist. Natural products, on the other hand, are more likely to address the specific cause of the allergy and therefore have more success fighting recurrent reactions.
To date, natural foods retailers have been virtually absent from the allergy product marketplace, a $5 billion category according to the AAFA. But there is a silver lining to be found in the hay fever haze. "Currently, conventional over-the-counter allergy drugs make up $3 billion in sales, and prescription sales account for $2 billion. Natural allergy remedies are barely a blip on the radar screen," says Ruhnke. "This is a great opportunity for natural retailers to enter into the allergy market and benefit from the huge demand for these products," she says.
And products abound. Though the low sales numbers of natural allergy products might lead one to believe otherwise, there are several effective, safe, natural remedies on the market, some of which might already be on the shelves of your supplements aisle.
Dave Teitler, acupuncturist and owner of Carbondale, Colo.-based Dr. Dave's Herbal Medicines LLC, manufactures several products for allergies and their counterparts, like sinusitis. Teitler's allergy remedy, Allergies Away, contains several traditional Chinese herbs including chrysanthemum, magnolia, xanthium and bai zhi (angelica root). Teitler's concoction is different than most because while it focuses on dehydrating runny sinuses, it also supplies soothing herbs for allergy sufferers who live in drier climates. "Most allergy remedies, whether herbal or pharmaceutical, dry you out in an attempt to get rid of phlegm. But anyone in a dry climate doesn't want that, so I add moistening herbs and use herbs that will deal with phlegm and mucus but are less drying than traditional ones," Teitler says.
Another remedy that relies on Eastern medical philosophy to combat allergies is Aller-7, manufactured in India and distributed in the United States by InterHealth. "The product contains seven natural plant extracts based on Ayurvedic medicine philosophy and is clinically proven to work," says William "Skip" Seroy, chief executive officer of InterHealth. In fact, in a February 2004 study published in the International Journal of Clinical Pharmacology Research, Aller-7 was found to "demonstrate potent antihistaminic, anti-inflammatory, anti-spasmodic and antioxidant activity. … Over the 12-week period, 94 percent of patients in the open-label trials and 92 percent of patients in the placebo-controlled trials treated with Aller-7 reported an improvement in symptoms ranging from more than 40 to 100 percent."
And studies prove the efficacy of other plant compounds as well. A double-blind, placebo-controlled study published in the February 1990 issue of Planta Medica suggested that freeze-dried nettle leaf improves allergy symptoms. Upton explains that stinging nettles contain "formic acid, the same compound found in bee stings, which causes inflammation. This compound works through something called the feedback loop. If you give your body a small amount of the compound that would normally cause the problem, it won't produce it and you get relief."
Pycnogenol, an extract from the bark of French maritime pine trees, is proven to reduce asthma, which is a severe and sometimes deadly form of allergic reaction. According to Frank Schonlau, Ph.D., director of scientific communications at Hoboken, N.J.-based Natural Health Science, which distributes Pycnogenol, both allergies and asthma are an inflammatory immune response. "In allergies this manifests as the swelling of the nose, tears, etc. In asthma, it causes the swelling of the throat, which leaves less room for air to pass." According to a double-blind, placebo-controlled study published in the December 2004 issue of the Journal of Asthma, "Children and teenagers with mild to moderate asthma who supplemented with Pycnogenol experienced improvement in pulmonary function and a significant decrease in asthma symptoms." Schonlau recommends taking 50 mg to 100 mg every day to "reduce the risk of having an asthmatic attack or hay fever."
Upton offers a personalized approach to allergy relief and suggests changing the body's internal environment to help resist an allergic response. "By increasing the efficacy with which your body breaks down proteins, which is what most allergens are made of, you will protect yourself from external invasion by promoting healthy mucosa and stabilizing immune cells, such as mast cells, which release histamine as they get damaged by allergens," he says. To know which remedies might work for you, Upton recommends knowing your constitution, or body type. "Someone with a moist constitution, which means they tend to gain weight and already have an overproduction of mucous, will most likely express allergy in their digestive tract. This type of person would be better off in a dryer climate and taking things to stop mucous production, like spicy foods, cayenne, horseradish, eyebright, thyme and yarrow. On the other hand, someone with a dry constitution, who has dry skin, nails and hair and tends to be skinny, has no protection from allergens and would be better off in a moist environment and taking things to improve the integrity of the tissue and the health of the mast cells, like bioflavonoids, essential fatty acids and vitamin C," he says.
A retailer's next step is to bring awareness of their availability to the consumer. "It's important for retailers to be proactive about educating and increasing awareness about these products at the store level. They have a captive audience coming there—by definition their consumers want a natural product," says Ruhnke, who states that sales of Aller-7 are up threefold this year.
Allergy products offer the prospect of recruiting new shoppers to natural foods stores as well. "There's a group of allergy sufferers who have acute allergies all year round and who are not finding long-term solutions at a drug store counter," says Seroy. "These are the people who are going to try their luck with natural alternatives."
Ruhnke agrees. "More and more consumers are reading labels when they shop. Conventional allergy products usually contain various limitations of use, indications and side effects, which repel the consumer. The smart health food retailer is going to recognize this as an opportunity to access shoppers who are looking for well-tolerated, effective allergy products that are safe, natural and science-backed," she says. "There's a huge audience there."
Christine Spehar is a Boulder, Colo.-based freelance writer.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVII/number 4/p. 32, 34, 36