Why Allergies are Getting Worse

..and what you can do to help your customers

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Something that we’ve known for over a decade: There’s more pollen in the air than ever before. In 2006, NPR interviewed horticulturist Tom Ogren, inventor of the Ogren Plant Allergy Scale (OPALS), who explained that we’re planting more male plants than female ones, because male plants don’t produce fruit or seed pods, which create a mess that cities don’t want to deal with—but the unintended consequences are massive. In 2015, Ogren again called attention to the issue, writing a blog for Scientific American in which he called the phenomenon “botanical sexism.” These plant choices, he wrote, go back to the 1949 USDA Yearbook of Agriculture, which advised readers: “When used for street plantings, only male trees should be selected, to avoid the nuisance from the seed” (1). Ogren continued to explain how male cultivars were released into the market, how male trees and shrubs were cloned and sold and planted, and how in the mid-1980s—post-Dutch elm disease, when elms that lined American streets died off—cities began planting male trees in droves.

This may have prevented the fruits and seeds and the ensuing mess, but most of us have seen the results of this planting scheme: Cars, streets, driveways, sidewalks, and houses all turned yellow by pollen. Why? Because female trees attract and trap pollen in order to create those fruits and seeds, and without them, the pollen has nowhere to go. The fact that there are so many male trees only exacerbates the issue. “Allergies are rarely triggered by small amounts of an allergen,” Ogren wrote. “They are initiated by an overdose.” And an overdose we have. (For more information on OPALS, environmental toxins in pollen and the way they affect children, and Ogren’s thoughts on conscientious planting, read his blog on blogs.scientificamerican.com.)

Nor is that the only battle to be fought in this area. The natural products industry is already taking on climate change, but here’s another reason: Carbon dioxide, CO2, is a “growth and reproductive stimulator of plants,” according to research published in PLoS One in 2014 (2). The study was performed specifically on Timothy grass, but another study, published in International Journal of Biometeorology in 2018, found that trees produced significantly more pollen when treated with more CO2 (3).

Fortunately, the natural products industry has solutions for those feeling the effects of allergies. “At the core of any allergy is the immune system,” says Dan Chapman, Founder and CEO of Redd Remedies. Ingredients that address this root cause are helpful as a baseline allergy supplement. Chapman’s suggestions: “Vitamin C, quercetin, and bioflavonoids work together to calm the immune system and modulate the release of chemical signals, including histamine. Barberry root supports a healthy gut microbiome, which in turn supports healthy and balanced immune system function.”

Getting deeper into the specifics of the physical reaction, Pamela Wirth, Founder of Hello Health, explains: “Allergies occur when your immune system reacts to a foreign substance—such as pollen or pet dander—that doesn’t cause a reaction in most people. Your immune system produces substances known as antibodies. When you have allergies, your immune system makes antibodies that identify a particular allergen as harmful, even though it isn’t. When you come into contact with the allergen, your immune system’s reaction can inflame your skin, sinuses, airways, or digestive system. Therefore, when addressing the root cause of allergies, one must look to the immune system and what may be causing inflammation.”

Many allergy products understand that concept, adds Jason DuBois, PharmD, Founder of Hybrid Remedies, but their focus is too narrow. “Many OTC medications and some natural products focus too much on controlling histamine. Contrary to popular belief, histamine plays a small role in the allergic response. There are many other immune triggers such as leukotrienes, prostaglandins, and cytokines that are involved in the allergic response. This is why using medications like Claritin, Zyrtec, Benadryl, or Allegra have limited benefit, and tend to wax and wane in effectiveness over time.”

Hybrid Remedies offers HybridAR, a two-pronged approach to allergy relief. “First, we use ingredients such as standardized rosemarinic acid and quercetin dihydrate for reducing histamine formation and release,” Dr. DuBois explains. “We also address the overactive immune response with key ingredients such as butterbur for mast cell stability, Andrographis, and apigenin for helper T cell balance. Each of those ingredients work on different immune pathways to ‘quiet’ the immune response to allergens. The result is a remedy that provides both fast-acting relief and long-acting benefit.”

Consider delivery method, too: Indena offers branded ingredient Quercefit; its proprietary Phytosome delivery system is shown to offer bioabsorption up to 20 times higher than unformulated quercetin.

Homeopathic formulations are also an option. Frank King, ND, DC, Founder of King Bio, swears by them: “They don’t just bring relief, they are corrective in their actions to help you bring the right balance to your immune system. If the immune system is overacting in some areas, homeopathy can bring it down; if it’s underacting in some areas, homeopathy can bring it up; if it’s doing both at once, homeopathy can adjust it.” Dr. King has addressed this with a series of regional formulas. “The regional formulas are designed to address the weeds, the grasses, and even the molds,” he says. “We have formulations for eight regions in the United States, and three regions in Canada. These are the simplest solutions we’ve found to correct causes behind allergies.”

Dr. King also suggests certain techniques for use of these formulas, in which the homeopathic product is sprayed over the spine followed by specific massaging and tapping techniques to activate the nerve and lymphatic systems.

Spotlight on Solid Extracts

Besides supplements, Herbalist & Alchemist’s David Winston suggests solid extracts: “Solid extracts can be added to hot water to make tea, spread on bread, or eaten off a spoon,” he explains. Herbalist & Alchemist offers Blueberry Solid Extract (made with blueberry fruit and apple juice) and Pomegranate-Goji Berry Solid Extract (made with pomegranate, blueberry, and apple juices, goji berry fruit, and blueberry fruit), both of which, Winston says, may help. “Blueberries contain polyphenols such as proanthocyanidins, which are potent anti-inflammatory agents. These berries have an ability to strongly inhibit pro-inflammatory cytokines, which can cause tissue and cellular damage. They also inhibit histamine production while protecting connective tissue, the eyes, and the cardiovascular system.”

The pomegranate-goji combination, Winston says, “provides a rich source of carotenoids, minerals, and flavonoids. Pomegranates are rich in ellagitannins, which are polyphenols that have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. Combined with the flavonoids in goji berries and anthocyanins in blueberries, this spread provides a readily bioavailable source of antioxidants that have been shown to reduce the effects of oxidative stress involved in systemic inflammatory diseases.”

4 Herbal Considerations

Herbs make up the majority of natural allergy assists, but there are special factors to consider, even putting aside obvious issues of purity and origin. Experts have pointed to:

1. Bioavailability. Susan E. Hirsch, MS, CNS, Formulation Manager for Gaia Herbs, points to bioavailability as an issue for consideration. “Adding an herb powder as a food ingredient or spice does not offer the same targeted support that a supplemental extract does. For example, the fat-soluble active components of turmeric, including its essential oils, need to pass the blood-brain barrier to offer neurological support, as well as support for any of the other targeted areas. However, in culinary uses, these essential oils are not preserved—cooking only releases their aroma and flavor—or not available, as most uncooked preparations do not support the absorption of those fat-soluble component. The potency of dried turmeric diminishes over time.” A potent, bioavailable supplement is therefore preferable, Hirsch says, to simply eating turmeric in food. This holds for green tea, resveratrol, oregano, nettle, and black seed as well.

2. Timeline. A customer in need of help with allergies already underway will need a different product than a customer looking to prepare for allergies that are still two months out. Hirsch tells WholeFoods that Gaia offers formulas for long-term and short-term support. “An overactive immune system is a root cause of allergies, so maintaining immune health can directly reduce or prevent allergy or respiratory symptoms. Both our Astragalus Supreme and Everyday Immune formulas are recommended for people to start taking well in advance of allergy season—two to three months before—as they can help people maintain their health before symptoms take effect. We also offer products designed for short-term usage that people will feel a more immediate response from, including our Sinus Comfort and Nettle Leaf. These products can help people manage seasonal sinus and respiratory challenges by supporting lymphatic flow, supporting blood vessel and tissue integrity, and stabilizing mast cells.”

3. Category. David Winston, RH(AHG), President and Founder of Herbalist & Alchemist, splits immune herbs into two categories. One category: “Immune amphoterics nourish the immune system, promoting immune competence and re-regulating hypo-immune, hyper-immune, or hypo/hyper-immune activity. They enhance the body’s ability to mount an appropriate immune response, and they help promote immune homeostasis. Their ability to help reregulate the immune system makes them effective in treating all allergies.” Included in the class of immune amphoterics: American and Asian ginseng, ashwagandha, astragalus, cat’s claw, cordyceps, guduchi, holy basil, licorice, maitake, reishi, and Schisandra berry.

There are also immunoregulatory herbs, Winston continues, explaining that plants in this class of herbs “stabilize mast cells, reduce histamine release, and inhibit allergic response, so they are useful for allergies. They also reduce inflammation caused by inflammatory prostaglandins, interleukins, reactive oxygen species, and reactive nitrogen species, and inhibit the formation and deposition of immune complexes.” This includes herbs like amla, Boswellia, cinnamon, gotu kola, Baikal skullcap, turmeric, sarsaparilla, and unprocessed rehmannia.

One offering from Herbalist & Alchemist: Immune Balance Compound, made from reishi mushroom and mycelium, turmeric rhizome, Huang Qin root, ashwagandha root, licorice root, and unprocessed rehmannia root. “This formula is indicated for rebalancing immune system dysfunction conditions,” Winston says. “It can also be useful for balancing pollen and animal dander allergies.” It contains both amphoterics (reishi, licorice, and ashwagandha) and immunoregulators (turmeric, Huang Qin, and rehmannia).

4. Formula. When it comes to herbs, Winston believes it’s best to go with blends. “Herbs are most effective in formulas, so retailers should guide their customers away from the allopathic view that they just need a single herb, which is not how herbs are the most powerful. Herbs can be phenomenally effective when the right herbs in the correct combinations for that specific person’s condition are utilized. Retailers can help consumers by stocking and recommending well-designed formulas developed by specialists, specifically well-trained herbalists, preferably with clinical experience. Obviously vetting the brands you offer is key, but especially with herbs for this reason.”

Lifestyle Tips

While there’s plenty that’s outside of your customers’ control, there are lifestyle alterations that may help with allergies. Gaia Herbs’ Susan Hirsch makes the following suggestions:

  • Eat antioxidant-rich foods: “These are known to help stabilize mast cells to preventatively manage and reduce seasonal allergies.”
  • Use an air purifier
  • Incorporate daily exercise
  • Thoroughly and regularly wash hands
  • Incorporate the yogic breath practice of pranayama—“this has been studied for its ability to ‘increase chest wall expansion and lung function,’ and is believed to improve the overall performance of the body.”

If a customer cannot pinpoint the source of their allergies, recommend talking to a healthcare provider about allergy testing: Being directed to a certain material or fabric, such as feathers in down comforters or pillows, as the source of allergies may help your customers make specific lifestyle changes that may help.

Focus on Sinus Care

Given that sinus issues are so often a hallmark of seasonal allergies, several brands have stepped up to help customers manage their symptoms. Redd Remedies, for instance, offers a variety of products intended to target sinus struggles. “Both our Adult Sinus Support and Children’s Sinus Support products target symptomatic and core allergy issues in a single formula,” Chapman explains. “Anti-inflammatory ingredients, such as stinging nettle leaf, address allergy symptoms in the sinuses, while N-acetylcysteine and ivy leaf extract target respiratory symptoms that can arise in the lower respiratory system (the lungs and bronchial system). By combining these ingredients, our formulas provide symptomatic relief to the entire respiratory system.”

For another take on sinus support, Herbalist & Alchemist offers a Sinus Support Compound made with echinacea root and flower, eyebright, horseradish root, kudzu root, osha root, bayberry root bark, Collinsonia whole plant, and vegetable glycerin. “This formula is useful for addressing acute symptoms of head colds, seasonal hay fever and other pollen allergies, sinusitis, and animal hair/dander allergies,” Winston explains. “Specific indications include itchy, scratchy red eyes; sinus congestion; excessive mucous production; frequent sneezing; upper respiratory tract congestion; and post-nasal drip.” As a whole, the formula is anti-inflammatory, stabilizes the mast cells to reduce histamine response, opens clogged sinuses, and soothes itchy eyes.

Nasal spray is also an option, and it can be used year-round to keep the sinuses clean for added value. “Xlear Nasal Spray, and our sinus care products, were originally designed and invented to help with upper respiratory infections, but have been incredibly effective at helping with respiratory allergies,” explains Nathan Jones, Founder and CEO of Xlear. “When we breathe something into our nose like pollen, dander, or any other trigger, the first thing that our immune system does is it makes more mucous with the intent of trapping and washing away that offending matter before it can get to the lungs, where it can very easily access the rest of the body. Our allopathic system of health care has trained us to react to that increase in mucous by taking decongestants, antihistamines, or steroids… which in reality isn’t addressing the cause, it is only blocking our immune response. What Xlear does is 180 degrees different in mechanism of action to achieve the same results. Rather than shut the immune system down, Xlear actually draws fluid out of the tissue into the mucous, and it speeds up the ciliary motion so that the natural cleansing mechanism of the airway works better. Xlear assists the airway in cleaning itself so you don’t get that allergic response.”

Children’s Support

Helping kids fight seasonal sniffles will keep them happy—which will, in turn, keep parents happy. Products formulated for adults may not be dosed for children, or may need to be swallowed, which can be difficult for kids.

To help address this problem, Pamela Wirth offers Hello Health’s two products. “Mighty Might helps to soothe response to environmental stressors with turmeric, fish oils, olive leaf extract, frankincense, and zinc. Probiotics, vitamin D3, and methylfolate—all found in Belly Great—can curb allergic symptoms and build immune support.” The supplements come in capsules, so that if swallowing them is an option it’s mess-free—but if not, the capsules can be opened, and the contents can be added to food or drink.

Buried Treasure offers a liquid option, Aller-ease. Ingredients include vitamin C, quercetin, stinging nettle, eyebright, and astragalus, to support the immune system on all fronts.

ChildLife Essentials, too, offers a liquid option, also containing vitamin C—but their Aller-Care product offers proanthocyanidins via grape skin and seed extract and the immunoregulatory herb amla, along with elderberry, bromelain, and zinc.

Wirth also has tips for merchandising children’s products. “Make a Child Wellness section with a brochure rack with product information and health issues,” she suggests. “Have balloons, make it colorful and fun. Establish relationships in your local community with pediatricians/naturopaths and schedule webinars or onsite seminars to discuss health issues for children, and give doctors discount codes to share with their patients to buy from the store. Develop a buy-two-give-one program, wherein moms can buy two children’s wellness products and donate one to a local children’s charity.” She also suggested a coloring book sponsored by brands, to be handed out to children at checkout.

Merchandising Tips

Allergy relief may be something that many can’t go without, but no one wants to spend time sorting through a slew of options when suffering the effects of a pollen overdose. As such, experts have suggested ways to make things easier.

Segment: Jones advises separation: “I think that retailers should have products segregated a little depending on the function. Products that wash away, or hygiene products, should be merchandised beside but separate from the supplements and/or other options. People need to understand what the difference is and how, while they are different, they work together.”

Bundle: “The body is complex,” says Chapman, “which is true even when related to allergies. It is powerful to make available to your customers a variety of products to help them in all the ways they will need.” He suggests creating sets of complementary products, such as pairing sinus support formulas with throat support drops and syrups. “Putting these together not only allows for an add-on sale, but that add-on sale will help your customer feel better fast.”

Dr. DuBois seconds that: “Create a display with a variety of allergy needs—supplements, teas, netti pots, essential oils, tissue packs, and lozenges.” He offers several other recommendations, chief among them cross-merchandising: “Put allergy products in the herbal section, near herbs like Andrographis, as well as the allergy section.” And if you have tissue boxes and hand sanitizer for customer use, he suggests merchandising allergy products right next to them—“That way, customers with sniffles will find the product right away.”

Educate: Lily Holmberg, Director of Learning at Gaia Herbs, feels that merchandising shouldn’t end with the display: Face-to-face conversation is a major pro of in-store versus online shopping, so invest in it for post-COVID times. “Retailers need to provide education to their retail associates on herbs that can help manage seasonal sinus and respiratory challenges, which are common allergy symptoms,” opines Holmberg. “For allergy symptoms, in particular, there are a number of different herbs that can help people effectively manage these seasonal challenges, so it is important to educate retail associates on which herbs may work best for people’s specific concerns. Some herbs may take a longer period of time to build up in the body for full effect, and other herbs may take action quicker but with shorter term results. Educating retail associates will allow them to answer the most common questions they may receive from customers.”

The final word: While everyone’s attention is on their immune system, Dr. King thinks it’s time to take on allergies too. “Allergies can set us up to be more susceptible to other things, like a virus. It really is important for people to get proactive about their allergies, not just by taking antihistamines, but by modulating their immune systems. It’s time to fight back and prepare to deal with this pollen.” WF

References

  1. Thomas Leo Ogren, “Botanical Sexism Cultivates Home-Grown Allergies,” Scientific American. Posted 04/29/2015. Accessed 02/01/2021.  https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/guest-blog/botanical-sexism-cultivates-home-grown-allergies/
  2. Jennifer M. Albertine et al., “Projected Carbon Dioxide to Increase Grass Pollen and Allergen Exposure Despite Higher Ozone Levels,” PLoS One. 9(11)2014. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0111712 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4221106/
  3. Kyu Rang Kim et al., “Does the increase in ambient CO2 concentration elevate allergy risks posed by oak pollen?” International Journal of Biometeorology. 62(9). 2018. doi: 10.1007/s00484-018-1558-7 https://www.researchgate.net/publication/325068307_Does_the_increase_in_ambient_CO2_concentration_elevate_allergy_risks_posed_by_oak_pollen

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