Are Herbs Helping or Causing Your Allergies?

If you suffer from allergies, exercise caution when taking herbs.
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If you suffer from allergies, exercise caution when taking herbs.
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Allergic to seemingly everything in bloom, you sniffle and sneeze your way through spring. Yet for relief you turn to medicinal herbs, many of which come from the same plant families as the allergens. In looking for the cure for your allergies, are you just adding to the problem?

"People can have an allergic reaction to anything," says Mindy Green, director of education at the Herb Research Foundation in Boulder, Colorado. "Although rare, medicinal herbs are no exception."

The family of herbs that most often causes reactions—the asteraceae, or daisy family—includes both ragweed, a common allergen, and healing herbs chamomile and echinacea. But does this mean that if you're allergic to ragweed, you'll automatically be allergic to its medicinal relatives as well? "There is not a direct relationship," says Dr. Varro Tyler, author of Tyler's Honest Herbal (Haworth Press, 1999) and Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana. "But it does mean that you'll want to monitor your reactions more carefully when you take the herb." According to Tyler, most allergic reactions produced by herbs are fairly mild—a runny nose, itchy skin or eyes, rashes, or hives. And they don't appear to be very common.

What can you do to guard against adverse reactions when taking a medicinal herb?

Do your homework. As with all medicines, understand an herb's medicinal properties and the effects they produce.

More is not better. Overdoing it with herbs can have ill effects, so take only the recommended dosages.

Watch your reactions. If you develop any signs—rashes, hives, itching—stop taking the herb. Symptoms of moderate or severe allergic reaction include difficulty breathing or swallowing, tightness in the chest, dizziness, and nausea.

Research your sources carefully. Some herbal products have been found to be contaminated by pesticides and heavy metals, so select only reputable brands.

If you are pregnant, lactating, on medication, or are very young or aged, consult your health care practitioner.

The American Herbalist Guild at (435) 722-8434 is a good resource for locating a well-trained herbalist in your area.