Most of us welcome spring flowers. But for about 50 million Americans, the appearance of buds and blooms means hay fever symptoms: sinus congestion, headaches, and red, itchy eyes.
Seasonal allergies look like an ordinary sinus infection, but they are actually the result of an overzealous immune system. For most people, breathing pollen in the air is no big deal. But for seasonal allergy sufferers, the body reacts to pollen particles like they are an invading virus or bacteria. This triggers an immune response usually reserved for an infection—inflammation and increased mucous.
There is no approved cure for hay fever, but there are a variety of conventional treatments designed to keep symptoms at bay—corticosteroid nasal sprays, decongestants, antibiotics, steroid shots, and antihistamine drugs like Claritin, Allegra, and Zyrtec.
Some of these medications can be effective in the short term, but efficacy fades with continued use. Side effects—which include drowsiness, headaches, anxiety, heart palpitations, and nose bleeds—are often worse than the allergies.
The most reliable advice modern medicine has to offer is avoidance. When pollen counts are high, allergy sufferers are told to stay indoors, or wear a mask. If you can keep this up until November, you’ll be good until February.
New Disease, Old Medicine
Historical evidence suggests that hay fever is a uniquely modern affliction. London physician Dr. John Bostock was the first to identify the problem in 1819. Bostock suffered with summer allergies and spent almost a decade looking for others who shared his symptoms to better understand the disease.
Dr. Bostock’s investigation found 28 people. Today, one in five Americans struggle with hay fever.
Although seasonal allergies are a fairly new ailment, ancient medicine can offer some relief, without the harmful side effects of modern treatment.
According to acupuncturist Laura Flowers—head of the Oriental Medicine Department at Pacific College in New York City—it’s not just the pollen. She says lots of factors contribute to the problem.
“Usually it’s not one thing. Yes, the pollen will trigger it. But people will start to notice that they have symptoms when they’re not getting enough sleep, under stress, drinking too much coffee, and not eating really well,” she said. “Really it’s a compounding of all of those factors that creates the problem.”
Flowers says that if patients focus on the factors they can control, they can actually prevent the body from reacting to the pollen.
Treat the Person, Not the Disease
Flowers has a blog post with tips that hay fever sufferers can try at home. It includes three acupuncture points that you can stimulate yourself to alleviate symptoms. One point, bitong (which means “opens the nose” in Chinese) is found at the end point of the smile line, just above the nostril, on either side of the nose.
All acupuncture treatments for hay fever share common points, but a good treatment is tailored to the individual. The guiding philosophy of Chinese medicine is balance, and each person has different imbalances that need to be addressed.
When Flowers considers a patient, she looks not only at the external response to pollen, but at internal deficiencies that contribute to the condition. She adds that it’s important for patients to participate in their own healing process by adjusting their diet and lifestyle accordingly.
“That will really increase the healing if they’re taking charge and making changes in their lives,” she said.
A big battle in winning the war on allergy symptoms is avoiding foods that cause more mucous, such as dairy, sugar, and flour. Flowers also advises drinking lots of fluids to get the phlegm out. Water is a good choice, but not orange juice.
“People think, ‘Well, I’m going to drink a ton of orange juice because of the vitamin C.’ But because of all the concentrated sugar, they actually create more mucous. You can definitely take vitamin C in a tablet or powdered form, but you should avoid orange juice,” she said.
Just like conventional remedies, acupuncture and herbs work better if they’re used before symptoms become severe.
Flowers mentioned one patient who would only visit her office when symptoms got really bad. This scenario requires frequent treatments to get lasting relief. Today, this patient now understands to book an appointment when symptoms first emerge. As a result, she only needs acupuncture 4 or 5 times a year.
“The earlier someone comes in, the easier it is,” said Flowers.
Hay Fever Facts
When Dr. Bostock first investigated seasonal allergies in the 1800s, all the cases he identified were from the upper class—he could find no examples among poor people. Some modern studies still suggest that there are more hay fever sufferers among the better educated and well to do.
Many scientists link the rise in seasonal allergies to the hygiene hypothesis—the idea that the immunity of modern people is weaker than our ancestors’s because we live in such a hygienic environment.
Evidence suggests that industrial pollutants may also contribute to allergies. Therefore, some herbalists recommend a liver cleansing formula as part of their hay fever regimen.
Other herbs commonly prescribed for allergy symptoms include nettles, eyebright, rosemary, sage, butterbur, and goldenrod. The antioxidant quercetin is also recommended for its anti-inflammatory and antihistamine properties. Consult a qualified herbalist for best results.
Goldenrod often gets blamed for causing hay fever symptoms, but it does not actually contribute to the problem. This unfair accusation stems from goldenrod’s bright yellow flowers, which bloom about the same time as ragweed—a major seasonal allergy offender.
Renowned herbalist Michael Tierra actually recommends ragweed as a treatment for seasonal allergies. Read his “like treats like” rationale on PlanetHerbs.com.