The place of Herbalism in the treatment of Hay Fever
by Christine McNeir
Hay fever, also known as seasonal allergic rhinitis, is an allergic reaction that occurs when pollen and fungal spores from plants and grasses are inhaled into the nose and are transmitted into the eyes. It is thought that about 9 million people in the UK struggle to cope with this condition which, in some cases, can last for several months.
There are slight variations in the pattern of symptoms from one person to another depending on the type of pollen or spores to which they react. The most common symptoms are red and itchy eyes, sneezing and a blocked or runny nose. Some people may experience headaches, tightening of the throat, lethargy and sleeplessness.
Similarly, people may be affected at slightly different times of the year although, generally, the hay fever season runs from February to September. For example, between February and May, pollen is released from the trees; birch is considered the most important allergenic tree but alder, cedar, hazel, hornbeam, horse chestnut, willow, poplar, plane, lime and olive also carry a high concentration of allergens. In June and July grass pollens, such as those from ryegrass and timothy, are at their peak. And from mid-summer until early autumn weed pollens and fungal spores are on the increase; in particular, ragweed, plantain, nettle, mugwort and sorrel.
The commonly used treatment options for hay fever are antihistamine nose sprays and tablets, steroid nose sprays and eye drops, sodium cromoglycate eye drops, and desensitisation.
Antihistamines inhibit the effects of histamine – which is triggered by the body’s inflammatory response. Antihistamines may ease the itching, sneezing and watering discomfort. However, antihistamines are chemicals which require breaking down by the liver which may already be taxed by the presence of excess natural histamine. Other possible side effects include drowsiness, a dry mouth, headaches, blurred vision, dizziness, confusion and difficulty passing urine.
Steroids work by reducing the inflammation in the nose and eyes. Side effects are considered rare but include dryness and bleeding inside the nose and high blood pressure.
Sodium cromoglycate eye drops relieve the eye symptoms of hay fever by reducing the amount of histamines produced in the body. The side effects range from mild eye irritation such as burning and stinging to blurred vision.
Decongestants help unblock the nose but may make the problem worse over time. Decongestant pills may trigger high blood pressure, insomnia and headaches.
Finally, desensitisation consists of a series of injections of the allergen in increasing quantities so that the immune system becomes desensitised to the pollen. This should be carried out in a hospital environment and require a one-hour wait after each injection. This is because the procedure carries a very small risk of life-threatening allergic reactions.
In summary, all medicines and orthodox avenues of treatment have potential side effects.
So, how can one avoid the discomfort of hay fever without taking the risk of developing any serious side effects?
Taking precautionary measures
It is impossible to totally avoid pollen although one can try to reduce exposure by taking some simple measures whenever possible. These range from wearing wrap-around sunglasses, to using a pollen filter for the air vents in the car, taking a holiday by the sea rather than in the country, and avoiding outdoor activities when the pollen count is high. However, most of these measures are not always realistic or easy to implement.
Homoeopathy, which is based on the Law of Similars, treats patients with heavily diluted preparations manufactured from plant extracts, which are thought to cause effects similar to the symptoms. Research has shown that homoeopathic remedies, when taken under the supervision of trained professionals, are considered ‘safe and unlikely to cause severe adverse reactions’.
Homoeopaths recommend taking potentised pollens daily before the hay fever season begins as a sort of inoculation. The most commonly recommended remedy is Allium cepa, which is prepared from the common onion. In addition, Euphrasia soothes sore eyes, Natrum mur restores the sense of smell, Nux vomica keeps the sneezing under control, Arsenicum album dries irritated nasal discharges and Pulsatilla relieves the discomfort of a blocked nose.
One of the best ways to stay healthy and maintain a strong immune system is to have a good, balanced diet. In particular, it is recommended that refined sugar and dairy products, which are mucus-producing substances, should be avoided, as well as caffeine drinks and alcohol. Instead, a diet rich in fresh fruit and vegetables will supply large amounts of vitamin C and bioflavonoid which help to stabilize the body’s histamine production.
Today, it is thought that about 25% of all medicines are derived from the plant world and, with new species being identified in as yet unexplored areas, and more research being initiated, it seems likely that the therapeutic value of herbs will continue to be put to good use. Of course, there is nothing new about this. Plants were our ancestors’ first medicines and, over 2,500 years ago, Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, was well aware of the curative properties of herbs.
In our modern world, in which there seems to be a huge choice of pills and tablets offering relief from most ailments, there is now a growing need to treat these ailments in a more natural way, free from unwanted side effects. And it is with this in mind that hay fever sufferers may turn to herbalists.
Unlike orthodox medicines, herbal remedies are used to treat the whole person. Whilst orthodox medicines are made from a plant’s single bioactive constituent, herbal remedies contain the plant’s whole active constituents which together provide energy and nutrients. In this way, they do not simply relieve the symptoms of an illness but they address the problem as a whole by creating balance in the body.
Furthermore, because their action is gentle on the body, herbal remedies will not usually produce an instant relief to a health problem. Instead, their action will be gradual but long-lasting. In the case of hay fever, it is best to start the treatment about three months before the start of the hay fever season.
There are many herbs suitable for the treatment of hay fever but it is important to bear in mind that, if we treat the body as a whole rather than just the symptoms, each hay fever sufferer should be assessed and treated according to their own specific needs rather than being prescribed any of the herbs described below as a matter of routine.
Finally, it is worth remembering that although herbs are ‘natural’, they are not without danger. Some are totally harmless and are suitable for a wide spectrum of patients. Some should only be taken for a specific period of time, others have serious contra-indications and other still could be life-threatening if taken inappropriately. In this sense, herbs should always be treated like medicines, with caution and respect
Boosting the immune system
As a preventative measure it is advisable to start boosting the immune system before the start of the hay fever season with a course of herbs such as Echinacea, Goldenseal, Ginseng, Holy Basil, Astragalus or Garlic.
Echinacea (Echinacea augustiflora) was discovered by Native Americans who passed on their knowledge to the settlers. The herb’s excellent reputation crossed the Atlantic and it is now valued in Europe for its many uses. These range from promoting the healing of wounds to fighting bacterial and viral infection, and for stimulating the immune function. It does this by raising the white blood cell count, which in turn increases the body’ powers of resistance to infections and allergens. The herb also has anti-catarrhal properties, which makes it suitable for hay fever sufferers.
Echinacea can be taken as an infusion, in capsule form or as a tincture. It should not be taken for longer than two weeks at a time. Note that, because it works by stimulating the immune system, Echinacea is not recommended for people with auto-immune disease such as rheumatoid arthritis or lupus.
Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis), one of the oldest American recorded remedies, is a broad-spectrum herb whose anti-inflammatory action can soothe irritated mucous membranes. It is often taken in combination with Echinacea.
Like Echinacea, Goldenseal is not advisable during pregnancy and is not used for more than two weeks at a time.
Ginseng (Ginseng panax) has an ancient history as a ‘cure all’, this being derived from its genus name Panax which comes from the Latin panacea. Like all adaptogens, Ginseng is capable of producing opposite effects by adapting to the body’s requirements. A source of natural steroids, Ginseng enhances the body’s natural resistance and its recuperative power.
Ginseng should only be taken for a short period at a time – about two weeks – and should not be taken with coffee. Some people may find Ginseng too stimulating and it is not recommended for those suffering from high blood pressure, insomnia or hyperthyroidism. It should not be taken during pregnancy.
Holy Basil (Ocimum sanctum), an immuno-modulator adaptogen, originates from India where for over three thousand years, it has been regarded as a powerful healing herb, which is reflected in its original name, Tulsi, meaning ‘the incomparable one’. It is a versatile and significant herb for overall health, which has been shown to promote immunity and stress resilience, support strength and stamina and enhance calm and clarity. In addition, Holy Basil also alleviates the symptoms of hay fever.
Holy Basil is supplied in tea, tincture and capsule form. Preliminary research has shown that the herb may be toxic to embryos and may have an anti-fertility effect. It should therefore be avoided during pregnancy or by women who are trying to conceive.
Astragalus (Astragalus membranaceus) has been used in China for centuries where it is most commonly prescribed as a general tonic and specifically for immune enhancement. Recent studies confirm that it may help to enhance the body’s ability to fight disease and modern herbalists recommend taking Astragalus to ward off cold and flu.
Although Astragalus does not directly treat hay fever and allergy symptoms, it may be taken one or two weeks per month during the hay fever season to strengthen the body’s defensive or protective energy. The recommended dosage is up to three 400mg capsules a day.
Garlic (Allium sativum) may be the wonder drug of the herbal world. Back in Ancient Egypt, the pharaohs used to feed it to their pyramid builders for health and stamina and, according to Greek mythology, the god Hermes gave some to Ulysses as protection from the goddess Circe who had powers of witchcraft.
Modern science has shown that, among its many attributes, garlic has potent antibacterial and antiviral properties which can help ward off sinusitis and protect against cold and flu. In addition, garlic contains anti-inflammatory quercetin which calms the body’s allergic response during the hay fever season.
The best way to take garlic is in its natural form but it is also available in capsules. Chewing Parsley afterwards will help get rid of the herb’s strong taste. Garlic should be taken sparingly by those on blood thinning medication.
Hay fever specifics
Nettle (Urtica dioica) is a traditional remedy which is said to ‘take the sting out of hay fever’. It is supposed to have been introduced into Britain by the Romans as described by Camden in Britannica: ‘the soldiers brought some of the nettle seeds with them and sowed it there for their use to rub and chafe their limbs (-) having been told that the climate of Britain was so cold that it was not to be endured’.
In more modern times, Nettle has been used as a diuretic, tonic, antihistamine and astringent. It is very nourishing and helps strengthen the whole body, since it is rich in calcium, iron, silica, chlorophyll, and Vitamin C.
Researchers believe that it may prevent the body from making inflammatory chemicals known as prostaglandins, thus having an anti-allergy action in people.
There are all sorts of recipes for preparing nettles, including Nettle pudding, beer or soup, but the easiest way to take the herb these days is as a tea, tincture or capsule. It should not be eaten uncooked as this can cause symptoms of poisoning.
Elder (Sambucus nigra), known as the ‘tree of music’ because its stems were once fashioned into flutes for making music, has many uses as an herbal medication.
In particular, Elderflowers are often used in the preparation of herbal infusions or tinctures. Their anti-inflammatory and anti-catarrhal properties help to reduce the severity of allergenic reactions caused by hay fever by soothing and toning the mucous membranes. This versatile herb should be taken as a precautionary measure some months prior to the onset of the hay fever season.
Elderberry is a traditional remedy for boosting natural immunity. This mild herb is particularly suitable for children and the elderly.
Eyebright (Euphrasia officinalis) probably derived its name and reputation as an eye medicine from the old Doctrine of Signature. Culpepper’s eye lotion – ‘An Excellent Water to Clear the Eye’ – was based on Eyebright.
The herb has anti-inflammatory, antihistamine, anti-catarrhal and astringent properties. It is particularly useful when taken both internally and externally for hay fever with inflamed eyes.
Ephedra (Ephedra sinica) comes to us from Mongolia where it has been used for thousands of years to treat upper respiratory conditions. It contains ephedrine which is used in many over-the-counter medications for colds and allergies since the World Health Organisation found that clinical data supported the use of Ephedra in the treatment of these conditions.
There has been much controversy over the use of Ephedra as a weight loss aid, because of the risks involved. Ephedra can suppress the appetite and increase the metabolic rate of adipose tissue, which increases the amount of food that is converted into heat.
However, Ephedra can lead to some serious side effects in some people, ranging from nausea to high blood pressure and even death. It should not be taken when there is a history of hypertension, coronary thrombosis, thyrotoxycosis, glaucoma, anorexia or kidney disease. It should not be used by pregnant or nursing women or by children.
Butterbur (Petasites hybridus) has been medicinally used as a heart stimulant. Culpepper called it ‘a great strengthener of the heart and cheerer of the vital spirits’. In modern Herbalism it became of limited use because of its pyrrolizidine alkaloids components, these being liver-toxic substances.
However, the herb showed promise in trials for controlling hay fever, as reported in the British Medical Journal in 2002. Standard Butterbur extracts are now available, from which the toxic substance has been removed during commercial processing.
There is no denying the benefit of inhalation in the treatment of hay fever. Dried herbs can be used for this purpose, although there is also a wide choice of essential oils available.
Essential oils are a concentrated hydrophobic liquid extracted from herbs and containing volatile aroma compounds. The use of aromatic substances in medical practice goes back many thousands of years, evidence of which was found on ancient Egyptian papyri.
Today, aromatherapists recommend inhalations with a few drops of Eucalyptus, Tea tree, Lavender or Chamomile oil to alleviate the discomfort of hay fever. Niaouli and Peppermint essential oils are also said to ease sinus irritation.
Other tips include dropping a few drops of essential oil to a handkerchief and inhaling, or combining the essential oil with a carrier oil and massaging the sinus area.
There seem to be many options open to hay fever sufferers in their search for the ideal medication. All across the spectrum, from conventional drugs to alternative therapies and herbal medicines, there is a wide selection of products to choose from, which probably adds to the confusion and frustration of those whose life seems to be put on hold for several months of the year.
For those wishing relief from their symptoms for a particular day or special occasion, then over-the-counter solutions may appeal. However, for those wishing to address the problem long-term, then alternative therapies may have the answer.
With its long and colourful history, Herbalism will hold the key to good health for many. There is something comforting in the knowledge that a herb has been tried and tested by many generations beforehand, and there is no doubt that by treating the body as a whole, rather than simply tackling its symptoms, we stand a better chance of redressing its balance.
Because each individual has their own medical history, strengths and weaknesses, there is no specific answer to the problem of hay fever, only guidelines. It is then up to the practitioner to select the most appropriate herb, according to the case.
In general terms, the treatment of hay fever should start two to three months before its onset to give the body a better chance to cope. Nettle, Elder and Eyebright are specific herbs for most people, together with Garlic to boost the immune system. These herbs can be taken safely until the symptoms disappear.
About two to four weeks before the hay fever symptoms start to manifest, the immune system can be boosted by taking a short course – no longer than two weeks – of the appropriate herbs described above (Echinacea, Goldenseal, Holy Basil, Astragalus or Ginseng).
Eyebright eye lotion will soothe itchy eyes whilst daily inhalations, using the preferred essential oil, will be of benefit, whenever the symptoms are acute and before bedtime to ensure a good night’s sleep.
Finally, there cannot be good health without a good diet and a study of, and amendment to one’s nutritional requirements is of course a prerequisite – not just during the hay fever season but throughout the year.
The Sneezing Season by Anne Woodham
The Herbal Drugstore by James Duke
Bartram’s Encyclopedia of Herbal Medicine
Aromatherapy by Daniele Ryman
Adaptogens by David Wilson and Steven Maimes
A modern Herbal by Mrs M. Grieves F.R.H.S.
The New Herb Bible by Earl Mindell
Hay Fever by Dr Trisha McNair, BBC website.
Online Herbal Medicine Materia Medica