Ease Spring Sneezing
by Jan Sheehan

It's hay fever time again. Herbal help is on the way.

Ah, springtime. Blooming flowers, lush green grass, a gentle breeze — all perfect for enjoying a stroll in the garden or a run in the park. But just minutes after you step outside, pollen spores whiz by your nose, and aachoo! Your day amidst nature's splendor dissolves into one long sneeze-fest, and soon the only thing running is your nose. Welcome to hay fever season.

For many of us, the dawn of warm weather is less about enjoying the delights of the season and more about the misery of spring sniffles. As trees bud, flowers bloom and grasses green, a host of their less lovely companions spring forth: pesky pollens, molds and other allergens that can wreak havoc on the nose, eyes, throat and sinuses. If you suffer from seasonal hay fever, you're not alone. Allergic rhinitis — the medical name for hay fever — afflicts some 22 million Americans, making it the most common chronic respiratory illness in the United States.

Ironically, most hay fever is not caused by hay. Instead, microscopic airborne pollens released by various seasonal plants are the culprits. The most common sources of these pollens are trees, grasses and weeds, such as ragweed. Although some people are plagued by mild hay fever symptoms year-round, the discomfort usually becomes more acute in spring and summer months, when plants are pollinating and blooming or when wet weather spawns the growth of mold.

Why one person can trek blithely through fields of weeds and wildflowers while another sniffles at the mere sight of a spring meadow is a mystery. Heredity plays a sizable role, since families pass down a predisposition to allergies. But for all hay fever victims, the body makes the same strategic mistake. It reacts as if under attack by a harmful substance. The immune system springs into action, binding the plant proteins to an antibody called IgE (immunoglobulin E), which attaches to cells found beneath the mucous membranes. These cells then release noxious chemicals called histamines, which set off the familiar hay fever symptoms: runny nose, watery eyes, itchy throat, coughing and often multiple head-rattling sneezes.

The good news? Hay fever doesn't have to mean you're doomed to a season of suffering. Many herbs can bring relief. While allopathic medicines such as antihistamines suppress symptoms and can cause side effects, herbal products offer gentle healing. Plus, they can be as effective as synthetic medicines. "In many cases, herbal remedies help individuals to the point where they can enjoy the outdoors and lead their usual lives during high-pollen seasons," says herbalist Andrea Pierce, author of The Practical Guide to Natural Medicines (William Morrow). Here are the best herbal bets for bidding farewell to hay fever. As always, consult with a health care practitioner before using herbs to treat any medical condition.

Give Sniffles The Slip
Valued since ancient times as a powerful medicinal herb, nettle (Urtica dioica) derives from the Anglo-Saxon word for "needle." Indeed, the needle-like bristles on the plant's dark-green leaves can cause quite a sting upon contact with the skin. Rather than stinging, however, medicinal preparations from nettle are recognized as effective remedies for reducing congestion, runny noses, sneezing and other respiratory allergy symptoms.

Studies confirm the benefits of this flowering perennial for hay fever suffering. In one clinical study, researchers noted that freeze-dried stinging nettle relieved allergy symptoms in more than half of the patients. After just one week of taking nettle, 58 percent of the study participants experienced reduced symptoms of seasonal allergic rhinitis (Planta Medica, 1990, vol. 56).

Additionally, the plant's diuretic activity has been the subject of a number of German studies. In 1989, German researchers reported that nettle root showed anti-inflammatory effects in animal trials and stimulated human lymphocytes in a test tube (Planta Medica, 1989, vol. 55).

A user-friendly herb with few side effects, nettle is one of the most widely used remedies for battling the sneeze season. "It works as a natural decongestant," explains herbalist Brigitte Mars, author of Natural First Aid (Storey). "It also strengthens the kidneys, which is one of the body's filtering systems."

Ease Watery Eyes
Eyebright: The name alone bespeaks this herb's primary use throughout history. In the Middle Ages, eyebright (Euphrasia officinalis) was believed to cure all "evils of the eye." Today, the herb is still recognized as an effective prescription for many eye discomforts including watery or itchy eyes resulting from allergies such as hay fever.

Eyebright contains tanins, which have anti-inflammatory and astringent properties, and quercetin, a flavonoid thought to reduce allergic responsiveness by inhibiting the release of histamines. It's also a source of vitamin C, essential fatty acids, sterols and choline. No well-designed scientific study has been conducted on the merits of eyebright, yet it remains in high esteem among Western herbalists because of its apparent soothing effect on the eyes. "It's a very good herb for relieving runny eyes, especially when they're caused by allergies," confirms Claire Gibson, N.D., a naturopathic physician based in Oakland, Calif.

When taken internally, eyebright doesn't appear to have side effects. However, compresses applied to irritated eyes and eyedrops should be used cautiously. German studies suggest that dried nettle compresses may contain contaminants, and drops of eyebright tincture placed directly in the eye may cause itching, tearing, redness and swelling of the eyelids.

Breathe Easier
For at least 5,000 years, the Chinese have been relying on the ephedra plant, known as ma huang, to treat hay fever, colds and other respiratory conditions. Ephedra (Ephedra sinica) contains many active compounds, including small amounts of essential oil and a critical mixture of alkaloids (1 percent to 2 percent) composed of ephedrine and pseudoephedrine.

Western medicine first showed an interest in this ancient Chinese herb in the 1920s when researchers discovered it helped dilate the bronchial tubes and allowed asthmatics to breathe more easily. But ephedra can have dangerous side effects. Overuse may cause increased blood pressure and heart rate, resulting in insomnia and anxiety.

Because ephedra is a strong central nervous system stimulant, it shouldn't be used if you have high blood pressure, diabetes, thyroid problems, heart disorders or if you think you may be pregnant. It should also be avoided when using other stimulants, even caffeine. "If you're prone to insomnia or high anxiety, it could make those conditions worse," cautions Mars. "It's the kind of thing that you want to take in a formula and stick to small amounts."

Because of the herb's stimulant effect, some ephedra/ma huang products have been sold as "energy" and "diet" formulas. Though commonly effective, these products should be used with caution and with strict adherence to dosage and other package directions. It's important to note that misuse of ephedra products have been suspected as a possible cause of severe reactions and even death in a few cases over the past several years.

Taken in safe amounts and under proper circumstances, however, ephedra can dramatically open up breathing passages and reduce watery eyes, runny nose and sneezing. One study indicates that ephedrine, along with the herb's other constituents, inhibits tissue swelling. Researchers found that ephedra's anti-inflammation action is exerted at the early stages of swelling (Planta Medica, 1985, vol. 4). At typical recommended doses, it also has been shown to constrict peripheral blood vessels, relieving nasal congestion in mucous tissues and allowing sinuses to drain.

Calm Coughs
An herbal favorite for thousands of years, mullein (Verbascum thapsus) has an enduring reputation for soothing throat irritation and easing the urge to cough. This may be because mullein contains a substance called mucilage that swells upon contact with liquid, rendering it slippery and hence soothing and softening irritated skin and mucous membranes. It also contains tanins, volatile oil and saponins, which help clear congestion. Mullein has been endorsed by the Commission E — the German government's expert committee established to evaluate the safety and efficacy of herbs — for treating coughs and respiratory congestion.

Combined with healthy habits such as eating a balanced diet, avoiding alcohol and cigarette smoke, and managing stress, the above herbs should reduce the severity of airborne allergy symptoms. And one last thing to consider: In addition to relieving physical discomfort, "herbal therapies can help restore balance to the whole person," says Pierce, "so the body is able to handle hay fever season better." And that's nothing to sneeze at.

Jan Sheehan is a freelance health, fitness and nutrition writer based in Denver.