For millions of people, spring, summer and fall mean endless post-nasal drip, sneezing, coughing, itchy eyes, and discomfort. But some weeds may be the key to ending those uncomfortable symptoms without the side effects of chemical medicines.
Chemical remedies can cause symptoms as bad as the allergic reactions. “Some side effects of common antihistamines are dry mouth, nose and throat, drowsiness, and sensitivity to bright light,” says Dr. Natalie Bozinovski, a naturopathic doctor based in Toronto.
Corticosteroid nasal inhalers have also been found to increase headaches and nasal irritation, burning and stinging. One study even found a possible link between use of inhalers and stunted growth in young children.
Where conventional medicine prescribes chemical antihistamines and steroids to combat hay fever, naturopathic medicine looks at the root cause of the allergic response.
What are allergies?
Allergies are “an inappropriate response of the body’s immune system to a foreign invader that is not always harmful,” says Dr. Lynn Anderson, a naturopathic doctor and author. “The immune system wrongfully identifies these invaders as harmful and mobilizes an army of white blood cells to fight them. The white blood cells overreact and end up doing more damage than the invader. Thus, the allergic response becomes a disease in itself.”
The immune system naturally produces histamines as part of its defenses against real threats, such as toxic plants or insect bites. Histamines are also part of the digestive process and the body’s sleep cycles.
With pollen allergies, the body wrongly identifies a harmless substance as harmful, and produces histamines as part of its inflammatory response.
The culprit isn’t the ragweed pollen or grass. The real problem is an immune system out of balance. The key to allergic relief, according to naturopathy, is bringing the immune system back to healthy functioning. There are herbs that help do just that.
Nettles (Urtica urens)
Anyone who’s accidentally brushed up on a nettle can identify the plant immediately. Touching the undersides of the leaves brings a stinging, burning irritation that subsides in a few minutes.
But despite the sting, nettles contain natural antihistamines. This nutritive herb brings balance back to the body.
Nettles “open the lungs through cleansing action on the kidneys, allowing better waste product removal,” writes herbalist Matthew Wood in The Book of Herbal Wisdom: Using Plants as Medicines. They’re highly nutritious, containing protein, large amounts of iron, trace minerals, fat and chlorophyll, and they’re prized as a spring cleanser and activator.
They can be picked and immediately preserved in a tincture of grain alcohol, or dried and taken in a capsule. As a food, nettles can be taken by pregnant and lactating women.
Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis)
Dr. Bozinovski calls goldenseal the “king of the mucous membranes — anti-inflammatory, anticatarrhal, anti-microbial, and trophorestorative.”
Goldenseal has become so prized that it has been over-harvested in the wild. It has a reputation for a reason: it strengthens the gut, which is the hub of the immune system. By reducing inflammation — the modus operandi of histamines — it alleviates allergic reactions.
However, goldenseal also stimulates the uterus and should not be taken by pregnant women.
Elder (Sambucus nigra)
Elderberry is another antihistamine that’s as safe to eat as a food. The dark berries, which are ripe at the end of the summer, contain vitamins C, B1, B2 and B6, along with flavonoids, which boost the immune system and reduce inflammation. Elderberry syrup has traditionally been prized as a flu remedy and is full of antioxidants.
Elderberry enhances the immune system, so it shouldn’t be used with immune suppressors. And although the evidence points to the ripe berries being safe for anyone, many medical websites caution against using elderberry during pregnancy or lactation. The jury is still out.
Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis)
Toward the end of summer, the yellow-tipped stalks of goldenrod reach to the sky, unfolding into golden wand that allergy sufferers curse for months. Yet this much-vilified weed is a remedy for allergies, not a cause.
Goldenrod’s pollen is sticky, not wind-born. Rather than cause allergies, goldenrod helps get rid of them.
According to herbalist Matthew Wood, American Indians used goldenrod for “fever, colds, flu, and respiratory problems.” He writes, “The eyes of a solidago patient look like a person who has just gotten out of a swimming pool. There is congestion, sneezing and running of the nose, redness and irritation of the skin.”
Goldenrod is another anti-inflammatory herb that dries up mucus. Naturopath Dr. Bozinovski prescribes it for chronic sinusitis and hay fever.
Goldenrod also helps alleviate allergies by reinvigorating a tired, toxic body. It’s a diuretic and helps the kidneys flush waste materials.
Herbalists say goldenrod is safe to use during pregnancy and lactation; conventional medicine cautions that there isn’t enough research to deem it safe.
How Toxicity Contributes to Allergies
Most of the tissue and cells associated with the immune system are located in the digestive system. According to Melanie Angelis, a board-certified holistic health specialist and author of the forthcoming book The Grecian Garden: A Natural Path to Wellness, immune wellness is tied to a healthy digestive ecology.
Antibiotics target intruder and beneficial bacteria indiscriminately, so taking these medicines leave our digestive systems, and therefore our immune systems, out of whack.
“Immunity has to do with beneficial bacterial,” Angelis says. “Eating cultured vegetables, or probiotic-rich food, such as traditionally-prepared sauerkraut, or cultured milk (called kefir), we keep the good bacteria in our digestive tract colonized and healthy. So the more beneficial bacteria we have, the fewer allergic reactions we’re going to have.”
A healthy digestive tract is important for allergies because the small intestine produces enzymes that break down histamines.
The liver produces bile, which digests food. It also cleans the blood and ensures waste materials are harmlessly passed out of the body. Without healthy liver function, the body can’t digest food properly; without a healthy gut, histamines aren’t broken down.
A healthy liver is a major component in alleviating allergies. Two common weeds help support liver function and alleviate allergies.
Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)
Dandelion is relentlessly mowed and sprayed with herbicide, but the persistent little yellow flowers have enormous health benefits and offer relief for numerous ailments, including allergies.
As a food, the leaves contain fiber, vitamins A, C, and K, calcium, iron, minerals such as magnesium, and potassium. Just when allergies are starting to kick into high gear — spring — is the best time to harvest the wild leaves, before they develop unpalatable bitterness.
Dandelion root offers even more medicinal potential. Wood says it’s used as a general liver cleaner, blood purifier and diuretic.
He writes, “Often, a few months on dandelion can really tone up the hepatic structures, remove stagnation, improve digestion, decongest the portal system, and remove difficulties caused by heat rising to the skin.” He’s used dandelion to successfully treat people with allergies who have a history of antibiotics and allergy desensitization shots.
Dandelions proliferate around the world. Their leaves are best during the spring and early summer, as a salad green, before they become tough — although they can be blanched, boiled, or sautéed even later in the season.
The root should be harvested during the autumn. Whether harvesting the leaves or the roots, always take the plant from soil that’s completely uncontaminated, from the woods or conservation areas, not lawns or lots, unless you’re positive the soil is free from herbicides, pesticides, lead and other contaminants.
Dandelion root preserves well in alcohol or vinegar as a tincture; it can also be roasted, ground and brewed like coffee; the flowers can be brewed into tea. As a food, it’s safe to use during pregnancy and lactation — dandelion may even be beneficial for pregnant women.
Burdock (Arctium lappa)
Another common weed, burdock, cleanses the blood and the liver. A biennial, burdock root is best harvested in its first year, during the autumn, which is when it can be found in some grocery and health food stores.
Burdock root has long been used in Japanese and French cuisines. The fats, oils and starches are lubricating and soothing, feeding and cleansing the lymphatic system and stimulating hepatic metabolism.
Unlike dandelion, however, burdock shouldn’t be taken by pregnant or lactating women.
Milk Thistle (Silybum marianum)
Milk thistle is another food that fortifies the liver, with anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. Its leaves taste like lettuce, with a crunchy texture. The seeds, however, contain compounds that support liver function.
Pollen is a major source of woe for people who suffer from seasonal allergies. It’s easy to blame allergens, but getting to the root of the problem means cleaning up the diet and supporting the body with medicines that come from the earth, not a chemical lab.
For a healthy immune system and liver, holistic health specialist Melanie Angelis says we need to reduce our exposure to toxic substances — household cleaners with chemicals, pesticides in food, parabens and heavy metals in skincare products. Vinegar and baking soda are superb cleaners; organic food is widely available; and the market proliferates with natural cosmetics that don’t flood the body with toxins.
Herbs have been used for millennia to combat illness and promote health, and sometimes the most common weeds can be the best remedies for seasonal allergies.