Each spring, trees pop into bloom with almost furious intensity. On the East Coast, Bradford pears, tulip poplars, cherries, and dogwoods blanket the landscape in candy-colored petals. It's a breathtaking display -- especially for those of us prone to allergies -- because beneath the natural splendor lurks a lot of pollen.
Seasonal allergies affect 20 percent to 40 percent of American adults each year. At its heart, the epidemic is a broad-scale case of mistaken identity, says Neil Schachter, M.D., medical director of the Respiratory Care Department of the Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City. "We don't fully understand why," Schachter says, "but in people with allergies, the immune system has become distorted so that it starts to react to innocuous things with powerful antibodies." The end result, he explains, is a cascade of inflammation-causing chemicals -- histamines, leukotrienes, cytokines, and prostaglandins -- that manifest as sneezing, itchy eyes and the like.
Symptom-relieving medications abound, but even the best come with side effects like drowsiness or heart palpitations, says Fred Pescatore, M.D., author of "The Allergy and Asthma Cure." "And, ultimately, they're just a Band-Aid. They don't get at the root of the problem." Here's our best advice for getting through allergy season as naturally as possible.
1. Secure Your Borders
The first step to coping with allergies sounds almost too simple. "Avoid the pollen," says Brent Bauer, M.D., director of the Complementary and Integrative Medicine Program at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. "Don't exercise outdoors when pollen counts are high," he advises. "Keep windows closed. Run air conditioners, and use an air purifier when you sleep."
Moistening the skin in the passageways of the ears and nostrils helps too, says Patricia Hansen, a Denver-based Ayurvedic practitioner. "The skin on the inside of our ears and nose is our first line of defense, and it's no good if it's dry and cracked," she says. With clean fingertips, apply a drop or two of cold pressed (not roasted) sesame oil to your nose and ears twice daily.
2. Get Savvy About Sugar
Limiting your intake of sweets will help boost your immune system, says Pescatore. "One teaspoon of sugar suppresses the immune system by 56 percent, and two suppress it by 84 percent," he explains. "It's a temporary effect, but if you're eating sugar all day long, you'll never break the allergy cycle." But don't take honey off your list -- at least not the local, raw variety. "A daily teaspoon may help desensitize you to local pollens," says physician and registered dietician Christine Gerbstadt.
3. Boost Your Immunity
When your immune system is overreacting, homeopathy may help tweak it back into balance. "It doesn't mask symptoms," says homeopath Lisa Samet, N.D., "but gets to the heart of your body's response."
For best results, see a homeopath to find the appropriate remedy. But you might also try an over-the-counter approach, which works for some people. If you see your symptoms in one of the following profiles, find the corresponding remedy at a natural-foods store (look for "30C," or medium-potency dosage). Samet advises taking a single pellet and waiting 10 to 12 hours to see how your symptoms respond. If they improve, repeat the dosage if needed. If they don't improve, try a different remedy.
Burning nasal discharge that's worse in a warm room; tearing red eyes (no burning discharge).
The opposite of Allium, with burning discharge from the eyes and runny tears; bland nasal discharge.
Profuse sneezing with tickling inside the nose; worse outside.
4. Fine-Tune Your Fats
To keep your body healthy, add anti-inflammatory foods to your diet while subtracting foods that boost your inflammation conflagration. Start by eating less meat. "Omega-9 fatty acids, found in meats such as beef, veal, pork, and, to a lesser degree, chicken, are pro-inflammatory and cause leukotrienes to be released when we eat them," says Gerbstadt.
Omega-3s, however, are anti-inflammatory and "can help reduce your response to allergens," explains Gerbstadt. She recommends eating wild-caught salmon or mackerel three times a week or supplementing with a teaspoon of high-quality fish oil daily.
5. Try Acupuncture
According to Chinese medicine, stress can contribute to allergies. "The body doesn't have enough energy, or qi, so it becomes protective," says acupuncturist Kaiya Larson, who teaches at the Tai Sophia Institute in Maryland. Acupuncture helps qi flow freely throughout the body "so there's less of a need to react to anything external."
6. Apply Herbs as Needed
To round out your allergy-defense repertoire, explore these herbs.
Butterbur (Petasites hybridus)
European studies have shown that butterbur leaf can be as effective as the drugs Allegra or Zyrtec. "It's one of the most interesting herbs out there for allergies," says the American Botanical Council's Mark Blumenthal. Buy a high-quality product labeled PA free," he says; butterbur contains pyrrolizidine alkaloids, which can cause liver damage. Follow package instructions for dosage.
Stinging nettle (Urtica dioica)
With antihistaminic properties, this herb can ease symptoms, especially when used in its freeze-dried form. Pescatore prescribes it in combination with the supplement quercetin (300 mg stinging nettle with 500 mg quercetin three times daily).
When using herbs, keep your expectations in check, say experts. "They can play a role in reducing symptoms," explains Bauer. "But since allergies are a complex problem, you have to attack them on many fronts."
Text by Hillari Dowdle