For thousands of city residents who suffer from watery eyes, sneezing, coughing, wheezing and other debilitating symptoms that can accompany seasonal, environmentally-based allergies, prescription medications are not always the answer.
Many popular drugs that are prescribed for allergy relief can leave users feeling lethargic or anxious, in addition to a range of other undesirable side effects.
Increasingly, both urban and suburban allergy sufferers have begun turning to herbal remedies in an effort to treat their allergies more naturally and with fewer side effects.
"In many cases, herbs can do a better job of treating allergies without the side effects," said Dr. Peter Bongiorno, a naturopathic doctor who practices near Union Square.
Allergies, which are the immune system’s overreaction to harmless substances such as dust, flowers or pollen, can be controlled by supplements that help to the block chemical reactions that result in allergy symptoms.
Bongiorno, along with other herbal remedy experts, says that compounds such as quercetin, found in red wine as well as in many fruits and vegetables, helps to block the release of histamine in the body, which causes inflammation and subsequent allergy symptoms.
"Quercetin, along with blueberries and citrus fruits, is very effective at blocking histamine in the body and shutting down the body’s over-response to certain innocuous substances," said Bongiorno, who credits a severe dairy allergy as a kid with providing the impetus for his later study of herbs and natural medicines.
Tom Nash, head of the herbal medicine department at Pacific College of Oriental Medicine in Manhattan, believes strongly in using Chinese herbal formulas to treat a variety of allergies.
"Proper herbal treatment for allergies should come in two phases," said Nash, who believes in first treating the symptoms of an allergy and then embarking on a secondary regimen to help strengthen the body’s own immune system in order to prevent the development of allergies in the first place.
Nash, who both teaches and supervises at the college’s student clinic where aspiring experts of Chinese herbology learn their craft, is not a strong proponent of prescription or even over-the-counter remedies for the control of allergies.
"There really aren’t many prescription medications that are very effective in treating allergies," he said. "What’s available for allergies is mainly hit or miss."
Nash’s overriding recommendation for people is to always try herbs first, due to the side effects that usually accompany prescription medications. "You can always go to prescription medications if herbs don’t work for you," he said.
He added that most pharmaceutical or Western medicine has its roots in what the Chinese have used for medicine for nearly 3,000 years.
Calling the past year a terrible one for allergy sufferers, Nash related that, back in May, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that the pollen level in the New York area has been the highest since they started tracking the levels.
"I’ve had patients come to me who usually are never bothered by allergies and all of a sudden they’re having cold-like symptoms that are in fact allergies," he said.
Dr. Sheilagh Weymouth, a Manhattanbased chiropractor and professional herbalist who practices holistic primary care, said that certain herbs known as "adaptogens" help to balance the system and make people less vulnerable to immune system over-responses.
"The great part of herbs as opposed to prescription
medications is that they work with the body’s systems and not against
it," said Weymouth. She said that these adaptogen herbs, which include
American Ginseng, Bacopa, Ashwaghanda and Rhodiola, help to strengthen
the body against immune responses, which in turn cause allergy symptoms.
for treating the symptoms of allergies, Weymouth said that a wide
variety of herbs can relieve various allergy symptoms. For example, she
said that numerous herbs have strong anti-inflammatory and antihistamine
properties, similar to many OTC cold remedies.
root and turmeric are very effective anti-inflammatory compounds while
eyebright, bayberry and Echinacea are effective against allergic
rhinitis," she said.
Weymouth said that it’s important to treat allergies. Often, if they
are allowed to linger and progress, they can turn into bacterial
infections and allow viruses to take hold. She stressed the importance
of bolstering the immune system with adaptogenic herbs long before the
allergy season starts.
"The closer we get to nature," Weymouth says, "the closer we get to ourselves."