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Ask the Naturopathic Doctor

Stop the Sneezing

A dozen natural ways to calm seasonal allergies

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Q:Every spring, just like clockwork, my hay fever kicks in. But over-the-counter pills dry me out and make me feel tired and sluggish. What else can I do to combat allergy symptoms?
-Nathan K., Tampa, Fla.

Sneezing, wheezing, and watery eyes; itchy ears and eyelids; stuffy nose-these are the bane of the allergy sufferer. The first resort for many is to reach for popular over-the-counter antihistamines. But is this really a good idea?

Histamine is a naturally occurring substance that ramps up the immune response to environmental irritants. Histamine helps to enzymatically digest the irritant, which is a functional, helpful response. However, if the response is prolonged (because the environmental burden is overwhelming your immune system-think a huge waft of pollen up your nose), then you’re left with a boggy, itchy mess for longer than you’d like.

It’s true that antihistamines such as Claritin, Allegra, and Benadryl can reduce this histamine response. But that relief comes at a price. Antihistamines block the flow of the immune impulse, and dial down “flow” in general, particularly of fluids, which leads to dry eyes, dry mouth, and so on. So how do we reduce the burden of airborne allergens without inhibiting “flow?” Try just a few of these natural remedies:

Water is the first priority. To stay well-hydrated, I recommend a big glass of water first thing in the morning (keep it by your bedside), and then six or seven more big glasses before, during, and after exercise, and between meals. Keep your mealtime water drinking to a minimum so as to not dilute your digestive enzymes.

Fresh air and deep breathingare also key. Enjoy both daily. If you don’t have ready access to fresh air, try running a HEPA filter in your bedroom.

Try a Neti pot to bathe your nasal passages regularly and wash off the accumulation of irritants to which you’re exposed. You can find Neti pots in most health food stores. They may be either ceramic or BPA-free plastic. The best way to use a Neti pot is preventively-like brushing your teeth. Do it every day to clean out debris, preferably with slightly salty, warmish water.

If a Neti pot doesn’t work for you, try steam inhalation, which can double as a do-it-yourself facial. Some of my favorite decongestant herbs are thyme and oregano. They are antimicrobials, so if you have a chronic stuffy nose (usually a sign of a fungal infection), these herbs will inhibit the growth of pathogenic fungal organisms.

For steam inhalation you need a big bowl, hot water, a towel, a comfortable place to sit, and the herbs (or a smear of Tiger balm or Vicks VapoRub at the bottom of a big bowl). Place 1 tsp. each of dry herbs or 1/2 tsp. of liquid herbs in the bottom of the bowl, and pour in 2 cups or so of very hot water. Place the bowl on a table, and sit with your face about 6 inches above the bowl. (Don’t get too close and burn your face!) Drape a big towel over your head, shoulders, and the bowl, and breathe deeply for 5-15 minutes. The volatile oils in the steam will penetrate deep into your sinuses, increasing drainage. If your nose drips into the bowl, that’s OK. When the steam is no longer rising, rinse your face with cold water and gently blow your nose. You may need to continue to blow your nose (gently, both nostrils at a time) for 20-30 minutes after the steam treatment.

If don’t have time for a full steam treatment, try contrast hydrotherapy. You’ll need two washcloths, a bowl of ice water, and hot running water. Saturate one washcloth with hot water, wring out and place across the bridge of your nose for 30 seconds. Meanwhile, soak the other cloth in the cold water. Wring that one out, and switch cloths for 10 seconds. Repeat this three times, alternating 30 seconds of hot with 10 seconds of cold, and always end with the cold cloth to flush out the tissues.

To prepare your body for dealing with environmental irritants when you’re out and about, take 2 grams of Vitamin C and ½ gram (500 mg) of Quercetin every four to six waking hours. Vitamin C is the single most important tissue-repair agent and antioxidant for human health. Quercetin is a potent bioflavonoid that excels at reducing the histamine-dumping effect. nettle leaf is another natural antihistamine that is not drying and can be taken as a tea, tincture, or capsule.

Homeopathic allergy remedies: Try Sabadilla (1 pellet every 30 minutes) if you have burning, watery eyes with little to no nasal discharge. For allergies characterized by burning nasal discharge and a throat tickle, try Allium cepa. And Euphrasia is the remedy of choice for allergic reactions that feature clear, runny nasal discharge and irritating, watery eyes.

Change your pillow every 6 months if you’re prone to allergies. Your pillow is a phenomenal repository for fungi, which can migrate up your nose and exacerbate stuffiness. Also, wash your pillowcases in hot water once per week.

Finally, a blend of decongestant herbs (e.g., eucalyptus, thyme, oregano, and sometimes mint such as peppermint) applied in a thin layer into the nostrils with a Q-tip at bedtime can help you breathe easier through the night. This blend can also work during the day.

A simple Neti pot can be your natural, first line of defense against allergies-you can find them at health food stores.

Change your pillow every 6 months if you’re prone to allergies. Your pillow is a phenomenal repository for fungi.

Emily A. Kane, ND, LAc, has a private naturopathic practice in Juneau, Alaska, where she lives with her husband and daughter. She is the author of two books on health, including Managing Menopause Naturally. Visit her online at