Some 25 million people in the US and 13 million in the UK have hay fever, also known as seasonal allergic rhinitis—an allergic reaction to pollen that causes misery-making symptoms like itchy, watery eyes, a streaming nose and sneezing. These in turn can cause sleeping problems, fatigue and poor concentration, and can significantly affect a person's daily life.
The usual treatment is over-the-counter or prescription oral antihistamines, but as well as causing side-effects like drowsiness, dizziness, dry mouth, impaired thinking and headaches, they often just don't work.1
Thankfully, the world of natural medicine has plenty to offer, from herbs to homeopathy to humming. Here's our guide to what to do keep symptoms at bay this summer and beyond.
Bank on butterbur
One of the best alternatives to standard antihistamines is butterbur (Petasites hybridus), a shrub-like plant found in Europe and parts of Asia and North America. Studies show it's just as effective as antihistamine drugs like cetirizine and fexofenadine, but it doesn't come with sedative side-effects.2 Be sure to choose formulations free of alkaloids, though, as these can be toxic to the liver.
Suggested dosage: 50-75 mg twice daily of a standardized extract of the herb (usually containing at least 7.5 mg of petasin and isopetasin, the main active ingredients)
Get help from homeopathy
Naturopath and editorial panelist Dr Harald Gaier's top remedy for hay fever is homeopathic preparations of the Amazonian plant Galphimia glauca, which he's recommended to his patients for years. "I've found it reliable not only for stopping any symptoms, but also for removing any predisposition to the airborne grasses responsible for hay fever and other allergies," he says. But don't just take his word for it. Scientific studies have found the remedy to be effective for hay fever relief, with success rates on par with standard antihistamines.3
Suggested dosage: 15 drops of a 4X potency (available from homeopathic pharmacies such as Ainsworths, www.ainsworths.com, or Bioron, www.boiron.com), twice a day between meals, about two weeks before you expect symptoms to start. Continue for the whole time you are affected
The popular Ayurvedic herb Guduchi (Tinospora cordifolia), commonly used to treat hay fever and other allergies, has proven anti-inflammatory and immune-system regulating effects.4 When put to the test in a trial of allergic rhinitis patients, the herb dramatically reduced symptoms such as sneezing, runny nose and nasal congestion.5 It's best to consult with a qualified Ayurvedic practitioner to check the remedy is right for you (visit www.ayurvedanama.org or www.apa.uk.com to find one), but Guduchi formulas are widely available online.
Suggested dosage: 300 mg of a standardized extract three times a day, or follow the label instructions
Herbalist Meilyr James, owner of the Herbal Clinic in Swansea, Wales (www.herbalclinic-swansea.co.uk) recommends ribwort plantain (Plantago lanceolata) for hay fever. The gentle-acting herb contains flavonoids that have anti-inflammatory and antihistamine effects, he says. Start taking it when symptoms, however slight, first begin. He also suggests sipping a tea of fresh nettle leaves (Urtica dioica) throughout the day, as it's another natural antihistamine.
Suggested dosage: Plantago lanceolata: 15 drops of a 45 percent tincture 1-3 times daily, depending on severity of symptoms; nettle tea: use a handful of freshly picked nettles to one mug of boiling water and infuse in a teapot for 15 minutes
Using a neti pot, a device designed to rinse out the nasal passages, can be helpful for hay fever. The teapot-looking container is usually filled with a simple saltwater solution (saline) and then poured into the nostrils, one at a time, to help flush mucus and foreign irritants like pollen out of the nose. "Saline nasal irrigation," as the technique is known, has plenty of science to support its use, with studies showing it to be a safe and effective treatment for hay fever and other forms of allergic rhinitis.6 Neti pot kits that include ready-to-use salt water packs and full instructions, such as the SinuCleanse Neti Pot system, are available online and in health food shops. Or you could try a saltwater nasal spray such as Sterimar.
Opt for acupuncture
This traditional Chinese technique appears to work well for hay fever; it's been found to reduce the severity of symptoms, cut down antihistamine use and improve quality of life.7 To find a qualified acupuncturist near you, visit www.acunow.org.
Stock up on supplements
The following nutritional supplements may help to keep hay fever symptoms at bay.
Probiotics. These friendly bacteria seem able to change the immune system's response to pollen. Certain strains such as Lactobacillus paracasei 33 and Bifidobacterium longum have been found to help with symptoms like sneezing, runny nose, nasal congestion and itchy, watery eyes.8
Suggested dosage: try a high-strength probiotic supplement containing Lactobacillus or Bifidobacterium strains, such as OptiBac's Extra Strength supplement (www.optibacprobiotics.co.uk) or Dr Mercola Complete Probiotics (shop.mercola.com), and follow the label instructions
Quercetin. Although it's yet to be trialed in hay fever patients, quercetin, found in citrus fruits, onions and apples, is a potent natural antihistamine.9
Suggested dosage: 250-600 mg three times a day, 5-10 minutes before each meal
Bromelain. Often taken in combination with quercetin as it enhances its absorption,10 bromelain is a pineapple-derived enzyme known to reduce levels of inflammatory prostaglandins, a key cause of swelling, redness
Suggested dosage: 400-500 mg three times a day
Vitamin C. This essential nutrient is another one of nature's powerful antihistamines.12
Suggested dosage: 2 g/day
Conjugated linoleic acid. Better known as CLA, this fatty acid found in dairy products and beef reduced sneezing and improved wellbeing during the pollen season.13
Suggested dosage: 2 g/day
A nasal breathing technique similar to breathing exercises used in yoga proved helpful for hay fever in one study.14 To try it yourself, take a deep breath in, close one nostril with your finger, then exhale through the other nostril while making a 'hmm' sound (with your mouth closed). Repeat five times for each nostril twice a day.
Put up a barrier
A natural barrier balm like HayMax (sold at www.haymax.biz in the UK or www.internatural.com in the US)
—a blend of sunflower oil and
beeswax—can help relieve hay fever symptoms by reducing the amount of pollen that enters your body. Simply apply it to the base of your nose regularly throughout the day.