Hay fever season is once again upon us, and I know that for those affected, the onset of warmer seasons can be a nightmare. Itchy eyes, runny noses, sinus headaches and congestion can ruin an otherwise pleasant day out.
It is not fully understood why some people react to pollen and allergens while others don’t, meaning there is no obvious ‘cure’, but fortunately, there are a number of over-the-counter medicines than can offer symptom relief.
If your immune system is hypersensitive, it raises levels of a chemical called histamine in response to pollen. Histamine causes inflammation in the mucus membranes of the eyes, nose and throat, and it’s this inflammation that causes itchy, irritated eyes and nasal passages.
Not everyone wants to take an antihistamine, though. Some people are concerned about the risks associated with long-term antihistamine use, while others are more concerned about feeling drowsy.
Herbal antihistamines don’t cause drowsiness at all and are generally very well tolerated. Despite this, I spend very little time in clinic treating people for hay fever. because we have some amazing over-the-counter tablets and nasal sprays made from pollen.
I imagine that sounds very strange, right? Using pollen as a medicine to treat an allergy to pollen.
It is certainly something that sounded very strange to me during my training, and still something I find it difficult to get my head around. Finding it difficult to understand I used to shy away from recommending our pollen remedy for hay fever and my more experienced colleagues would often take over to provide advice when I faltered.
I finally started to develop confidence in our pollen remedy some years back when a young man came to us with swollen, angry, puffy-looking eyes. His discomfort was very visible. My colleague knew his partner and, after recommending our pollen remedy, the two of them spent some time catching up while he took some of the tablets. After about five to ten minutes of chatting, his partner said her goodbyes and turned to leave with the (very patient) young man and exclaimed in surprise.
The puffiness in his eyes had almost gone. I rarely see a remedy work so quickly and this was the moment I realised I couldn’t dismiss pollen as a viable hay fever remedy any longer. I vowed to learn more about our pollen remedies immediately. I contacted the manufacturer and requested some training, but I found their literature to be quite limited.
I did my own research on the ingredients but the remedy (named Pollinosan) contained so many different pollens that researching the individual herbs became confusing. So I asked my colleague who originally recommended it, expecting some lengthy, scientific answer. Yet her own understanding, was perfectly simple. If you expose the body to gentle pollens, the body gets used to it, she told me. That’s why people that use pollen remedies one year suffer much less, or even not at all the next year.
Suddenly, everything fell into place for me. It made me think of how local honey is used, exposing people to local pollen to prevent the hypersensitivity that causes allergies to it. I asked my colleague if this was the case and she said, “of course, that’s why it tastes so pollen-y”.
During my training, we were taught to understand the science behind everything when possible, but many herbal remedies are based on traditional use and companies lack the funding needed for large-scale clinical trials. Pollinosan is an old remedy and, like many herbs, we still can’t explain exactly why it works as well or as quickly as it does.
Despite this, since the episode of the patient man with the puffy eyes, Pollinosan has received a herbal medicine license for hay fever and allergic rhinitis. Nobody is allowed to tell me how it works, because the science hasn’t gone that far, but they are legally allowed to claim that it DOES work.
So I’ve decided that the experiences of older herbalists are enough for me, even if their understanding is based on logic and theory instead of hard science. In the end, if we ignore the advice of our older peers and wait for modern clinical trials, we’ll be the last to know as we get left out of the loop. With puffy eyes and a snotty nose to boot.