The springtime misery of seasonal allergies – allergic rhinitis or hay fever - affects about 20% of the population. Pollen from grass, trees and flowers provide the insult. It’s common for people to recommend the use of various antihistamines to reduce the common symptoms of sneezing, coughing, a runny or stuffy nose, and itching in the eyes, nose, mouth, and throat. However, anti-histamines do not influence the underlying allergic mechanism but merely blocks its expression. Steroid based nasal inhalers can only be safely used for short periods.
A broader range of treatment options to draw upon would be desirable. What other arrows are in the treatment quiver?
In Europe, butterbur root (Petasites hybridus) was used historically to alleviate coughs, congestion and asthma. It’s now understood that this plant’s constituents are very anti-inflammatory. Butterbur products have been standardized to reduce the effects of histamine and nasal congestion, all without side effects.
A randomized, double-blind study of standardized butterbur extract, reported by Swiss researchers in the British Journal of Medicine in 2002, followed 125 seasonal hay fever sufferers. All were shown to have been exposed to substantial levels of pollen during the preceding two weeks. Compared with antihistamines study author Dr. Andreas Schapowal said: “ The results showed that the effects of the two treatments are similar . . . With regard to safety, butterbur was well tolerated and did not have the sedative effects associated with antihistamines.”
Quercitin is a flavonoid plant pigment found in a wide range of foods but especially onions and broccoli. As an antioxidant, quercitin limits free radical damage and is an effective anti-inflammatory. Quercetin plays a role in regulating the immune system’s response to outside stressors. Quercetin is a natural antihistamine and an anti-inflammatory, making it effective for naturally lowering the effects of seasonal allergies. Quercitin favourably affects immunity and inflammation. Quercitin products are available in capsules and tablets in dosages ranging up to 500 mg. Stinging nettle (Urtica dioica) has a long history of medicinal use. While contact with the hairs or spines of the plant provokes itching, dermatitis, and urticaria. Stinging nettle’s anti-inflammatory qualities affect a number of key receptors and enzymes in allergic reactions, preventing hay fever symptoms. The mechanism of action is the release of inflammatory mediators. In one human study suggested that nettle capsules helped reduce sneezing and itching in people with hay fever. In another study, 57% of patients rated nettles as effective in relieving allergies, and 48% said that nettles were more effective than allergy medications they had used previously.
Stinging nettle products come in dried or freeze-dried leaf form, extract, capsules, tablets, as well as a root tincture (suspension of the herb in alcohol), juice or tea. There is currently no recommended dose, because so many stinging nettle products have varying amounts of active ingredients.
Anti-histamine probiotics. It may not seem likely that gut bacteria would be likely to be of use for seasonal allergies yet the evidence is building that this is the case. Bacteria itself may be major source of histamine. Some bacteria are histamine reducing, some are histamine neutral, and some is histamine increasing. This is why the histamine action of a probiotic is important when a person is subject to histamine mediated allergies and inflammation. This is an expression of histamine intolerance
Research has shown that many probiotic bacteria common in natural health products seriously provoke a histamine reaction and make a person vulnerable to seasonal allergies. Histamine raising probiotics include Lactobacillus bulgaricus, Lactobacillus casei, S. thermophilus, Lactobacillus delbrueckii. These should be avoided. Histamine lowering strains include Bifidobacterium infantis, Lactobacillus rhamnosus, Bifidobacterium longum, Lactobacillus plantarum, Bifidobacterium breve, Lactobacillus salivarius6,7. Regarding Lactobacillus reuteri which is widely used, there is divided opinion.
Manufacturers now make specifically anti-histamine probiotic products. Note that most bifidobacteria products already were in this class and are available in Canada.