Herbs to Embrace & Avoid During Allergy Season
Contrary to popular belief, allergies are not a sign of an unhealthy immune system. In fact, they are actually a sign of an overactive immune system. So, to combat histamine reactions to what the body sees as invading agents, we should begin “to convince the immune system that it can coexist peacefully with these substances. Conventional medicine does not achieve this goal (Andrew Weil, Natural Health, Natural Medicine).”
Okay, great. Now how the heck do we do that? Well, my sniffling sufferers, the first thing is to get off the anti-histamines. I know, I know. But think of it this way: anti-histamines do not stop the body from producing histamines. “Instead, they block the action of histamines at receptor sites (Michael Murray, N.D.).” They actually encourage the immune system to overreact, causing a greater sensitivity to allergens.
Yikes, right? Yeah. So, what can you do? Try some of the following suggestions while tapering off your allergy medication (going cold turkey might be too much for your system—the body is conservative; always be patient and gentle with yourself and discuss any altering of your medications with your physician*).
1. Nettles (Urtica dioica):
I’ve said this before, but when in doubt, choose nettles. Nettles are a fantastic tonic for the immune system and help the body learn to cope with its over-reactive nature. You can try a big jug of nettle tea. Grab a quart jar, about a half cup of nettle leaves (dried or fresh—use twice as much if you’re using fresh herb and wear gloves! These aren’t called stinging nettles for nothing) and pour boiling water over the herb. Steep overnight if you can, but a few hours will do the trick. Drink 2-4 cups a day—hot or iced. You’ll probably find that this is the only herb you need—give it a couple of weeks of daily drinking before weaning off the allergy meds, though. Give your body a chance to heal (although, if you’re feeling better, there’s no reason why you can’t cut back earlier).
2. Angelica (Angelica sinensis)—also known as dong quai in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM):
Angelica is a tall, sturdy, gorgeous plant (if you ever have the good luck to see one growing, you’ll know what I mean; you’ll feel totally safe knowing a plant like this has got your back). Angelica decreases the amount of antibodies your body produces when faced with allergens. This action helps to educate the body that it need not freak out in their presence. A wonderfully soothing tonic for the body, you can use this safely with nettles. I recommend finding a tincture of this plant—this will probably be easier than finding a tea or the dried herb itself. Follow the directions on the tincture bottle (note: directions on supplement bottles are usually for a 150lb adult—increase or decrease proportionally according to your weight).
3. Licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra):
Licorice is similar to cortisone (aka steroids): it stimulates (but heals!) the adrenal glands and inhibits inflammation (which is what makes you so flipping uncomfortable during allergy season) and it does all of this without all the nasty steroid side-effects. Try this one if you’re having an acute attack, but stick with nettles or angelica for daily, tonic use. Long term use of licorice can deplete your potassium levels and cause sodium retention (so people with high blood pressure should probably avoid this herb).
Now, there are some herbs that, if you suffer from allergies, you should probably avoid until you get them under control. For example:
1. If you are allergic to ragweed avoid the following (all in the ragweed plant family):
- Milk Thistle
2. If you are allergic to latex avoid:
- Dandelion (I know, weird, right? Well, apparently latex can be produced from certain species of dandelion. Best to avoid it all together).
- Poppy and Poppy seeds
3. If you are allergic to aspirin, avoid:
- White Willow Bark
- Red Clover
Although, I will say that these herbs contain acetylsalicylic acid and not salicylic acid (which is the allergy-causing component of aspirin), so it’s worth trying these herbs for pain relief or getting tested to see if you’re allergic to both acids.
No matter what you’re allergic to or what symptoms you suffer from, try out one of the herbs above (Did I mention nettles? You should really try nettles) for a few weeks, then treat yourself to an experimental picnic (under some trees, or maybe next to a field of goldenrod) and sneeze no more.
*Can’t forget the herbalists’ standard disclaimer: Talk to your doctor before using any type of alternative medicine.
Amy Jirsa, LMT, is a master herbalist, E-RYT 500 yoga teacher, forager, and writer from Maine. She is the author of Herbal Goddess: Discover the Amazing Spirit of 12 Healing Herbs with Teas, Potions, Salves, Food, Yoga, and More and the founder of Quiet Earth Yoga.