Using Phytotherapy (Plants!) In Overcoming Seasonal Allergies

Dr. Elizabeth Miller N.D.

Today I was walking amongst freshly blossomed magnolias and cherry blossoms on my way to work. This time of year in Vancouver is exceptionally beautiful and the return of spring is always exciting.
However for many people this joy is diminished by the return of their irritating, fatigue provoking seasonal allergies. While on this walk (in between a few sneezes) I thought how wonderful it would be to improve the symptoms of allergic rhinitis that is caused by plants, with none other than plants themselves. The following is a review of 3 plants commonly and traditionally used for allergic rhinitis.

  • ButterBur (Petasites hybridus)

    Butterbur is a shrub common in Europe and Asia in wet marshy lands, near streams or rivers. Its pharmacology includes a sesquiterpene called petasin that down regulates leukotrienes. In double blind, placebo-controlled studies, it decreased seasonal allergic rhinitis in humans by decreasing histamine and leukotriene production dosed at 50 mg twice a day against placebo and against 180 mg fexofenadine per day. Butterbur and fexofenadine were comparably effective, compared with placebo (1, 2). Another study demonstrated that butterbur improved day and night-time nasal symptoms, decreased nasal resistance as verified by rhinomanometry, and decreased anti-inflammatory mediators (histamine, LTB4, and cysteinyl-LT) in nasal fluids and serum (3).

    Naturally butterbur contains pyrrolizidine alkaloids which in large doses or long- term use can be harmful to the liver. Commercial preparations of butterbur are required to remove these “PA’s”, removing any concern of toxicity (2).

  • Spirulina

    Spirulina is an edible, one-celled form of blue-green algae that has been growing on earth for over 3.5 billion years and has become popularized as a super-food for its many health benefits and as an environmentally friendly food source. Spirulina effects on seasonal allergy has been largely researched. In double-blind, placebo-controlled study, the effectiveness and tolerability of Spirulina in patients with allergic rhinitis, Spirulina consumption significantly improved the symptoms, including nasal discharge, sneezing, nasal congestion, and itching, compared with placebo (4). When choosing a spirulina product, ensure that it comes from a source or grown in a location that is free of heavy metals.

  • Pycnogenol (Pinus pinaster)

    Maritime pine bark comes from south-west forests in France. It is a strong antioxidant, increases perfusion, decreases autoimmune inflammation and is even being used in skin serums for its effects on anti-aging and elasticity.  The extraction process of Pycnogenol is patented, standardized to 65-75% Procyanidin and must comply with quality standards through the patent. In regard to allergic rhinitis the plant’s allergy modulating effects come from the flavonoids and phenolics (5) that have also been studied in double blind, randomized, placebo-controlled studies (5)(6). Pycnogenol is one of the most researched natural ingredients on the market today with over 370 published studies.

Happy Springtime!

Dr. Elizabeth Miller, ND

  • (1) Treating intermittent allergic rhinitis: a prospective, randomized, placebo and antihistamine-controlled study of Butterbur extract Ze 339. Schapowal A, Study Group. Phytother Res. 2005 Jun; 19(6):530-7.
  • (2) Godfrey A, Saunders PR, Barlow K, Gilbert C, Gowan M, Smith F. Principles and Practices of Naturopathic Botanical Medicine. Volume 1: Botanical Medicine Monographs. Toronto (ON): CCNM Press; 2010.
  • (3) Anti-inflammatory activity of an extract of Petasites hybridus in allergic rhinitis. Thomet OA, Schapowal A, Heinisch IV, Wiesmann UN, Simon HU Int Immunopharmacol. 2002 Jun; 2(7):997-1006.
  • (4) Cingi C, Conk-Dalay M, Cakli H, Bal C. The effects of spirulina on allergic rhinitis. European Archives of Oto-Rhino-Laryngology. 2008;265(10):1219–1223. [PubMed]
  • (5) Mills, S., & Bone, K. (2000). Principles and practice of phytotherapy: Modern herbal medicine. Edinburgh: Churchill Livingstone.
  • (6) Wilson D, Evans M, Guthrie N et al. A randomized double blind, placebo-controlled exploratory study to evaluate the potential of Pycnogenol for improving allergic rhinitis symptoms. Phytother Res. 2010;24(8):1115-1119.
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