It’s spring – major allergy season. And many allergy sufferers may be contemplating their medicine cabinets of antihistamines and anti-inflammatories and wondering if vitamin C and bee pollen really do work.
Ever since the 1960s, complementary and alternative remedies have grown increasingly popular for treating a variety of maladies — allergies and asthma included. However, they appear to be more popular with patients than with doctors who question how beneficial they really are.
Take vitamins. Ara der DerMarderosian, Ph.D., professor of pharmacognosy at the University of the Sciences of Philadelphia, who advised healthAtoZ on its Complementary and Alternative Medicine Center, says that to some extent, vitamins might help slow down or dampen the symptoms of allergies or asthma.
“They may provide some benefit, but you won’t find much medical literature that proves it,” he says.
Many of the natural remedies for allergies and asthma can be found right in your grocery store. For example, strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, blackberries and cranberries all contain quercetin (similar to vitamin C), which acts as an antihistamine and an anti-inflammatory, according to DerMarderosian.
IAlso, caffeine in coffee may act as a bronchodilator and help in the prevention of an asthma attack, according to DerMarderosian. Also, fish contains omega-3 fatty acids, which may reduce the symptoms of asthma.
However, even if the remedy is natural, doctors say proceed with caution. First, they point to the lack of scientific evidence to support some of the health claims of these remedies. Second, no clear toxicity has been identified. Third, some may have negative interactions with certain medications.
“Just because it’s a natural remedy, doesn’t mean it’s harmless,” says Warren V. Filley, M.D., an allergist in private practice in Oklahoma City and clinical professor of medicine at the University of Oklahoma.
The following is a list of commonly recommended natural remedies for allergies and asthma and what experts say about them:
Honeybee pollen. It’s believed that honeybee pollen stimulates the immune system to produce antibodies to reduce allergic reactions. Filley says bee pollen and royal jelly, which is essentially a bee product, don’t do anything to help allergies.
“As a general rule, most insect-pollinated plants don’t cause a lot of allergy. Most allergens are wind-pollinated plants, not insect,” Filley says. Also, he says there have been cases of people having severe allergic reactions and going in to anaphylactic shock because of bee pollen.
Robert S. Ivker, D.O., author of “Sinus Survival, The Holistic Medical Treatment for Allergies, Asthma, Bronchitis, Colds, and Sinusitis”, notes, however, that bee propolis, an extra from the bee’s body (not bee pollen), appears to enhance immune function.
Bee propolis comes in liquid and capsules, according to Ivker, who is a clinical instructor in the departments of family medicine and otolaryngology at the University of Colorado School of Medicine.
Vitamins. Vitamins – specifically A, C and E – have been found to assist in inhibiting the substances that cause inflammation associated with allergies and asthma, and vitamin B complex may help stimulate the immune system and reduce inflammation in the lungs.
Experts say there is nothing wrong with taking these vitamins although they are only effective in huge quantities – something that has some doctors worried. An Institute of Medicine (IOM) panel of experts cautioned people about taking megadoses of antioxidants, such as vitamin C, vitamin E, selenium and beta-carotene because of possible harmful side effects.
For example, megadoses of vitamin C (3,000 mg and higher), particularly with pure ascorbic acid, can cause diarrhea, bowel gas and cramps. DerMarderosian says it’s better to take two or three smaller doses (about 60 milligrams) of vitamin C several times a day, than a larger dose all at once.
“It’s so safe for most people that you can probably get away with high doses in some individuals, but you can’t recommend that for everyone,” he says. “So it’s hard to say what is going to be safe or what is going to be toxic.”
Both DerMarderosian and Ivker agree eating fruits and vegetables, such as red and green sweet peppers, broccoli, and oranges is the most effective way to get your vitamin C. “If you want to take your vitamin C,” DerMarderosian says, “then eat an orange. Jumping to a magic pill may not be the right way to go.”
Licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra): Licorice has anti-inflammatory actions similar to those of corticosteroids but with far fewer side effects. Licorice can cause retention of water and sodium and loss of potassium and so should not be taken for more than a month without medical supervision.
According to Filley, large amounts can cause high blood pressure and aggravate diseases of the thyroid, kidney, liver or heart.
Chinese Ephedra (ma huang): The primary active ingredient of ma huang is ephedrine, which was a staple of standard medical management of asthma for several decades in the United States. Ephedrine, which relaxes bronchial muscles, is still available over the counter for nasal congestion (as a spray or jelly) and in capsules with or without prescriptions as a bronchodilator.
The Food and Drug Administration has proposed limits on ephedrine levels in supplements and warning labels recommending ephedra products be taken for no more than seven days.
“Ephedra is not a good drug,” Filley says, noting it has been associated with all sorts of adverse effects, including high blood pressure, seizures and heart palpitations, and over-use or abuse of it has been linked to some deaths.
Omega-3 fatty acids: These acids found in fish oil are believed to act as natural anti-inflammatories, which can be beneficial in treating asthma. According to Ivker, fish oils can moderate asthma attacks. These fatty acids are found in dark-meat fishes, such as salmon and tuna. If you regularly eat fish, Ivker recommends taking 6 grams of fish oil a day and up to 12 grams a day for non-fish eaters. Comparable amounts of omega-3 fatty acids can be obtained from 3 tablespoons of flaxseed oil a day.
Asthmatics who are sensitive to aspirin should not take omega-3 oils because they may intensify their sensitivity, according to Ivker.
In the absence of hard facts about them, many doctors say, however, that there are some common-sense “home remedies” allergy and asthma sufferers can take to limit their symptoms.
“There are home remedies, some don’t-cost-you-anything maneuvers that can be very helpful,” Filley says. “And they won’t interfere with your blood pressure.”
All three experts – Filley, DerMarderosian and Ivker – recommend environmental controls – such as using air filters to reduce exposure to dog dander or dust mites allergens, which are allergy and asthma triggers for many people, or to pollutants that irritate their condition.
DerMarderosian also suggests that people interested in trying a natural remedy talk to their doctors first and buy a good herbal book with clinical data.