Woman Blowing Her Nose

In the springtime, when birds do sing, tree pollen flings, eyes itch, noses clog,  throats do hack ‘” hey ding a ding, a ding: Sweet lovers love the spring. 

 — Paraphrase of Shakespeare’s Lover and His Lass

Are you mistaking that Spring cold for an allergy? Often, the reason Spring and Summer colds are so difficult to overcome is because they are not colds at all, but allergies. At this time of year, the distinction between a cold and an allergy (and to a lesser extent, the flu) is not so clear-cut.

How do you know if you have a cold, flu or allergy?

Common upper respiratory symptoms such as sneezing, nasal congestion with mild, clear discharge and mild to moderate cold sensitivity are common to both colds and allergies.

However, allergies are accompanied by tingling or itchy sensations in the throat and eyes with absolutely no fever.

Are you contagious? If you have a cold or flu, you may be able to recall if you caught it from someone, or if you have passed it on to another. Contact with school children or people who are ill increase your risk.

Flu is usually accompanied by a fever with severe muscle aches, sore throat and fatigue.

Colds very seldom cause fever, but if they do, the fever is lower than that caused by flu.

What causes colds and allergies?

Perhaps your grandmother told you that you could catch a cold from being exposed to cold weather. It is now scientifically proven that exposure to the cold virus, and not to cold weather, causes a cold, but nevertheless, cold temperatures and chills should be avoided. To the contrary it is heat, caused by. safely elevating body temperature and promoting sweating, that helps break a cold or fever. This is why we use diaphoretic herbs to help bring about a sweat.

Unseasonable weather and dramatic changes in climate make us more vulnerable to all external diseases. Indeed, much of the world has recently suffered earthquakes, tsunamis, tornadoes, and extreme storms. Add to that terrorist attacks, economic setback, loss of homes and jobs, civil unrest, revolutions, radiation and nuclear fallout, and it is not difficult to see how vulnerable we really are.

Where I live, among the beautiful redwood sequoias and the non-native flowering acacias in the mountains of Santa Cruz, California, the atmosphere is thick with airborne pollen. When the heavy spring rains come, the pollen descends with a vengeance. Most locals will experience slightly itchy eyes or throat, but as long as it is bearable will generally give no notice, but each of us has our limit. The body’s immune response can only handle so much environmental stress with varied tolerance between individuals based on susceptibility.

One simple precaution you can take to stay ahead of the game is to ingest a teaspoonful daily of locally harvested bee pollen and honey. If your local health food store (you know, the one that is and should be making a big deal out of eating and shopping locally) doesn’t carry local honey and bee pollen, remind them how important these local products are to springtime health and well-being.


What happens inside the body that actually generates an allergic reaction?

Histamines trigger local inflammatory immune reactions in response to foreign pathogens. They are produced by basophils and by mast cells found in nearby connective tissues. Histamines increase the permeability of the capillaries to white blood cells and some proteins, which shows up as mucus, sometimes a lot of it to allow them to engage pathogens in the infected tissues. Because they are found in virtually all animal body cells, an inflammatory allergic immune reaction can occur pretty much anywhere on or throughout the body, which means we can have allergic reactions to almost anything, including dust, cat hair, mold, and poison oak or ivy.

Unfortunately, although it is a well-intentioned attempt at defense, histamine response in the form of allergies, asthma attacks, bronchitis, coughs, and inflamed tissues, often winds up doing even greater damage to the body than the irritant it attempted to protect against.

The ultimate anti-reaction drugs cortisone or prednisone are designed to suppress and arrest severe allergic reactions. Cortinsone’s milder herbal counterpart is licorice.  In fact, prolonged, excessive use of licorice has been shown to cause all of the same adverse reactions of edema and weight gain associated with prolonged cortisone use.

Anti-Allergy Herbs

The body produces its own indigenous counterpart to cortisone in the form of cortisol, mostly in the cortical part of the adrenals, which Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) classifies as Kidney Yin. Licorice is described as being ‘cortisone-sparing.’ In other words, it allows the body’s own cortisol to remain in circulation longer, thus creating a deeper, longer lasting, protective cortisol effect.

If you are not prone to high blood pressure, drinking licorice tea can provide temporary relief from allergies.  While I haven’t tried it, I think a strong, condensed extract of licorice as an ointment applied to eczema, psoriasis and poison oak/ivy and other types of contact dermatitis can be useful.  TCM prefers to use crushed extract of crude pearls to achieve the same anti-inflammatory purpose.

The Chinese herb bai zhi (radix Angelica dahurica) has an acrid flavor, warm energy and enters the Lung, Stomach and Spleen organ meridians is used for ‘Wind-Cold’ nasal congestion, headaches, muscle aches and symptoms of Dampness and itching. Bai zhi has been found to have antihistamine properties.

The traditional formula Pe Min Kan Wan, also known as Bi Min Gan Wan or Nasal Allergy Pills, is used to provide relief from common nasal discomfort and hay fever. It can be tried as an alternative to harsher antihistamines and decongestants such as Claritin and Zyrtec to relieve stressed out nasal passages.

Pe Min Kan Wan’s efficacy rests on the inclusion of one of the most powerful antiviral botanicals, ban lan gen (isatis root). Isatis happens to be one of the oldest and most common Western herbs, so common in fact that its once-popular name, ‘woad,’ in medieval times simply meant, ‘weed.’ Unfortunately, most of isatis’ medicinal uses were ignored in favor of its use as a blue dye plant for which it was cultivated. This bitter and a cold (meaning ‘anti-inflammatory’) herb treats all those kinds of conditions associated with viral infection. Even though this blog focuses on treating allergies, it is not uncommon that such conditions are complicated with a cold or flu. Pe Min Kan Wan clears Heat and toxic materials, cools Blood and subdues swelling.

People who are taking blood-thinning drugs or who have known sulfur sensitivities (isatis is a member of the Cruciferae family which contains sulfur-like compounds) should avoid isatis. Otherwise, it is regarded as safe enough that traditional Chinese people used to take this herb in the Spring as a blood cleanser to relieve the internal burden of toxins in the body to make it better able to contend with the external ones that it is likely to encounter in this season. TCM recommends a dose of 10 to 15 grams in decoction.

Another commonly used formula for springtime allergies is Bi Yan Pian (Sinus Infection and Headache Pill), which is used as a gentler herbal alternative to pharmaceutical antihistamines. However, it combines antibacterial properties making it useful for allergies and colds complicated with bacterial infections. The difference between Pe Min Kan Wan and Bi Yan Pian is that the latter is indicated for acute conditions with thick yellow mucus, while the former is for more chronic conditions associated with clear or whitish mucus.

Ayurvedic herbal formulas for allergies are less specifically antihistamine but work on digestion. Traditional herbal medicine views digestion as the underlying cause of most diseases. A lack of enzymes leads to poor breakdown of food, which in turn causes an accumulation of mucus.

One possible physiological connection between the generation of histamine, mucus and the stomach are Enterochromaffin-like cells or ECL cells, which are found in the stomach’s mucosa and synthesize and secrete histamine. These may explain why some people seem to be relatively clear of allergic symptoms so long as they carefully monitor their diet to prevent histaminic reactions, characterized by extreme acute paroxysmal coughing reaction caused by long sticky, stringy, mucus. This is where the Ayurvedic formula Trikatu is most effective. Consisting of black pepper, long pepper, and ginger mixed with honey, it stimulates digestive enzymes which, if taken early in the season, will prevent springtime allergies.

Western approaches to springtime allergies might include a number of herbs such as elecampane, mullein, yerba santa, osha (Ligusticum porteri). While there is less traditional experience and use, not to mention research, it is presumed that all of these also work to lessen mucus and allergic reactions.

Freeze-dried stinging nettles is currently a popular anti-allergy herb. The connection seems to be that since the formic acid ‘sting’ and resultant rash is the result of a histaminic inflammatory reaction, such rashes are relieved by directly applying the fresh juice of the whole herb. Thus someone conjectured that whole, freeze dried nettles must have antihistamine properties. While this seems a bit of a stretch, there is one preliminary study that seems to back it up (Mittman P. Randomized,double-blind study of freeze-dried Urtica dioica in the treatment of allergic rhinitis. Planta Medica 56:44-7, 1990).

If you are trying to treat an allergy as a cold or flu with herbs, your best efforts will probably be thwarted. Understanding the cause is the key if you expect any positive results from herbal medicine (and for that matter Western medicine as well). Herbal sweating therapies such as elderflower, yarrow and peppermint tea given for colds, or Wind-Heat clearing antivirals such as lonicera and forsythia (found in Yin Qiao San) given for flu with fever and sore throat are not very effective for allergies.

Spring Cleaning and Diet

Another perspective could be that allergies are nature’s way of affecting an old-fashioned physiological spring-cleaning. In many cultures throughout the world, people undergo special fasts or take special herbs to ‘clean’ their blood. For example, my old world Italian grandparents would gather huge paper bags full of mustard greens from nearby orchards, take them home, and boil the entire batch into a gallon or so of water, which they would drink each day for a period of two weeks or so each Spring.

There’s a limit to how much one can do to cure allergies, especially if allergies are viewed as the body’s natural way to detoxify itself. I remember once the late Dr. Christopher was asked by someone about their allergy to strawberries. Dr. Christopher’s reply was, ‘Go out and purchase a couple flats of fresh organic strawberries and eat as many as you can.’ I don’t know if this is hyperbole, to which the good doctor was prone, but it does reflect his view that food allergies are a way for the body to clear certain toxins from the blood.

The fact remains that even the best herbal allergy treatments are largely symptomatic, so addressing the deeper cleansing needs of the body is also important.

If you want more severe allergies, eat plenty of foods with white sugar, fat, dairy, candy, doughnuts, cake, pasta, alcohol, coffee, and flour products. If not, concentrate on a lighter, easily digested liquid diet of dilute, warm fruit juices, soups (chicken soup for example), thin rice gruel (congee) and kicharee (soupy Indian dahl).

Along with this diet, choose one of the Chinese herbal allergy formulas mentioned above and be sure to take Ayurvedic trikatu and triphala. Tulsi or ginger tea is also beneficial. A Western herbal ‘spring-cleaning’ tea to have two or three times daily consists of equal parts red clover blossoms, dandelion root, burdock root and crushed fennel seed as a tea.  Simmer a heaping tablespoon of the mixture in one cup of boiling water for 20 minutes, covered. Allow to steep and cool.

I am not aware of any adverse herb drug reactions between these milder herbal treatments for springtime allergies and common over-the-counter allergy drugs. However, all herbal and pharmaceutical approaches to treating allergies involve resolving and drying mucus in one form or another, so individuals with serious Yin Deficiency (preexistent constitutional dryness) or what Ayurveda calls a vata condition might experience an aggravation from either the drug or to a far lesser extent the herbal allergy treatments. If there are any signs of an exacerbation of dryness and Yin Deficiency symptoms (night sweats, extreme thirst, irritability, etc.),  it might be wise to back off your dose of anti-allergy formula or drug (or at least, don’t use them together).

There is a growing number of qualified clinical herbalists throughout the country, for the Clinical Planetary herbalist nearest you, click here. You can also search for a professional herbalist recognized by the American Herbalist Guild. This list is not exclusive and does not mean that other herbalists who you may know in your area are not qualified.

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