Wednesday, May 11, 2011

But It's Natural!

I'd like to start with a quote from my mother on natural childbirth (she had four children, three of them without medication because she had serious reactions to the medications given to her during her first delivery): You don't see men singing the praises of natural heart surgery, do you*?

So I have a good background in being suspicious of the claim that "natural" means safer and more effective. (Arsenic is quite natural!) And, if you're chronically ill (sing it, denelian!), you get to spend a lot of your time hearing all about this natural thing and that natural thing that's going to make you all better. My eyes, they are still rolling from last time.

full disclosure: I seem to have allergies for the first time ever this year. The pollen counts in Northeastern Pennsylvania are epic this year, and my husband, who always has allergies, is really suffering. He's never gotten any relief from Zyrtec or Claritin or any of that, so I'm coming from the perspective of someone who's never seen that anything works for allergies.

Dealing with allergy symptoms throughout the year can have a considerable impact on your life, making it hard to function at work and at play.

Allergy relief medications can help, but some have side effects such as drowsiness that may make it even harder to function. An alternative approach to allergies is to try natural therapies, including herbs, nasal rinses, and certain foods.

Keep the side effects thing in mind.

Natural remedies that help keep your allergies in check can empower you to take charge of your health, says Moshe Lewis, MD, chief of the division of physical medicine and rehabilitation at the California Pacific Medical Center, St. Luke's Campus in San Francisco.

Zyrtec: not empowering. Herbs: empowering. No particular reason, it just is.

However, some natural therapies, such as herbs, come with their own list of side effects, and they can be toxic if you take too much. “People can be deceived into believing that if it’s natural, it’s safe,” Dr. Lewis says. The goal is to take small amounts of herbs to get the effects you’re looking for.

So, herbs better why?

Lewis recommends consulting with a naturopath or a homeopathic physician if you plan to try herbs for allergy relief. It’s also vital to tell all of your doctors about the herbs you’re taking, because natural remedies could interfere with any drugs you’ve been prescribed, both for allergies and other conditions.

Feel free to also consult a brick wall, a shoe or my dog. They are all as much experts as a naturopath or a homeopath.

The first suggestion is nasal irrigation and a saline spray. That's good advice in my limited experience. Nasal irrigation works to some degree for my husband and I'm getting relief from the saline spray.

Butterbur. Extracts of butterbur are going head-to-head with antihistamine products on the market, Lewis says. In a study of 330 people who were given either butterbur extract, the antihistamine fexofenadine (Allegra), or a placebo, extracts of the herb worked as well as Allegra at relieving allergy symptoms. Another study found butterbur extract to have similar effects to the antihistamine cetirizine (Zyrtec).

The herb helps get rid of mucus and has been used to treat asthma and bronchitis. There’s some concern that if butterbur is from the same family of ragweed it could trigger allergies, but that’s only in theory, Lewis says. Butterbur does have side effects, including the possibility of drowsiness, headache, and an upset stomach. Lewis recommends taking butterbur in extract form.

Drowsiness, headache and an upset stomach are the side effects of most antihistamines, as well. So, basically, if butterbur actually does work as well as Zyrtec, it's the exact same thing. Same results, same side effects. At best, natural remedies are the same as "unnatural" medications.

Stinging nettle. The jury is still out on whether stinging nettle provides allergy relief. A small study found that it might help relieve symptoms, but more research needs to be done. If you try stinging nettle, be sure to consult your doctor before taking it. As with butterbur, Lewis recommends taking nettle leaf in extract form.

You shouldn’t take stinging nettle if you’re pregnant or give it to young children. And if you take a blood pressure medication, a blood thinner, or a diuretic, or you have diabetes, be sure to talk to your doctor before you take stinging nettle.

No proof that it works, more dangerous than Zyrtec. (The children's dose of Zyrtec is the same as the adult dose. So you can give Zyrtec to children.)

Quercetin. The flavanoid quercetin, which is the phytochemical that gives fruits and vegetables their color, has been found to block the release of histamine in test tube studies. Research hasn’t found definitively that quercetin can help with allergy symptoms in people. However, getting plenty of quercetin in your diet from apples, berries, grapes, squash, greens, and sweet potatoes certainly doesn’t hurt, Lewis says.

Yes, I agree that eating fruits and vegetables is good, but it's not doing anything for your allergies. Fruits and vegetables are basically all I eat.

Spicy foods. Turning up the heat of your food with horseradish and chili peppers can act as a decongestant and clear away the mucus that’s been building from allergies. If you like spicy food, this may be the most enjoyable approach to allergy relief.

Srsly? Soup has the same effect. So does a shower or swimming. This isn't allergy relief, this is a runny nose.

*If you think I'm snarky, my mother invented snark.


  1. I have terrible allergies and always have as long as I can remember. Three allergists have suggested I never go outside. I am a geologist and marine biologist. I have, at some point in time, tried everything known in this existence.

    One word: benadryl.

  2. I have bad allergies and because of that I am now addicted to Afrin. You separate me from my Afrin and bad things happen.

  3. Another allergy sufferer, here. Mine aren't bad, but apparently I'm mildly allergic to, well, Dallas. Where I live. Where the pollution levels frequently increase my allergy symptoms by a whole order of magnitude. Trees, grass, mold... if it's local to this area, I'm mildly allergic to it.

    And honestly, the single best thing I've found (besides over-the-counter decongestants) has been the nasal irrigation.

    I actually would second recommendation of spicy foods, because I've done that myself when I needed some relief... but that isn't a general answer for allergy symptoms, it's something I do when I've got a lot of gunk sitting in my head and I need to get it to move.

    And I practically live on cough drops; I should really buy stock in Hall's.

  4. apparently I'm mildly allergic to, well, Dallas

    I have that, too. Except for me it's more psychological...

    Also, I'd suggest wasabi. Man, that stuff will blow your nasal passages apart.

  5. It'll do more than blow apart your nasal passages. . . let's just say, it looked like avocado to me.

    I take benadryl to go to sleep most nights. And while I suppose being asleep would mean I wouldn't notice my allergies, I don't think my boss would appreciate it.

  6. I developed horrendous year-round allergies in my late 20s and have tried everything for them- pills, sprays, spicy foods, nasal steroids, acupuncture, probiotics, head stands, you name it.

    When I finally got around to trying the natural herbal remedy guess what happened?

    I had an allergic reaction to it and broke out in hives.

  7. Fannie, makin' trouble whereever she goes! ;)

  8. "it looked like avocado to me"


    But I will keep wasabi in mind the next time I'm really congested.

  9. Haha, Fannie, the same thing happened to me taking an herbal thing for my eczema. Oh.My.God.the.itching. However, it's another herbal thing that suppresses it by about 75% (along with benadryl) so sometimes alternative treatments can help. I never understood thinking that "natural" was superior, though, you just have to go with what works.

  10. Back in the mid-70s, I was in college. One botany prof ("Plants and Human Culture") got tired of kids using his lecture time to talk about protesting the dining commons until they served only organic food, because "organic foods are NAAA-CHUUU-RALLLLL!" The prof finally said "Gonorrhea and syphilis are natural too, but you don't see people standing in line to get some!"

  11. Funny I clicked reply to mention Wasabi and someone beat me to it. Seriously though it seems to help, I get hours of relief and culinary satisfaction from a spicy tuna roll with a nice shot of Wasabi on each piece.

  12. mutzali:

    i must have gotten that prof! [seriously, in a political science class, i SUPPOSE talking about boycotting is sort of germain, but... boycotting the cafeteria until it goes "all organic WITHOUT raising prices!" is INSANE!]

    this is me singing:
    i have porphyria. therefor, NO, i will NOT take unproven herb A or B or C, because i 50jillion [JILLION] things i can't take BECAUSE of the porphyria and it causing death if i take it. such as your "tomato seed oil" - allergic to tomatoes because of porphyria! no fish oil - allergic to fish! and etc.

    it's an oldie but goody, that song :)

    seriously - i thank the stars every. fucking. spring. as everyone i know gets hit with "seasonal" allergies and i... just don't. [knock on wood]

    i'm sure as fuck not going to take some random non-tested herb for it! the POINT of drugs [especially allergy meds] is that they are REFINED. you know what asprin is? WILLOW BARK. refined so it it's, ya know, deadly.

  13. I stir a spoonful of local honey into a mug of green tea. Doesn't cure hayfever, but it does reduce the effects. Has to be local though, so it contains the pollens that produce the hayfever in the first place. And you don't need to do it often (at least, I don't, which is good because I don't really like honey), once a week is usually enough.

  14. I happen to be an Ear, Nose and Throat Specialist having practised for over forty years.
    Simply placing a dab of Jalapeno pepper dip/fresh horseradish/wasabi (only one of these at a time!)on your tongue and pressing it against the roof of your mouth will safely decongest your nose for an hour or two and, providing you then spit it out rather than actually swallowing, has no important side effects. Indeed, I have used this approach to help patients who have become dependent on Afrin to help them break the habit. It can be used as often as necessary throughout the day or at night.

  15. I have a tendency to wake up upon a spring morning, with bright sunlight streaming gracefully through the windows and the birds singing in the green trees, with blood-red demonic fucking eyes that itch painfully and scare the hell out of anyone I see. And then the sneezing starts. I have never in my life sneezed just once. My minimum sneeze-count lies somewhere between 15 and 30.

    I have prescription eyedrops for the eyes (they work wonders) but the sneezing I just have to deal with. It's embarrasing when it happens in company.

    And anyone who prescribes a homeopathic solution needs be given homeopathic surgery, where we make a large number of small, paper-cut incisions and then throw them in the ocean.


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