Get full access to Outside Learn, our online education hub featuring in-depth nutrition, fitness and adventure courses, and more than 2,000 instructional videos when you sign up for Outside+..
If you’re one of the millions who suffer from the sniffling, sneezing, and itchy eyes associated with allergies, you know the struggles with pollen and ragweed aren’t just uncomfortable, they bring along some serious physical and mental fatigue. But don’t pack up and fly to Antarctica to avoid the pollen just yet. It’s possible to step outdoors without feeling so wary with some natural treatments.
Here’s what’s happening during the throes of an allergy attack: pollen granules latch onto the mucous membranes that line nasal passages, stimulating their immune cells (called mast cells), which are loaded with histamines. These cells then rid themselves of those histamines, triggering a series of inflammatory reactions intended to help the body get rid of the intruder—the familiar sneezing, runny nose, and itching. “Allergy” refers to any condition in which the body mounts an attack on a specific substance that is benign for some, such as pollen. It’s a normal immune response gone into overdrive—well-intended, but too extreme. It’s a complicated series of steps, and we can interrupt the process at many steps, so there are many natural remedies that can play a role in mitigating the misery and helping you breathe easier, even when pollen counts are at their worst. Start with a healthy diet. German researchers found that people with the highest levels of total Carotenoids (found in orange and yellow vegetables) and Vitamin E (as gamma-tocopherol, found in nuts, seeds, bell peppers, beans, and onions) had the lowest rates of hay fever. They concluded, “A diet high in various fruits and vegetables might have a protective effect on allergic rhinitis.”
A study performed by the Japanese Department of Public Health reports that just 1 tsp. of Miso (made from fermented soybeans) per day can lessen seasonal allergy symptoms by about 41 percent. The researchers conclude that these results are likely due to the isoflavones in miso.
For about the past 20 years, natural medicine practitioners have recommended Stinging Nettle (Urtica dioica), or nettle leaf, for allergy symptoms. Research points to the anti-inflammatory properties of nettle, and studies show that nettle produces an anti-allergy effect. One study found that nettle leaf acts against the histamine-1 receptor and inhibits the inflammation-causing enzymes COX-1 and COX-2. Nettle’s benefits are likely due to its active constituents, which include bioflavonoids and polysaccharides. In order to retain these constituents, nettle leaf must be processed carefully, so look for a high-quality encapsulated product that has been freeze dried or specially processed to retain the active compounds. This special processing costs more, so don’t be seduced by cheap imitations. Use nettle the way you would use an antihistamine drug to terminate an acute attack. Many people take up to 3,000 mg per day of nettle leaf capsules to relieve hay fever reactions. Symptoms often begin to improve within 15 minutes, and the effect typically lasts for about four hours.
Butterbur (Petasites hybridus) is one of the most promising natural allergy remedies. This herb’s traditional use dates back to the Middle Ages, when it was used to treat infection and fever. Butterbur root is used particularly in cases of acute pain of smooth muscle, such as in the urinary and respiratory tracts. This quality also makes it useful for respiratory disorders involving cough and asthma.
Swiss scientists report that seasonal allergy sufferers who received an extract of butterbur experienced symptom relief equivalent to patients treated with the prescription antihistamine Zyrtec (cetirizine). The scientists compared the effectiveness and tolerability of the herb with the drug in a double-blind trial. Patients were treated with either butterbur or cetirizine for two weeks. The butterbur group took 1 tablet (standardized to 8 mg of the active constituent, petasin) four times daily. The patients described similar symptom relief with both treatments. A follow-up study of people who took this same dosage of butterbur twice daily for two weeks resulted in hay fever symptom improvement in 90% of participants. Other trials show reduced inflammation and mucus in airway tissues with butterbur use.
Butterbur root supplements are commonly standardized to contain a minimum of 7.5 mg of petasin and isopetasin per tablet. Take 50–100 mg twice daily with meals.