Most people are feeling relieved to see that spring is just around corner but for many it spells the start of allergy season. It is estimated that 10-30% of adults and 40% of children experience hay fever in varying degrees of severity. Along with hay fever, many more people suffer from other allergies such as eczema, food and pet allergies.
What is hay fever?
Allergic reactions are an abnormal immune response, when certain substances such as pollen, pet hairs, dust mites or mould cause the body to make allergic antibodies (also known as immunoglobulins). Antibodies are proteins produced by the immune system to stop an intruder from entering the body and causing harm. Antibodies mark these intruders to be targeted by your immune system. When people have allergies, they produce more antibodies than necessary, leading their immune system to over react and create the symptoms they experience.
The symptoms of hay fever are:
· Itchy eyes/ throat
· Sneezing, blocked/runny nose
· Watering, red eyes (allergic conjunctivitis)
· Headaches, blocked sinuses
· Shortness of breath
· The sensation of mucus running down the back of the throat
Whilst this is not life threatening like some allergies that cause anaphylaxis, hay fever can be debilitating, affecting many peoples work and social lives. The most common treatments for managing hay fever are anti-histamines and decongestants, which themselves can have unpleasant side effects such as:
· Dry mouth
· Rebound congestion
· Increase in blood pressue
What can herbs do?
Whilst herbal medicine is tailored to each individual who has a consultation, for most people, the same principles apply. These are to help modulate the immune system, provide symptom relief and support the lymphatic system to help remove excessive inflammatory by products. In this article, I will highlight some of the most helpful herbs that are easily accessible, either in health food shops or at supermarkets and mention a few that are mostly available through medical herbalists.
Billberry & Blueberry (Vaccinium myrtillus & Vaccinium corymbosum)
Both billberries and blueberries reduce the production of pro-inflammatory substances such as histamine and stabilise mast cells which all play a role in the symptoms associated with hay fever. Billberry supplements can be purchased in tablet, powder and liquid forms (Finberry do an excellent quality powder that I use personally). Billberry supplements usually have a better
nutrient profile than commercially grown blueberries but including these in your diet is a good alternative. If using supplements, follow the manufacturers instructions, or if using blueberries as part of your diet, a generous handful a day is a good guideline.
Eucalyptus leaf (Eucalyptus globulus)
Used as an essential oil, a few drops can be placed on a tissue and inhaled or placed in a diffuser to ease congestion.
Nettle leaf (Urtica dioica)
Nettle leaf demonstrates anti-inflammatory effects and in a controlled trial, showed an ability to reduce allergic reactions and symptoms of seasonal allergies. Nettle leaves can be picked fresh or purchased dry and used as a tea. Ideally steep 1-2 teaspoons per mug of hot water for 20-30 minutes and drink 2-4 cups per day.
Sage leaves (Salvia officinalis)
Sage tea can be useful for reducing excessive sinus secretions. Fresh or dried leaves can be used. Add 1 teaspoon per mug and steep for 15-20 minutes and drink 2-3 cups per day.
Thyme (Thymus vulagaris)
Thyme contains many different chemicals, one of which is rosmarinic acid, which has an anti-allergic effect. As a tea, use 1 teaspoon of dried herb per mug of hot water. Steep 20-30 minutes and drink 2-3 cups per day. The essential oil can also be used to help ease congestion with a few drops placed on tissue or inhaled or placed in a diffuser.
Chamomile (Matricaria recutita)
Chamomile is a relaxing herb and can be used to aid with sleep that is disturbed by hay fever symptoms. It is also a very effective anti-inflammatory, which can also aid with reducing symptoms. Use 2 teaspoons of dried flowers per mug of hot water and steep for 10-15 minutes. If experiencing sore, itchy eyes, once cooled, the flowers can be wrapped in clean kitchen paper and placed over closed eyes to soothe. If using tea bags, these can be placed directly onto closed eyes once cooled. Lay back and relax for 15-20 minutes.
Eyebright (Euphrasia officinale)
Eyebright has been used traditionally for managing the sinus and eye symptoms associated with hay fever. This is primarily due to its anti-inflammatory and astringent (drying) actions. Eyebright is available in liquid form in many health food stores.
Liquorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra)
Liquorice is one of my favourite herbs as it has so many uses. It is an excellent anti-inflammatory and has a soothing effect. It is also very helpful for supporting people in times of stress and fatigue, which is often the case in severe hay fever. There are also some indications that may enhance clearance of immune complexes (such as antibodies) from the body.
Huang Qin (Scutelllaria baicalensis)
The chemical baicalein found in this plant has an anti-allergic effect by inhibiting histamine release making it helpful in managing conditions like hay fever.
Feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium)
Similar to Huang Qin, Feverfew inhibits the release of histamine and other inflammatory compounds, which play key roles in the process of hay fever. By limiting these compounds, Feverfew can help reduce the symptoms associated with hay fever.
Herbs such as Angelica sinensis, Andrographis, Astragalus and Siberian ginseng are referred to as immunomodulators (they help to rebalance the immune system) and may be useful in addressing allergies such as hay fever under the guidance of a medical herbalist.
Top tea tips: Herbal teas are most effective when consumed regularly throughout the day. To save time, make a large pot or cafetiere in the morning and once steeped, store in the fridge or thermos to drink later. Always cover your cup when brewing herbal tea to avoid losing key chemicals in the steam.
Caution with essential oils: Caution should be used when using the traditional method of steaming your face over a bowl of hot water as essential oils can be irritating to sensitive tissues such as eyes.
This information is provided as general guidance and should not be considered a substitution for personalised advice. If you have any specific medical conditions, are taking prescription medication or pregnant, it is always advisable to discuss with a trained medical herbalist before taking any supplements or herbal treatments.