Forget the springtime symphony of chirping birds, buzzing bees, and gentle breezes. If you are one of the nearly 40 million Americans with hay fever, your season may sound more like a cacophony of sniffles, snorts, and sneezes.
Hay fever is neither a sensitivity to hay nor a fever; it’s a hypersensitivity to pollen, and since it’s a seasonal allergy, it’s as regular as clockwork. Trees, grasses, and weeds are the usual culprits—these plants first pollinate in early spring, and the process continues through autumn. The allergy cycle starts as soon as microscopic bits of pollen go airborne and one freewheeling piece finds its way into your nose. People without allergies don’t notice any changes in the amount of pollen in the air. But for those whose immune systems are affected, the annual pollen invasion means war. Within 10 minutes of inhaling the invader, your immune system releases a torrent of chemicals, including histamines and cytokines, to wash it away—but since this is a hyperreaction, it also makes your eyes water and your nose run. The cycle continues until the pollen stops flying, which is unfortunate because these plants can pollinate for weeks at a time.
Seasonal allergies are notoriously difficult to manage. In a survey by the American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology of people seeking conventional relief for allergy symptoms, 37 percent were dissatisfied with the effectiveness of the remedies they were using. Over-the-counter antihistamines are infamous for causing drowsiness, and medicated nasal sprays can be addictive and lose effectiveness over time.
By contrast, alternative options can subdue symptoms while minimizing side effects. But the keys to success are an early start and persistence. “Seek treatment two to three weeks before allergy season begins and continue for a few weeks afterward,” advises Deborah Lincoln, R.N., Dipl.Ac., chairman of the Michigan Acupuncture Board. “Your body needs time to kick into gear and protect itself.” So the next time you wince at the first sight or note of a spring songbird, consider these natural alternatives for allergy relief.
Eat to beat inflammation
Seasonal allergies cause the body’s immune system to get stuck in overdrive. One of the best ways to unstick it is through your diet, says Paul Mittman, N.D., president of the Southwest College of Naturopathic Medicine. “Eating foods that have an anti-inflammatory effect should be one of the first steps in treating seasonal allergies.”
The gut is the immune system’s command center, explains Molly Punzo, M.D., a homeopath in Easton, Md., and spokesperson for the National Center for Homeopathy. If the gut is healthy, she continues, the immune system functions normally; when the gut goes out of whack, the immune system flails. To get yours in good shape, eliminate foods that create an inflammatory environment, such as processed foods. Made with refined flours that are stripped of nutritious, digestion-slowing fiber, these foods trigger rapid-fire digestion (picture a donut versus whole wheat toast). As the molecules of refined foods race into the bloodstream, they create a roller coaster of sugar highs and lows. These rapid fluctuations stress the body further and create even more work for an overtaxed immune system. Stock your pantry with foods that stomp out inflammation, including those high in alphalinolenic acid (ALA), an omega-3 fatty acid found in flaxseeds, fish oil, and walnuts. In 2005, a study in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition was the first to document an improvement in allergy symptoms among people whose diets were high in ALA.