If you have allergies, there are plenty of medications to choose from. But you may not want to take drugs that make you feel listless or wired. Or perhaps you’re tired of using nasal sprays for allergy treatment. Can allergy supplements offer an alternative with fewer side effects?
Maybe, experts say. “Finding a good supplement for allergies can be a challenge,” says David Rakel, MD, founder and director of the University of Wisconsin Integrative Medicine Program. “Honestly, the pharmaceuticals often work a little better. But there are some out there that can help.”
Other experts agree. David C. Leopold MD, director of Integrative Medical Education at the Scripps Center for Integrative Medicine in San Diego, says some people are able to manage their allergies with natural allergy remedies alone, while others use them as a complement to drugs.
Surveys show that almost half of all people with allergies try a natural allergy remedy. But you need to be careful. Depending on the type of allergy you have, some could actually trigger an allergic reaction.
What Natural Allergy Remedies Work?
Allergies are caused by the immune system’s overreaction to a harmless substance, such as animal dander or pollen. Like allergy medication, some supplements can help by blocking the chemical reactions that result in allergy symptoms.
Most natural allergy supplements come in capsules, tablets, or liquids, and are available in drugstores or health food stores. A few may be more difficult to find. If you’re in an urban area, you might try a naturopathic physician, an herbalist, or other expert in integrative health. Otherwise, your best bet may be stores on the Internet.
Here’s the rundown.
- Butterbur. “Butterbur is the Singulair of the herbal world,” says Rakel. “I think of all the allergy supplements, it has the best evidence behind it.” The herb appears to work as a leukotriene inhibitor, which blocks some chemicals that trigger swelling in the nasal passages.
Some research shows that an extract of butterbur root (Ze 339) are just as effective at relieving nasal symptoms as antihistamines like Zyrtec and Allegra. Butterbur has the advantage of not causing sleepiness, a common side effect of antihistamines, even some so-called “non-sedating antihistamines.” “For someone who is driving a car or flying a plane and really needs to avoid the sedative effects of an allergy medication, butterbur is a good alternative,” Rakel says.
You should not eat raw, unprocessed butterbur root, which is dangerous. Look for brands of specialized butterbur supplements that are labeled UPA-free; a certain percentage or milligrams of the helpful compound petasin may also be mentioned. Keep in mind that experts aren’t sure about the safety of using any butterbur supplements in the long term.
- Quercetin. Found in wine and many fruits and vegetables, quercetin may work as a mast cell stabilizer. It helps block the release of histamine that causes inflammation. “Quercetin is sort of the herbal equivalent to cromolyn sodium [in the over-the-counter spray NasalCrom],” Rakel tells WebMD. “The evidence is promising.”
“I think quercetin is pretty effective and well tolerated,” says Leopold. “It seems to work well for prevention.” However, while lab tests of quercetin are intriguing, we don’t yet have good research for how well it works as a treatment in people. Some experts doubt that enough quercetin is absorbed during digestion to have much of an effect.
- Stinging Nettle. Often used as an allergy treatment, this botanical contains carotene, vitamin K, and quercetin. There’s some evidence that using stinging nettle after the first sign of allergic symptoms can help a bit. Be sure to choose extracts of stinging nettle (Urtica dioica) leaf, not the root, which is used to treat prostate troubles. Despite its common use, however, there’s not much research backing up stinging nettle’s effectiveness as an allergy remedy.
- Bromelain. Some studies have found that bromelain is helpful in reducing nasal swelling and thinning mucus, making it easier for people to breathe. It may be particularly useful when added to drug treatment for sinus infections.
- Phleum pratense. A few studies have found that a sublingual tablet made from pollen extracts from Phleum Phleum pratense can reduce some pollen allergy symptoms, such as eye irritation, in people with asthma, as well as help decrease symptoms in people suffering from hay fever. It also allowed people to reduce the dose of their allergy medicine.
- Tinospora cordifolia. Based on one research study, there’s some indication that Tinospora cordifolia, an herbal tablet from India, can reduce allergy symptoms such as sneezing, itching, and nasal discharge. Again, the evidence is only preliminary and its long-term safety is unclear. Though it appeared safe during the 8-week research study, more research needs to be done.
- Combination allergy supplements. A number of natural allergy remedies contain a blend of botanicals. Leopold singles out Sinupret, a combination of European elderflower, sorrel, cowslip, verbena, and gentian root. “It’s seems to be effective and well tolerated,” he tells WebMD, “especially for conditions like chronic sinusitis, which can result from allergies.” It’s been long used in Europe, and there’s some evidence that it helps treat the symptoms of bronchitis and acute sinusitis.
- Other allergy supplements. People use many other supplements to treat allergies, including echinacea, grape seed extract, pycnogenol (pine bark extract), vitamin C, EPA, honey, cat’s claw, albizzia (Albizzia lebbeck), baical skullcup (Scutellaria baicalensis),goldenseal, and spirulina. However, research hasn’t found good evidence that they help. “These supplements might have other benefits,” says Rakel. “But if you’re trying to treat allergies, go with something else.”
Be particularly wary of bitter orange (also called Citrus aurantium), which is sometimes sold as a decongestant. It has compounds similar to those in ephedra and, as a result, may have serious side effects. They include an increased risk of high blood pressure, heart problems, and stroke.
What about supplements for other types of allergies, such as skin reactions or food allergies? Unfortunately, researchers haven’t found much evidence for supplements that can help. Rakel says that while there’s some interesting preliminary evidence about the effects of probiotics on food allergies, more research is needed.
Natural Allergy Remedies: 3 Tips for Safety
When it comes to allergy supplement safety, here are three things to keep in mind.
Risks and interactions. On the whole, the top allergy supplements seem to be reasonably safe. But check with a doctor before taking a supplement if you
- Have any medical conditions
- Use other daily medication
- Are pregnant or breastfeeding
- Are under 18 years old
Always follow the dosing advice of your doctor or pharmacist -- or at least the directions on the label.
Long-term use. The longer you take any supplement (or drug), the greater the potential for toxicity and harm. Unfortunately, there’s little evidence about the safety of using these natural allergy remedies for extended periods. So be cautious. Get your doctor’s opinion on any long-term treatments you want to try.
Allergic reactions. There’s another problem for people seeking allergy supplements: Many of the plants used for allergy treatment -- such as butterbur, echinacea, and several others - are distant cousins to ragweed. So if you’re suffering from a ragweed allergy, a dose of allergy supplements could theoretically make your symptoms worse.
“I’ve seen people who come into our offices because their ragweed allergies are being aggravated by their allergy supplements,” says Rakel. “Usually, the first thing we do is get them off all the stuff they’re using. The human body doesn’t generally need a handful of supplements every day to stay well.”
Using Natural Allergy Remedies: Plan
Most people don’t think about their allergies until their symptoms flare up. But if you’ve already got a drippy nose and watery eyes before you reach for a bottle, it may be too late.
“Once an allergic reaction starts, it’s very hard to stop - either with supplements or medications,” Leopold tells WebMD. “That’s why it’s always important to focus on prevention.”
Whether you’re using an allergy supplement or a drug, you should plan ahead. Start taking a natural allergy remedy a few weeks before ragweed season starts or before your visit to the aunt with six cats. That way, you can potentially prevent the allergic reaction from happening at all.
Leopold says that while some people are able to control their allergies with supplements alone, others can’t. Even if it can’t do the whole job, however, an allergy supplement may still be a good addition to your drug treatment.
“By adding on a supplement like quercetin or butterbur, you might be able to take a lower dose of the prescription drug while getting the same benefits,” says Leopold. “And by keeping the medication at a lower level, you decrease the side effects.”
Other Nondrug Allergy Treatments
Supplements aren’t the only alternative to medications. There are a number of other methods you can try to treat or prevent allergies, some of which have very good evidence backing them up.
- Environmental control. Reducing the amount of allergens in your home, especially your bedroom, can take a lot of work and vigilance. But the payoff can be tremendous. Wrap your mattress in plastic, vacuum regularly, and follow other suggestions for environmental control.
- Nasal irrigation . It might seem odd, but there’s good evidence that flushing out the nasal passages with salt water can help allergy symptoms. Some use simple neti pots and others more elaborate devices.
“I think more Americans need to get used to nasal irrigation,” says Leopold. “It’s very effective and it makes clear sense. You’re flushing away the things that are irritating your nasal membranes.” In one study of children with allergies, nasal irrigation three times a day dramatically improved their symptoms after three to six weeks. It also allowed them to take lower doses of their allergy drugs.
A common “recipe” for the salt-water solution is to mix a quart of water with two to three teaspoons of picking, canning, or sea salt and one teaspoon of baking soda. Store at room temperature in a covered jar or bottle. Don’t use standard table salt, due to the presence of iodine and other additives. Irrigate each nostril with approximately one-half cup of the solution, a few times daily for acute conditions or once daily for maintenance.
To enhance the effect, Rakel recommends adding a couple of drops of eucalyptus oil to the salt water. “I think it works really nicely,” he says. “The eucalyptus constricts the blood vessels, reducing the inflammation.”
- HEPA filters. Leopold recommends using a HEPA (high-efficiency particulate air) filter, which should trap some of the allergens circulating in your home. Get one for your vacuum cleaner, too. Without it, your vacuum will just shoot the tiny allergens back into the air -- and into your nose.
- Allergy shots . Most allergy treatments are just ways of trying to tamp down the symptoms. But allergy shots, or immunotherapy, offer a permanent solution. By injecting very small but increasing amounts of an allergen under the skin, you can gradually get your immune system used to it.Eventually, even large amounts may not trigger symptoms. This approach does take time -- usually months of injections -- and it’s not always successful.
Rakel also recommends a homeopathic alternative to allergy shots. “The principle is exactly the same,” he says. “But instead of shots, you place a very dilute amount of the allergen under the tongue.” Although this approach has not been studied well, Rakel believes the benefits are comparable. Regardless of the approach, any allergy desensitization should be done under the supervision of a professional experienced in the method, such as a doctor who is an allergist or immunologist.
- Protection. If you’re heading out to clean a dusty garage or rake during pollen season, gear up. Don’t just wear a mask over your mouth and nose, but goggles over your eyes too. “Most people don’t realize it, but lots of allergens enter the body through the eyes,” says Leopold.
- Acupuncture. Many people who suffer with allergic rhinitis are now turning to acupuncture for relief. The evidence on its effectiveness is mixed. While some studies have found no benefit, others have been promising. For instance, a 2008 German study of more than 5,000 adults found that acupuncture seemed to reduce symptoms significantly compared to standard treatment.
An earlier and smaller study in children also had positive results: Kids who were given acupuncture twice a week for eight weeks had fewer symptoms and more symptom-free days than those who received a sham treatment. However, these are preliminary studies. Experts say that we need more research with better evidence before the effects of acupuncture on nasal allergies will be clear.
In recent years, experts have become much more aggressive in treating allergies. While the standard approach was once all about easing the symptoms of allergies, Rakel says things have changed.
“When someone with an allergy comes in to see us, the first thing we do is try to figure out what’s causing it,” he says. “Suppressing the symptoms isn’t enough -- we want to find out why the symptoms are occurring and, ideally, resolve the issue.”
No one should have to limp through life with chronic allergy symptoms. Don’t settle for treatments that only half work. Schedule an appointment with a doctor. Together you can come up with a treatment plan -- whether it relies on allergy supplements or other alternative remedies, prescription drugs or a combination -- that will finally give you some relief.