Natural allergy relief begins with a thorough understanding of an individual's unique triggers and physiology. Today, the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology estimates more than 35 million Americans have allergies. Why those people suffer while others do not is a complex mix of genetics and personal history.
In exploring natural or holistic approaches to allergies, Michael Cantwell, M.D., M.P.H., lead physician at the Institute for Health and Healing at California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco, encourages people to consider the many factors at play when it comes to allergies. Everything from geographic location and home environment to stress can influence the severity and presence of allergies. Understanding how those things add up to an allergic response can help guide a more individual approach to care.
“I like to look at allergies at the most fundamental level possible,” says Dr. Cantwell, an integrative medicine specialist who treats patients using both complementary and conventional therapies. Cantwell, an allergy sufferer himself whose parents actually met at an allergy clinic, recommends a multi-pronged approach to allergy management and treatment, beginning with a proper diagnosis.
Before popping the anti-histamines, take the time to find out what is causing the reaction. People are often surprised to learn that trees trigger their allergies instead of grasses (or vice versa). Ask a doctor about scratch tests and blood tests to help identify the culprits. With that knowledge in place, people can move on to a central but sometimes overlooked question:
It may seem like an obvious place to begin, but is always worth asking, “What can I do to avoid the allergen?” Many people will find they have more options that they think. A few great avoidance strategies:
Sometimes the problem is also the cure. When introduced in small amounts, allergy desensitization therapies like shots ease the body into accepting the offending substance and help to prevent future immune response. Sub-lingual drops (drops that go under the tongue) also can be used for desensitization purposes. These treatments work similarly to shots with slightly lower effectiveness (70 percent). In some cases the drops, which can be administered at home, are a suitable alternative for people who do not want to see a doctor for regular shots.
Another approach to consider is Enzyme-Potentiated Desensitization (EPD), a series of once a month shots that combine large varieties of allergens with enzymes that are said to increase the effectiveness of the shot. According to Cantwell, EPD is backed by some scientific data but is still supported most by anecdotal case evidence. Other less conventional treatments include two types of allergy-specific acupressure -- BioSet and an Energy Medicine technique known as NAET (Nambudripad’s Allergy Elimination Techniques). Although these methods have no controlled studies to back them, Cantwell says they do seem to help some people and encourages patients to keep an open mind when exploring their options.
Of course, the reality is that the sneezing and wheezing may happen anyway. People needn’t suffer. According to Dr. Cantwell, integrative treatments for allergy symptoms focus on calming rather than boosting the immune system and restoring the body’s natural balance. A few of Dr. Cantwell’s favorites:
Homeopathy: Like desensitization therapies, homeopathy users consume low doses of a natural substance. The difference is that the substance in homeopathy is related to the symptoms as opposed to the allergen source. “This is one area that might truly re-set and restore the immune system to balance,” says Dr. Cantwell who encourages people to explore homeopathy. The Consumer’s Guide to Homeopathy by Dana Ullman is a great place to start, he adds.
Quercetin: A naturally-derived bioflavenoid that, like the prescription drug Cromolyn sodium, helps stabilize the immune response and inhibit the release of histamine.
Herbs: Nettles are natural anti-histamines that can help with congestion. Do not, however, take nettles in any form if a nettle allergy is suspected. Anti-microbial herbs such as goldenroot and grapefruit seed excract may help prevent and treat resulting sinus infections, as well. As always, people should consult with a doctor or trained herbalist to discuss any possible interactions with current medications or conditions.
Saline Nasal Rinses: Regular rinses (once or twice a day) can flush away allergens, reduce nasal symptoms and help prevent infection.
Water: The more water, the better. Drinking plenty of water helps thin mucous and clear the body of irritants.
Rest and Relaxation: Stress makes allergies worse, says Cantwell. It causes our immune systems to overreact and spin out of control. “I really think that being peaceful is a far underrated way of decreasing allergy symptoms,” he adds.
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Does bee pollen reduce allergies?
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