Saturday, July 19, 2008

Alleviating Allergies: Herbs like valerian, hops, skullcap, and passion flower keep allergies at bay safely.

It is generally agreed that a combination of lifestyle, environmental factors, and genetic tendency produce allergic reactions. Prescription and non-prescription drugs merely mask the symptoms and usually have undesirable side effects. Most importantly they do nothing to heal the underlying imbalance which produces the allergic symptoms. The good news is that natural healing methods are quite effective in strengthening the constitution while relieving symptoms. Herbs, because of their subtle effects, are an excellent way to handle the symptoms associated with allergies.

An allergy is the immune system's inappropriate response to a substance that is not normally harmful. When the immune system's white blood cells mobilize to fight the perceived toxic invader, they produce a number of symptoms which range from annoying to life-threatening. For the majority of allergy sufferers, the sneezing, coughing, itchy eyes, and wheezing symptoms brought on by exposure to an allergen is no more than a nuisance. However, many asthmatics and some hay fever victims find themselves quite debilitated by their allergies.

Allergic reactions are complex bodily responses. Although hay fever and asthma result primarily in respiratory symptoms, their cause lurks in the major bodily systems. Stagnant lymph and overly-acidic blood create the conditions for allergic reactions. "A body that is less congested is less allergic," states Elson Haas, M.D. in Staying Healthy with Nutrition.

The annoying symptoms of allergy result from an elevated level of antibodies in the bloodstream. These are formed as the body's defense against the toxic invader. Histamine is then released to ensure swift elimination of the enemy through the action of the mucous membranes, which line the nasal and bronchial passages. This response, intended to move mucous out of the body, produces the characteristic swelling, redness, and itching of allergies.


Hay fever (allergic rhinitis) is a reaction of the nasal passages and airways to airborne pollens such as ragweed, as well as dust, animal hair, and mold. The objective of herbal treatment of hay fever is to eliminate the root causes while relieving symptoms. Hay fever sufferers should begin herbal therapy at least one month prior to the usual date their symptoms begin, and continue treatment throughout the season.

The herbs most often recommended for hay fever are ephedra (Ma huang) and echinacea. Ephedra constricts the blood vessels and echinacea stimulates the immune system. Ephedra is a very powerful herb, and should not be used by individuals in a weakened condition or by anyone who has high blood pressure, insomnia, a thyroid condition, diabetes, enlarged prostrate, anxiety, or during pregnancy.

Lois Johnson, M.D., an herbal practitioner in Sebastopol, California, tailors her allergy treatment program to the individual with the goal of reducing symptoms while lifestyle factors and diet are addressed. She prescribes ephedra for both hay fever and asthma in the lowest possible doses, and in combination with other herbs. Dr. Johnson also recommends that allergic individuals reduce their exposure to allergens.

Herbal treatment for hay fever can be taken as a tea, in capsule, or tincture. If teas are chosen, it is important to consult a reputable source, such as Michael Murray's or David Hoffman's (see Resources), for dosage and preparation instruction. The source of herbs should be reputable, with organically grown or wildcrafted sources preferred. Capsules of single herbs or combinations are commercially available with directions for dosage and frequency on the bottle. Herbal tinctures are liquid preparations made from highly concentrated herbal extracts in a medium such as alcohol or glycerine. They are readily absorbed and convenient to use.

EsSential oils are herbs for external use only whose essence has been extracted and highly concentrated. They directly affect the nervous system and are absorbed by the capillaries of the skin when used in the bath or massage. A few drops of cypress and melissa or chamomile oil in a warm bath are therapeutic for hay fever according to Mindy Green, a member of the American Herbalist Guild. For massage, dilute essential oils 10 drops to one ounce of carrier oil such as peanut or almond oil.


Asthma is characterized by difficulty breathing which is caused by constriction or spasm of the bronchial passages. Wheezing, coughing, and production of mucous result. As is true in hay fever, these "symptoms" are actually the body's attempt to move the offending allergen out. Although genetics play a role in the development of asthmatic symptoms, stress often triggers the actual response to the allergen.

Ephedra is most useful for asthma, especially when combined with wild cherry bark, mullein leaves, and licorice, which are all effective in strengthening the bodily systems. Mullein soothes and coats irritated tissues. Licorice as well as turmeric enhance the function of the body's naturally produced steroids, according to Dr. Johnson. This is an important focus for herbal treatment since steroids constitute the standard western medical treatment for both hay fever and asthma. Dr. Johnson recommends that asthma patients begin herbal treatment while continuing with their prescription drugs, and reduce the dosage or the number of drugs slowly while under professional supervision.

Because asthmatic attacks are often triggered by external events, herbs which promote tranquility and relaxation may be helpful. Valerian, hops, skullcap, and passion flower are highly useful in promoting relaxation and healing the nervous system. Inhaling essential oils such as eucalyptus or peppermint can open and relax air passages. A few drops on a tissue will be beneficial.

The natural approach to allergy management strives to relieve symptoms while healing the immune and nervous systems, where the roots of the problem may lie.

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