The Romantic poets must not have suffered from hay fever. Wordsworth, Keats, Shelley and Coleridge celebrated spring's blooming flowers, blossoming love, birds on the wing, yet none of their poems mentioned runny noses, itchy eyes and projectile sneezing.
But for many, April showers are just as likely to produce hay fever as they are to bring May flowers. Statistics vary, but doctors and manufacturers such as Schering-Plough Corp., maker of Claritin, estimate seasonal, airborne allergies affect as many as 50 million Americans. Hay fever is the most common airborne allergy.
Known medically as allergic rhinitis, hay fever occurs when airborne plant proteins, or pollens, enter the bloodstream. In some people, the pollen triggers the release of histamines, which are chemicals in the mast cells that reside in the body's mucous membranes.
In small doses, histamines protect the body's immune system from foreign invaders such as pollen. But for some people, "the cells are hypersensitive. They start shooting histamines at pollen until they get it," says Daniel Gagnon, president and medical herbalist at Santa Fe, N.M.-based Herbs Etc. Too many histamines cause an allergic reaction in the body and produce hay fever symptoms such as itchy eyes and nose, sneezing, nasal discharge and scratchy throat.
It's not known why some people are more likely than others to produce histamines when confronted with pollen. "It's an unusual and inappropriate response by the body's immune system to a substance that's not normally harmful," says Janet Zand, an Austin, Texas-based naturopath and a consultant to Botanical Labs in Ferndale, Wash.
Zand says "there are so many theories" as to why some people are more susceptible to hay fever than others. "There are studies that say it's due to hormonal function or low thyroid or high thyroid. Some say those with multiple sclerosis or immune system dysfunction or diabetes are more susceptible." Some parts of the country simply produce more pollen and eventually the body gives in, she says. "Here in Austin, a Kleenex is a fashion accessory. People come to Austin and they're not allergic to cedar, but by the fifth year, they are."
Synthetic hay fever products fight histamines by flooding the body with antihistamines. But many of these medications can cause drowsiness. Naturopaths and herbalists say there are natural ways to fight hay fever that are just as effective as antihistamines, without the sleep-inducing side effects.
Weeding Out The Treatments
Homeopathic remedies can be potent hay fever fighters. According to Ronald Boyer, M.D., medical director of The Boiron Group in Newton Square, Pa., some of the substances that cause hay fever, such as ragweed and histaminium, are effective in treating the symptoms.
Boyer says the following hay fever symptoms can be relieved by homeopathic ingredients used in Boiron products.
Burning, red, irritated eyes: the flower cineraria, eyebright, calendula, calcium fluoride, potassium chloride, carbonate of magnesia and silicea, a tissue salt made from flint
Sinus pain and runny nose: belladonna, bloodroot, red onion, white oxide of arsenic, camphor, ragweed and wormbush (a weed common in Suriname)
- Sneezing: sabidilla (also known as the flower cevadilla) and goldenrod
At Albuquerque, N.M.-based Heel Inc., the BHI line is formulated from the following ingredients designed to alleviate hay fever symptoms:
- Arnica, or leopard's bane, is a natural anti-inflammatory;
St. Ignatius bean relieves coughs and breathing difficulties;
Lycopodium, or club moss, alleviates headaches, coughs, eye inflammation and nasal discharge;
Sulphur reduces swelling of the mucous membranes and in the bronchial passage;
Antimonium crudum, or animony sulfide, reduces nasal discharge;
- Sulphuric acid treats runny noses.
Alyssa Wostrel, national sales manager for Heel's medical division, recommends taking a homeopathic remedy as frequently as every five minutes at the onset of hay fever symptoms, and three times a day after symptoms subside. Boyer recommends taking two tablets of Boiron products every 15 minutes for the first two hours after the allergy occurs, and then two tablets a day. Zand recommends one tablet every five to 10 minutes during the first hour of symptoms, then one tablet three times a day.
Herbal And Vitamin Remedies
Nettle is the workhorse of herbal hay fever remedies. "Fresh nettle stabilizes the cell membrane so it doesn't release histamine so quickly," says Herbs Etc.'s Gagnon.
Milk thistle, dandelion and toadflax can help the liver break down histamines, Gagnon says. Tylophora, an herb used by Ayurvedic doctors, can help prevent the release of histamines. Studies also show that thyme, licorice, cassia bark, ginger, peony root and small doses of ephedra can relieve nasal decongestion and sneezing.
Vitamin C has antihistamine properties, but there is discussion among doctors as to how much of the vitamin is effective. In a placebo-controlled trial conducted in 1982, 2,000 mg of vitamin C a day didn't reduce hay fever symptoms among participants. Gagnon recommends that hay fever sufferers take 5,000 mg a day to reduce symptoms.
Those who are prone to spring allergies such as hay fever can help manage their symptoms by building up their immune systems prior to hay fever season. Gagnon points out that people who have high stress tend to suffer more from allergies because the body releases more adrenaline, which compromises the immune system and can put histamines on the alert. He recommends extra vitamin C and ginseng as adrenal system tonics that can be taken up to a month before hay fever season begins.
Zand says seasonal allergy sufferers should consider starting a detox program a month before hay fever season. "Get the organs of elimination working well," she says. "Concentrate on the liver, kidneys and lymphatic system in order to lower toxic exposure (from histamines).
"You can use homeopathics before going into the season," she says. "You could take one to two tablets a week of [an allergy remedy] three weeks prior to when the season hits the worst for you. Homeopathics are little pieces of ammunition in your medicine cabinet."
Vicky Uhland is a Denver-based freelance writer.