It is May Day today, and spring has sprung. These late cold springs bring about the sudden fast rise in spring plants – they just seem to spring up out of the ground! My garden has gone from small starts to harvestable kale, arugula and pak choi before I could even blink. Warm days, cool nights and rain have also helped the mushrooms as the morels have come out later than usual, so keep on looking for those elusive treasures!

But an abundant spring can also bring abundant pollen, and a lot of folks have gotten hit hard with allergies this season, so seems like a good time to talk about some of my favorite allergy remedies. More people experience allergies and asthma each year. The National Institute of Health (NIH) reports that the number of people experiencing allergies has doubled in the last 30 years, so before we even talk about treatment I think it is important to acknowledge the holistic perspective and recognize that we can’t look at the individual human outside of the context of our environment.

Along with a rise in allergies in the past 30 years, we have had a significant rise in air pollution, which have a direct effect on allergies. So the best thing we can do to prevent allergies on a global scale is to drive less, use less electricity, and work to create more sustainable energy sources for human beings as a whole. What can you do to move our country away from coal and fossil fuels and towards solar and wind power?

On a more personal level, reducing allergens in the home is essential. We spend 90% of our time indoors, so what we create there is going to have the greatest influence. Ideas include fewer pets, getting your heating and A/C ducts cleaned annually, not smoking in the house, deep cleaning your carpets and rugs which can hold allergens for a long time, and using natural cleaners. I just bought a HEPA filter for my classroom and it has made a huge difference already, as has more frequent sweeping and mopping.

The other issue I find most helpful in treating chronic allergies is working on the digestive system, both in improving digestive health and also in eliminating food sensitivities. There is a saying in Chinese medicine, “The digestive system creates Dampness, and the Lungs store Dampness.” In this case, dampness can mean a runny nose, congestion, or any chronic excess mucous. Anyone with chronic congestion, and especially those with sinus or ear infections needs to look at digestion and food choices as a key to their healing.

This can take the form of using bitters before a meal, or even doing an elimination diet to test for possible food allergens. An elimination diet entails foregoing the most common food triggers for two weeks to see if symptoms improve, then reintroducing each food 2 days apart to see if there is a reaction. The most common triggers for respiratory allergies are dairy, wheat and sugar, and you can also test for soy, eggs and corn. What you do after the elimination diet is up to you, but at least you will know the common triggers. At the very least avoid or minimize these foods during the spring allergy season.

And of course – herbs! There are some great herbs to treat allergy symptoms, and my favorite for acute allergic reactions is a combination of Nettle leaf (Urtica dioica) and Ragweed leaf (Ambrosia artemisiifolia) tinctures. Many herb students know about using Nettle leaf as a tea to prevent allergies before the season begins, but the tincture (alcohol extract) or the fresh freeze-dried capsules work immediately to help stop an allergic reaction in progress.

Ragweed pollen is one of the causes of seasonal allergies, but the leaves picked before flowering (so there is zero pollen in the tincture) and used as tea or tincture is also extremely effective for allergic symptoms, whether it is from the plant’s pollen, or cat dander, or other allergens. I have even used the combination of Ragweed and Nettles to treat hives, an external skin rash caused by internal allergens.

For prevention, using local honey is a slow but time-tested method, as is using local bee pollen – but be careful with pollen if you have strong allergies because too much can cause a reaction! If you have pollen reactions, start with a ¼ teaspoon of pollen and slowly use more each day to get your body used to the pollen and “vaccinate” yourself.

A tea of goldenrod and nettle leaves is an excellent preventative, strengthening the lining of the respiratory mucosa, making it less vulnerable to allergens. For more congestion, I really like Bayberry (Myrica cerifera), a common plant of the coastal plain of the southeastern U.S. because it both dries out mucous but is also a circulatory stimulant and helps move stagnant fluids out.

Since the liver is what detoxifies the body, making sure the liver is not backed up and is free to clean allergens out of the body is also useful. I often add liver stimulants like Oregon Grape (Berberis aquifolium) or Barberry (Berberis thunbergii) to a formula for someone with chronic allergies, though you could also use the common weeds and medicinal herbs Dandelion root (Taraxacum officinale) or Burdock root (Arctium lappa). This is another good reason not to use toxic chemicals around the house or bathroom – if the liver is busy detoxing chemicals, it won’t have the ability to detox allergens.

So don’t fear spring, make friends with the plants and create a clean household and clean body and you will be out playing in the sun in no time.