Breathe Easy
Herbs can give your sneeze the squeeze this allergy season

By Maryann Hammers

It's spring, and love is in the air—and so is pollen from trees and grasses. For millions of people prone to allergies, the season can mean hay-fever misery: swollen eyes, cough, running nose, headaches, shortness of breath, and rashes. Pollen can even trigger a deadly asthma attack.

"No one is certain why some of us develop, inherit, or are born with allergies to certain substances. But in people who are hypersensitive, the immune system responds with anything from a little sniffle to a severe, life-threatening reaction," says Austin, Texas-based Janet Zand, ND, coauthor of three books, including Smart Medicine for Healthier Living (Avery Penguin Putnam, 1999).

Although no cure exists for hay fever, known officially as seasonal allergic rhinitis, herbs—especially those with anti-inflammatory properties—can ease allergy symptoms. "They are mild compared with cortisone or over-the-counter drugs, but very effective," Zand says. Still, herbal remedies are potent medicine. "If you're pregnant, stay away from all herbs, unless prescribed by your doctor," says Murray Grossan, MD, a board-certified otolaryngologist from Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, coauthor of The Sinus Cure (Ballantine, 2001), and a specialist in natural remedies for sinusitis and allergies. "And everyone should start with the smallest dose possible—perhaps half the recommended dose, or brew a weak tea from the fresh leaves."

Here's the lowdown on herbal remedies for specific allergy symptoms. Although many herbs for allergies are generalists, working on a variety of symptoms at once, most are experts at relieving one or a few symptoms. Keep in mind that most of these herbs are available in three forms: fresh, capsule, or tincture. Master herbalist Earl Mindell, PhD, a registered pharmacist from Beverly Hills, California, and author of Allergy Bible (Warner, 2003), prefers to prescribe standardized extracts for all allergy symptoms. "Capsules are standardized extracts and, thus, more convenient; you know exactly how much you are getting," he says. For appropriate doses, follow label directions.

Dry A Runny Nose And Watery Eyes
Some gardeners may consider stinging nettle (Urtica dioica) a pesky weed, but this mineral-rich green has been used for centuries to relieve swelling, a runny nose, and itching eyes because of its anti-inflammatory properties. Before you run to your yard and pick handfuls of nettle for allergy relief, beware: The plant can cause a nasty rash when handled. Instead, take nettle in capsule form, following the directions on the label.

Turmeric (Curcuma domestica), the yellow spice that gives color and flavor to curries, has natural anti-inflammatory properties that help relieve a variety of allergy symptoms. "People use it especially for runny noses and rashes," Zand says. Its active ingredient is curcumin, an antioxidant that helps build resistance to certain allergic reactions. For protection from the seasonal sneeze, take turmeric in capsule form, following directions on the label.

The antiviral and anti-inflammatory properties of European elder (Sambucus nigra) work to soothe nasal passages inflamed by colds, flu, other respiratory infections, or allergy symptoms. Mindell suggests swallowing a tablespoon of the syrupy liquid extract two or three times a day for relief.

Clear Congestion
Expectorants, such as horseradish (Armoracia rusticana), loosen and thin mucus and thus help clear your stuffed nose and chest. Horseradish tablets are not readily available in the United States, but you can find fresh horseradish and horseradish extract in groceries and natural products stores. Because horseradish is tough to eat straight, you can add a teaspoon of horseradish (or one-half teaspoon of wasabi) to your sandwiches. Or mix a teaspoon of grated horseradish root with equal parts water and honey, which also works as an expectorant, to ease your nose and chest congestion.

You can also try eucalyptus (Eucalyptus globulus) to relieve allergy-related congestion. "[Eucalyptus] thins mucus, and it's an excellent medication for a deep, heavy cough," says Grossan. To clear a stuffy nose or suppress your cough, put up to 5 drops of extract or oil in a vaporizer and take a few whiffs.

Fenugreek (Trigonella foenum-graecum) is another effective expectorant. "The herb helps cilia move mucus out of the way, so you can breathe easier," Grossan explains. Take by capsule, following instructions on the label.

Soothe A Cough Or Sore Throat
Not many herbs specialize in sore throat and cough relief, but inexpensive licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra) cough drops are excellent herbal soothers. "Your adrenal glands are under great duress with any kind of allergy," Zand says. "Licorice has the ability to strengthen the adrenals. It works like a natural steroid, with none of the side effects." Avoid licorice if you have hypertension because it can increase blood pressure.

Reduce Swelling And Pain
Pain and inflammation often come on like gangbusters when you suffer from allergies. Luckily, bromelain (Ananas comosus), an enzyme derived from pineapples, can provide a reprieve. "Bromelain is a powerful anti-inflammatory that can relieve swelling and aching joints caused by hay fever," Mindell says. The effect is similar to that of steroids, but without the potentially dangerous side effects. Take by capsule, following directions on the label.

You can also take quercetin, a bioflavonoid found in many fruits, vegetables, and other plants, in conjunction with bromelain. Its safe and mild antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties are similar to those of an antihistamine in relieving pain and halting allergies. "Quercetin stops the allergic pathway in the body," Mindell says.

Cayenne (Capsicum spp), a plant related to bell peppers, jalapeños, and paprika, is chock-full of vitamin C, an antioxidant that eases pain, inflammation, and sore muscles and helps build allergy resistance. "Cayenne will clear clogged sinuses, too," Mindell says. Rub capsicum cream on sore joints and muscles or take capsules orally. You can also make tea by putting up to 1 tablespoon of dried herb in a tea ball or an infuser and adding it to a cup of boiling water. Let the mixture steep for five to ten minutes and drink. Or put the same amount of dried herb directly in the hot water and strain after ten minutes.

Relieve Sore, Itchy, Or Irritated Eyes
If allergies bring tears to your eyes, try eyebright (Euphrasia officinalis), an herb used since the Middle Ages for eyestrain and eye inflammation. Although many anti-inflammatory herbs help puffy and irritated eyes, eyebright, unlike some others, makes a soothing eyewash.

Get Some Fresh Air
Although herbs may not cure your allergies, they can go a long way toward making you feel better. Plus, herbs, when taken properly and under the guidance of an herbalist, can be a milder, safer bet than some allergy drugs. According to Mindell, many "herbs work without the side effects, contraindications, or toxicity of the stuff prescribed by your medical doctor or on drugstore shelves." So next time you're suffering an allergy attack, try effective natural allergy relievers made from herbs. Before long, you'll breathe easy and enjoy the fresh air of spring.

Maryann Hammers, of Westlake Village, California, writes about health and fitness for a variety of magazines and Web sites.