Ahh, spring — time to pull out tank tops, sandals, and, unfortunately, tissues. More than 26 million Americans know allergy season has arrived when a simple outing — to mow the lawn or hike through a flower-studded field — brings on sniffling, sneezing, and wheezing. “Certain proteins from pollens released by trees and plants irritate the immune system,” says Letha Hadady, DAc, a New York-based herbalist and author of Feed Your Tiger: The Asian Diet Secret for Permanent Weight Loss and Vibrant Health (Rodale, 2006). The body then produces excess histamine, an inflammatory compound that leads to, you guessed it, allergy symptoms. The good news is that drug-free remedies can help stop the sneezing without the side effects associated with over-the-counter decongestants. Here are the experts' favorite natural allergy-alleviating tools.

  • Take C to clear sinuses

    An old-school therapy for allergies, vitamin C seems to act as a natural antihistamine. But researchers now believe that vitamin C's antioxidant power may be just as important. Although scientists have long blamed symptoms on an immune system overreaction, new preliminary research shows that pollen-triggered oxidative stress, or damage from free radicals, may contribute to severe respiratory inflammation. “As an antioxidant, vitamin C helps with this part of the allergy response,” says Paul Anderson, ND, associate professor at the School of Naturopathic Medicine at Bastyr University in Kenmore, Washington. Anderson recommends starting with 500 mg vitamin C with meals three times a day during allergy season and increasing to 2,000 mg total per day as tolerated by your digestive tract. Taking too much can cause loose stools.

  • Chew more quercetin

    This antioxidant bioflavonoid, a plant pigment responsible for the darker colors of fruits and vegetables, is plentiful in apples — and concentrated in supplements. Quercetin inhibits the production and release of histamine. Because bioflavonoids work a little more slowly than prescription antihistamines, Anderson recommends beginning to take them at the start of allergy season (which depends upon your location and personal triggers), before symptoms have a chance to progress. Take 1 to 3 250-mg capsules with meals, three times daily until the hay-fever days pass.

  • Release with Pulsatilla

    Does a trip into the outdoors make you feel like you're trapped in a stuffy room? The homeopathic remedy Pulsatilla may help alleviate breathing problems and reduce phlegm in lungs and sinuses. In one study of 147 allergy sufferers, homeopathy (including Pulsatilla as one of the top remedies) helped relieve symptoms in more than 87 percent of patients. Follow label directions for an appropriate dose, and take all homeopathic remedies between meals. Coffee (even decaf) interferes with homeopathic remedies, as can other strong flavors such as mint. Because different remedies target distinct allergy symptoms, and because specially prescribed combinations often work best, consider consulting a homeopath for your specific needs.

  • Take the sting out of symptoms

    The honey of local bees can work like homeopathy on allergies. “It contains small residues of pollen,” says Ronald Hoffman, MD, medical director of the Hoffman Center in New York City and author of Alternative Cures That Really Work (Rodale, 2007). “You get a little bit of what bothers you and then build up a resistance to that allergen.” Which is why you're wise to choose only local honey (derived from native flora) and raw varieties (because cooking damages beneficial pollens). During allergy season — or all year — enjoy a teaspoon a day on your morning oatmeal or in warm, not too hot, tea. Children under age 2 shouldn't partake, because honey may contain the deadly bacterium Chlostridium botulinum, which can cause botulism in those with weakened or immature immune systems. Also, some people can have moderate to severe allergic reactions to bee pollen.

  • Breathe in eucalyptus

    The answer to your allergies could be right under your nose. Aromatic oils, such as anti-inflammatory and antibacterial eucalyptus, have been used to unstuff clogged noses and ease labored breathing for centuries. Today eucalyptus plays a star role in conventional cough medicines, such as Vicks VapoRub. Studies show that eucalyptus-based capsules that contain the plant oil's active cineole compound can help relieve sinusitis- and asthma-related inflammation — which may be similar to allergy-induced swelling. But rather than popping pills to clear congestion, Hadady suggests doing an easy steam inhalation. Add a few drops of eucalyptus essential oil to a sink full of hot water, lean over the steam, cover your head with a towel, and breathe in the lung-liberating vapor.

  • Rinse away pollen

    Nasal washing may be more effective than nasal spray at unblocking frequently stopped-up noses, reports a 2007 study in Archives of Otolaryngology — Head and Neck Surgery. Each day, fill a neti pot with salt water (¼ teaspoon salt to 1 cup of warm water), tilt your head to one side, place the spout of the neti pot in the upper nostril, and lean over the sink. The salt water will flow through your nasal cavity and out the lower nostril. Repeat on the other side. Saline irrigation flushes out mucus and rinses away pollen hanging around in your nose.

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