Friday, April 4, 2008

Focus On Allergies: Food, Drink, Vitamins, Hormones

The best of alternative medicine, from experts at Bastyr University, the country's leading naturopathic school

Food & Drink Link

Spring and summer bring blooms and buds of all kinds, and with them come pollen — lots and lots of pollen. And if you're one of the unlucky millions with sensitive sinuses, you know that pollen overload can take the beauty out of the season completely. After all, it's tough to enjoy the great outdoors when the only place you can breathe is inside with the air conditioning on high.

No doubt you've also tried a long list of standard medical treatments, including allergy shots and decongestants, and know their drawbacks — drowsiness, foggy thinking, and fatigue, among others. Fortunately, there are safe and effective natural alternatives for treating seasonal allergies.

If you've never worked with a naturopathic doctor, you should know that central to the tenets of naturopathic medicine are the beliefs that the body can heal itself, and that treatment should seek to support that ability with safe, natural remedies. When it comes to airborne allergies, I first ask myself why the body is reacting to natural molecules like pollen; I often find that the real reason lies in what a person regularly eats and drinks, not just in what they breathe.
In the last 15 years of specializing in the natural treatment of allergies, it's become clear to me that about 80 percent of environmental allergies can be linked to adverse food reactions (sometimes mislabeled "food allergies"). When someone regularly eats foods they react to — such as those with wheat and sugar, and dairy products — the mucous membranes become irritated and much more responsive to elevated levels of pollen and dust.

Foods Most Likely to Cause Allergies:

  • Wheat
  • Sugar
  • Chocolate
  • Beef
  • Bananas
  • Oranges
  • Apples
  • Soy
  • Eggs
  • Nuts (especially peanuts)
  • Milk products
  • Coffee

Through elimination of or desensitization to the offending foods, the overall reactivity of the body drops. I've lost count of the number of patients who've gotten relief from their hay fever symptoms simply by avoiding wheat and sugar during hay fever season. They often get relief within two weeks — the time it takes for the body to clear itself of the reactive food residues. (Testing is usually done to find out which foods are causing a problem.)

Vitamins & Herbs

You probably also didn't know that your daily vitamin C supplement can help control allergy symptoms. Vitamin C's natural antihistamine properties make it a classic allergy treatment. A daily dose of 1000 to 4000 milligrams should help reduce the severity of sinus stuffiness and runny nose. Like vitamin C, pantothenic acid — a B vitamin — plays an important role in the proper functioning of the adrenal glands and has also been reported to help reduce allergic symptoms. (Low-functioning adrenal glands have long been associated with allergies.)
There are a few herbs that can help, too, mostly by reducing sinus congestion. Urtica dioica, or stinging nettle, does a good job of reducing nasal stuffiness at a dose of 600 milligrams of freeze-dried extract two or three times daily. Ephedra, also known as Ma huang, also reduces stuffiness and is helpful for asthma as well. Unfortunately, this herb is also a stimulant and can cause a racing heart, or insomnia if taken at night. Because of its powerful effects on the nervous system, it should only be used under the guidance of a qualified naturopathic physician. Ephedra should not be taken by anyone with heart disease, high blood pressure, thyroid disease, diabetes, or prostate problems. Those on antihypertensives or antidepressants, and pregnant and lactating women should also not use it. In place of ephedra, a combination of garlic and fennel works well to reduce sinus reactivity, and is very safe.

You've probably never heard of quercitin (pronounced KWHERE-si-tin), but this herbal extract is a very safe and effective treatment for all kinds of sinus reactions, including allergies, asthma, and hay fever. It works by inhibiting the release of histamines and will not interfere with standard antihistamines or bronchial dilators. The standard adult dose of the herb (which is derived from the bark of the white oak tree, quercus alba) is two capsules of 600 milligrams each, one to three times a day.
Though quercitin is found in some foods — including onions, apples, garlic, cranberries, and cabbage — the amount in food is too low to derive any noticeable health benefit.

The Role of Hormones

The adrenal glands — one sits on top of each kidney — are responsible for handling much of the stress we encounter. (Because of this I often refer to them as the body's shock absorbers.) While it's not clear if tired adrenals lead to allergies or vice versa, we do know that improving how the adrenal glands work reduces allergic reactivity. Recent research links low total levels of the hormone DHEA (dehydroepiandrosterone), and a low DHEA-to-cortisol ratio (cortisol is another major adrenal hormone) to a tendency to allergies. If evidence of a hormonal deficiency is found, DHEA supplementation can raise levels into the normal range. (You may have heard about side effects of DHEA supplementation, such as acne and deepening of the voice, but you needn't worry; these occur only when levels of the hormone exceed the normal range, not when supplementation raises DHEA to normal levels.)
All of these natural options, used individually or in concert, give wonderful help for those suffering from chronic allergies. Your best option is to see a licensed naturopathic physician for a comprehensive workup.

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