With allergy season descending upon us and leaving in its wake masses of runny noses, itchy eyes and sneezing fits, what’s a Portlander to do? Especially with research showing that certain antihistamines such as diphenhydramine (Benadryl®) have anticholinergic effects that may increase the risk of dementia and other cognitive problems with long term use (1). Luckily for us it seems that nature has provided us with herbal allies against our other very enthusiastic allergen spreading friends (P.S. trees we love you, but for a few months some of you are more like frenemies). Now onto some green goodness: here are some herbs that may help you fight the sneeze this allergy season.
Stinging Nettle—Urtica Dioica
This nutritious herb is packed with minerals such as calcium, magnesium, potassium and iron, which are crucial for energy metabolism, healthy blood, strong bones and muscles. It has long been used for hay fever with mucous discharges and makes for a great decocted tea (especially delicious combined with lemon balm or peppermint). It’s also well known as a wonderful spring tonic for its supportive effects on the immune, nervous, digestive, endocrine and respiratory systems (2). There is much folklore surrounding this magical plant like the story of how Milarepa, the great Tibetan ascetic and saint, was reputed to have survived his decades of solitary meditation by subsisting on nothing but nettles (3). So, in other words, if you want to be a sage munch on nettles like your life depends on it (this statement has not been approved by the FDA).
For the science geeks out there, Nettle is thought to help with allergic rhinitis (hay fever) by acting as an antagonist to histamine (H1) receptors, as well as inhibiting mast cell degranulation. Mast cells are a type of immune cell that releases histamine and the other pro-inflammatory chemicals (such as prostaglandins) through a process called degranulation that leads to the symptoms of allergies (4). So, in this sense, stinging nettle is both an antihistamine and an anti-inflammatory herb, with the added benefit of minerals, vitamins, and plant fibers that nourish the body and aid elimination. Fascinating that traditional herbalists consider Nettle herb to be specific for hot conditions with excess mucus discharge, as the science seems to agree. A kind word of warning, however; avoid raw forms of this plant or you’ll discover why they call it stinging nettles.
This blood moving herb is widely known for its use in migraine headaches, but did you know there’s research showing that it may also help with allergy symptoms? Like Nettle, Feverfew has anti-inflammatory action through inhibiting prostaglandin synthesis, decreasing histamine release from mast cells and inhibiting other pro-inflammatory immune chemicals (2). Traditionally, it has a long history of use by Greek and early European herbalists and obtains its common name from the Latin word febrifuga or “fever-reducer”, indicating its potent anti-inflammatory effects (5).
One of the main active constituents, Parthenolide, is thought to be key for inhibiting the pro-inflammatory chemicals that lead to allergies and fevers. It’s good to note that this compound is found concentrated in the flowers and leaves of feverfew, making these parts ideal for a delicious anti-inflammatory tea. So, if you have itchy-irritating allergies and migraines, this plant might be your best friend. Just don’t confuse feverfew with chamomile as they bear a striking resemblance, and Chamomilla is easily offended.
Reishi Mushroom- Ganoderma Lucidum
This native Asian mushroom has been used in traditional Chinese medicine for a long time as an “elixir of immortality” and to nourish the shen or spirit as it is called in Chinese. It contains a variety of polysaccharides, triterpenes and phytosterols which help with immunomodulation, adrenal functioning and nourishing the parasympathetic nervous system (6). Fascinatingly, recent research has shown that Reishi may actually be useful for allergic conditions as well. The tri-terpenes it contains such as gandermic acid and ganoderic acid are thought to be the major active compounds that make it anti-allergic, along with its polysaccharides (such as oleic acid) which are thought to have anti-histamine and anti-oxidant effects (7). Preparation of this mushroom in a water decoction is crucial to maximize its healing effects, as many of its active constituents are water soluble. No wonder this mushroom has been touted as an elixir of immortality, it seems to do just about everything- from immune system support, to nervous system nourishing, to energizing your spirit and even helping with pesky allergies. Not to mention it looks like an alien creature (see below).
Well, there you have it, some herbal allies to aid you in your struggles during the sneeze season. But before you go, here’s an herbal formula courtesy of Dr. Tilgner from her book Herbal Medicine from the Heart of the Earth specially crafted for the symptoms of allergies. This formula can be made either as a tea, or a tincture.
Sinus/Allergy Formula (2)
Eyebright- Euphrasia Officinalis 25%
Osha- Ligusticum Porteri 25%
Yarrow- Achillea Millefolium 25%
Horseradish- Armoracia Rusticana 15%
Oregon grape- Mahonia 10%
All descriptions of herbs are for educational purposes only and should be used in supervision of a licensed medical professional. None of these herbs are FDA approved to treat or cure any condition and should be used with careful research and caution. As with all herbs, avoid use in pregnancy and for long periods of time without adequate research or medical advice.
1)Gray SL, Anderson ML, Dublin S et al. (2015) Cumulative use of strong anticholinergics and incident dementia: a prospective cohort study. JAMA Intern Med 175, 401-407
2) Dr. Sharol Marie Tilgner. 2009. Herbal Medicine From the Heart of the Earth. Wise Acres LLC.
3) Gtsaṅ-smyon He-ru-ka, Andrew Quintman, Donald S. Lopez, Jr. (2003), The Life of Milarepa, Penguin, p. 139, ISBN 0-14-310622-8
4) Roschek B et al. 2009. Nettle extract (Urtica dioica) affects key receptors and enzymes associated with allergic rhinitis. Phytother Res. 2009 Jul;23(7):920-6. doi: 10.1002/ptr.2763.
5) Pareek A, Suthar M, Rathore GS, Bansal V. Feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium L.): A systematic review. Pharmacogn Rev. 2011;5(9):103–110. doi:10.4103/0973-7847.79105
6) Matthew Wood. 2008. The Earthwise Herbal, Volume 1: A Complete Guide to Old World Medicinal Plants. North Atlantic Books
7) Neha Bhardwaj, Priya Katyal and Anil K. Sharma, “Suppression of Inflammatory and Allergic Responses by Pharmacologically Potent Fungus Ganoderma lucidum”, Recent Patents on Inflammation & Allergy Drug Discovery (2014) 8: 104. https://doi.org/10.2174/1872213X08666140619110657