For some people spring means renewal, but for allergy sufferers it means sniffling, sneezing and watery eyes. Allergies — with symptoms ranging from sinus congestion and hay fever to asthma, dermatitis or hives — are a sign of impaired immune function. According to the Asthma Society of Canada, one in five Canadians suffer from respiratory allergies like seasonal allergic rhinitis, better know as hay fever.
Depending on the particular allergy, allergy season can begin in the early spring and persist until late fall. This leads many of us to reach for standard over-the-counter relief like antihistamines and decongestant medications, which can cause undesirable side effects like drowsiness or dizziness. But regardless of your allergy or the season, you can instead opt for immune-enhancing supplements that will keep your immune system strong while providing health benefits instead of unwanted effects.
Here are my recommendations for six supplements to add to your allergy-fighting arsenal.
1. Vitamin C with bioflavonoids
Allergens cause certain cells in the body to produce histamine, which is responsible for common seasonal complaints like tearing, excess mucus and a runny nose. Vitamin C prevents the formation of histamine, while typical over-the-counter antihistamine medications work by interfering with the histamine after it is produced. Vitamin C’s immune-enhancing effect also makes it essential in preventing infection as well as in shortening the duration of an illness.
To maximize effectiveness, vitamin C is best taken with bioflavonoids — the natural pigments in fruits and vegetables — in divided doses spaced throughout the day. The bioflavinoids enhance the activity of vitamin C in the body and help to stabilize mast cells, which secrete the histamine linked to allergic reactions.
Bottom line: Vitamin C is a water-soluble vitamin that is safe even at high doses. It may act as a natural laxative in certain individuals, so be sure to increase the dose slowly and spread it throughout the day. Depending on bowel tolerance, one can easily take 2,000 to 6,000 mg per day for stress protection and immune support.
Studies have shown that taking acidophilus, a probiotic, can help reduce the frequency and severity of infections. Acidophilus is the friendly bacteria that lives in our digestive tract. Our gut bacterial balance is affected by the use of antibiotics, the birth control pill or excess sugar and carbohydrate intake. Everyone can benefit from the use of probiotics for healthy digestion and immunity. Acidophilus has also been found useful in the treatment and prevention of skin conditions, allergies and thrush (yeast infections).
Bottom line: Be sure to follow any course of antibiotics with supplements of acidophilus for double the length of time you took the antibiotics. I recommend a probiotic with at least 10 to 15 billion cells per capsule daily, taken separately from eating, such as on rising and/or before bed.
Vitamins and minerals are necessary for proper growth, metabolism, digestion, immune system function, muscle and nerve function and detoxification processes in the liver. Scientific studies have shown that the majority of us are deficient in many essential nutrients because of poor dietary habits and other factors that may deplete nutrient levels such as caffeine, drugs, stress or pollution. A full-spectrum multivitamin and mineral product, in a highly absorbable form, is essential to ensure the foundation of health.
In a study published in Nutrition Research, researchers found a significant increase in cells and chemicals that play a role in immune function in those who consumed a daily multivitamin, compared with the same markers in those taking the placebo. Compared with individuals taking the placebo, those taking the multivitamin supplement had 53 percent fewer days of illness due to infection.
4. EPA/DHA fish oils
Healthy types of oils are necessary for the formation of every cell in the body. Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), the components of essential fatty acids, are natural anti-inflammatory agents and my favourite year-round supplement. Their anti-inflammatory action makes them useful in treating and preventing heart disease, and they also have beneficial effects on cholesterol, triglycerides and on the tendency of blood to clot. Essential fatty acids help to moisten the skin and improve bowel function. Symptoms of depression, ADD/ADHD, schizophrenia and memory loss may improve with essential fatty acid supplements. Finally, fish oils are also very useful for the treatment and prevention of skin conditions like eczema or psoriasis.
One German study involving 568 people found that a high content of omega-3 fatty acids in red blood cells or in the diet was associated with a decreased risk of hay fever.
Bottom line: Take 2,000 to 6,000 mg daily with meals (two or three capsules twice daily).
Onions are often the cause of our tears, but strangely enough, they do contain an ingredient to treat watery or itchy eyes, asthma and hay fever. Quercetin, the bioflavinoid found in onions, is an effective inhibitor of histamine. It also acts as a natural anti-viral compound, which can help prevent herpes outbreaks and the common cold.
Quercetin is best taken with vitamin C mixed with bioflavonoids, as this improves the antihistamine effect. Vitamin C alone may also have beneficial effects on histamine levels by preventing histamine release from cells and by improving the breakdown of histamine. Quercetin may be effective for allergies, asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, bronchitis, sinusitis, cold and flu. Much like vitamin C, quercetin stabilizes the mast cells (specialized immune cells) that cause an allergic reaction, and decreases the release of histamine, which could help decrease allergy symptoms.
Bottom line: Take 500 to 1,000 mg two or three times per day.
6. Plant sterols
These are one of my favourite products. Plant sterols modulate your immune system. If some aspects are running too high (as in autoimmune diseases or allergies) they help to bring them down. Or if they are running too low (like with frequent colds or the flu) sterols help to increase your immune system function. They decrease the specific immune factor that causes the allergic response and the release of histamine. Therefore, it is beneficial for allergy sufferers to try to balance their immune system with sterols and sterolins. Sterols also decrease levels of cortisol, the “stress” hormone, which is essential for keeping your immune system strong.
Bottom line: I usually recommend taking these on an empty stomach, such as upon rising and before bed. You may combine them with your acidophilus supplements.
Natasha Turner, N.D., is a naturopathic doctor and author of the bestselling books The Hormone Diet, The Supercharged Hormone Diet and The Carb Sensitivity Program. She’s also the founder of the Toronto-based Clear Medicine Wellness Boutique and a regular guest on The Dr. Oz Show and The Marilyn Denis Show. For more wellness advice from Natasha Turner, click here.
-Article originally published April 2011.