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Many people can barely enjoy a lovely spring day. Their immune systems overreact to pollens drifting through the warm spring air. Indeed, itchy watery eyes, runny noses, constant sneezing and inflamed sinuses make being in the sunny outdoors a miserable experience for hayfever sufferers. And there are many.
It's currently estimated that over forty million, or 25% of Americans, suffer from asthma, hayfever and other allergies. While over-the-counter remedies can relieve symptoms such as runny eyes and sneezing, they often leave sufferers feeling dizzy or sleepy; and these remedies do nothing to aid the body in recovery.
Herbs, such as Ephedra, nettles, eyebright and elder, can help relieve symptoms as well as help the body reach a state of balance.
An allergy, whether to mold or pollen, is an inappropriate response by the immune system to a substance not normally harmful. The immune system is an intricate defense network of white blood cells geared toward fighting "foreign invaders." Researchers aren't sure which part of the system goes haywire in an allergic reaction. However, the immune system wrongly identifies a non-toxic substance as an invader and rallies an allergic response to protect you. Soon, the allergic reaction, meant to protect you, becomes the disease in itself. Hayfever is an allergic reaction of the nasal passages and airways to airborne pollens. Allergies tend to run in families, and it's believed that breastfed babies are less likely to develop allergies as they grow up.
Any substance that causes an allergy is an allergen. Common allergens include: grass, pollen, dust, cosmetics, animal hair, insect bites and stings, common prescription drugs such as penicillin and common foods such as strawberries and peanuts. Ragweed pollen accounts for about 75 percent of the hayfever in the United States. If the hayfever develops in the spring, it's usually due to tree pollens. If it develops in the summer, grass and weed pollens are probably to blame. Many people also develop hayfever in response to mold or fungus spores, which commonly occur any time from mid-March to November.
The classic allergic reaction goes like this: an allergen such as pollen or animal dander is attacked by the immune system and bound by an antibody produced by the body called IgE (immunoglobulin E). The IgE-antigen complex then binds to white blood cells called "mast cells." This binding causes the release of histamine, which causes the body to flush and produce extra mucus, and causes tissues to swell and eyes to tear.
The first approach to treating hayfever is to reduce the allergic threshold. For example, reduce the airborne allergens you're exposed to either by staying indoors or moving to another location. If these alternatives aren't possible, the next step is developing healthy habits such as eating a wholesome diet of whole grains and fresh vegetables, lowering or eliminating alcohol consumption and cigarette smoking, and reducing stress in your life. All of these steps can help reduce your levels of immunoglobulin E (IgE levels), according to Michael Murray, ND, author of Natural Alternatives to Over-The-Counter and Prescription Drugs (William Morrow & CO).
The Chinese have used Ephedra or the dried stems of the Ephedra plant, Ma huang, for at least 5000 years to treat hayfever, colds and other inflammatory conditions. From a Traditional Chinese Medicine perspective, Ma huang "facilitates the movement of lung qi and controls wheezing." It's considered to be hot, bitter and warming, and its functions are to induce sweat, soothe breath and promote the excretion of urine.
Indeed, Ephedra contains a number of active compounds, including small amounts of an essential oil, and most importantly, one to two percent alkaloids composed mainly of ephedrine and pseudoephedrine. Modern medicine discovered Ephedra's alkaloid compound ephedrine in 1923, and synthetic manufacture of ephedrine began shortly thereafter. Researchers found that ephedrine had an effect on the body very similar to that of adrenalin (used at that time to treat asthma attacks), without many of the side-effects of adrenalin (the proprietary name for the hormone epinephrine).
However, it soon became clear that ephedrine, the isolated constituent of Ephedra, also had unacceptable side-effects, such as elevated blood pressure, that limited its use. Herbalists point out that the whole herb Ephedra contains numerous other components besides ephedrine that possess significant anti-inflammatory and anti-allergy activities including quercitin, which is known for its anti-inflammatory, anti-allergic and bronchiodilating qualities. The whole herb Ephedra also contains another alkaloid called pseudoephedrine -- which is an effective bronchiodilator yet slightly reduces heart rate and blood pressure.
According to David Hoffmann, author of The Holistic Herbal (Element Books), the whole herb Ephedra, rather than its isolated constituents, produces an overall action of balance and benefit when used in appropriate dosages. The alkaloids present in Ephedra have apparently opposite effects on the body, he notes. The overall action, however, is one of balance and benefit. "It's used with great success in the treatment of asthma and associated conditions due to its power to relieve spasms in the bronchial tubes. It also reduces allergic reactions, giving it a role in the treatment of hayfever and other allergies."
Steven Foster, herbalist and author of Herbs For Your Health (Interweave Press), agrees. "Ephedra has gotten a bum rap by association with the effects of its purified alkaloids." This is a good example, says Foster, of how the effects of a whole herb and its isolated constituents must be considered separately. He compares it to the difference between coffee and caffeine. "Obviously, the effects of pure caffeine are quite different than those of a cup of coffee."
Everyone seems to agree that safe dosage is the key to using Ephedra. Even the whole plant, when taken in large doses, can cause increases in blood pressure and heart rate and cause insomnia and anxiety, as ephedrine does. Safe dosages are essential, say experts. In fact, several states have recently passed new laws and/or issued regulations controlling the sale of Ephedra products due to concerns about safe dosages, especially the use of ephedrine-containing stimulant pills which have become popular among high school children.
Taken in safe amounts, however, the research shows that Ephedra can dramatically reduce symptoms of watery, itchy eyes, runny nose and sneezing. A 1985 study reported in Planta Medica: Journal of Medicinal Plant Research by Yoshimatsa et al (Planta Med 1985;4:325-331) indicates that ephedrine along with Ephedra's other constituents (pseudoephedrine, ephedroxane and pseudo-ephedroxane) inhibit tissue swelling induced by histamine, serotonin, bradykinin and prostaglandin E1. Researchers found that the anti-inflammatory action of Ephedra is exerted at the early stage of inflammation. Additionally, it seems that these alkaloids inhibit the biosynthesis of PGE2 series prostaglandins which are pro-inflammatory.
As reported in the Australian Journal of Medical Herbalism (Balin et al. Antitussive Effects of Autonomic Drugs, Australian Journal of Medical Herbalism 1995;Volume 7(3)) ephedrine has a marked antitussive (cough suppressant) activity with no tolerance developing -- suggesting that it may have a direct action on the sympathetic nervous system.
Additionally, research has shown that Ephedra's tannins inhibit the production of angiotensin II and therefore inhibit vasoconstriction, according to the Australian Journal of Medical Herbalism . (Australian Journal of Medical Herbalism 1995;Volume 7(3). Other studies have shown that ephedrine dilates bronchii and decreases immune inflammatory response from allergies (Hikino et al 1984).
The sinuses are often involved in allergy reactions. The tissues lining these air-filled cavities above, below and behind the eyes can swell, which can block the outlets of the sinuses to the nose. Mucus buildup in the sinuses can cause headaches, while mucus draining from the back of the nose into the throat can irritate the throat. Ephedra is a proven, effective decongestant because its active constituents, ephedrine and pseudoephedrine, will dilate swollen tissues allowing the sinuses to drain, points out Terry Willard, PhD, director of the Wild Rose College of Natural Healing in Calgary, Canada, and author of several books about herbs including The Wild Rose Scientific Herbal (Wild Rose College of Natural Healing).
Ephedrine is classed as an adrenergic bronchiodilator; it excites the sympathetic nervous system, depressing smooth muscle and cardiac muscle action, producing similar effects to those of epinephrine -- however, it has a more prolonged effect than epinephrine, notes Willard.
Since Ephedra stimulates the nervous system, long-term use can cause adrenal exhaustion, according to Willard. Adding reishi mushroom and the herb licorice along with vitamins B6 and C to your supplement regimen can help overcome this side effect, he notes.
It's important to remember that Ephedra is a strong central nervous system stimulant and shouldn't be used if you have high blood pressure, diabetes or thyroid or heart disorders, are pregnant, or if you are taking a monomine oxidase inhibitor (a type of antidepressant).
The FDA has only approved uses of ephedrine and pseudoephedrine in over-the-counter drugs as a nasal decongestant and a bronchiodilator. However, ephedrine and Ephedra recently have become subjects of scientific research for weight loss since they stimulate the adrenal system and have shown strong diuretic activity in animal experiments. (The Lawrence Review of Natural Products, June 1989) & (Pasquali et al 1984).
In March 1994, the American Herbal Products Association (AHPA) issued a policy statement which included a recommended warning to be affixed to all herbal products containing Ephedra:
"Seek advice from a health care practitioner prior to use if you are pregnant or nursing, or if you have high blood pressure, heart or thyroid disease, diabetes, difficulty in urination due to prostate enlargement, or if taking an MAO inhibitor or any other prescription drug. Reduce or discontinue use if nervousness, tremor, sleeplessness, loss of appetite or nausea occurs. Not for children under 18. Keep Out Of Reach Of Children."
Eyebright (Euphrasia officinale)
Eyebright, or Euphrasia officinale, was used by ancient Greeks to treat eye infections. The name Euphrasia is derived from the Greek "euphrosyne" which means gladness, (the name of one of the three graces who was distinguished for her joy and mirth). It's believed the name was given to the plant because eyebright induced gladness by helping the patient to see. In the 14th century, eyebright was used to cure "all evils of the eye." In Queen Elizabeth's time, eyebright ale was a popular beverage.
Described by M. Grieve in A Modern Herbal (Dover, New York) as "an elegant little plant" eyebright grows two to eight inches tall and flowers from July to September with numerous small, white or purplish flowers variegated with yellow. Today, the United Plant Savers, an organization dedicated to protecting endangered medicinal plants, has placed eyebright on their "to watch" list -- meaning that it may soon be "at risk."
Eyebright contains tannins, quercitin, vitamin C, rutin, essential fatty acids, the glycoside aucuboside, caffeic and ferulic acids, sterols, choline, some basic compounds and a volatile oil.
There has been no significant scientific research into the merits of this "elegant little plant." None of the chemical components of eyebright have been associated with a significant therapeutic effect, and there are no controlled human studies to evaluate its effectiveness in the treatment of eye irritations.
Yet it remains in high esteem among Western herbalists for its use as an eyewash to soothe burning or tired eyes. Eyebright has cooling and detoxifying properties that make it especially useful for inflammations, especially of the eyes and sinuses, notes Michael Tierra, CA, ND, author of The Way of Herbs (Pocket Books). Compressions with a decoction of eyebright will give surprisingly rapid relief of redness, swelling and visual disturbances in eye inflammations, he explains.
Eyebright's astringent and antibiotic properties make it useful for cleansing the eyes, and its function as an eyewash is due to its antimicrobial, volatile oil content and astringent tannins, according to Mark Pedersen in Nutritional Herbology, A Reference Guide to Herbs (Wendell Whitman CO).
Eyebright's medicinal properties include antibacterial (due to the volatile oils) and astringent (due to the tannins) with a possible hepatonic (liver toning) action, he explains.
"Eyebright is a blood purifier that enhances liver function," notes Pedersen. "Chinese philosophy gives every part of the universe an opposite. The liver is the internal organ that matches the eye as an external organ of the body. Therefore, according to Chinese medicine, any herb that strengthens the liver must also strengthen the eye."
According to herbalist Ed Smith, medical herbalist and owner of HerbPharm in Williams, Ore, use of eyebright does indeed benefit the eyes. The herb contains flavonoid pigments that specifically affect mucous membranes in the eyes and nasal passages, he notes. "The flavonoids in eyebright are anti-inflammatory and stabilize mast cells, the lining in nasal passages," says Smith. "These cells make up the tissue that usually reacts to allergens."
Use of eyebright can help break the allergy cycle caused when you breathe in pollen and your body overreacts with burning eyes and runny nose, says Smith. This inflammation increases your sensitivity to pollen, he notes, which then intensifies the inflammation. "Use of eyebright can break this allergy cycle," he explains.
David Hoffmann author of The Herbal Handbook (Healing Arts Press) calls eyebright an excellent remedy for the problems of inflamed mucous membranes. The combination of anti-inflammatory and astringent properties makes it relevant in many conditions, he notes. Used internally, it is a powerful anticatarrhal (helps the body remove excess mucus) and may help relieve congestion. Best known for its use in eye irritations, it can relieve inflammations, stinging and weeping eyes, and is valuable in conjunctivitis, he says.
While there are no known risks associated with eyebright, German studies suggest that 10 to 60 drops of eyebright tincture could cause side effects that include tearing, itching, redness and swelling of the eyelids. Varro Tyler, PhD, author of The New Honest Herbal, (Stickley) discourages topical eye applications of eyebright, especially of nonsterile homemade lotions containing poorly known compounds.
Stinging Nettles (Urtica dioica)
If you happen to brush up against an adult stinging nettle plant, it will probably make a lasting impression on you. The needle-like hairs of Urtica dioica will sting you like a swarm of fire ants, and you'll quickly develop a healthy respect for this potent plant.
Derived from the Anglo-Saxon word for "needle," the nettle has been regarded as a powerful medicinal herb for centuries. In 16th century England, nettle tea relieved many springtime maladies and was used as a tonic to purify blood, stimulate kidneys and stop internal bleeding. Around the third century BC, Hippocrates' Greek contemporaries prescribed nettle juice taken internally as an antidote to such plant poisons as hemlock and henbane. Roman soldiers flailed themselves with the stinging nettles in cold climates because the herb's sting warmed their freezing skin. Nettle sting is also a folk remedy for arthritis inflammation.
In this country, American Indian women believed drinking nettle tea during pregnancy strengthened the fetus, eased delivery and helped stop bleeding after childbirth. Nursing mothers used nettle tea to increase their milk production.
Today, nettles is recognized as high in vitamin C and a rich source of chlorophyll. Constituents include histamine, formic acid, chlorophyll, glucoquinine, iron and vitamin C. Nettles acts as an astringent, a diuretic and a tonic notes David Hoffmann, author of The Herbal Handbook (Healing Arts Press).
"Nettles are one of the most widely applicable plants we have," he notes. "They strengthen and support the whole body."
In a 1990 randomized, double-blind clinical study reported in Planta Medica: Journal of Medicinal Plant Research, researchers noted that freeze-dried stinging nettles relieved allergy symptoms in over half of the participating patients. Indeed, 58% of the participants taking two 300 mg capsules of freeze-dried Urtica dioica for one week experienced reduced symptoms of seasonal allergic rhinitis. (Planta Medica 1990 (56):44-47)
James Duke, PhD, author of The Green Pharmacy, says we shouldn't be surprised that nettle does, in fact, help relieve allergy symptoms. For centuries, he notes, cultures around the world have used this herb to treat nasal and respiratory troubles including coughs, runny nose and chest congestion.
Stinging nettle's diuretic activity has been the subject of a number of German studies. One study in the early 80s found that nettle juice had a distinct diuretic effect on patients with heart problems. In 1989, German researchers Wagner et al, reported in the journal Planta Medica that several fractions from nettles root showed anti-inflammatory effects in animal trials and stimulated human lymphocytes in vitro. In Germany, the herb is used in modern phytomedicine for treatment of kidney infections, inflammation of the lower urinary tract and for treatment of renal gravel.
Toxic effects from drinking nettle tea have been recorded. These include: gastric irritation, burning sensation of the skin, edema and urine suppression. And according to Michael Castleman, author of The Healing Herbs (Rodale), nettles stimulates uterine contractions in animal studies, and therefore pregnant women should not use it internally.
Elder (Sambucus nigra)
The elder tree is a medicine chest by itself, notes herbalist David Hoffmann, author of The Herbal Handbook (Healing Arts Press).
There have been few scientific studies of elder's medicinal benefits, however elder leaves have been used traditionally for bruises, sprains and wounds; while elder flowers have been used to treat colds and flu, Hoffmann explains.
"They [elder flowers] may be used quite safely in any catarrhal (mucus) inflammation of the upper respiratory tract such as hayfever and sinusitis," he notes.
A 1995 placebo-controlled clinical study reported in The Journal of Alternative & Complementary Medicine tested a standardized elderberry extract in 40 individuals suffering from symptoms of flu. Researchers found a significant improvement in symptoms in 93 percent of cases within two days, versus six days for the control group. The researchers also documented anti-viral activity for the elderberry extract in vitro ; they concluded that elderberry extract is active against influenza infections without adverse side effects. (Zakay-Rones Z, N Varsano et al. Inhibition of several strains of influenza virus in vitro and reduction of symptoms by an elderberry extract during an outbreak of influenza B in Panama. Journal of Alternative & Complementary Medicine 1995;1(4):361-369.)
The elder's constituents include: flavonoids including rutin, isoquercitfrine and kampherol; tannins and essential oils, as well as vitamins C and P found in the berries. Hoffmann lists the elder's actions as: diuretic, purgative, diaphoretic, anti-catarrhal and laxative.