Itchy eyes, runny nose, sneezing, allergy fatigue—allergy symptoms are no fun! Whether you’re dealing with seasonal grass and pollen allergies, or reacting to a trigger such as animal dander, the effects are equally miserable.
While you may not be able to get rid of your allergies, it is possible to reduce the symptoms they cause. Read on to learn everything you need to know about the histamines that kickstart your body’s allergic reactions, and the antihistamines that kick back. Plus, get the lowdown on four popular natural antihistamines.
What are antihistamines?
Simply put, antihistamines are drugs or compounds that block, inhibit or reduce the effects of histamines. Histamines are naturally-occurring chemicals involved in the inflammatory response of removing threats such as viruses and bacteria—and perceived threats such as allergens—from the body.¹
Chemically, the allergic response is quite complicated, but if you don’t mind glossing over the details, you can think of it like this: If your body is a temple, then histamines are its undercover guards, patrolling to identify and remove allergens in a number of forceful ways, such as by causing you to sneeze or cough². Of course, histamines aren’t people and don’t have opinions—offer this example to an allergist and they’ll probably tell you the reality is more nuanced, because it is. But if you like the idea of having your own guard squad, we promise not to tell your allergist.
But lest you think “undercover guards” sounds cool, be warned: histamines are basic brutes in achieving their task. Think less James Bond or Jason Bourne and more raving caveman.
Another problem with the histamine response lies in the definition of an allergen. According to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology;
“an allergen is a usually harmless substance capable of triggering a response that starts in the immune system and results in an allergic reaction”³.
What those symptoms feel like depends on what kind of allergy is at play—the sniffles and sneezes of seasonal allergies are different than the itchy throat and hives of food allergies, for instance—but both are caused by histamines.
That’s where antihistamines become useful. Because when an allergen is truly harmless, then it’s really the histamines—those overreacting, brutish zealots—that are the problem, while antihistamines are the solution.
Antihistamines can be found in a variety of prescriptions and over the counter (OTC) formulations, and they can be found in nature, too.
The best natural antihistamines
Here we look at two natural approaches to minimizing the effects of histamines: lifestyle changes and natural antihistamines and herbs for allergies.
Habit changes are not antihistamines per se, but they can be very effective.
Dr. Ivor Emanuel, M.D. is an allergist and ear, nose and throat specialist. He is a national expert in the field of sublingual immunotherapy and allergy blood testing, and has published numerous papers on allergy diagnosis, acute and chronic sinus disease, chronic sinusitis, asthma, and more.
He says that avoiding allergic triggers is the most common sense advice available to allergy sufferers. For instance, if you’re allergic to spring pollen, either don’t go running in grass or take an antihistamine before you go.
Allergic to cats? Avoid cats!
Know you have a dust mite allergy? Wash your bedding in hot water regularly to kill dust mites, and avoid carpeting and down comforters, which can harbor the troublesome critters.
Double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled studies are the most reliable scientific method for determining a medicine’s efficacy, and the bar that clinicians use to determine if a natural or pharmaceutical product is worth recommending to their patients. Dr. Emanuel says there aren’t any natural antihistamines that have passed that bar. Since evidence of their efficacy is more anecdotal, he doesn’t usually recommend any herbal allergy medicines to his patients. However, that doesn’t mean they won’t work for you.
He notes that quite a few treatments—natural and pharmaceutical—work as placebos⁴. Even well-recognized allergy drugs such as Claritin and Zyrtec benefit from the placebo effect⁵—in other words, for a certain proportion of patients, they work because the patients believe they work.
Dr. Emanuel hypothesizes that the placebo effect is a likely driver of success with natural antihistamine treatments, as well. “None of them will probably do any harm,” he says. “If they work for you, and they make you feel better, great.”
Not quite as magical as the similar sounding butterbeer of Harry Potter fame—in fact, it’s not magical at all—butterbur is a shrub that grows in Europe, as well as parts of Asia and North America⁶. According to the NIH’s National Centre for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH)⁷, it was used in the Middle Ages to treat plague and fever, becoming a treatment for coughs and asthma by the 1600s. These days, it is also used to treat migraines.
Does it work for allergies? One randomized controlled trial which compared butterbur to cetirizine (the generic name for Zyrtec) found that butterbur was as effective as the drug at treating patients with seasonal allergic rhinitis, or hay fever⁸. However, the NCCIH says current data about butterbur’s effectiveness as hay fever treatment “are not convincing,” and notes that some butterbur supplements include pyrrolizidine alkaloids (PAs), which can harm the liver and lungs. Short-term use of PA-free butterbur products has been deemed safe⁹.
Quercetin is a flavonoid¹⁰, a type of phytonutrient or plant chemical found in a variety of fruit and vegetables including apples, citrus fruits¹¹, cherries, grapes, onions and more¹². Like other flavonoids, quercetin is an antioxidant¹³ and anti inflammatory¹⁴.
In The Allergic Patient, Dr. Randy J. Horowitz writes that in vitro studies—aka “in glass” experiments conducted in labs, but not in human bodies¹⁵—have shown that quercetin can reduce histamines. Dr. Horowitz also notes quercetin “suppresses anaphylactic responses” in animal models, but that it “must be used as a preventative—taken before allergen exposure.”¹⁶However, despite reports demonstrating its antihistamine effects, the NCCIH says there’s not enough evidence to recommend it as an antihistamine treatment at this time¹⁷.
Stinging nettle—yes, the plant that can cause itching and swelling if you stroke it the wrong way¹⁸—has been used in herbal and homeopathic medicine¹⁹ for centuries, popping up in treatments for diabetes, gout, and arthritis²⁰, as well as for seasonal allergies.
Like quercetin, stinging nettle has strong anti-inflammatory properties that may make it useful in treating symptoms of allergic rhinitis²¹. In one in vitro study, researchers also determined that stinging nettle extract worked against the histamine activity responsible for hay fever symptoms²². However, in a randomized controlled trial of allergy sufferers, researchers found no difference in effect between stinging nettle and a placebo²³. At this time, research data are too mixed to declare stinging nettle a viable natural antihistamine.
Bromelain is a digestive enzyme found in pineapples, and has been historically used as a treatment for sore muscles, digestive upset and arthritis²⁴. Recently, researchers have explored its potential as a treatment for cardiovascular disease, colitis, skin burns and cancer,²⁵ as well as arthritis, kidney stones, labor complications and allergies²⁶.
These natural health products have also been studied as potential natural antihistamines:
- grape seed extract
- omega-3 fatty acids
- pine bark extract
When to see an allergist
“Obvious allergy triggers are pretty easy to know,” says Dr. Emanuel, adding that if you’re allergic to cats or a particular pollen, you likely already know it. If that’s the case, and if the treatments you’ve tried are working, carry on.
But if the natural antihistamines or medicines you take don’t help and you’re suffering regardless of clear triggers, Dr. Emanuel advises seeing an allergist to rule out a chronic condition.
One clue that you might be up against a chronic allergy? A perennially stuffy nose.
“Chronic allergies like dust mites and mold usually cause stuffy nose,” says Dr. Emanuel. “They may cause some sneezing and maybe a runny nose, but definitely the main symptom is usually a stuffy nose.”
The same advice holds if treatments aren’t helping your seasonal allergies.
We all need a good support team, and ultimately it’s up to you to decide who to enlist as your backup. But if brutish, indiscriminate histamines aren’t your idea of a solid support squad, it’s perfectly fine to kick them to the curb and enlist a doctor’s help, instead.