Update on Natural Alternatives to Traditional Drug-Based Allergy Treatments
Let's face it -- allergy symptoms can be pretty darn annoying. Sometimes they even get in the way of living life, or at least living it the way you want to. Each allergy sufferer is different. Some, like me, suffer from allergy symptoms year-round, while others are only affected at certain times during the year. It all depends on your personal allergy triggers.
The good news is that we have many different types of effective allergy medicines to choose from today. Some come in pill form, while others are administered in a nasal spray. There are eye drops and skin creams, depending on the type of allergies or allergy symptoms they are designed to treat.
The bad news is that medicines can get expensive, particularly if you don't have medical insurance coverage for prescriptions, or if the medicine you take is over the counter. Plus, even the best medicines don't always eliminate symptoms 100% or all of the time.
Also, if you're like me, you are not that thrilled with putting manmade chemicals, AKA drugs, into your body every day of your life.
This leaves us looking for other answers...
There is a quiet revolution going on in health care and wellness these days. People are looking for gentler, more "natural" approaches to preventing and treating chronic illnesses like allergies and asthma.
I covered this topic a few years ago in my post, Alternative Therapy "Alternatives" for Nasal Allergy Control. I thought it was time to review the current literature and update you on what may work -- or not -- at this point in time.
Here are some popular "natural" alternatives and the current base of knowledge about their effectiveness.
Raw Local Honey
I've been hearing this recommendation a lot lately. The thinking is that raw honey produced in the area in which you live might contain small amounts of local plant pollens. By eating this honey, you would be exposing yourself gradually to these pollens, stimulating your immune system to build antibodies against them. So that, when you are exposed to the pollens in the air, your reaction will be less severe, or even absent, because you have built up an immunity. This is the same idea behind sublingual immunotherapy (allergy drops).
But does it really work? It seems logical, right? Well, the answer is yes and no. The idea of building up a gradual immunity makes some sense. But bees are more likely to come into contact with flower pollen than grass, tree and weed pollen. Flower pollen is not generally what triggers allergy symptoms.
While there is lots of anecdotal evidence from people who swear that eating local honey has helped their allergies, there is very little scientific evidence to back up this theory. One small study (see end of article) compared 3 groups, one who ate local honey, one who ate non-local honey and one that ate a placebo. There was no significant difference among the groups as to allergy symptoms. This would suggest that local honey is not an effective answer to allergy management, but certainly more scientific studes are needed.
Other substances you may have heard of along these lines are bee pollen tablets and royal jelly. But there are no studies that support their effectiveness either.
Unless you happen to have a sensitivity to honey or its components, eating it is not likely to be harmful, so it won't hurt to try it, and it certainly will taste good! Just don't count on it controlling your allergy symptoms that much.
When I wrote my original article more than 5 years ago, there was very little scientific evidence that acupuncture, which involved inserting tiny needles into your skin at key contact points on the body, was effective at treating allergy symptoms.
However, in February 2013, a new study was published in the Annals of Internal Medicine that reported there just might be some benefits from acupuncture. The study looked at 422 seasonal allergy sufferers. A third were given acupuncture with an antihistamine, a third took fake acupuncture treatments and could use an antihistamine and the last third used only an antihistamine.
After 2 months, the group who got the real acupuncture treatments reported less allergy symptoms and less use of antihistamines. However, even the group who got the fake acupuncture reported some improvement, so it seems likely there was some placebo effect at work to some extent.
Four months later, follow-up revealed that there was much less of a difference between the 3 groups. However, because some relief was obtained from acupuncture, researchers suggest that this issue continue to be studied more thoroughly.
Studies have shown that an herb called butterbur can provide as much relief from seasonal allergy symptoms as both cetirizine (Zyrtec) and fexofenadine (Allegra). It appears to act on histamines and leukotrienes (inflammatory chemicals involved in allergic reactions) in much the same way as allergy medicines do.
However, butterbur can have side effects and if you are allergic to ragweed or marigolds, you should NOT use butterbur, because it is in the same family.
Quercitin is another herb that has been touted as helpful in treating allergies, but there is not enough scientific evidence to support it yet. Like butterbur, it acts to block the effect of histamine.
Nettle, or stinging nettles has also been promoted as helpful in treating allergies. Although scientific studies are limited, one done in 2009 did find that nettle may reduce inflammation, thereby reducing allergy symptoms. Nettle is generally safe to use, but can cause side effects and may also interact with certain medications.
The biggest issue with using herbal remedies in the U.S. is that they are not regulated very well. So, you can't always be sure that the preparations are pure or that they contain a standard dose of the active ingredient. So, you should definitely proceed with caution and get the OK from your doctor that they are safe for you to take.
I have quite a few friends who swear by the value of using essential oils to treat allergy symptoms. The companies that sell these oils say they have all sorts of studies to back up their claims that the oils will work wonders. They suggest ingesting them orally (if they are of sufficient grade), using them in vaporizer type devices or rubbing them on parts of your body skin.
I recently tried a combination of lemon, lavender and peppermint oils, taking 2 to 3 drops in water a couple of times a day, when I was having a particularly severe allergy attack that lasted for a few days, despite using allergy medicine. I was willing to give it a try, since what I had wasn't doing the job completely. I did eventually get relief, but I honestly don't know if it was because the allergy attack had run its course (very likely) or because the oils helped out.
I have attempted to find credible studies that back up the claims about essential oils and, though they may exist, I haven't found them. However, when used as suggested, essential oils should be safe to use. So as long as you want to spend the money and try them out, there are probably not risks or side effects you need to worry about. Just be sure you don't take aromatherapy type oils internally.
Natural or holistic therapies are generally not harmful, if you use them with caution and only in addition to your prescribed treatment plan. Whether it's one of the therapies covered in this post or other things such as hypnosis, chiropractic manipulation, and so on, there may be usefulness, but there are no guarantees they will work for you.
Your best bet is to keep taking your medicine, but also try some of the other natural therapies, if you have an interest and are looking for more relief. You just may find one that works for you!
Sources: Rajan, T.V., Tennen, H., Lindquist, R.L., Cohen, L., & Clive, J. (2002). Effect of ingestion of honey on symptoms of rhinoconjunctivitis. Annals of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology; 88: 198-203. doi:10.1016/S1081-1206(10)61996-5.
Benno Brinkhaus, MD et al. Acupuncture in Patients With Seasonal Allergic RhinitisA Randomized Trial. Annals of Internal Medicine. 2013 Feb;158(4):225-234.
Ziment I, Tashkin DP. Alternative Medicine for Allergy and Asthma. J Allergy Clin Immunol. 2000; 106:603-14.