Control Your Nose: Nature’s 9 Best Cold & Allergy Stoppers

a woman, in a park, attacked by tree pollen
April 22, 2014 (Updated: May 7, 2014)
Leigh Erin Connealy, M.D.

Every year about this time it begins. Patient after patient visits my practice, complaining of a runny nose, sneezing, and coughing. “I seem to have picked up a cold bug somewhere,” a patient I’ll call Paula told me recently. “But now I can’t get rid of it and thought you might have some suggestions.”

As a matter of fact, I do. The first step is to determine if you have a cold or seasonal allergies. Colds are caused by rhinoviruses, while allergies (sometimes called hay fever) are simply an attempt by the body’s immune system  to deal with everyday elements — pollens, mold, dust mites, dander or other substances — that it mistakenly sees as dangerous enemy invaders.

For some people, certain substances in the environment cause specialized “mast” cells in the eyes and nasal passages to release histamines. The histamines are supposed to fight off the dangerous invaders, but they actually inflame and irritate mucous membranes, causing seasonal allergies, or allergic rhinitis, in medical terms.

The best way to tell a cold from allergies is by checking these two factors:

How long have you had symptoms? If you’ve been sick for two weeks or more, it’s probably due to allergies, since colds usually resolve in a week to ten days.

Are your symptoms getting worse? Allergies sufferers usually don’t report that their symptoms are becoming worse or changing. So if your list of symptoms is growing from sore throat to runny nose to fever and/or coughing, it’s probably a cold.

It turned out that Paula’s cold was actually a bad case of seasonal allergies, something that’s becoming more common these days. There’s a simple reason for the increase in allergies – we are too clean!

A theory known as the “hygiene hypothesis” points to our passion for soap and water as a double-edged sword. On the one hand, our obsession with cleanliness means we are exposed to fewer bugs. But we’ve also eliminated many of the less harmful bugs the immune system needs to encounter in order to fully develop (i.e., “grow up”) and provide adequate protection.

As a result, some 50 million Americans suffer through seasonal misery with symptoms similar to those of the common cold — teary or itchy eyes, runny nose, sneezing, fatigue, mood swings — that drag on for weeks, months or even most of the year. For individuals with asthma that means potentially dangerous asthma attacks may increase.

The True Cost of Relief

So it’s not surprising that many allergy sufferers are eager for relief. As is so often the case, the pharmaceutical industry has plenty to offer in terms of expensive medication that treats the symptom and not the cause. Americans spend billions of dollars each year on over-the-counter and prescription medications, allergy shots, doctors’ visits, and other measures to obtain relief.

Unfortunately, traditional medicine can only offer temporary solutions, and even those have drawbacks. Over-the-counter antihistamines, for example, may cause drowsiness, irregular heartbeat, headache, upset stomach, and other unwanted side effects. And allergy shots, sometimes called immunotherapy, are expensive, inconvenient, and frequently fail to work for various reasons.

You probably don’t need me to tell you that these sorts of allergy treatments may not be the best choice for anyone who does not want to compromise his or her health.

Improve Immunity First

So what’s an allergy sufferer supposed to do? Here’s my perspective on the situation: seasonal allergies are best tamed by treating the source of the problem, rather than trying to suppress symptoms with pharmaceuticals.

Many allergy sufferers find that by strengthening their immune systems with quality vitamins, minerals, and herbs, they are less vulnerable to allergies. Of course, a diet of whole foods, moderate daily exercise, and adequate rest are essential to a healthy immune system, as is finding an effective way to deal with stress. (For my thoughts on improving your overall health along with your immune system, please revisit my Pillars of Health.)

A great deal of your immune system is centered in the intestinal tract, so food and beverage choices are important. Start by eliminating sugar, processed and packaged foods, and (sorry to say) all alcohol. These things weaken immunity and actually undermine your health. Replace them with plenty of fresh, purified water and real, live food that has not been refined, processed, or over-cooked. In other words, instead of strawberry-flavored yogurt, eat plain yogurt along with some fresh strawberries.

Speaking of yogurt, beneficial bacteria known as probiotics are one of the key ingredients involved in strengthening the immune system. Probiotics are especially useful for anyone who has taken antibiotics, since those drugs destroy both the good and bad bacteria in the intestinal tract. Yet even if you choose an organic yogurt with little or no sugar, it’s difficult to get therapeutic quantities of probiotics from food. That’s why I recommend a supplement containing at least 10 billion live organisms per dose.

The only downside to fighting allergies by strengthening the immune system is that it may take six to eight weeks for the improvement to appear. Obviously, that’s an awfully long time to wait for relief!

Vitamin C: Fortunately, there are plenty of natural options for reducing allergy symptoms. Vitamin C is one of the best choices.

Although it’s most famous as an antioxidant, vitamin C is a natural antihistamine with the added benefit of being able to stimulate infection-fighting white blood cells. Humans can’t manufacture vitamin C in the body, like other mammals. So in order to get sufficient supplies, you must eat a diet built on fresh fruits and veggies, or take supplements.

I recommend 2,000 to 4,000 mg of vitamin C daily, in divided doses throughout the day. Since vitamin C is water soluble, any excess is flushed out of the body in your urine. High levels of vitamin C can lead to diarrhea for some individuals, so if this becomes a problem for you, simply reduce your dosage to a level your bowels can tolerate.

Vitamin D3: Furthermore, make certain you’re getting adequate amounts of vitamin D3. This nutrient is essential for a strong immune system.

A simple blood test is all it takes to determine your Vitamin D level. If you’re low, supplements are the best option, because only a few foods – including salmon, sardines, and mackerel — are helpful when it comes to increasing vitamin D intake. Take at least 1,000 IUs of vitamin D3 daily, unless your physician recommends more. For your convenience, I’ve combined vitamin D3 with my omega-3 marine oil product, another excellent nutrient for improving immune system health.

Omega-3 essential fatty acids (EFAs): Another essential nutrient for healthy immunity. Omega-3s have repeatedly been shown to support a healthy heart and brain, as well as improved mood, reduced joint pain and stiffness, lung health, and a strong immune system.

If you’re avoiding omega-3s because you don’t like fish, I can assure you that today’s products are free of taste and do not cause digestive upsets. Furthermore, these oils have been molecularly distilled to remove toxins, pollution, and impurities that are commonly found in fish. I suggest taking 3 grams (3,000 milligrams) of omega-3s daily in divided doses. For best results, look for a product containing about twice as much DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) as EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid).

My patient, Paula, turned out to be very low in vitamin D3, since she’d been avoiding the sun, the best non-food source of the nutrient. Once we corrected that deficiency, her seasonal allergies nearly disappeared.

And since she was getting her D3 in combination with omega-3s, Paula also reported improvements in her joint pain, along with fewer mood swings. “I feel like I’m 20 years younger,” she said during a follow-up visit. “It took a while for me to notice how much better I was feeling. But when ragweed season began and I didn’t turn into a sneezing machine, I realized something had changed for the better!”

Where To Find Symptom Relief

It can take time to restore your immune system, especially if your lifestyle has been less than healthy recently. In the meantime, there are a number of natural options for relieving symptoms of seasonal allergies.

Help from Mother Nature

For centuries, herbs have been used to provide relief from asthma, coughs, and allergies. Butterbur is a good example. Clinical trials show that butterbur not only has a dramatic effect on allergies and asthma, improving symptoms in 90 percent of patients with minimal side effects, but it also was as effective as two leading allergy drugs (Zyrtec® and Allegra®). Other natural substances to consider include:

  • Rosmarinic acid, an extract of the herb rosemary, has demonstrated in repeated studies that it quells histamine production. It is sometimes mixed with perilla leaf extract, which enhances its anti-allergy performance.
  • Quercetin, a compound found in many fruits and vegetables, particularly onions, performs as well as pharmaceutical drugs in clinical trials.
  • Bromelain, an enzyme from pineapple, has anti-inflammatory abilities that make it another good choice for treating seasonal allergies.
  • Stinging nettle extracts  have been used to treat allergies since ancient times. Sometimes natural remedies like these are packaged in combination with other anti-allergy substances, such as Vitamin C, N-acetylcysteine (NAC), goldenseal, or yarrow, to name only a few. Follow the dosage directions on the product you select.
  • Bee pollen granules have been shown to stabilize the cells that cause symptoms by overreacting. I recommend starting with one teaspoon every morning and working your way up to two tablespoons, if necessary.

Minimizing Exposure to Offending Substances

If you’re an allergy sufferer, I recommend minimizing contact with environmental allergens. For example, check the pollen count (usually available in the local newspaper and at most weather sites on the Internet), and limit your outdoor activities on days when pollen counts are highest.  In addition, keep your windows closed on those days, to further reduce exposure.

For additional pollen control, I recommend a High Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) quality air filtration device.

Another excellent way to clean indoor air is with green plants. Research done by NASA scientists found that plants serve as “living air filters.” Purchase plants big enough for at least six-inch containers. Use one plant for every 100-to-120 square feet of space.

Another method of minimizing exposure to allergens is by making regular use of nasal lavage or irrigation (rinsing the interior of your nose) with salt-water rinses that are available in drug stores.

Neti pots are another option. However, be aware that these units are designed for use only with sterile, distilled, or boiled water. Tap or bottled water is not sterile and may contain potentially dangerous organisms.

Don’t resign yourself to living with the discomfort caused by seasonal allergies. There are a wealth of remedies available for easing the symptoms and, once that happens, you’ll actually be able to enjoy nature and all four seasons again!

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