This original story and photography are contributed by Lindsay Mueller of Well/Aware, a simple blog and accompanying podcast dedicated to finding balance, practicing wellness, and living more sustainably inside and out.
Spring of 2015 was particularly awful when it comes to allergies, especially in New York, an unsuspecting danger zone, considering its relatively little greenery. I got lucky — I started taking daily doses of two OTC medications due to an entirely separate allergic reaction before allergy season commenced, so I was inadvertently protected. After a while, though, I noticed I was sneezing, experiencing itchy eyes, and sniffling like the rest of NYC's humanity. Had the meds worn off?
Since I generally prefer to avoid taking any kind of medication, and the medication I was taking was apparently ineffective anyway, I sought out some natural remedies.
On a particularly lovely Carroll Gardens evening, I stumbled into Remedies Herb Shop. They have shelves upon shelves of herbs; baskets of sage; organic, essential-oil infused candles; and small-shop, natural remedies for common ails. What better place to start the quest to conquer these allergies once and for all? I sat down with Cheryl, the owner, to talk about her herbal approach — everything from supplements and teas, to oils and mushrooms.
If there is one takeaway from both my experience and Cheryl’s recommendation, it’s to begin your regimen before experiencing any agitation. Symptoms are far more likely to subside or be entirely alleviated when you simply re-route the problem before it arrives. For the first wave of springtime allergies on the east coast, this would have been mid-April, while it was still freezing, or while you're still on the beach at the end of summer. Alternatively, if you’re traveling somewhere you know has allergens that cause aggravation like dust, pollen or cats, or just a new place in general, try starting a couple weeks before you go and continue throughout your trip, if possible. That said, you’re still better late than never. Starting now would alleviate summertime-specific symptoms caused by seasonal blooms, fresh cut grass, summer-specific pollens — so hop to it.
Lindsay: Can you talk a little bit about allergies, your own experience with them (if any!) and why you recommend an herbal approach?
Cherie: I don’t usually get allergies which I find very interesting, but this year more than any other year now I’m starting to get them. Aside from this minimal personal exposure, my experience is people in coming into the shop looking for remedies, and my husband has allergies, too.
I always recommend an herbal approach. To everything. All you have to do is Google side effects for a pretty terrifying long list. Over the counter medications could affect your heart, [and lead to] lightheadedness, seizures, headaches, blurred vision… Meanwhile, herbal remedies have virtually no side effects.
Allergies work with the body to get the body used to the allergen, to help the immune system calm down. Essentially the immune system overreacts to the allergen. Pollen, for example, in some people, creates histamines. All the medications do is block receptor sites to the histamines. It’s putting a bandaid on the system, and prolonged use makes you more resistant.
Herbal remedies like nettles actually block the production of the histamine, it’s a true anti-histamine.
My approach, an herbal approach, is more about healing the source, not just putting a bandaid on it.
We’re on board. What herbal supplements can be taken to remedy seasonal allergies?
Nettle leaf is an amazing antihistamine, drink nettle tea. Ideally you’d sip on it all day, but one to two cups is far better than nothing at all. Nettle tea is a tea you can drink every day of your life, it has so many benefits.
Elderflower is an amazing anti-inflammatory. It calms the sinuses, eyes, nose, respiratory system and lungs when they get inflamed.
It’s also a good idea to support the liver, because the liver will eliminate excess histamines. A great mushroom is reishi mushroom, it’s anti inflammatory, good for lungs and respiratory system. It’s supportive to the immune system. You want to support the immune system because it’s over reacting when you have allergies. You don’t want to suppress it, you just want it to function the way it’s supposed to and support it best you can.
Adaptogens help the body come back into balance, they help it adapt to the stress. Reishi, echinacea, cordyceps and chaga, these blends help you breathe more easily.
Eyebright helps with mucus membranes and redness.
Yarrow helps with the sinuses. Golden Rod is a good anti-inflammatory, it gets rid of excess mucus. Iron and chlorophyll will help the adrenals. Maitaki mushroom is an immune modulator and allergy support.
Ultimately though, the thing that works best is the thing you’re gonna take. If you’re drinking nettle tea one to two months before allergy season begins, you won’t suffer with allergies or you’ll suffer much less than you used to. You can drink the teas all the time, all day. None of the herbs have caffeine, except for Yerba Mate. They’re nourishing, they won’t make you speedy, it’s more fortifying. Nettle is a great “wake up” tea without the jitters.
And of course, I couldn’t have an herbal approach without looking at the lifestyle holistically. None of these will work if the problem is coming from your diet, for instance. Address your diet. The more you can eat an anti-inflammatory diet the better off you’ll be. Garlic, green leafy veggies, flaxseed, chia seed, ginger, smoothies... add turmeric, cook with turmeric, thyme is great for opening the sinuses, and it’s anti-bacterial. Don’t eat a lot of sugar, or anything you know from personal experience that will compromise your immune system. Stress. Stress is a big one, do what you can to alleviate it. Drink broths. Bone broths, mushroom broths.
That all sounds excellent. But how do we soothe itchy, scratchy skin?
The skin is the largest organ in your body, to me simple is best, the less ingredients the better. Use simple soaps that are oil based, chemical free and pesticide free. A good simple oil is calendula. It’s anti fungal, good for soothing itch. Brooklyn Herborium makes an amazing infused coconut oil with red clover and calendua that we stock. You can try an oatmeal bath, but spruce it up if you’re feeling scratchy. Add lavender, peppermint, and put only natural products on your skin — nothing with chemicals as they could be aggravating it.
So I bought all of the things, I’m ready to tackle the allergies but I don’t know where to begin. Can you describe a daily ritual/regimen for someone plagued by allergies this season?
I should preface this by reinforcing that one tweak won’t change your world, it might make a small difference but it’s really living a lifestyle that’s preventative — but it’s easier than ever. A comprehensive effort will change your world and your symptoms.
Morning (and throughout the day): Drink a mug of nettle tea and trying drinking it all throughout the day.
Noon: Try something anti-inflammatory for lunch, eat a big salad with leafy greens, avoid dairy and don’t snack on sugary things.
Evening: Do a neti pot at the end of the day. You can do a neti pot with golden rod tea with a little salt if you’re feeling upper respiratory congestion. A bath with eucalyptus or peppermint oils helps to open up your sinuses, and use lavender for easing stress, because the more stressed you are the more your body will succumb to things like allergies.
Are there different remedies for different allergies (pollen, dust, grass) Or conversely different symptoms (itchy eyes, runny nose, etc.)?
Your body’s reaction to an allergen is similar no matter the allergen, people have different symptoms but that varies from person to person not from allergen to allergen. Treatment is really similar, no matter the allergy.
Fascinating! I had no idea. The mainstream market is so symptom-driven, thanks for clarifying. What herbs and spices could I be cooking with to combat allergies? And what should I avoid?
Here’s a list of anti-inflammatory ingredients to use in cooking – they’re great any time, not just allergy season.
Respiratory support and anti-inflammatory ingredients: Tumeric, Garlic, Ginger, Thyme, Cold water fish
Liver support: Beets, dandelion, Maitake and shiitake mushrooms
Restorative and balancing herbs: Ashwaganda, Astragalus
Do away with: Sugar, Processed foods, Wheat (for some), Dairy
Do you have a natural detergent recommendation or recipe?
Anything else you think someone with seasonal allergies should know?
A few more things that can help — raw apple cider vinegar is inexpensive simple allergy remedy. Personally I take a tablespoon in a glass of water, I’ll do it once or twice a day. Raw local honey, you can make a hot tea that’s an allergy-fighting powerhouse.
Raw local honey
Raw apple cinder vinegar
In the end, be aware of the side effects of the medications you’re taking. Educate yourselves, knowledge is power. And don’t knock the herbal approach till you try it.
Thank you, Cheryl!
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