Last week we talked about a blood test for allergies. This week a few integrative approaches for treating them, but first a quick review of conventional treatments:
- Antihistamines (Claritin, Zyrtec, and many others) block the effects of histamine, the chemical released by disrupted mast cells when whatever you’re allergic to (ragweed, cat dander) lands on the moist lining of your eyes, nose, and throat. Histamine is the villain, triggering an inflammatory response that makes your eyes water, your nose drip, and you ah-choo!
- Nasal sprays containing steroids reduce this inflammation.
- Doctors sometimes suggest adding Singulair (montelukast), which blocks a second type of pro-inflammatory chemical, leukotrienes. Although Singulair is primarily used for allergic asthma, sometimes it works for stubborn hayfever.
- NasalCrom (cromolyn), a mast cell stabilizer nasal spray, prevents the disruption of mast cells (and the histamine release that follows).
- Allergy shots artificially confuse your immune system into creating blocking antibodies that prevent the allergic reaction from occurring in the first place.
Nothing is actually wrong with any of these treatments unless you’re troubled by side effects or you’re unhappy with the results. With the newer non-sedating antihistamines, side effects are fairly minimal, but a lot of people report the non-sedating types are less effective than the older, sedating versions.
If an antihistamine isn’t cutting it, doctors often recommend you add a steroid nasal spray, which has the advantage of convenience (one spray into each nostril daily). There’s a possibility of candida (yeast) overgrowth in your nose and sinuses from steroids, but fortunately this is uncommon. Nasal cromolyn can be used instead of steroids, but should be taken two to three times daily and started as early in the season as possible.
Lifestyle changes are essential. If you’ve discovered what you’re allergic to, either by blood test, scratch test, or simple experience, learn avoidance strategies. We’re in tree season right now, so check the pollen count daily. If it’s high, close your windows and limit your outside activities. In other words, do your jogging on an indoor track rather than along that nice woodsy path (sorry, golfers).
If your year-round allergies are to dust mites, consider the beauties of a hardwood floor to replace your “living” carpet, get a HEPA (high-efficiency particulate air) filter, and have your air ducts professionally cleaned. These rules also apply if you’re determined to grow old with your cat, but really, she’ll get used to sleeping outside your bedroom.
Integrative approaches to allergy season
The most effective nutritional products for allergies are natural antihistamines like vitamin C, quercetin (a bioflavonoid vitamin C helper), the herb stinging nettles, and N acetyl cysteine, a mucus thinner. Rather than purchase them separately and try to figure out correct dosing, you can take them in the extremely popular supplement Natural D-Hist. Millions of people have used this product and the satisfaction rate is very high.
This ancient traditional medicine system from the Indian subcontinent has introduced a new group of herbs to the West. Although there are numerous Ayurvedic herbs, they’re generally not marketed until being clinically tested by physicians and herbalists. Of these, one of the more interesting is Tinospora cordifolia, which has both anti-allergic and anti-inflammatory properties. The herb fared very well in relieving hayfever symptoms in a 2004 placebo-controlled trial. Hista-Eze is a combination of Tinospora with stinging nettles, quercetin, and vitamin C.
Eating well is very important for reducing allergy symptoms. When researchers discovered residents of the Greek island Crete had fewer allergies than the general population despite a goodly number of trees, grasses, and weeds, they looked at dietary habits…and yet again the health benefits of the Mediterranean diet surfaced. This way of eating is highly anti-inflammatory and just what you need when the linings of your nose and throat have been inflamed by histamine.
Enjoy plenty of fruits (especially grapes and citrus fruit), veggies, olive oil, red wine (it contains resveratrol, a potent antioxidant), and fresh fish. Spicy foods, like cayenne and horseradish, act as natural decongestants and make mucus less sticky.
You might want to consider giving up dairy products during allergy season as they’re mucus-producers for many sensitive individuals. Also, choose organic produce. We don’t know for certain the effect of all the additives, preservatives, and pesticides, but it’s reasonable to suspect that chemicals both overstimulate and “confuse” our immune systems to attack invisible and usually harmless enemies like pollen. If your diet needs a spring cleaning, schedule a visit with our nutritionist Marla Feingold. She’ll help you along the path to healthful eating for your allergies.
Allergy patients around the world have turned to homeopathy as a primary source of relief. With homeopathy, you take a miniscule amount of one or more substances that would trigger your allergy symptoms were you exposed to a much larger amount. If this sounds like allergy shots, you’re right, except allergy shots inject the allergic substance itself (tiny amounts of tree pollen, cat dander, etc.).
Your individualized homeopathy allergy remedy may contain substances, such as minerals, other than those you’re actually allergic to. The goal in homeopathy is not simply symptom relief (as it is with antihistamines), but rather to select remedies that make your immune system more balanced and less hyper-reactive. Classical homeopathy is quite complex, so be sure to consult a well-trained practitioner. If you’d like to try it this season, make an appointment with Dr. Sujatha Mannal in our office.
Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM)
If you incline more toward the Far East, TCM with its combination of acupuncture and herbs can be extremely effective for long-term allergy management. In this system (which is basically incomprehensible to Western physicians), susceptibilities to allergies are seen as a constitutional deficiency of immune-system-protective Wei Qi (pronounced “way chee”), kidney and spleen deficiencies, and a susceptibility to Wind.
The Chinese herbs and acupuncture treatment strengthen and balance your qi, treating both acute symptoms and underlying constitutional imbalances for longer-term relief. Our Chinese medicine practitioner Mari Stecker has worked successfully with many allergy patients over the nearly 20 years she and I have been at WholeHealth Chicago.
Wishing you an easy breathing season this year!
David Edelberg, MD