Features and Occasionals

In the Garden: Lessons Learned in Allergy Season

By Alice Toler

I used to hate my allergies. What’s to like about them? When I get a good snootful of pollen, it feels like my brain is trying to evacuate itself through my sinuses. Sometimes I start to teeter into asthmatic territory. I lose my ability to think properly. I can’t physically function at all. It is incredibly frustrating. Spring is a lovely time of year, but I’ve learned to associate fresh plant growth with inevitable bodily distress.

Lately, though, I’ve managed to start looking at my hay fever as an interesting opportunity to learn more about my immune system and how it interacts with my environment, diet and mental state. It’s hard to consider allergies a gift from the Universe, but since sitting like Job on his heap of ashes, bemoaning my fate and cursing God isn’t really a constructive option, herewith I present to you What I’ve Learned.

First: A neti pot of warm saline solution will immediately remove all pollen from the surface of your sinuses and stop the allergic reaction from getting any worse. Washing your face with cold water will immediately quiet itchy eyes and skin. A bad histamine reaction makes you want to just lie down and suffer. Don’t give in—go wash your face and clean out your sinuses.

Now that your face is fixed and you’re able to think, and since you’re trapped in your house for a while, sit and consider what’s been going on in your life over the past six weeks or so. Any new stressors? Have you been sick? If you have other allergies (for instance, to food), have you been exposed to those allergens lately? Once your immune system gets riled up over something, it tends to stay riled up for a while. This year my allergies are particularly bad, and I think it has to do with a hectic spring travel schedule and a bad case of gnat bites at the beginning of the season, which caused my lymph nodes to swell up painfully. Introspection may give you some clues about your physical state, and perhaps you can try to do things differently next year. Starting in late winter, make sure you’re going to those restorative yoga classes, drinking lots of water, eating healthy food and maybe getting some prophylactic acupuncture.

Buy some nettle supplements. Common stinging nettles, Urtica dioica, are something of a wonder-weed when it comes to manipulating histamines in your body. The stinging hairs contain acetylcholine, histamine, serotonin, moroidin, leuko­trienes and possibly formic acid (the main component of ant venom). Nettles have a long tradition of medicinal use, and have been known as a folk remedy for rheumatism and a stalwart ally against allergic rhinitis. I’m not sure why nettles work, but perhaps they give my overactive immune soldiers something more robust to engage than simple airborne pollen. Also, make a note on your calendar for next February to start taking nettles then, to build up your body before the pollen hits.

A particularly hardcore friend of mine claims that “wearing shorts and walking through a field of stinging nettles will cure your allergies for a whole season.” I’m not that masochistic, nor do the nettles in Utah come up nearly early enough for me to nip my hay fever in the bud by stinging myself on purpose, but in my personal experience, nettle supplements work at least as well as most over-the-counter allergy remedies, and better than a lot of them. If I start the nettle-taking regimen in February, two 400mg capsules three times a day will keep my body in line and my hay fever in May down to a dull roar. This year I had just about despaired of ever moderating the raging histamines in my system, but another friend recommended I up my dosage to five capsules three times a day. Although all those capsules at mealtimes can be a drag to swallow, I have to say, it seems to be working.

As it’s spring, you should also plant a Mormon tea bush. Plant it in a sunny part of your garden. This hardy, drought-tolerant perennial came to my notice as a possible allergy-relief ally when I leafed through Charles W. Kane’s excellent book, Herbal Medicine of the American Southwest. Handily, we already had a small dwarf variety of Ephedra nevadensis growing in our parking strip, so I harvested a couple tablespoons of the new green growth, minced it and steeped it in hot water for a few minutes. It produced a surprisingly palatable tea. I drank it like matcha, greens and all, and experienced relief from sneezing for a full six hours.

Our little Mormon tea bush isn’t large or fast-growing enough to provide me with tea for allergy relief all season, so I consulted Kane again for another remedy. The Brittlebush he recommends doesn’t grow this far north at these altitudes, so I turned to another volume of his, titled Herbal Medicine: Trends and Traditions which is more wide-reaching in the herbs it describes.

To my surprise, top of his list globally for hay fever treatment is yerba mate, a very popular tea, and something I already had in my cupboard. Like Mormon tea, yerba mate is an adrenal stimulant, causing your body to release immune-moderating cortisol, waking you up, and making you feel generally livelier. I am, in general, pretty wary of adrenal stimulants since they’re easy to overdo and the withdrawal head­aches can be wicked, but so far a few cups of mate a day has not injured me, and in combination with the nettles, seems to have quieted the histamine riot.

If you suffer from seasonal allergies, you have my deepest sympathies. It’s incredibly vexing to know that, essentially, your body is at war with itself over nothing. Still, it is a golden opportunity to learn how to hack your own immune system, if you can refrain from despair. Good luck, and remember to take your nettles.

This article was originally published on May 29, 2013.