Pharmacy shelves are stocked with herbs and supplements that claim to improve health. Such complementary and alternative medicines (CAM) are part of a group of diverse medical and healthcare systems, practices, and products that are not generally considered part of the conventional medical practices.
Over 42 percent of people in the US (both adults and children) have used CAM for their allergic disorders. Such treatments are perceived to be natural and safe by patients, but reporting of adverse effects is largely inadequate. But do CAM therapies really help with allergies and asthma? Importantly, are CAM therapies safe?
Chinese Herbal Medicine has been used for centuries in Asia. However, lack of standardization and controlled clinical trials have hampered their use as conventional therapies in Western medicine. There is potential for developing novel therapies for atopic diseases from Chinese herbs. Several herbal formulas show early promise for the treatment of asthma, food allergies, and allergic rhinitis in randomized trials. Work remains to determine the active components of each herb and their mechanisms of action. In addition, issues with consistency of herb quality and standardization still need to be addressed.
Other Herbal therapies like Ayurvedic mixes, butterbur, and Tinofend have demonstrated some efficacy but these treatments may have side effects. These products are not systematically monitored for safety by drug regulatory bodies. Herbal remedies, including teas, made from plants can cause allergic reactions, such as hives, or can induce asthma symptoms. Pregnant and nursing patients should be advised to avoid these herbal therapies.
Nasal sprays consisting of dilute solutions of capsaicin or inert, micronized cellulose powder have shown efficacy for allergic rhinitis. Nasal saline lavage, commonly with a nettie pot can be effective in alleviating symptoms of nasal congestion and drainage.
A variety of other herbal preparations, homeopathic products, and miscellaneous therapies have been suggested for the treatment of allergic rhinitis or conjunctivitis. However, studies have either been of low quality or failed to show benefit. Additionally, a number of herbs such as chamomile and Echinacea can cause allergic reactions in people who are allergic to ragweed pollen.
Vitamin D deficiency has been increasingly recognized as a health issue, particularly in northern latitudes. Low Vitamin D levels have been associated with increased rates of food allergy. It’s too early to say whether vitamin D can reverse food allergies. Future research is needed to answer that question. However, research is beginning to support the idea that vitamin D can protect against food allergies and vitamin D is important for overall good health.
For most people, the best way to ensure you have enough vitamin D is a combination between sensible sun exposure and adequate intake of foods containing the vitamin. Your doctor can assess your vitamin D status with a simple blood test and recommend a supplement if necessary
Non-pharmacologic interventions such as Acupuncture and Acupressure (Stainless steel pellets in adhesive discs are applied to specified points “acupoints” on the ear) show modest benefit in the treatment of allergic rhinitis, although it is difficult to estimate the size of the effect in most studies.
With all CAM interventions, it is vitally important to discuss your use of these therapies with your doctor. Additionally, CAM therapies should not be used in place of conventional therapies without first talking to your doctor.