4 Antihistamines To Help Relieve That Itchy, Sniffy, Sneezy Feeling
By Dr. Nicole Craven, MD
In this article:
Congestion, stuffiness, runny nose, post-nasal drip, sinus problems... all these symptoms are more common in colder months and can interrupt our sleep and affect our breathing, taste, and overall physical comfort. These symptoms, caused by inflammation, are the body’s response and a natural defense system to fight an allergen or virus seen as a foreign invader.
When our immune system is over-activated by allergies or respiratory viruses, we often seek the help of an over-the-counter cold or allergy preparation to find some relief. These antihistamines or combo cold products come with side effects such as drowsiness and dehydration. Studies show most cold preparations are not effective in treating cold viruses or shortening the duration of symptoms. Luckily, certain herbs and vitamins have natural antihistamine properties and are safe, therapeutic alternatives.
The two most common causes of the sniffles during the colder months are seasonal allergies and upper respiratory viruses such as a cold or flu. The itchy symptoms are largely due to the activation of a molecule called histamine that is released from our mast cells in the body when we detect foreign invaders. Though histamine plays many important roles in the body, we do not benefit when levels are too high.
Upon exposure to a new upper respiratory virus or allergens such as dust mite or mold, the histamine molecule is released into the bloodstream and can lead to increased heat, redness, congestion, itchiness of the nose and eyes, and head pressure. Lowering the intensity of this histamine surge with natural antihistamine supplements is a healthy way to relieve these symptoms.
During the cold season, more viruses are lingering and ready to stir up some nose and throat trouble.
Most households benefit from having a few natural antihistamine choices at their fingertips to calm the “head storm.” Here are a few that make the A-list.
Quercetin is a polyphenol found in foods like onions, apples, grapes, and broccoli. It has anti-inflammatory and antihistamine properties and works primarily by blocking the body’s ability to produce histamine.
Seasonal or environmental allergies have become more prevalent and include reactions to trees, ragweed, mold, dust mite, cockroach, and dog and cat dander. These allergens can be everywhere and hard to avoid. When allergies are triggered, the body signals certain immune cells in the body called mast cells to activate. This mast cell activation causes a release of histamine which, when released, causes common allergy symptoms.
Quercetin is known for its antioxidant role in scavenging away free radicals, molecules formed in the body when under stress that causes damage to cells. The plant’s antiallergic properties include stimulation of the immune system, antiviral activity, inhibition of histamine release, decreasing pro-inflammatory cytokines, and suppressing interleukin production. Quercetin is thought to reduce the load of various inflammatory compounds including interleukin-8, interleukin-6, interleukin-4, eosinophils, and peroxidase.
Studies have shown a dose of 250-500 mg of quercetin is effective for lowering the allergic response. Most quercetin supplements are available as capsules, but there are chewable and liquid options for children or those that have difficulty swallowing pills.
2. Stinging Nettle
Though stinging nettle may sound intimidating, it is both a nutritious plant that can be eaten as a vegetable as well as a safe and healthy herbal antihistamine.
“Nettles” works to reduce the allergic response in the body by reducing inflammation and stabilizing the mast cells. When mast cells are stabilized, they do not release histamine into the surrounding tissue or bloodstream. Given as a supplement of 600 mg dried nettles once daily, the herb reduced allergy symptoms better than standard antihistamines in a randomized, double-blinded clinical trial of 90 patients.
Another study looking at stinging nettle’s mechanism of action suggests it can inhibit pro-inflammatory pathways related to allergic rhinitis by antagonizing histamine 1 receptors.
Stinging nettle is easily accessible in the form of a capsule as well as a tincture. Nettles have a high safety profile and do not cause drowsiness.
3. Vitamin C
People around the world have been using vitamin C for years to prevent colds, boost the immune system, and decrease the number of days affected by an upper respiratory virus. But, did you know that vitamin C is also helpful for allergies because of its natural antihistamine properties?
A 2018 vitamin C study of the treatment of allergies showed oxidative stress plays a key role in allergic diseases. Vitamin C is one of the best and most affordable antioxidant supplements available, and because of this property, it may act as a treatment for allergies by blocking inflammatory stress on the body.
Vitamin C is easy to find in our healthy foods. Just one-fourth of a raw bell pepper supplies double the amount of the daily recommended vitamin C, about 100–120 mg. Other vitamin C rich foods are black currents, guava, parsley, and, of course, oranges.
The 2 g dose of vitamin C recommended for the antihistamine effects can be more easily ingested in many fun supplement forms such as fizzy powders, drinks, chewables, gummies, and capsules. Luckily, vitamin C has a pleasant taste making the high dose easy to achieve.
Bromelain is an enzyme prevalent in the pineapple that aids digestion. Often a pineapple slice before a heavy meal is suggested for those with indigestion. Bromelain’s benefit to the body does not stop at the digestive tract; the enzyme as a supplement is most commonly used for inflammatory arthritis and is becoming more popular with allergy sufferers.
In an animal study looking at allergic airway disease, bromelain improved airway reactivity by decreasing the cellular inflammatory response in the lungs. Research is limited in human models, but it points to significant cellular anti-inflammatory and antihistamine properties.
Bromelain is often found in combination allergy products with quercetin and stinging nettle. The three plants are thought to work synergistically to magnify the antihistamine properties. Bromelain has a high safety profile overall but should not be taken with blood thinners and only with the advice of your health care provider.
As you can see, options for natural antihistamines to help with an allergic response or virus are plentiful. In conjunction with a clean diet full of fruits and vegetables, relief from the sneezing is obtainable without the side effects of strong prescriptions.
Of course, all herbals and vitamins should be approved by your provider. Once you have that, be sure to stock up on your favorite natural allergy supplement.
- Mlcek J, Jurikova T, Skrovankova S, Sochor J. Quercetin and its anti-allergic immune response. Molecules. 2016;21(5):623. Published 2016 May 12. doi:10.3390/molecules21050623
- Mittman P. Randomized, double-blind study of freeze-dried Urtica dioica in the treatment of allergic rhinitis. Planta Med. 1990;56(1):44-47. doi:10.1055/s-2006-960881
- Roschek B Jr, Fink RC, McMichael M, Alberte RS. Nettle extract (Urtica dioica) affects key receptors and enzymes associated with allergic rhinitis. Phytother Res. 2009;23(7):920-926. doi:10.1002/ptr.2763
- Vollbracht C, Raithel M, Krick B, Kraft K, Hagel AF. Intravenous vitamin C in the treatment of allergies: an interim subgroup analysis of a long-term observational study. J Int Med Res. 2018;46(9):3640-3655. doi:10.1177/0300060518777044
- Secor ER Jr, Carson WF 4th, Cloutier MM, et al. Bromelain exerts anti-inflammatory effects in an ovalbumin-induced murine model of allergic airway disease. Cell Immunol. 2005;237(1):68-75. doi:10.1016/j.cellimm.2005.10.002