It may seem a bit early to talk about hay fever, but if your New Year’s resolution was to finally get to the bottom of that runny nose it’s time to start thinking about it. And if you’re unlucky enough to react to other household allergens throughout the year like dust mite and cat hair, all the more reason to grab a hanky and read on.
Herbal medicine can play an important role in modern allergy treatment, but it takes time to act – around 6-8 weeks in the case of hay fever (allergic rhinitis). Beginning as early as possible will help you get on top of your symptoms before the season starts.
An allergic world
Before WWII, there were hardly any documented cases of allergic reactions – in the 50s and 60s, asthma and hay fever rates soared and are still rising today. Some form of allergy is expected to affect more than half of all Europeans in 10 years’ time, and it is already the most common chronic disease.
In children, asthma, hay fever and eczema have trebled over the last 20 years, and hay fever has been shown to affect examination performance in teenagers as well as predispose to ADHD. By 2025 asthma will be the most prevalent childhood chronic disease.
In the 2008 BBC documentary Allergy Planet, this newfound allergy ‘epidemic’ is labelled “one of the biggest mysteries in modern medicine”. It is clear that people are suddenly becoming allergic to their surroundings – but we have no idea why.
The hygiene hypothesis
One explanation was the hygiene hypothesis of 1989, which proposed that living in smaller families and being less exposed to germs had weakened our immune systems.
A paper was published in 2000 offering a physiological explanation to this hypothesis. A lack of infection fails to stimulate one branch of the immune system (dubbed Th1) which means the other branch (Th2) takes on a dominant role. The Th2 branch is the part of the immune system that responds to allergens, so if it is overactive it causes more allergic reactions.
Excessive use of antibiotics is also thought to contribute to this imbalance in immune response, especially in children.
The ‘Old Friends’ hypothesis
Over the last 15 years, however, it has become clear that there are even deeper mechanisms at play, and the role of gut bacteria in immune development and regulation is now thought to be crucial.
I have written about the importance of gut bacteria in relation to health before, including how to look after our ‘old friends’ – but there is an extra point to be made here.
Unfortunately, Cesarean births are increasingly viewed as an unhealthy start to life and have been directly linked to an increased incidence of allergic and immunological disease. The baby by-passes the important microorganisms that inhabit the mother’s vaginal tract, which leaves their immune system woefully unprepared for the outside world. It therefore cannot be stressed how important it is for a child to eat well and have a healthy digestive system if they suffer from allergies, especially if they were born by Cesarean.
Hay fever and herbal treatment
Along with supporting our gut health with dietary fibre (fruit and veg), probiotics or herbs like slippery elm and barberry, many herbs I’ve written about on this blog help to directly fight allergy.
Echinacea and Astragalus strengthen the immune system, Nettles act as a sort of natural anti-histamine and the Reishi mushroom has been shown to be very useful in allergic conditions, partly due to polysaccharide compounds called beta-glucans. Anticatarrhal herbs like Elderflower and Plantain are also a crucial addition to any hay fever mix.
This month’s herb of the month will focus on a wonderful, wholly underrated herb for the chronic sufferer of hay fever, non-allergic rhinitis and sinusitis – Cleavers.
Herbal allergy treatment will always take into account individual symptom triggers, any dietary factors that might be affecting the condition as well as personal medical and family histories.
You may find that you need to take the medicine every year before the hay fever season, or that a low dose of medicine throughout the year is enough to keep allergy at bay. For chronic conditions, expect to see marked improvement within three months of treatment.