What are allergies?
Allergies occur when the immune system overreacts to a normally harmless substance, such as pollen. Although there are many different types of allergies, including food and skin allergies, here we are talking specifically about allergies to airborne particles, known medically as allergic rhinitis. Pollen allergies are called hay fever. Approximately 20 percent of North Americans are affected.
Key Symptoms of Allergies
- Runny nose
- Nasal congestion
- Itchy, watery eyes, nose or throat
- Skin itching or rash
Allergy symptoms can range from mild to severe. The above symptoms are generally considered mild. See a doctor immediately if you begin wheezing or have difficulty breathing, which could be signs of an asthma attack.
Anaphylaxis is a potentially life-threatening allergic reaction.
Although it often begins with itching of the eyes or face, within minutes it can progress to such severe swelling that makes it difficult to breathe and swallow. Abdominal pain, vomiting, and diarrhea may also occur. This is a medical emergency and requires immediate treatment.
How Diet Can Help
The foods you eat can boost your immune system and prevent symptoms. A Japanese study assessed the possible protective effect of the traditional Japanese diet on allergies. They looked at 1002 Japanese pregnant women and found that calcium, magnesium, and phosphorus were associated with a decreased prevalence of allergies. The typical North American diet tends to be lower in magnesium and calcium:
- Food Sources of Magnesium
- Getting Enough Calcium in Your Diet
People with allergies may also have a sensitivity to certain foods. For example, several studies have found that people allergic to grass pollens also react to tomatoes, peanuts, wheat, apple, carrot, celery, peach, melon, eggs, and pork.
To find out which foods aggravate symptoms of allergies in a particular individual, an elimination-and-challenge diet is recommended. This diet involves the removal of suspected foods from the diet for at least a week followed by systematic re-introduction of those foods in order to isolate the foods that may aggravate certain symptoms. It should be done under the guidance of a health professional.
How Herbs and Supplements Can Help
Bromelain is an enzyme found naturally in the stem of the pineapple plant. When taken with food, bromelain aids digestion.
If it is taken with water between meals on an empty stomach (one hour prior to or two hours after a meal), bromelain is believed to have an anti-inflammatory effect, which can help to decrease mucus and other allergy symptoms.
A typical dose is 400 to 500 mg of bromelain (look for 1800 to 2000 m.c.u. on the label) one to three times a day. People who are sensitive to pineapples should not take bromelain. Side effects, while rare, may include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and abnormal menstrual bleeding.
Nettle Leaf (Urtica dioica)
Nettle leaf, also called stinging nettles, are a popular remedy for allergies. This herb is believed to have an anti-inflammatory effect. In a double-blind, randomized study of 69 people, 58 percent rated a nettle extract effective in relieving symptoms after one week. In addition, 48 percent found it equally or more effective than previous medicine.
A typical dosage for allergies is 300 mg one to three times a day of a freeze-dried nettle extract.
Quercetin is a compound found naturally in vegetables, such as onions and berries. People with allergies may benefit from quercetin because it has been found to inhibit the release of histamine and reduce inflammation. Quercetin is believed to work by stabilizing cell membranes so they are less reactive to allergens.
Butterbur (Petasites hybridus)
A randomized, double-blind study, 330 hay fever patients at 11 clinics in Switzerland and Germany received either a tablet of butterbur herbal extract three times a day (providing a total of 8 mg of the active petasine a day), the antihistamine Allegra once a day, or a placebo. The researchers found that the butterbur was as effective as the antihistamine at relieving sneezing, nasal congestion, itchy eyes, and other hay fever symptoms.
How Acupuncture Can Help
A German study published in the journal Allergy found that acupuncture may an effective and safe option for people with seasonal allergies. Patients in the study were randomly assigned to two groups. One group received a semi-standardized treatment of acupuncture once a week and a Chinese herbal tea three times a day and the other, control, groups received acupuncture needles that weren’t really in acupuncture points and a non-specific Chinese herbal formula. Patients who received the acupuncture and herbal treatment noticed an 85 percent improvement on a global assessment of change scale compared to 40 percent in the control group. They also noticed a significant improvement in the quality of life questionnaire.