Seasonal allergies can impact everything from your energy level to nasal symptoms, such as nasal congestion (stuffy nose), hay fever (also known as allergic rhinitis), and other unpleasant allergy symptoms. For many patients, allergy season is a dreaded annual ritual.
Licensed naturopathic doctors offer natural remedies for seasonal allergies by treating the underlying causes of allergic reactions and by supporting the body’s inherent healing capacity in order to relieve allergies and help mitigate severe allergies.
The main approaches used include therapeutic nutrition, botanical medicine (such as dietary supplements, stinging nettle, and other herbal remedies), and lifestyle modification to avoid allergy triggers and improve symptoms. In many areas, spring seasonal allergies can begin in February and last until the early summer.
Definition of a seasonal allergy
A seasonal allergy occurs when the immune system reacts to pollen or other plant-based allergens as if it were a dangerous bacteria or virus.
During an allergic response, the body immediately begins producing “immunoglobulin E” antibodies, or IgE. These specific antibodies release chemicals like histamine that are designed to protect the body from allergens like pollen, mold, and dust. It is this histamine production that ultimately leads to the annoying symptoms that plague us during pollen season: itchy eyes, runny nose, coughing, and more.
Seasonal plant-based allergies like pollen and ragweed usually produce light to moderate symptoms, as opposed to certain food or medication allergies that can sometimes trigger life-threatening allergic reactions that require immediate medical attention.
Seasonal allergies are typically plant-based. In the United States, spring seasonal allergies are usually associated with high tree pollen counts, which can be combined with mold during a rainy season. Tropical climates often have grass pollen that can cause allergy symptoms, while fall allergies have a strong association with ragweed blooms.
Three-quarters of people who are allergic to pollen are also allergic to ragweed, a plant that grows in the United States, especially in Eastern and Midwestern regions. Symptoms of a ragweed allergy are similar to pollen allergies, with sneezing, stuffy or runny nose, itchy eyes, and trouble sleeping.
Oral allergy syndrome
Oral allergy syndrome is a phenomenon that causes an allergic reaction in the lips, mouth, and throat when eating foods that have similar proteins to pollen. This can include common foods such as cantaloupe, bananas, chamomile tea, sunflower seeds, zucchini, and cucumbers. Oral allergy syndrome will primarily affect those with existing allergies to pollen. There is a similar connection between birch allergies and stone fruit like apricots, cherries, peaches, plums – anything with a hard seed or pit.
Natural remedies for seasonal allergies
A naturopathic doctor will ask you in-depth questions about your diet and digestive system to help you get the best allergy treatment. Understanding the role of the microbiome in helping balance immune function is essential. The research underscores the idea that a basic probiotic supplement, along with the addition of fermented and cultured food, helps create a more robust and diverse microbiome, which in turn helps to calm immune system response and reduce allergy symptoms. Supporting gut function is vital, and increasing beneficial bacteria is key.
It can take time for a natural remedy for allergies to reach full efficacy. Some patients experience success taking over-the-counter (OTC) medication for a short time while natural approaches take full effect.
Herbal remedies to manage allergy symptoms
Several herbs act as natural antihistamines and have anti-inflammatory properties that can help reduce allergy symptoms without attendant side effects often associated with OTC and prescription medication. A few of the most studied herbs recommended by naturopathic doctors include:
- Nettles (Urtica dioca) taken in tea or tincture form has been shown to inhibit pro-inflammatory pathways associated with allergic rhinitis.
- Eyebright (Euphrasia officinalis) was studied and shows efficacy when allergy symptoms are most present in the form of irritation in the eyes.
- Butterbur (Petasites officinalis) and yarrow (Achillea millefolium) are also effective natural anti-inflammatories that may help reduce symptoms.
There are a number of naturally occurring compounds available in supplement form that offer springtime allergy relief.
- Quercetin, naturally found in onions, shallots, and citrus fruits, is a natural antioxidant with several anti-allergy properties, including inhibition of histamine release and decrease of pro-inflammatory messengers.
- NAC (N-acetyl cysteine) is an antioxidant that supports the breaking up of mucus, making it an effective tool to help clear congestion. These both work well with antihistamine agents.
Essential oils can potentially be a natural tool to help relieve allergic rhinitis symptoms, according to results from a randomized controlled trial of fifty-four men and women between the ages of 20 and 60. The study found that participants who inhaled Sandalwood, Ravensara, or Frankincense oil for 5 minutes twice daily for 7 days showed significant improvement in their allergic rhinitis symptoms compared with an almond oil placebo.
Apple cider vinegar
Apple cider vinegar (ACV) is another home remedy; however, it does not have much evidence-based research to support it as an option for seasonal allergy relief. While there are studies that link the fermented beverage to other areas of health (such as helping support healthy cholesterol levels and acting as an antimicrobial agent), there are only adjacent studies to support any benefits for allergy relief.
For example, a 2017 study showed measurable benefits to the immune systems and immune health of carp fish when they were given ACV, but the same result has not been replicated in human clinical trials.
Other home remedies
Other home remedies, such as green tea, have been shown to have anti-inflammatory properties and, when combined with an anti-inflammatory diet rich in brightly colored whole fruits and green leafy vegetables, may help to reduce inflammation and improve allergy symptoms.
Acupuncture has also been shown to be an effective tool within complementary and alternative medicine for helping those with seasonal allergies.
A neti pot or other nasal sprays are other good alternative treatments that help flush the nasal passages through nasal irrigation, where dirt and pollen are easily trapped.
A nasal rinse using nasal irrigation can reduce symptoms of allergic rhinitis, also known as hay fever ( coughing, sneezing, watery eyes), though it is important not to flush in excess, as this can wash away the healthy flora in the nasal cavity. With a neti pot, make sure you always use distilled water, not tap water, when creating your saline solution.
Should allergy season be a reason to avoid outdoor activity?
Naturopathic doctors want you to continue to enjoy the fresh air of the outdoors. Limit your pollen exposure by first checking the weather. There will be local information provided on pollen levels; if the pollen count is particularly high on a certain day or time, save that long walk for later. Pollen counts are usually higher at noon and afternoon. Pollution can also affect outdoor activity, as chemical pollutants can interact with pollen grains.
Be wary of vitamin D deficiency
Not spending enough time outdoors in the sunlight could potentially lead to vitamin D deficiency issues, which studies show are correlated with the development of asthma and other allergic diseases. Vitamin D supplements are available in pill form, and because the vitamin is fat-soluble, it is also available in creams or lotions that can be applied topically.
When exercising outdoors, consider wearing a mask so you don’t breathe in excess pollen.
Is climate change causing a longer pollen season?
Warmer temperatures caused by climate change are also causing the pollen season in the United States to last 11 to 27 days longer on average, according to the Allergy and Asthma Foundation of America.
Can seasonal allergies still affect you indoors?
Upon returning indoors, it is best practice to take a shower and wash all outdoor clothes to reduce continued exposure. Pollen sticks to clothes and hair, even when not visible, and can continue to trigger symptoms.
However, even if you are able to remove outdoor pollen, you may still suffer from allergies from both home-based allergens such as pet dander as well as pollen or other allergens that could enter your home through open windows or air conditioners.
Do air filters and vacuum filters make a difference?
A high-efficiency particulate air filter (also known as a HEPA filter) can provide some benefits for indoor allergens such as pet dander and help ease allergy symptoms in your indoor air and provide seasonal allergy relief. If you don’t already have an air filter, you can easily and economically make a DIY one with nothing more than a box fan, MERV 13-rated filter, and some tape. A vacuum cleaner with a HEPA filter can also help keep your floor and surfaces clean and allergen-free.
Long-term use of OTC allergy medication may cause complications
Americans spend billions of dollars every year on over-the-counter medications, including common allergy medications for those seeking relief from their symptoms. For those who are elderly or have chronic health conditions, OTC medication may cause serious reactions or issues with other medications taken.
In a 2015 article published in JAMA Internal Medicine, researchers describe a link between dementia and long-term use of anticholinergic drugs, including antihistamines like Diphenhydramine and Loratadine. In this large study, researchers saw participants who used anticholinergic drugs were more likely to develop dementia, and dementia risk increased with the cumulative dose.
How can a naturopathic doctor help me navigate my seasonal allergies?
As part of pharmacology training in naturopathic medical school, naturopathic doctors learn primary therapeutic uses, mechanisms of action, potential adverse effects, and drug interactions, including over-the-counter allergy medication.
There are numerous effective agents to help prevent and treat seasonal allergies. A licensed naturopathic doctor can help you create a whole person individualized plan to help reduce both reliance on both over-the-counter and prescription medication as well as the troubling symptoms of seasonal allergies.
An allergy occurs when the immune system reacts to an allergen as if it were a dangerous bacteria or virus. An “allergen” is typically defined as a “usually harmless substance capable of triggering a response that starts in the immune system and results in an allergic reaction.”
The AANP and the INM would like to acknowledge Chrysanthi Kazantzis, ND, MS (Dr. Kaz), for her contributions to the content of this article.