Allergy Alternatives

Can you soothe your springtime sniffler without reaching over the counter?

By Katharine Partridge

For allergy-prone kids, April really is the cruelest month: The long-awaited smell of spring also delivers the sneezy, itchy irritations of seasonal allergies. While steroid-based nasal sprays and over-the-counter antihistamines may relieve symptoms, many parents are turning to non-traditional therapies — nutritional supplements, herbs and homeopathy — to help with their children’s allergic reactions.

That’s the approach Thornhill, Ontario, mom Robin Kezwer has taken to help her 12-year-old son cope. “Trevor has awful allergies,” she says. “They begin as soon as everything starts to bloom, continue through the summer, and then he has them really badly again in the fall. He’s just miserable.” To manage that misery, Trevor takes vitamin C year-round to strengthen his system, and bioflavonoid supplements and traditional Chinese herbs and homeopathic tree and grass pollen remedies during seasonal spikes.

It’s an approach that makes sense to naturopath Karen Barnes of Burlington, Ontario. She notes that kids with allergies have overreactive immune systems, so the first line of defence is to fortify certain immune cells. The theory, she explains, is that allergens, including the seasonal varieties — trees and grass in the spring and weeds in the fall — attack at the cellular level, piercing the cell membrane and releasing histamines. Histamines are the chemical culprits that trigger increased mucus production, congestion, inflammation and other allergy discomforts. Strengthen the cells — with such supplements as essential fatty acids (EFAs), vitamins and bioflavonoids — goes the theory, and you thwart the allergic reaction.

Problem is, there’s little scientific proof that the theory is sound. Take the quercetin-vitamin C duo, reportedly a potent anti-allergen. Quercetin is a bioflavonoid — the stuff that gives fruits and vegetables their colour. Bioflavonoids are antioxidants that help to mop up free radicals, which can damage cell structure if left unfettered. It is true that studies have shown quercetin helps inhibit the release of histamines. Also true that vitamin C can curtail the breakdown of key immune system cells. What’s lacking, however, is scientific evidence that actually consuming more of this stuff will reduce allergy symptoms. “There has never been a well-recognized study that has examined these supplements specifically for treating allergies,” points out Susan Waserman, associate professor of medicine in clinical immunology and allergy at McMaster University in Hamilton. “They have never been proven specifically as such.”

The debate should be closer to resolution this summer when Health Canada finalizes regulations establishing how much proof natural health product manufacturers need to substantiate their claims (see “Regulating Relief,” below). In the meantime, while Waserman doesn’t buy the benefit, she concedes that if certain supplements seem to be helping some people, she isn’t overly worried. “Is a good diet, good nutrition and good supplementation a good thing to do?” she asks. “Sure. If someone comes to see me and is using vitamins or whatever, and they’re happy with them and they feel better, I don’t tell them, ‘Look, this should be stopped because I don’t see any benefit.’”

Since a streaming nose can make it hard for children to concentrate in school, not to mention play carefree in parks, parents may want to measure the benefits for themselves. And, as Robin Kezwer points out, that measurement may simply be on the misery scale. “Trevor was better last summer, but if you ask me what made the difference, I don’t know. As long as he’s feeling better, I’m happy.” Here’s what naturopaths recommend:

Long-term Boosters
Number one in Barnes’ arsenal is EFA supplements — year-round. “If everyone had sufficient essential fatty acids in their diets,” she contends, “you could almost eliminate allergies altogether.” Most children — and adults — are deficient “because we rely on processed foods that are stripped of EFAs and filled with bad fats,” notes Barnes. “Considering that each cell has fat surrounding it, getting the right kind puts you on track to supplying the building blocks to strong cells.” The bonus, she adds, is that EFAs do double-duty, by taming inflammation if an allergic reaction does occur.

EFAs are found in omega-3-rich fish and flaxseed oils. Choose that old standby cod liver oil, and you’ll also increase your child’s intake of vitamin A, another common dietary deficiency, according to Campbell River, BC, naturopath Ingrid Pincott. Boosting vitamin A, she says, enhances immune system defences and soothes allergy-irritated mucous membranes. Add another Pincott favourite — vitamin B5, or pantothenic acid — and you’ll increase your teen’s adrenal gland action, thus bolstering his body’s anti-inflammatory capacity (more than 50 milligrams of B vitamin supplements are not recommended for children under age 12 because they are too young to properly metabolize them).

Seasonal Soothers
Barnes suggests a course of quercetin to deal with springtime sniffles. Like EFAs, quercetin strengthens and stabilizes cell defences. Team it up with vitamin C’s immunity builders, says Barnes, and you’ve got a potent anti-allergen that boosts the EFA’s defensive foundation.

For even more immediate effect, Kate Rhéaume, clinical resident at Toronto’s Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine, recommends stinging nettle, a plant that she says provides relief by curtailing congestion and drippy noses. Nettle tea with the herbs thyme and fenugreek — all of which are safe for kids — helps clear sinuses and ease breathing.

Homeopathic remedies can also relieve symptoms. They work on the premise of “like cures like”: taking minute amounts of a substance that makes you miserable will desensitize you to the real thing.

Trevor Kezwer takes homeopathies that are specific to tree and grass pollens in the spring, and pollen and hay fever in the fall. If you’re looking for quick relief, some off-the-shelf combinations — look for brand names like Pollinil and Pollinisan — may do the trick. If they don’t, a naturopath or homeopath will be able to advise on a treatment with your child in mind.

The Diet Connection
Does your child seem bombarded by allergies: eczema or a food sensitivity all year and then sneezing and sniffling through the spring? According to Burlington, Ontario, naturopath Karen Barnes, a child may have mild sensitivities to everyday foods — dairy and wheat, for example — that cause little, if any, day-to-day discomfort. But mix in an annual dose of pollen or ragweed and the child’s allergy response shifts into overdrive. The solution? Identify and eliminate the culinary culprits — at least during allergy season — to reduce your child’s challenge of coping with the harder-to-avoid seasonal strife.

Regulating Relief

After half a decade of consultation, Health Canada is finally ready to enact regulations governing natural health products. But don’t hold your breath: It’ll take another two to three years for the feds to approve the 50,000 alternatives on health store and pharmacy shelves. In the interim, Phil Waddington, a naturopath who heads Health Canada’s Office of Natural Health Products, recommends that parents consult a GP, naturopathic doctor, nurse or pharmacist who can advise on a remedy’s potential side effects. And when choosing products off the shelf, he suggests looking for those with a Drug Identification Number (DIN). A search of health stores and pharmacies turned up Health Canada’s seal of approval on all of the recommendations in this article, except the botanical stinging nettle.


Originally published in Today's Parent, April 2003