Apr. 21, 2008 -- There's nothing like waking up fresh-faced after sweet, restorative sleep -- the kind of rest you really only get in the spring. Windows open, cool wet breeze, the scent of blossoming trees.
Yet the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases reports that 35 million Americans endure seasonal allergies, and spring mornings are quite different for these sufferers.
Think gooey, inflamed eyelids when the alarm goes. Wet smears on the pillowcase from night-sneezing. The surliness that comes with knowing you look exactly like that green, slimy Garbage Pail Kid (remember those?). So with the first sighting of the cherry blossom comes our first trip to the pharmacy to cash in our Allegra, Flonase or Singulair prescription.
And if we don't plan ahead, it's an emergency drugstore run for a family-size pack of antihistamines.
Although allergy medications make it possible for many of us to get through the day without spraying our coworkers with fluids best kept to ourselves, side effects to the active ingredients can include drowsiness, blurred vision, constipation and confusion (antihistamines), racing heart (pseudo ephedrine), and the proliferation of yeast colonies (steroids).
Dr. Woodson Merrell of New York's Beth Israel Medical Center says the answer lies in making "gentler, natural approaches combining conventional medicine and lifestyle changes" the standard of care in treating allergy symptoms.
Merrell, executive director of the Continuum Center for Health and Healing at Beth Israel, says that the medical literature is behind him. An increasing number of studies have demonstrated that "gentler, nature-based products and techniques" can safely alleviate symptoms -- without the same side effects.
1. Wash your nose: Neti Pots, which resemble little tea pots, can be filled with a warm salt-water solution and poured up a nostril -- thereby flooding the nasal cavity. In parts of India and southeast Asia, nasal irrigation is part of one's daily routine -– like washing your face and brushing your teeth.
Dr. Allan Sosin, director of the Institute for Progressive Medicine in Irvine, Calif., says regular irrigation thins out mucus, which otherwise holds onto allergens and serves as a breeding ground for bacteria. Bacteria, he says, inflames the linings of the nasal passages, making them more susceptible to allergens. 2. Eat your herbs: You will definitely want to consult with your doctor before taking any new drug, herbal or otherwise. That said, Beth Israel's Merrell references a growing body of evidence demonstrating that American Stinging Nettles, an herb called perilla -- a.k.a. the Beefsteak plant, and a European herb called Butterbur all have anti-inflammatory and antihistamine properties.
Says Merrell: "As with any herb you can pick or buy the herb and make a tincture or tea yourself, or you can buy an herbal capsule. You can try one or another, or a combination with very little risk of side effects. As to which works best, it's highly individual."
Although it's not an herb, another supplement he says is worth trying is Quercetin, a bioflavonoid found in cayenne pepper, hot ginger, fenugreek, onion, and garlic.
You can also make sure your diet contains plenty of the spicy stuff. "It's always best to start with the whole food, but you'd have to eat an awful lot of onions to get the benefit of a capsule." But if adding these foods to your diet brings relief, he adds, that may be all you need.
3. Take a break from milk: Even if you do not have a milk allergy, many doctors, including California's Sosin, believe milk and dairy products increase mucus production. It also tends to make mucus thicker, says Sosin, creating a perfect environment for bacteria and allergens to thrive. He suggests eliminating dairy during allergy season to see if there's any improvement.
4. Sleep with a HEPA: As nice as it is to sleep with the windows open, there is a good chance you will wake up feeling much more refreshed if you keep a HEPA filter running in your bedroom day and night.
Says Sosin: "Most people run into trouble at night. And I've seen sufferers who sleep on down pillows, or with their pets on the bed. People love their pets. It's hard to get someone to get rid of a pet, but they don't have to sleep in the same room."
Bianca Alexander, host of a network-affiliated show dedicated to natural health and sustainable, "Conscious Living," says that the average home contains at least as many allergens as the outdoors: "Synthetic carpet, formaldehyde, certain paints, and cleaning products are serious culprits," she says, adding that air filters can help, but simple fixes like using less toxic house cleaners can be effective as well.
5. Be patient: Natural remedies generally don't work in a hour, so try not to expect instant relief. And if you're still clinging to your antihistimine like a life preserver, many doctors say why not -- for example -- experiment with changing your diet and flushing your nostrils at the same time?
In other words, one need not choose between "alternative" and "traditional" medicine. Many doctors agree that both have pros and cons, depending on the health issue. If you're seeing a doctor who is unbiased in either direction, there's a good chance you'll get solid advice.