By Carrie Demers, MD
Your family and friends are raring to celebrate the first rites of spring, and there you sit sneezing and sniffling, your seasonal allergies in overdrive. Hardly seems fair, especially when you consider your options. You can stay inside, miserably hugging the air purifier, or you can gulp down some allergy meds and join in as best you can with a full-blown case of antihistamine-induced brain fog. Or you can prepare for allergy season with these ayurvedic remedies and take some natural steps toward a sniffle-free spring.
Put Fire in the Belly
First of all—and this may come as a surprise—most integrative doctors believe that three factors contribute to springtime allergies: a compromised immune system, a weak digestive system, and toxic overload. As a result, natural treatments focus on strengthening and cleansing these systems. Ayurveda says we need strong agni (digestive fire) for strong immunity, as well as for general vitality and mental clarity. Also, when agni is weak our digestion is incomplete, and the residue (or ama) that’s left behind becomes toxic waste in the body.
Yoga and ayurveda advise keeping the solar plexus and abdominal muscles strong in order to fire up agni, reduce ama, and boost immunity. To accomplish that, begin a daily practice of asanas that tone the belly and a breathing practice—agni sara—that activates the deep abdominal muscles and the pelvic floor. At its most basic level, agni sara involves contracting the abdominal wall by drawing the navel into the spine on the exhale and then smoothly relaxing on the inhale.
Calm the Kapha
According to ayurveda, kapha, the elemental energy of earth and water, rises throughout winter and early spring as the snow melts, the rain begins to fall, and the earth becomes heavy with moisture. In sympathy, our internal kapha begins to liquefy as well, and we fall prey to colds and allergies. Take the following steps to balance this rising tide:
1. Exercise vigorously for 30 minutes a day until sweat forms along your spine and under your arms.
2. Treat yourself to a sauna.
3. Eat a kapha-pacifying diet of light, nonglutinous grains like quinoa and millet, plenty of nonstarchy vegetables (not roots and squashes), and warm, cooked, spicy, dry foods. Avoid heavy and/or oily foods like wheat and dairy (especially ice cream).
4. Practice vigorous pranayamas like kapalabhati to strengthen your inner fire and decrease mucus. (Note of caution: Don’t do this if you already have nasal and/or sinus congestion.)
5. Take trikatu—a combination of three heating, drying herbs—to stoke your agni and balance your kapha. Dose: 15 to 30 drops of tincture or one to two tablets one to three times a day.
Get Your Immune System Jammin’
While asana and breathing practices alone can rekindle your agni and strengthen your immune system, you may want to help stoke the fire with chyawanprash, a thick semi-sweet ayurvedic jam made from amla fruit and more than 30 tonifying herbs and minerals. Spread a teaspoon of this vitamin C–rich supplement on a cracker or a piece of toast once or twice a day, or stir it into warm milk or herbal tea. Children under 12 can take half a teaspoon.
Block Those Histamines
Stinging nettle (Urtica dioica), used for centuries as an anti-allergy herb, has passed the double-blind placebo test and proven effective as an alternative to drugstore antihistamines. To reduce your itches and sneezes, try 300 to 350 mg of freeze-dried stinging nettle extract in capsule form one to three times a day. Some sufferers find relief by drinking two to three cups of nettle tea daily instead.
Minimize the Triggers
Restoring agni and strengthening your immune system take time, but these allergist-recommended steps can help in the interim:
1. Stay indoors with the windows closed on dry windy days.
2. Wash your linens and clothing often.
3. Run air purifiers in your house to remove molecules of pollen.
4. Use a neti pot several times a day to rid your nasal passages of pollen, dust, germs, and excess mucus.
Board-certified in internal medicine, Carrie Demers, MD, is the director of the Himalayan Institute Total Health Center.