Treatments for Allergies that Work Well

(Part 2 of 3)

In yesterday’s post I gave you some background on allergies: what’s going on in your body and some common drugs used as treatment. As I said, drugs either mask symptoms or interfere with your immune system. What you really want is something that will help your immune system tell the difference between true danger and benign visitors. So here are a couple things that appear to work well for many people.

Acupuncture

According to Chinese medicine, energy travels through your body in pathways called meridians. A disruption in energy flow can create illness, sometimes far away from the place of disruption. Acupuncture is the science of restoring energy flow. An acupuncturist most often uses needles to stimulate one or more specific points, but may also use heat or the pressure of fingers or stones.

More than 50 studies over the last couple decades have shown how effective acupuncture can be for relieving the symptoms of seasonal allergies. For example, in a 2013 trial patients were asked about their symptoms and their use of rescue medication. After 12 treatments over the course of eight weeks, patients reported a better quality of life and less use of allergy drugs. They were asked again after 16 weeks and one year about their quality of life and medication use, and the benefits had continued long after the treatments had stopped. It appears that acupuncture treatment actually corrects the immune problem rather than just interrupting the chemical pathway.

If you’re not a fan of needles, there’s no need to worry. The needles are very thin, and you can barely feel them as they go into your skin. Most acupuncturists use disposable needles, so there’s no concern about infection. And the treatment itself is relaxing; some patients even report sleeping through the session. My wife and I have both had acupuncture treatments for various conditions, and we’re big fans.

You do need a professional for acupuncture. A licensed practitioner will have the designation L.Ac. Acupuncture has become much more widely available over the last 20 years, so you should be able to find a practitioner near you.

Stinging Nettles

The name alone is enough to keep some people away from this therapy, but stinging nettle is a remarkably effective therapy for seasonal allergy symptoms.

Research into stinging nettle for allergies is rather thin, but herbalists and naturopathic physicians who have done their own studies with patients swear by its benefits. One study of 69 people showed that just one week’s use of stinging nettle improved people’s overall assessment of their symptoms compared to placebo. In this study, people took 300 mg of freeze-dried nettle leaf twice a day.

Research in 2009 showed that stinging nettle affects two links in the chemical pathway of allergic rhinitis. An extract of stinging nettle blocked histamine receptors, and it reduced the amount of histamine released by mast cells. As a side benefit, the extract blocked enzymes responsible for inflammation. This study wasn’t done in humans, but it does give us an idea of how stinging nettles provide their benefit.

When using stinging nettle, look for a freeze-dried extract of the leaf. You may see the product shown under its plant name, Urtica dioica.

Tomorrow I’ll let you know about a couple therapies that have lots of support in folk medicine, but little research support.

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Here Come Those Seasonal Allergies

(Part 1 of 3)

It’s hard to believe that fall is almost here. School starts today where I live, and evenings are getting cool (thank goodness). And with the fall comes another bout of seasonal allergies for those who are sensitive. (Though really, any season is allergy season. While most people think of blooming flowers and trees in the spring and ragweed in the fall as the worst culprits when it comes to allergens, we’re always surrounded by things that can make us sneeze, itch and, wheeze. Dust, mold, pet dander, and tobacco smoke know no season. )

Watery eyes, runny nose, and sneezing are the body’s way of trying to get rid of whatever is bothering you at the moment. Together, these symptoms are called allergic rhinitis (that’s hay fever to you and me), and they’re a gold mine for the medical industry. The top-selling prescription drug for nasal allergies, Nasonex, brought in more than a billion dollars in 2013 for its manufacturer.

But for most people, drugs are not the best solution. Depending on their category, prescription drugs either provide symptom relief or interfere with the function of your immune system. Whichever kind you use, the benefits are overwhelmed by the adverse effects.

Many people turn to over-the-counter medications for relief. Older antihistamines, such as diphenhydramine (Benadryl) and chlorpheniramine (Chlor-Trimeton), are infamous for their adverse effects—especially drowsiness, but also rapid heartbeat, dry mouth, and problems emptying the bladder.

The second-generation antihistamines, including cetirizine (Zyrtec) and loratadine (Claritin), are less likely to have negative side effects, but users still report dry mouth, headache, and occasional rapid heartbeat. The newest antihistamines available aren’t really new at all; they’re just modifications of older drugs. While there does seem to be a slightly smaller risk of side effects, the drugs aren’t any more effective than their older brothers.

What’s Going On Inside

The human body is set up to reject unfamiliar invaders. Your immune system is constantly on the alert for bacteria and viruses that can cause infection if left unchallenged. A well-tuned immune system will know the difference between non-threatening newcomers and true stranger danger. But if something goes awry, in either genes or experience, your immune system goes after harmless substances such as dust and pollen.

The first time your immune system encounters something new, it creates specific antibodies that then attach themselves to specialized cells known as mast cells. When the newcomer shows up again, the mast cells release histamine—the chemical that causes the classic allergy symptoms.

Most drugs for allergy relief, including all the ones available over the counter, address the receptors for histamine—meaning that your immune response is still going haywire but the desired result, getting rid of the offenders, is blocked. A smaller class of drugs works to stabilize mast cells, so they don’t release so much histamine. Drugs in a third class disrupt the immune response entirely. Almost all of the drugs in this group are steroids, and are prescription-only.

That’s the background on allergies. Over the next couple days I’ll give you the rundown on allergy treatments that work—and ones that don’t.