By Rachel Rabkin
It happens to an estimated 40 to 50 million Americans every year: the stuffy head, watery eyes, runny nose and sneezing that signal seasonal allergies. The good news is that you don't always have to pop a pill to feel better. "Studies show that natural approaches are effective in improving allergy symptoms," says Robert Anderson, M.D., immediate past president of the American Board of Holistic Medicine. "The best part is that you can avoid the unwanted side effects of traditional medication such as drowsiness," he says. We asked top alternative-medicine experts for diet, body and mind strategies to deal with this allergy season drug-free.
Pick up some produce
"About 20 percent of our immune cells are in the intestines, so diet plays a big role in immune function," says Carolyn Dean, M.D., a naturopathic physician in City Island, New York. Fruits and vegetables with the deepest hues, such as berries, spinach and red grapes, are highest in antioxidants, which help prevent the free-radical damage to cells that weakens immunity. Vitamins C and E and beta-carotene (also found in brightly colored produce) have anti-inflammatory properties that may help decrease the swelling in the airways that causes congestion, says Mary L. Hardy, M.D., director of Integrative Medicine at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. Quercitin, a plant compound found in apples and grapes, also inhibits inflammation in nasal passages.
Avoid dairy, sugar, wheat and food additives
These are known to produce excess mucus, which causes congestion and nasal irritation, according to Dr. Hardy. Cutting back will help make you less sensitive to pollens and other irritants.
Eat spicy foods
They can increase blood flow, which brings oxygen to the nasal passages and helps thin and eliminate mucus, says Dr. Hardy.
Fluids help clear airways by hydrating mucous membranes: The wetter the membrane, the thinner the mucus and the more easily it can drain.
Choose foods that contain omega-3 fatty acids.
Found in fish, almonds and flax seeds, omega-3's may help lessen respiratory symptoms by reducing inflammation, according to a study from the State University of New York at Stony Brook.
Be sure to check product labels for dosages, and always talk to your doctor about possible interactions with other drugs before taking anything.
Stinging nettle is a natural antihistamine that relieves irritation in the nasal passages, according to Dr. Anderson.
Sodium selenite (a form of the antioxidant selenium) helps boost the immune system and neutralize free radicals, which can spur allergy attacks, says Dr. Anderson.
Aloe, when taken in supplement form or in a saline-based nasal spray, can also help heal irritated mucous membranes.
Fenugreek eases congestion by thinning mucus, says Dr. Hardy.