So Long, Seasonal Allergies

Silence hay fever's sneezing, wheezing, and sniffles with homeopathy.
By Kristin Bjornsen

A few months ago, actress Michelle Rodriguez—the gutsy pilot in Avatar and heroine in the TV show Lost—appeared on The Jay Leno Show. “You filmed Lost in Hawaii,” said Leno. “What was the hardest thing about living in Hawaii?”

“The constant allergies. I was allergic to everything on that island, especially the seasonal cockroach resin, dust mites, you name it,” Rodriguez replied. “But I went to an amazing allergist, and she got rid of everything, doing some homeopathic stuff. I’m a true believer now.”

Rodriguez is not alone—about one in five Americans suffer from allergies, including hay fever, according to the Mayo Clinic. But the actress is somewhat unique in treating them with homeopathy. In society’s mad grab for conventional antihistamines and decongestants, this effective, nontoxic option gets overlooked. “Unlike conventional allergy drugs, which just relieve symptoms temporarily, homeopathy treats the underlying problem, sometimes completely curing the allergies,” says Barbara Seideneck, RSHom, director of the Homeopathy School International in Colorado.

Doctors don’t entirely know why some people get seasonal allergies and others don’t. Genetics play a role, as do foods and environmental factors, such as being born during a pollen season or growing up with secondhand smoke. Whatever the initial trigger, the general mechanism behind allergies is the same: A person encounters a certain substance—be it pollen from trees, grass, or weeds—and the immune system mistakes it as a threat. The person becomes “sensitized,” so the next time she encounters that allergen, the immune system overreacts with an inflammation response: Antibodies signal to the body to release inflammatory chemicals like histamine, which can cause runny nose, congestion, sneezing, sinus pressure, asthma, or watery eyes.

Conventional allergy medicines work by interrupting the body’s response. Antihistamines like Benadryl and Claritin block histamine; corticosteroids such as Flonase and Nasonex prevent and suppress inflammatory responses; and decongestant sprays such as Neo-Synephrine and Afrin shrink swollen nasal membranes. Many of these meds carry unpleasant side effects, including drowsiness, sinus irritation, headaches, dizziness, and—in the case of oral corticosteroids—cataracts, osteoporosis, or muscle weakness. Moreover, the corticosteroids “suppress the immune system, which can cause health problems,” says Dana Ullman, author of The Homeopathic Revolution (North Atlantic Books, 2007). “The word symptom is derived from the word signal. Allergy drugs mute that signal, so you’re ignoring your body’s message about the underlying problem.” He compares taking allergy drugs to discovering that your car’s oil light is flashing, and rather than changing or adding oil, you just unscrew the fuse.

Your body has to learn that allergens are not a threat. Homeopathy accomplishes this by introducing into the body minute, nontoxic amounts of the allergen (or a substance that causes allergy-like symptoms) in order to strengthen your defenses. Homeopathy operates on the principle of “like cures like.” In other words, a substance capable of producing certain symptoms when given to a healthy person will cure those same complaints in a sick person, explains Seideneck. Say, for example, hay fever makes your eyes water. Then the appropriate homeopathic remedy for hay fever might be Allium cepa, made from onion (which is also known to make eyes water).

“Homeopathy is a type of ‘medical aikido’—the medicine mimics the body’s own symptoms to create real healing, not just a suppression of the disease,” says Ullman. Although people with severe, chronic allergies may need months of treatment for a complete cure, “research shows that the results of homeopathic treatment are rapid,” he says, with symptoms quickly abating. What’s more, the principles behind homeopathy are similar to allergen immunotherapy (allergy shots). But homeopathic remedies are an easier, less expensive alternative to weekly allergy shots. (One vial of a homeopathic remedy can last the whole month and costs as little as $5 to $15.)

Roughly 400 homeopathic remedies are used for allergies, says Seideneck. Choosing the right ones depends partly on what level of treatment you need: acute, chronic, or something in between.

Acute treatment
If you don’t have a history of allergies and just experience occasional flare-ups, you might get relief from a generic homeopathic blend. These combination formulas, available at most health food stores, contain the most common substances to which people are allergic, such as ragweed (the homeopathic name is ambrosia) or house dust mite (labeled as such).

A study published in The Annals of Pharmacotherapy showed that allergy sufferers in Phoenix who received a homeopathic preparation containing common Southwest allergens reported a significant decrease in symptoms after four weeks.

Take combination blends when symptoms strike. Or if you know you have seasonal allergies, it may help to start the formula a couple weeks before the season begins. Observe the results. If the symptoms feel the same every year, the remedy probably isn’t the right one for you. Either try a different combination or consider receiving a deeper level of treatment.

Try: Ullman’s favorite homeopathic combination blends include Heel’s Luffeel Nasal Spray, Boiron’s Sabadil, and Hyland’s Seasonal Allergy Relief.

Digging deeper
For people with more chronic or uncommon allergies, the generic combo formulas might work for awhile, says Seideneck, “but next season, you’ll get symptoms again.” If this happens, you may need a more personalized treatment. Everyone’s symptoms are unique. One person’s nose drips while another’s gets stuffy; some people’s eyes water and others’ itch. The more closely the remedy matches the person’s symptoms, the better it works, says Seideneck.

Start by consulting a homeopathic book, such as The Complete Homeopathic Resource for Common Illnesses (North Atlantic, 2006) by Dennis Chernin, MD, or Ullman’s Everybody’s Guide to Homeopathic Medicines (Tarcher, 2004). “Write down your symptoms and then look to see which remedies are called for,” says Ullman. For example, if your allergies make you extremely drowsy, with violent sneezing that’s worse in warm, humid weather, you might reach for the remedy yellow jasmine, since this flower produces similar symptoms.

Another option is to have an allergist determine the substances to which you’re sensitive. Doctors do this with a skin-prick or a blood test. With the former, a small amount of an allergen is pricked into your arm or back; if you’re allergic, a hive will develop. The blood test measures the amount of allergen antibodies. Once you know your allergies, you can begin taking homeopathic remedies containing those exact substances at the start of allergy season.

In a study published in the British Medical Journal, researchers gave half the participants a homeopathic dose of the substance to which they were most allergic; the other half received placebo. Not only did the homeopathic group’s symptoms improve, but they improved almost as much as you’d expect from topical steroid treatments, minus the side effects.

Curing chronic allergies
If you have severe allergies—or if you’ve tried the above methods and nothing’s worked—you’ll want to find a certified homeopath to create a regimen that fits you specifically. The homeopath will conduct an interview to determine:

•The initial onset of your allergies
•The location, quantity, and quality of symptoms
•Your response to stressors, such as anxiety, disappointment, loss, and types of shock
•Conditions that improve or worsen your symptoms, such as hot versus cold weather, humidity versus dryness, and food cravings and sensitivities
•Your family health history

Although genes play a role in our allergies, environmental conditions can be the factor that triggers them. A homeopath tries to identify the stress that may have weakened the immune system enough for an allergy to develop, explains Seideneck. “It could be an emotional trauma like the loss of a family member, a failed exam, or someone really upsetting you. Whatever the cause, the stress may activate your immune system into a high alert, and the body responds with symptoms.”

Homeopaths select the best remedy to address the allergy symptoms and to strengthen the body altogether so that you’re more resilient. During homeopathic treatment, you’ll visit your specialist biweekly or monthly to see how much the remedy helps, and if it should be changed.

In-depth treatments have been shown to produce better long-term results. A British Medical Journal study reviewed a total of four double-blind, placebo-controlled trials involving more than 250 allergy sufferers. It found that symptoms improved by 28 percent in the homeopathy groups compared to 3 percent in the placebo groups. Interestingly, the researchers initially were skeptical of homeopathy, but the positive results lead them to conclude that “this study has failed to confirm our original hypothesis that homeopathy is a placebo.”

Of course, chronic allergies don’t disappear immediately. “The longer the condition has lasted, the longer it takes to get rid of,” says Seideneck, who has found that chronic allergy sufferers typically need two to 12 months of treatment. Kids, on the other hand, usually respond very quickly, and their allergies may go away after one or two treatments.

Occasionally, lifestyle changes also must accompany homeopathic treatment. “If you have a compromised lifestyle—such as taking multiple medications or recreational drugs, not getting enough sleep, smoking or drinking a lot, not getting sufficient nutrition—then you’ve got stressors that are preventing a cure, though symptoms might improve some,” Seideneck says.

The end goal remains the same, though: Help your body help itself.