In these fragrant spring and summer months, the population seems to divide itself into two types of people—those who suffer from hay fever and those who don’t! Most hay fever (allergic rhinitis) is caused by a reaction to ragweed pollen, though other tree, weed and grass pollens may aggravate the situation. When we breathe in something we’re allergic to, the immune system creates antibodies, which go to work on the allergen and release histamine. It’s the histamine that brings on sneezing, itchy eyes and a runny nose. Whether you endure this seasonal scourge yourself or know someone who does, read on for some natural allergy-easing advice.

QUERCETIN

This flavonoid has anti-inflammatory and antihistamine properties. Both anecdotal evidence and a number of studies back quercetin up as one of the most important supplements for allergy season. Studies show that quercetin inhibits the release of histamine from mast cells. Less histamine means less itchy, watery eyes and nose—and that’s great news for any hay fever sufferer! Some studies also suggest that the combination of vitamin C and quercetin works even better than quercetin alone. Scientists say vitamin C also helps break down histamine.

STINGING NETTLE

A traditional herbal remedy for allergies, stinging nettle was the subject of a clinical trial on about 100 people with hay fever. The researchers reported that those taking nettle fared better with allergy symptoms than those taking a placebo capsule. Other studies with nettle indicate that it has an anti-inflammatory effect, which could account for its success with allergy sufferers.

BUTTERBUR

Less common than nettle, the butterbur herb was recently found to be as effective as over-the-counter antihistamines for alleviating hay fever symptoms, but without the sedative side effects. Butterbur extract has also been used for bronchial asthma, smooth muscle spasms and headache. Studies show that herb compounds inhibit the synthesis of leukotrienes, which are responsible for inflammation.

HOMEOPATHICS

There are a number of homeopathic remedies and combination products available for dealing with hay fever. For the best results, do see a homeopathic practitioner for a full evaluation. In the meantime, however, these are some common options:

•Allium cepa: for streaming eyes and nose with sneezing worse when in a warm room

• Arsenicum album: for eyes sensitive to light, feeling worn out and sneezing

• Gelsemium: for bouts of sneezing, when tears feel hot and burn eyelids and there is profuse watery nasal discharge.

Sources: Brit Med Journ 2002;324:144; Dietary Supplement Information Bureau (www.supplementinfo.org); Earl Mindell’s Supplement Bible by E Mindell, Fireside:1998.