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 extracts of butterbur root are just as effective at relieving nasal symptoms as prescription drugs 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.”