How Holistic Doctors Handle Their Allergies

Silence seasonal sneezing with these natural remedies.

September 17, 2008, 5:27 PM

Sept. 23, 2008 — -- Allergies are an equal opportunity annoyer -- and even doctors are bothered by them.

While conventionally trained physicians might seek relief from an over-the-counter product or prescription medication, doctors who practice integrative medicine -- using both traditional and alternative treatment approaches -- may ease their stuffiness and watery eyes without resorting to medicine. They might reach for something in the supplement aisle or use other natural strategies to soothe their seasonal symptoms.

ABC News recently spoke with four integrative physicians to find out what they do when their allergies act up. Here's what they said.

The doctor: Michelle Bailey, pediatrician and director of education at Duke Integrative Medicine in Durham, N.C.

The culprit: Ragweed; August and September are her worst months, and her symptoms tend to improve by late October or early November, depending on the pollen counts.

What she does for prevention: In the past, Bailey's allergies have progressed to the point where she developed severe headaches from the congestion and was prone to sinus infections. To prevent this, she now regularly uses a warm saline solution to rinse out her sinuses, a practice known as nasal irrigation. She puts a commercial or homemade saline solution into either a plastic syringe or a neti pot, a spouted device used to cleans nasal passageways by pouring saltwater into one nostril so that it drains out the other.

To minimize pollen exposure, Bailey also keeps the windows closed in her bedroom and car during allergy season and washes her hands and face regularly throughout the day. And if she's spent a lot of time outdoors, she changes her clothes.

What she does for treatment: When allergy season is under way and her symptoms emerge, she may do the nasal rinse as often as three to four times a day to help thin mucus and wash it away along with pollen and other irritants. If she's very stuffed up, she might use aromatherapy. She places a few drops of congestion-busting peppermint or eucalyptus oil on a warm cloth and holds this below her nose, breathing deeply for three to five minutes. Or she might add these oils to a warm bath and inhale the scented steam.

Her bottom line: Before she learned about the benefit of these natural practices, she relied on prescription and over-the-counter antihistamines, or she didn't treat her symptoms at all and instead, suffered through them all season long. Since doing these strategies regularly, she's not had any sinus infections and she feels she's helping her body to heal itself.

The doctor: Daniel Monti, medical director for the Myrna Brind Center of Integrative Medicine at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia

The culprit: Grass pollen in mid- to late May until July

What he does for prevention: "When I paid more attention to my overall physiological status, I've found my allergies can get better," Monti said. So instead of treating his allergy like it's an isolated symptom -- a sneeze here or a plugged-up nose there -- he uses a whole-body approach.

This lifestyle-based approach finds him paying close attention not only to his sniffles and surroundings, but also to the foods he eats, his stress level, the amount of rest he gets and his exercise program. Allergies are an inflammatory process, he says, and he's noticed that a wide range of factors -- not just grass pollen flying through the air -- might prompt his immune system to overreact and trigger an inflammatory response.

Through trial and error he's discovered that some foods, in his case wheat and milk, seem to set off his symptoms a bit and make him feel more congested. So he tries to eat a mostly plant-based diet, or foods that seem to minimize inflammation. And if he's not dealing well with the stress in his life, he's noticed his symptoms seem more bothersome.

What he does for treatment: When his pollen allergy flares up, he takes a homeopathic remedy specially formulated for allergies. This liquid tincture contains extremely dilute concentrations of substances used in homeopathic medicine including Apis mellifica (derived from the honeybee), Nux vomica (which comes from an Asian tree), and Allium sativum (garlic). He'll also use an air purifier in his home to trap dust mites and mold spores. "Many pollen people are also sensitive to dust and dust mites," Monti said.

His bottom line: By being in a better physiological state and keeping his body strong when the season approaches, Monti says he likes to think that he has laid the groundwork to make his allergies more bearable. "There's not a tremendous amount of research that a lifestyle program helps seasonal allergies, but it's definitely helped me," he said.

The doctor: Roberta Lee, medical director for the Continuum Center for Health and Healing in New York City

The culprit: Blooming trees in spring

What she does for prevention: To head off sneezing, congestion and itchy eyes, Lee takes quercetin, a bioflavonoid compound typically found in foods such as apple skins and red onion, and also sold as a supplement. She starts taking 500 milligrams of quercetin twice a day a month before her allergy season begins and continues the preventive remedy throughout the season. This natural product helps stabilizes mast cells, which can release histamines, the chemicals known to trigger an allergic reaction.

What she does for treatment: When her eyes start to itch, Lee places homeopathic eye drops in her irritated peepers. If her nose is blocked, she does a "nasal wash" to eliminate the allergens from being absorbed into her respiratory system. She uses a neti pot to rinse her nose, and typically does this cleansing practice in the morning. She places a pinch of salt into warm boiled water that has been cooled, and adds a dash of baking soda (which takes some of the sting out of saline.)

And when Lee is having symptoms she'll also take the herb stinging nettle, a remedy used for hay fever. She may take a 300-milligram capsule of the freeze-dried extract three to seven times a day. Or she may seek out acupuncture. This ancient needling technique offers her almost instantaneous relief while the herbs tend to take some time to work.

Her bottom line: Antihistamines make her fall asleep and these alternative treatments are less sedating, more natural and provide her -- and her patients -- with much relief.

The doctor: Donald Levy, medical director for the Osher Clinical Center for Complementary and Integrative Medical Therapies at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Chestnut Hill, Mass.

The culprit: Blooming trees in spring; ragweed in late summer.

What he does for prevention: "This is the first allergy season that I've taken 'allergy avoidance' more seriously," Levy said, adding that it's made a noticeable difference. He put an allergen-proof cover on his mattress and pillows to minimize dust mites, and he also got rid of unnecessary pillows around his home. And if he's been outdoors in the evening, he showers before bedtime so pollen isn't resting on his pillowcase.

And for the first time, he took the supplement quercetin before allergy season began.

What he does for treatment: He expands his allergy-relief efforts to include a prescription antihistamine that doesn't leave him feeling groggy as well as the herb stinging nettle every few hours. He says these strategies, combined with his preventive practices, have made him feel "remarkably better" than in seasons past.

He also uses a simple sinus rinse that he does in the shower and takes him five seconds to complete. "It's a fabulous way to wash out irritants and mucus and soothe the sinuses," he said. "I'm amazed at how many of my patients have thanked me for telling them about the sinus rinse and how using it at their first sign of symptoms, has helped them avoid sinus infections."

His bottom line: He mixes and matches both conventional allergy medication and alternative treatments, and he's having his best allergy season in years. To him, good medicine means blending the things that work best for each patient, even in those cases when he is the patient.