The sleeping earth of winter is re-awakening, spring is well and truly here, and nature heralds her return. We feel an extraordinary push for life and movement within our own bodies, and we see it in the natural world. And with our own blossoming comes that of the beautiful plant world: so many, pollen-producing, allergenic plants!
The glorious feeling of taking that first breath of crisp, early spring air might be somewhat stifled if you’re one of many sufferers of seasonal allergies. All those pollens and animal hair can set off your allergic rhinitis, a fancy way of saying hay fever. Worse still: when your allergies trigger your asthma!
Dana* is a patient who had suffered with seasonal allergies since she was 10. On high pollen count days she was forced to retreat to air-conditioned rooms just so that she could breathe properly!
Despite her terrible allergies, her upbringing might sound like a recipe for a robust immune system. She grew up on the family farm, with parents who instilled in her a love for the bush. She never wore shoes and played in the mud a lot. The family had many dogs – having pets can reduce your risk of developing allergies. Her dad always had a chest freezer full of wild animals he’d hunted and butchered; so all of their meat was organic.
However, the farm was a monoculture crop that required frequent spraying with all manner of endocrine-disrupting pesticides. While all meat was wild, Dana was taught to value living – and eating – as inexpensively as possible. This meant stacks of tinned foods, conventional (i.e. sprayed) fruit and vegetables, and reduced-to-clear (i.e. stale or even mouldy) groceries. This thriftiness carried over into her adulthood and, when the organic wave emphasising food quality hit, she well and truly shrugged it off as an unnecessary ‘health nut’ indulgence.
By the time she came to see me she was 29. Our consultation was punctuated by Dana’s uncontrollable sneezing, which I found disruptive, but she was quite used to. It took a little (okay, a lot of) convincing, but Dana decided to clean up her diet – no more soft drinks, preservative-laden deli meats, cheap cheeses, additives, dyes and other non-foods. She dramatically reduced her dairy intake (yes, this is a huge trigger for allergies and, if you really want your allergies to go away, you’ll have to ditch this!).
She even gave the green light to organics. As she was on a budget, I suggested she could go organic for just David Suzuki’s‘dirty dozen’ – the top 12 fruit and vegetables for retaining the highest concentrations of chemical residues. While we also did some serious work on healing her gut, the crux of her treatment was dietary change.
Within three months, her allergies – and a number of other health issues – had vanished.
For the first time she could recall, she enjoyed a spring and summer without a tickle, sneeze or medication. We hadn’t even resorted to using anti-allergic herbs and supplements. Dana was elated, especially since she was planning to have children and didn’t want them to suffer with allergies the way she had. She excitedly told me that she was now a health nut convert!
Three steps to treating allergies naturally
Helping people become allergy free is a lot of fun as it opens up a whole new world for them. Travel without antihistamines becomes possible. Visits to relatives who own cats are no longer a source of dread. Some people stop having asthma attacks. And people discover first hand just how powerful basic dietary changes can be.
Please note that I’m not talking about severe, IgE-mediated reactions such as those to peanuts, bees, or some medications. These can cause immediate allergic reactions, and even anaphylaxis. This treatment is for common seasonal allergies to things like pollens, fur and common foods that mediate delayed, non life-threatening reactions – these won’t kill you but they can make life unpleasant!
When working with patients to become allergy-free I get them to picture a pyramid with three levels: a base, middle and apex. The base or foundation of a strong immune system is commitment to a healthy diet. This base is the enabler for the middle layer, which is healing the gut. Finally, if allergies are acutely severe, we might add in some nutraceuticals while we lay the foundations – these make up the apex, but aren’t always necessary. So from top to bottom:
- Heal the gut
- Improve diet (removes triggers and increases immune-boosting antioxidants, minerals etc.)
Six months seems a long time to wait if you’re sneezing like crazy right now! Don’t worry – there are herbs and nutritional supplements that can help enormously, and a few people report never needing to go back to over-the-counter medications. However, if you don’t lay the foundations with a good diet and heal the gut, symptoms may come back.
The following herbs and supplements are best taken daily, and ideally before allergy season starts. They can also be used as needed.
- Albizia (Albizia lebbeck) is an excellent anti-allergic herb (2). Products containing albizia, along with other anti-allergy herbs, are available from health food stores.
- Baical skullcap (Scutellaria baicalensis)is a drying herb specifically indicated for hay fever and asthma. Avoid in pregnancy (2).
- Nettle (Urtica dioica)is a natural anti-histamine herb and can be taken as freeze-dried powders in the form of capsules or tablets. Make sure you take the leaf and not the root (2).
- Quercetin is a plant pigment that has been shown to exhibit significant anti-allergic actions. 500mg daily (in adults) reduces reactivity to seasonal allergens, and can even reduce food allergies. A highly bioavailable, enzymatically modified form of quercitin called EMIQ is especially useful for reducing the itchy, red eyes many people get as part of their allergy picture. Take 100mg twice a day (1). Seek professional advice if you wish to use this while pregnant.
- Ascorbic acid (the acidic form of vitamin C) is an excellent anti-inflammatory and immune-boosting antioxidant. Take up to 2000mg daily with meals. Be sure not to exceed this total dose in pregnancy when factoring in your natal multivitamin.
- Zinc: 25-40mg/day for adults
- One of the following polyphenol-rich extracts:
- Apple polyphenols extract: 100 to 250mg twice per day
- Grape seed or pine bark extract (>95% procyanidolic oligomers): 150 to 300mg per day
- Green tea extract (90% polyphenols): 150 to 300mg per day (1).
Dana was actually a qualified herbalist and had tried many of these herbs before – as well as a few homeopathics – without long-term success. What she had missed were the dietary foundations and gut healing, which we’ll get to now.
2. Heal the gut
Your gut (or gastrointestinal tract) is often the first thing to interface with the outside world, certainly when it comes to eating food. One of its jobs is to make sure things like foods, allergens and bacteria are adequately broken down before reaching your bloodstream. Your stomach breaks down potentially allergenic proteins in its highly acidic environment. Then your intestine prevents excessively large proteins from entering your bloodstream via a thin layer of barrier cells.
Then there’s a whole bunch of special gut bacteria, as well as gut associated lymphatic tissue (or GALT) whose job it is to break down proteins so that you don’t get sensitised to them, as that leads to gut and whole body inflammation.
Some things prevent your gut from filtering out inadequately broken down proteins. This can happen if you take reflux medications that reduce stomach acidity, or your gut barrier gets weakened from chronic exposure to inflammatory foods. Or you take several courses of antibiotics and your gut bacteria get out of whack. These can all cause gut permeability or leaky gut, which leads to inflammation – the redness, swelling, itchiness and leaky characteristic of allergies are all classic signs of inflammation.
With leaky gut, proteins start getting into your bloodstream that really shouldn’t be there. This puts your body in red alert, hyper-sensitising you to many triggers in your environment. So you can see how important healing the gut is in relaxing your body’s over reactivity. Doing this reduces both seasonal allergies and common food sensitivities.
How do I heal my gut?By hitting the main areas where its function may be compromised – correcting stomach acidity, repairing the intestinal barrier, balancing gut bacteria, and reducing the irritation caused by troublesome foods through a well-planned elimination diet. Let’s start with the elimination diet.
Elimination diet: This involves getting rid of common triggers like gluten, dairy, soy, eggs, refined sugar, refined baked goods, preservatives and additives, for at least two weeks. Reduce your exposure to known food and environmental triggers as much as you can. I work with clients to help them further refine what foods need to be eliminated and guide them through the process, but this list is a good start. This step alone can make a profound difference. Eventually you’ll want to re-introduce these foods one by one to determine if they cause problems for you.
Replace stomach acidity and enzymes: Taking digestive enzymes, bitter herbs like gentian (Gentiana lutea) or ginger (Zingiber officinale) to enhance digestion, or apple cider vinegar to increase stomach acidity, can all help here. This needs to start around the end of your elimination diet once you begin reintroducing foods to test for reactions, and continue for quite some time, up to six months in my experience with patients.
Repair the intestinal lining. The following nutraceuticals can be taken from one to six months, depending on your needs and the extent of your gut damage: turmeric, aloe, marshmallow root, DGL licorice, zinc, fish oil, slippery elm, and L-glutamine powder. The combination can take some tweaking, and this is where a natural healthcare professional can really help you.
Balancing gut bacteria– a high potency, multi-strain probiotic is essential here.
The doses, combination of supplements, length of administration, and type of elimination diet needed, vary greatly from person to person – again seek the help of a qualified practitioner to fine-tune this for you. Healing your gut is something you want to do once, properly, rather than attempt multiple times half-heartedly. In my opinion it really is worth finding someone to work with you on this, rather than entering the black hole of ‘gut healing’ and being on certain elimination diets like the GAPS (Gut and Psychology Syndrome) diet for years without reason or result.
3. Improve your diet
After you complete all of this, you need to keep your diet as healthy as possible. This is the simplest step to understand, but can be the most challenging in practice – many people just want to take something and be healed!But commitment to a healthy diet really forms the foundation of the pyramid. You won’t get rid of your allergies forever unless you take this bit seriously.
What makes a wholesome diet? To keep it short: a balanced diet rich in whole foods, with healthy carbohydrates, nutritious fats and proteins; organic or spray-free as much as possible. Minimise refined foods and dehydrogenated oils. Eat foods covering all the colours of the rainbow. Include plenty of fibre to keep the bowels regular!
By following a few simple but important steps, you can be free of seasonal allergies for good, not to mention the improvements in your energy and in all other systems of your body!
This article was originally published in Living Now magazine at livingnow.com.au/blog/2016/08/31/treating-allergies-naturally/
(1) Murray, MT & Pizzorno, J (2012), The Encyclopedia of Natural Medicine, 3rded, Atria Paperback, New York.
(2) Bone, K (2007), The Ultimate Herbal Compendium,1sted, Phytotherapy Press, Warwick.