Preparing for spring allergies

by Danielle Charles

Spring is just round the bend, or at least we must hope. Soon the landscape will be etched in palest green and the air will be heavy with the scent of flowers and the songs of happy birds. And all through the air, like a great heap of glittering confetti thrown up in a display of spring merriment, will float millions of tiny specks of pollen, that bittersweet object that so taints the enjoyment of spring’s splendors with the curse of itchy eyes, runny nose and sneezing.

There is good news though. There is time yet to prepare your body for this yearly assault! For indeed the fault lies not with the pollen – but with the body’s being in a state of over-reactivity. Pollen is in fact a completely benign substance, offering no insult or injury to our bodies. But to the imbalanced immune system – it is labeled as an intruder of the worst kind, triggering all manner of defense mechanisms (sneezing, runny nose, watery eyes) designed to rid the body of it. As the pollen is harmless to us, however, all this effort and great strain on our sanity and nerves – is for naught.

So what to do? While you cannot change the pollen, you can change your body. There are several strategies that can be taken in order to balance the immune system and render it less over-reactive. Here are some suggestions:

Soothe your gut:

Those who study plants from a purely chemical prospective have often been baffled as to how plants whose constituents could not possibly reach the lungs are able to exert a therapeutic effect there.   But herbalists have long viewed the body as a holistic entity, and understand that the state of one area of the body is deeply connected to – and thus profoundly effects – the state of all the others. Thus, a plant that soothes the gut may soothe the urinary tract, the lungs or even the skin. Now, a branch known as neurogastroenterology has begun to uncover this very connection, asserting  that all of our mucous membranes (the mucous secreting linings throughout our body) are interconnected via the nervous system – and that the state of one is indeed heavily impacted by the state of another through neural connections. Thus, a plant who offers a soothing impact on the digestive tract might soothe membranes in another area of the body even though it’s constituents never actually contact that tissue directly.

In terms of allergies, this means that the gut must not be forgotten when considering the root of an inflamed, over-reactive respiratory tract. IE, if the lining of your gut is chronically irritated, it is more than likely your respiratory tract will follow suit and become highly reactive as well.  To soothe and tonify your gut, try:

  • Removing common dietary irritants such as dairy products, wheat and refined carbohydrates several weeks before allergy season begins to reduce the reactivity of mucous membranes throughout the body.
  • Taking a bitter herb such as dandelion or gentian root before meals to enhance digestive function, ensure optimal breakdown and assimilation of food, and tonify and heal the cells lining the digestive tract.
  • A multi-strain probiotic (optimally containing at least 10 strains of Bifido and Lactobaccili bacterium in a time released form) can also help to strengthen the membranes of the digestive tract and may play a role in balancing immune function. Look for one that supplies at least 3 billion micro-organisms.

Balance your immune system:

Allergies are the result of an over-active immune system. Certain types of cells become overly active, while those that usually counter-balance allergic activity become deficient. There are, however, many herbs that help to remedy this balance – reducing hypersensitivity and promoting a balanced, healthy immune system. Reishi mushroom, licorice root and echinacea root are all quite helpful for these effects.

  • Reishi is good for those with a hot, irritable constitution with some degree of dampness or stagnation. In this constitution, allergies tend to be boggy (ie lots of congestion) and highly inflammatory – with redness, itching and irritability.  Try taking up to 1000 mg of freeze dried reishi per day, add 1-3 teaspoons powdered reishi to food or take 1 teaspoon tincture twice daily. As reishi is quite drying, it needs to be balanced with something moist like marshmallow or licorice root when used for those of a dryer constitution, where dry inflamed membranes with scanty, thin mucous and discharge are predominant.
  • Licorice is an immune modulator, adrenal tonic and demulcent (or moistening herb), which I find useful for those who have a dry, depleted constitution where inflammation arises from faulty adrenal function and dryness. If you tend towards itchy, dry eyes and frequent sneezing with irritation of the nose and throat, but little or thin discharge, licorice is quite nice – especially if your symptoms worsen with stress. Try taking 1/4 teaspoon of solid extract 2-3 times per day (if you have high blood pressure, be sure to purchase DGL licorice or consult your herbalist).
  • Echinacea is wonderful as an immune balancer and lymphatic. I tend to gravitate towards this herb when lymph nodes become tender and enlarged during allergy season, and the person becomes more susceptible to infection. Try taking 1-2 ml of tincture three times daily.

Reduce inflammatory/allergic response:

Allergies are characterized by red, itchy, weepy membranes throughout the respiratory tract. These changes are brought about biochemical changes that cause tiny blood vessels to swell and leak fluid. Fortunately for us, a class of plant compounds called flavanoids, found in many foods and medicinal herbs, help to reverse and even prevent these changes by tonifying our blood vessels and reducing their leakiness as well as decreasing the chemical signals (aka histamine) that cause these inflammatory changes.

  • Ensure you get a good serving of flavanoids each day by eating 1/2 – 1 cup of blueberries, eating 1-2 cups of dark leafy greens2-4 oz dark chocolate and/or drinking 1-3 cups of green tea.
  • A freeze dried nettle extract may also be helpful (take up to 1500 mg daily in divided doses) by supplying a pletheroa of anti-histmanic flavanoids.
  • The herbs eyebright, elderflower and  goldenrod are also great plant cocktails of flavanoids that soothe the respiratory tract and reduce allergic response. Goldenrod and elderflower both make a nice tea to sip throughout the day, and eyebright can be taken in tincture form.
  • Some also find relief from taking a concentrated quercetin extract (a flavanoid with strong anti-histamine activity) in combination with other bioflavanoids, vitamin C, and herbal extracts.
  • Creating a more anti-inflammatory fatty acid balance in the body is also quite helpful to reducing over-all reactivity. Add in anti-inflammatory and omega-3 rich foods such as fresh ground flax, walnuts, and cold water fish such as salmon and pasture raised meats and eggs, while reducing pro-inflammatory foods high in arachidnoic acid such as refined flours, vegetable oils, conventional meats, and dairy.

Eat local honey:

By presenting a very small amount of the pollens found in your local ecosystem, the theory is that honey de-sensitizes your body to these pollens so that it no longer reacts to them as “foreign” or “intruders.” While there are no clinical studies to support this, one study did find that pollen collected by bees reduced allergic response by inhibiting IgE mediated mast cell degranulation. If nothing else, this age old remedy certainly won’t hurt (indeed what could be more pleasant!).

Now, if this all sounds like an overwhelming lot of things to do, let me make it easier for you. You can incorporate all of these strategies into your day in just one delicious smoothie. Just throw it all in a blender, whiz for a minute, and drink!

Blues and Greens Smoothie

Serves 2

  • 2 cups water
  • 1 cup frozen blueberries
  • 2-3 leaves of kale or collard greens, chopped roughly
  • 2 kiwis or 1 large apple, chopped
  • 3 tablespoons ground flaxseed
  • 2 tablespoons powdered nettles, or 1/2 cup fresh nettle tops
  • 1 tablespoon fresh ginger root, grated
  • 1 tablespoon reishi powder
  • 1 tablespoon raw, local honey
  • 1/4 teaspoon licorice root powder

Blend everything until smooth, pour into glasses and drink! In one dose, you get flavanoid rich anti-inflammatory blueberries, dark leafy greens, kiwis and nettles; immune balancing reishi and licorice; omega 3 rich flax;  digestive stimulating and soothing ginger and a nice homeopathic dose of local pollen through delicious raw local honey. Try to drink one serving each day 1 month prior to, and throughout allergy season.

Here’s to a happy, blissful spring spent strolling through that fresh pollen filled air with nary a sniffle or sneeze to distract you!