For many of us, spring is all about new beginnings, hope, and a welcome relief from the cold of winter.
But not everyone welcomes spring with open arms. For many, spring is when the sneezing begins! If you’re familiar with sneezing, coughing, itchy eyes, and a runny nose, you’ll know exactly what we’re talking about: the dreaded return of hay fever!
According to statistics gathered by Allergy UK, 49% of people suffer from hay fever symptoms. Over-the-counter antihistamines can help, but they’re usually reactive rather than preventive, and often come with their own side effects; such as drowsiness, blurred vision and headaches.
Our medical herbalists have created a line of products specifically designed to support you with hay fever – using plants that will support your overall wellbeing, too.
In this piece, we’ll explore:
- What is hay fever?
- What causes hay fever?
- How can you use herbs to alleviate hay fever symptoms?
- What supplements can help reduce the symptoms of hay fever?
- How consulting a medical herbalist can soothe your hay fever woes
What is Hay Fever?
Hay fever is an allergic response by the body specifically to the pollen released from a wide range of flowering plants. This allergy happens mostly in the seasons of spring and summertime but it can also happen all year round due to different types of pollen.
According to the UK Met office, hay fever predominantly occurs from March to September. It is mainly due to tree pollen from late March to mid-May, to grass pollen from mid-May to July, and to “weed” pollen from June to September. If your symptoms persist beyond the traditional hay fever season (after June/July), then the chances are that you are particularly sensitive to pollens from a range of flowering “weeds” – species like ragweed, dock, mugwort, nettle or plantain tend to blossom and produce pollen later on in the year.
Pollen is a very fine powder released by plants for plant reproduction and is an allergen for some people. Allergens are foreign substances that cause an immune system response. As well as pollen, other allergens such as mold or fungi spores, dust mites, pet fur, smoke, perfume can give rise to many of the symptoms of hay fever. Even allergens such as dust and chemical fumes in the work environment can cause hay fever symptoms too.
The technical term for hay fever is allergic rhinitis, which is irritation and inflammation of the mucous membranes inside the nose. These symptoms are caused when the body produces excess histamine. The production of histamine starts almost immediately after exposure to an allergen and lasts as long as the allergen is present. Histamine is a compound in the body that plays various roles including part of our immune response.
Excess histamine is released when our immune system detects an allergen, which stimulates inflammation and that in turn gives rise to the symptoms we associate with hay fever. In other words, inflammation is the body’s natural response to fight off an allergen: it is triggered in order to make it easier for white blood cells to pass through small blood vessels and fight off the allergen.
Common symptoms of hay fever
Despite its name, hay fever does not actually cause a fever. In the 1800s, people believed that hay fever was caused by the smelling of hay and by the 1860s the word “hay fever” was in widespread use amongst doctors.
The symptoms of hay fever can be varied and include a runny nose with thin mucus, red, watery, or itchy eyes, sneezing, nasal congestion, coughing, an itchy roof of mouth or throat or nose, postnasal drip, pressure and pain of the sinus and itchy skin. There is no scientific consensus yet in explaining why some people react to allergens and have hay fever and others don't.
However, it is thought that variation could be due to a genetic difference that leads the immune system to mistake a harmless protein such as pollen as a threat, which subsequently produces an allergic response. Environmental factors are also said to play a role. For example, an increase in allergies has been seen mainly in more developed countries, where it is thought to be linked to fewer childhood infections (therefore resulting in a more overactive and sensitive immune system), living in cities away from farms and fields (which means we are not exposed to as many allergens such as pollens in cities from a young age – making us more likely to react to them), and also changes to diet and lifestyle (such as poorly ventilated, overheated homes).
If hay fever symptoms are not treated quickly enough, they can lead to more uncomfortable and potentially severe conditions including ear blockages, loss of smell, sore throat, headaches, dark circles or puffiness under the eyes, irritability, tiredness and sleep deprivation. If these are left untreated, then they can give rise to longer-term health conditions such as sinusitis, asthma, chronic ear infections and insomnia.
One of the key ways to avoid hay fever is to modulate the body’s production of histamine, which will in turn dampen the body’s inflammatory response, thereby preventing symptoms such as runny nose from arising. We can achieve this by taking immune-modulating herbs or by consuming raw local honey with traces of pollen, which makes our body more familiar with pollen, helping it to perceive that it is not in fact such a threat (i.e. an allergen).
Which herbs help to ease hay fever symptoms?
A vast array of herbs could support you with hay fever symptoms. But there are some hero herbs that have been proven to work in studies and in real life – and we use them as key ingredients in our allergy support products, allowing you to include them in your daily routine with ease.
Nettle reduces inflammation and acts as a natural antihistamine
Nettle (Urtica dioica) is a shrub originating in Northern Europe and Asia. While we may know it mainly as a troublesome weed that leaves stinging red bumps on your skin, it also boasts many healing properties.
Nettle leaf acts as an anti-inflammatory, and studies (like this one in 2017, and this one in 2009) have found that it can combat hay fever symptoms including itchy eyes, hives, and runny nose. Nettle is also known as a histamine blocker, making it a great natural alternative to over-the-counter antihistamines.
We include nettle in most of our allergy support collection. Traditionally it’s brewed in tea, but you can also take nettle as a tincture, a capsule, or make delicious nettle soup with fresh shoots in early Spring!
Our Allergy Support Tea blends nettle leaf with baikal skullcap, yarrow, plantain, liquorice, elderflower and peppermint. It tastes deliciously fresh and protects you from discomfort triggered by allergens. It’s a product our customers tend to buy again and again, so we offer a zero-waste refill tin.
Chamomile can relieve symptoms and ease inflammation
A member of the daisy family, chamomile has been used in medicinal practices for thousands of years, with a host of healing properties:
- It contains azulene – a compound with powerful antioxidant value, that also acts as a natural antihistamine (German chamomile is particularly high in azulene)
- Oral ingestion of chamomile has been found to reduce eye inflammation without side effects
- The fresh plant, or used chamomile tea bags, can be used to make a compress to ease itchy and watery eyes; but if this causes any irritation then oral ingestion may be better for you
Our Allergy Support Supplements will give you all the benefits of chamomile as an addition to your diet during the summer months. Blended with other allergen-fighting herbs including elderflower, plantain, and baikal skullcap, these capsules are formulated to decrease inflammation in the sinuses and soothe irritation in the eyes and throat. They also work to repair damage caused by hay fever – clearing excessive catarrh (mucusy discharge) in the nose and throat.
Herbs to combat hay fever symptoms
Eyebright is proven to help control watery eyes and runny noses
The name gives it away: Eyebright, a plant native to Europe’s grassy meadows, has been used for centuries in the treatment of eye afflictions. Its drying (astringent) properties can assist in controlling watery eyes and runny noses, while it soothes sore throats and reduces congestion in the sinuses.
A 2014 study published in the Balkan Medical Journal found that all tested extracts of this herb decreased pro-inflammatory cytokine expression, and also anti-inflammatory expression by human corneal cells.
Eyebright is commonly ingested as a tea or tincture. Our herbalists recommend taking our Allergy Support Tincture which blends eyebright with a range of other anti-allergenic and anti-inflammatory plants, including chamomile and yarrow.
The tincture is an easy, safe way to benefit from eyebright’s active compounds, and it acts both preventatively and reactively when it comes to hay fever symptoms.
Ginger’s antioxidant and anti-inflammatory compounds will clear congestion
We love ginger, and it’s worthy of a quick mention here in relation to hay fever. It acts as a natural anti-inflammatory, it supports expectoration (elimination of excess catarrh) and it helps ease any tightness in your chest.
A clinical study published in 2020 found that taking ginger extract significantly increased the volume of the nasal cavity among hay fever sufferers, and significantly improved quality of life for patients – without causing common side effects of other hay fever treatments, like drowsiness, dizziness, and constipation.
Ginger is one of the key ingredients in our Energise Tea – as a great circulatory tonic, it’ll give you a natural energy boost and help to manage hay fever symptoms.
Elderflower cleanses, soothes and relaxes your airways
The beautifully fragrant, creamy-white flowers of the elder tree act as a natural decongestant and antimicrobial. Elderflower is particularly helpful for respiratory complaints in general; to soothe teary eyes and runny noses, to address respiratory infections and to remove excess catarrh from the lungs. Elderflower also has a soothing and relaxing effect on the lining of the respiratory tract, making it a key ingredient in our Allergy Support and Recovery teas. It also strengthens and calms the nervous system, helping to ease tension and stress.
Plantain eases congestion and softens the lining of the respiratory tract
Plantain is an excellent remedy to reduce congestion and to soothe an irritable dry cough. That is in great part because of its richness in a moistening compound called mucilage, which is deeply soothing, healing and protective to the mucous membranes of the respiratory tract. Plantain leaves also help to open up and relax the airways to promote deep and effortless breathing – they are very helpful in clearing catarrh from the lungs and phlegm from the middle ear, helping to prevent and address any infections.
Medical herbalists usually recommend taking hay fever herbs about 2 to 4 weeks before the season starts, to prevent symptoms from rising and to help with the management of them should they still arise.
Lifestyle changes you can make to ease your hay fever symptoms
As well as prescribing herbal medicine and advising on any necessary dietary changes, a medical herbalist may recommend practical lifestyle changes to help prevent the worsening of symptoms.
These can include obvious but easily forgotten tips such as closing your windows to prevent pollen from blowing in; reducing the collection of dust in your home; wearing wraparound sunglasses to cover your eyes when outside to prevent pollen from blowing into your eyes; washing clothes more frequently, drying them inside and washing or rinsing your hair with water more frequently to rinse off the pollen, and finally applying a thin layer of ointment such as a chest balm containing peppermint oil and menthol inside your nostrils to act as a physical barrier to stop pollen dust entering further into the nose and causing irritation.
Help with specific hay fever symptoms
A compress of Chamomile flowers can be used to relieve itchy irritated eyes. The easiest way to do this is with Chamomile tea bags; put 2 tea bags in a mug and pour over just boiled water, when cool enough for the eyes, squeeze out the excess water and place one bag on each closed eye for 5 to 10 minutes.
Marshmallow root tea with or without local honey can be taken and is very good at soothing dry irritated tissues associated with hay fever. You can also try our Cough Syrup: it brings the moistening, softening qualities of marshmallow root along with liquorice root and thyme. This sugar syrup blend soothes respiratory infections and eases the symptoms of dry coughs and bronchitis, alleviating sore throats and helping the body combat infections thanks to its natural antiviral and antibacterial properties.
For adults, Peppermint essential oil can be smelled from the bottle or a thin layer of chest balm containing Menthol and eucalyptus essential oil (like our Breathe easy balm) can be applied inside the nostrils to clear the breathing and block pollen from entering further up the nostrils. You can also use our Ayurvedic Nasya oil to open the airways, ease sinus issues and combat congestion
Combating multiple symptoms
Our Hay Fever Tea containing herbs like Baikal Skullcap root, Plantain leaf, Nettle leaf, Liquorice root, Peppermint, Yarrow and Elderflower is an excellent remedy to combat this allergy. It combines the astringent, antihistamine and anti-inflammatory actions of the herbs with a pleasant taste to treat and prevent the symptoms. We also offer allergy-easing formulas in the form of tinctures (a concentrated liquid herbal extract, obtained by infusing the plants in a mixture of alcohol and water), and herbal supplements (capsules containing powdered herbs), if either of these options work better in your daily routine.
Foods rich in Vitamin C, beta carotene and quercetin or as supplements can also be taken as they have antihistamine and anti-inflammatory effects.
Garlic, onions and blueberries are rich sources of both vitamin C and quercetin. The amount taken can be increased before and during the hayfever season to prevent symptoms, garlic and blueberries are also available as supplements.
Bee pollen is a good source of quercetin as well, and omega-3 fish oils from oily fish such as salmon, mackerel, anchovies, sardines and herring have anti-inflammatory effects. Vegan omega-3 supplements are now available too.
A teaspoon of unfiltered, unpasteurised local honey taken with every meal can also help keep hayfever at bay. You can start taking it daily ahead of the season and continue into it.
Why you should see a Medical Herbalist if you have Hay Fever
There are two important reasons why seeing a medical herbalist can be beneficial for you if you are a sufferer of hay fever. The first reason has to do with the way a medical herbalist approaches and treats the problem.
Medical herbalists aim to treat hay fever holistically. This is achieved by assessing each person’s individual circumstances, including their environment, diet and lifestyle and any other relevant factors that could be adjusted to improve their health. A holistic approach aims to remove the cause of the hay fever as well as relieve the symptoms.
For example, a medical herbalist may suggest taking quercetin as a supplement or eating foods that contain it such as capers (by far the highest), onions, garlic, blueberries, radishes, watercress and bee pollen. Quercetin strengthens the small blood vessels and has natural antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits. They may also advise you to lower your intake of dairy foods such as cow's milk and cheese – this has been shown to reduce symptoms, as milk can increase the production of mucous and cheese contains histamine. They may also advise you to take bee pollen and raw local honey, to help your immune system become more familiar with the pollen you are exposed to. It is good to start taking these a month or so before the onset of the hay fever season, to help your body to develop a certain degree of immunity to forthcoming pollen and other allergens.
The second major benefit of seeing a medical herbalist about Hay Fever stems from the fact that the medicinal herbs they may prescribe to help with symptoms do not give rise to the kind of side effects that one can experience with conventional drugs. Antihistamine pills, for example, cetirizine, loratadine and diphenhydramine (Benadryl), which may be prescribed to you by your chemist or doctor, can often give rise to side effects such as drowsiness (even from the non-drowsy ones), dry mouth and stomach pain. Like prescribed drugs, medicinal herbs work by reducing the body’s production of histamine, which reduces the inflammatory response and the symptoms associated with hay fever. The benefit however is that we see almost no side effects from using medicinal herbs.
Treat hay fever safely with a natural health consultation and herbal medicine
Our allergy relief products are formulated by qualified medical herbalists with a wealth of experience. If you’re not sure if one of our products is right for you, or if you’re taking an over-the-counter treatment and want to check if a Zen Maitri product can be taken safely at the same time, please do contact us. Assessing contraindications is part of the training a medical herbalist undergoes, so we’ll be happy to help.
If your allergy problems are severe and you need tailored support to overcome them, you can book a consultation with a medical herbalist here. They’ll take a comprehensive history of your symptoms and provide a bespoke herbal medicine prescription.