Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Making Herbal Oils, Creams & Salves - Summer Skin Care

by Maria Noël Groves, Clinical Herbalist & Co-op Wellness Educator

Skin can have its issues at any time of year (think: dry, itchy skin in winter), but summer really takes its toll with bug bites, sun exposure, poison ivy, foot fungus, etc. Of course the Co-op sells a wide range of great remedies in the Health & Beauty Department, but you may be surprised at how simple it is to make your own.

Starting Out: Herb-Infused Oils

For most herbs, oil is not the best solvent (alcohol and water tend to be better). However, we prefer to infuse herbs in oil for most topical recipes. It has the added benefit (in most situations) of holding in moisture and keeping skin soft with soothing and moisturizing an area. Infused oils can be used “as is” for many health concerns—warmed mullein flower oil dropped in the ear for earaches, St. John’s wort oil applied along nerve pain or for bedsores, calendula oil on sore mama nipples, eczema, and rashes. Or, you can use your herbal oil as a base for other products—salves, lip balms, massage oils, creams, etc.

Note: Herbal oils are NOT the same as essential oils (EOs). An EO is made through distillation in a process that is not available to most home herbalists unless you have some fancy equipment. EOs are highly concentrated due to their processing, so their medicinal value is often increased or changed compared to home herbalist preparations of the same plant. They’re also more apt to pose health risks—EOs are often extremely toxic when taken internally, particularly in doses more than a drop or two. Even topically, most EOs need to be diluted to about 2%. Herbal oils are much gentler, bring out different constituents, and have a much more mild fragrance. You can certainly dilute an EO in an herbal oil to combine their healing effects.

There are MANY methods for making an herbal oil. Some of it is personal preference. Also, some herbs extract better through different methods. Use whatever resonates and works best for you.

Alcohol-Intermediary Oil: With Alcohol & a Blender (24 hours)
This is an unusual but effective method to make great herbal oils in a short span of time.
Pros: Fast, highly effective extraction, especially for more alcohol-soluble constituents. Longest shelf life (the dry herb and alcohol really help prevent microbes from growing in the oil). Vivid color, especially for green herbs.
Cons: You can only do it with dried herb, and some people may not want to use alcohol and a blender (which requires electricity and is noisy). Better for leaves and flowers than roots and tough parts of plants.
  • 1 oz of dried herb
  • 1/2 oz whole grain alcohol (vodka can be substituted)
  • 7 oz olive or other carrier oil
  1. If your herb isn't already ground, place it in a blender with the lid on and pulse  until coarsely ground. In a Pyrex container, mix dried herb with alcohol. It will be a similar consistency as damp sand. Let sit, covered, for 2-24 hours.
  2. Place the mix into a blender, add oil, and slowly blend the mixture. Increase the speed. Let blend until the blender gets warm, about 5 minutes.
  3. Strain through cheesecloth or clean muslin, squeezing out as much oil as you can (and again through a coffee filter, if desired) to desired clarity.
  4. Store in glass in a cool, dark place. Should keep for 6-12 months.
Note: I often like to combine this method with Simple Method #2, especially for calendula. After I blend it in the blender, I put it all in a mason jar and let it sit in the car for a few days, then strain it out.

Simple Method #1: Maceration In a Mason Jar (2 weeks)
This is the classic way to make herbal oils. It's very simple, and many people take great joy watching the oils infuse on the windowsill or a shelf.
Pros: Simple. This works well for fresh or dry herb and so it is preferred for herbs like St. John's wort, cleavers, and chickweed which are really best fresh.
Cons: Most apt to go bad (especially if using fresh herb), time-consuming, and not always a great extraction.
  • 4 oz dry herb or 6 oz of fresh wilted herb
  • 8 oz of olive or other carrier oil (or enough to completely cover the herbs)
  • Loosely pack your herb in a mason jar. If you're using a particularly juicy fresh herb, you may want to let it wilt to about half its weight before putting in the jar. This helps prevent microbial growth.
  • Cover with oil to the very top. If using dry herb, cover with a lid. If using fresh herb, fasten cheesecloth to the top with a rubber band instead; this will help let moisture escape and reduce microbial growth.
  • Leave in a warm spot for 2 weeks. Shake or stir daily (important!) to keep things from hanging out on top and getting funky. 
  • Strain through cheesecloth or clean muslin, squeezing out as much oil as you can (and again through a coffee filter, if desired) to desired clarity. (Watch for mold if using fresh herbs.) 
  • Store in glass in a cool, dark place. Should keep for 6-12 months.

Simple Method #2: Low-Heat Extraction (Few Hours to 1-3 days)
The ideal temp for extracting herbs in oil is approximately 90-100 degrees, which is difficult to get with standard kitchen equipment. You can make do with a low-temp crockpot (ie: appetizer) or double boiler, shutting it off periodically so it doesn't get too hot. Other methods include keeping a jar in a warm, sunny car, in a yogurt maker, or in a dehydrator.
Pros: Relatively fast, traditional way to extract herbs in oil. Ideal for resinous herbs that are more oil/heat soluble, such as calendula. Less apt to get moldy compared to the Simple Method #1.
Cons: Too hot for "best fresh" herbs, and if you're not careful, you can fry your herbs and oxidize your oil
  • 4 oz dry herb or 6 oz of fresh wilted herb
  • 8 oz olive oil or other carrier oil or enough to cover
  1. Place ingredients in crock-pot or in pan on stove top. Bring to 90-100 degrees (this can be difficult to maintain with most kitchen equipment) or as low as possible. 
  2. Let warm gently for 2-6 hours or overnight, stirring occasionally. You may opt to turn the heat on and off periodically if your temps are higher than 100 degrees. Use caution not to cook the herbs or smoke the oil. (A warm, sunny car can range from 100-200 degrees depending on the outdoor temps, sun exposure and where you place the oil (windshield, floor, shady spot).) 
  3. Strain through cheesecloth or clean muslin, squeezing out as much oil as you can (and again through a coffee filter, if desired) to desired clarity.
  4. Store in glass in a cool, dark place. Should keep for 6-12 months.

Infused Oil Caution: Avoid Microbial Growth & Rancidity
Many microbes thrive in the anaerobic environment that oils provide. Without harsh or synthetic preservatives, infused oils and products made from them can potentially harbor bacteria, mold, etc. Of particular concern is the botulism toxin, which can exist on almost any plant matter (roots, flowers, leaves). This is more of a concern for oils that are consumed (basil or garlic oil, for example) than ones put on the skin, and it is not all that likely to occur. However, it can happen. Also, infused oils made with fresh plant material are at a particularly higher risk of growing nasty critters. You may want to stick to infusing oils with dried herbs; however, some herbs are only useful when fresh (St. John’s wort, chickweed, plantain, cleavers). Reduce the risk: Don’t let your herb sit around for more than two weeks before straining. And, wilt particularly juicy plants to 1/2 their weight before you add oil. Oils will eventually go rancid. To prolong the shelf life, opt for fresh carrier oils with a reputation for a one- to two-year shelf life like olive oil, coconut oil, grapeseed oil, and sesame oil. Most oil companies put a “best buy” date on the label. Store your oils in a cool, dark, dry spot in the smallest container possible (heat and light and oxygen will accelerate the rancidity process). Although I rarely find it necessary, you can also add antioxidant ingredients to your oil to help slow rancidity: vitamin E oil, essential oils of rosemary, lavender, etc. Preservatives like grapefruit seed extract (not really natural), certain essential oils, and benzoin can help protect against both rancidity and microbial growth. Try to make a fresh batch of oil every 6 to 12 months and don’t make more than you think you’ll use, which will reduce the chances of having to toss it because it went bad (always a sad things to do).

Choosing Your Carrier Oils

A carrier, or fixed, oil is your base oil for massage oil, infused oil, lip balms, body butters, etc. It generally has little to no scent and does not evaporate. By far the most popular carrier oil in herbal products is olive oil. However, there are other options for carrier oils as well, each with slightly different properties. (* May have slight SPF protection.)
These are my favorites...
  • Olive Oil: Advantages: As mentioned, olive oil is the carrier oil of choice for most herbalists and natural bodycare craftswomen. It will go rancid more slowly than other oils, meaning you can still use your lip balm a year later without getting a nasty, acrid flavor and gummy texture. It is of medium viscosity, is easily available, and not too expensive. It is easily available unrefined. Disadvantages: Olive oil has a distinctive scent that may not be popular in bodycare products. Some people do not like the texture and feel that it does not sink into the skin well. It does  not withstand high temperatures well.
  • Grapeseed Oil: Advantages: Grapeseed oil is a light, fragrance-free oil with possible antioxidant properties. Many favor it for massage oils because of it’s lighter viscosity and glide effect. It is priced comparatively with high quality olive oil. It has a relatively long shelf life and withstands high temperatures. Disadvantages: Grapeseed is always refined and often a bit expensive.
  • * Coconut Oil: Advantages: This saturated fat is semi-solid at room temperature, hard at cooler temps, and liquid in warm climates. It is very rich and soothing for dry skin. Extra virgin, raw, and unrefined coconut oil is the best for skincare and has a slight coconut scent and flavor. It has a good shelf life if kept in a cool, dark spot, and withstands higher temperatures. Refined coconut oil is not as useful herbally but it does have an even longer shelf life and is scent/flavor free for those who prefer it. Coconut oil is lovely solo as a body moisturizer or tanning oil. Some report that it has light sunscreen properties. Disadvantages: Quality coconut oil is somewhat pricy. The temperature-sensitive consistency can be a pain since lip balms turn to liquid on a summer day and massage oils solidify in the jars during the winter. Some people find it too thick for their tastes. While the coconut scent and flavor can be a boon to some bodycare makers, others don’t care for it.
  • Cocoa Butter: Advantages: This chocolate-y, rich butter of the cocoa bean is a great addition to lip balms, thicker massage oils and body butters. Opt for fair-trade products, if possible. It has a long shelf life. It can be used to solidify a balm or salve without beeswax (for vegans). Disadvantages: It is extremely solid, which makes it hard to get out of the container and mix into recipes. It’s a bit pricy and too thick/rich/hard for most bodycare recipes. It’s strongly chocolate scent mixes nicely in some formulas but can overpower others. Coca butters can be adulterated with other ingredients—look for 100% pure AND double check the ingredients list.
  • *  Jojoba Oil: Advantages: This liquid wax is similar to the skin’s oil and makes a nice addition to advanced skincare products or as a light facial moisturizer. Common golden jojoba is slightly thicker and better for dry skin. Filtered clear jojoba is lighter and more appropriate for oily skin. It has the longest shelf life of all the carrier oils. (Almost never goes rancid.) Unlikely to clog pores, which is great for sensitive and acne-prone skin. Disadvantages: Probably the most expensive of all carrier oils. Filtered clear jojoba is hard to find (try Heather Lorraine brand). For some jojoba is not moisturizing enough. 
  • Almond and avocado oils are popular for skin care, though they are more expensive and tend to go rancid more quickly. Unrefined sesame, hemp, and shea may offer a small amount of sun protection. 

Great Summer Skin Herbs

Leaves and flowers most readily lend their properties to oil. You can use “harder” parts of the plants like roots, bark, and nuts, but they may not extract as well. If you only keep two herbal oils in your pantry, make them calendula and St. John’s wort. In my opinion, they’re the most useful and “miraculous.”
* May have slight SPF action.
  •  Calendula flowers (Calendula officinalis) – This is one of the most common herbal oils, and it can be purchased by the ounce in most natural food stores. Use dried bright yellow or orange blossoms, which make a golden oil. Calendula flowers have slight antimicrobial properties and are soothing to inflamed skin. It’s great in formula’s for baby’s skin, itches and rashes, superficial wounds, and some cases of dermatitis, eczema, and psoriasis. Dry or fresh (wilted) herbal oil infusion. Also try it as a wash (same as making a tea) or an herbal bath (add 1 quart of strong tea to bath). 
  • * St. Johnswort flowers & buds (Hypericum perforatum) – The fresh yellow buds and flowers of this important weed yield an amazing crimson oil. Only fresh buds and flowers should be used (top bit of the plant, it’s ok if you get a few leaves and some stem), and the oil will be stronger if you let it infuse in the SUN (this is a SUN PLANT) for a few days or weeks. You can purchase St. Johnswort in 1 to 4 oz quantities in natural food stores. It’s an amazing medicinal oil for most skin conditions including burns, cuts, wounds, bedsores, radiation burns, etc. It can be applied along an inflamed nerve or muscle for pain including sciatica or shingles. It is reported to have mild sunscreen properties and also helps with sunburns. Fresh (no need to wilt) herbal oil infusion. Though drying, SJW tincture can be used in a pinch.
  • Gotu Kola leaves (Centella asiatica) – The dried leaves of this ivy-like vine make a vibrant green oil (it does not color the skin). Gotu kola is a wound healer and general cure-all for circulation, collagen support, and the nervous system. We are seeing it more in formulas for varicose and spider veins, cellulite, skin imperfections, and wrinkles. It is occasionally available in natural food stores in jojoba or other carrier oil. Dry herbal oil infusion. Not local, but it can be grown as an annual or indoors.
  • Plantain (Plantago spp), Chickweed (Stellaria spp), and/or Cleavers (Galium spp) leaves – These three miracle weeds are usuallyonly used fresh (slightly wilted) in classic folk herbalism. The three can be used separately or together for wound healing and itchy skin including eczema, dermatitis, psoriasis, and poison ivy. Fresh (wilted) herbal oil infusion. These herbs make lovely fresh poultices for a variety of irritated skin conditions, bug bites, stings, poison ivy, rashes, etc. Simply mash them up with a bit of water and plaster them to the skin. Just chew a plaintain leaf and apply it to bee stings and bug bites for healing in a jiffy.
  • * Chaparral (Larrea tridentata) – Chaparral is a supreme summer skin herb that grows prolifically in the southwest. It seems to have some sun-protective properties as well as antioxidants that may be helpful for post-burn healing. Chaparral is also amongst our best herbal antifungals, making it a nice choice for foot fungus and other “icky critter” salves. (If you’d like, you can combine it with oregano, lavender, sage, thyme, thuja, or other anti-fungal/bacterial infused oils… a few drops of essential oil would work nicely, too.) Dry herbal oil infusion. Note: Internal use is controversial. Also consider chaparral as a wash or soak. For foot fungus, make a foot bath. For sunburn, make a tea, cool it in the fridge, and spray it as needed.
  • Lemon Balm leaves (Melissa officinalis) – Lemon balm is our classic for the herpes virus, whether it be cold sores, chicken pox, shingles, or genital herpes. The herb appears to bind to cell receptor sites, blocking the herpes virus from entering and replicating. It’s best used at the very first tingle of an outbreak. (Lemon balm tea or tincture can be taken internally as well, since it’s soothing to a frayed nervous system, which often is what gave the virus an opportunity to emerge.) Lemon balm essential oil can be added to an oil or salve—it’s the strongest form—but it’s extremely expensive and often adulterated. Lemon balm leaves lose their essential oils quickly once dried, so it’s important to make this oil as quickly after harvesting to ensure good quality. Fresh (wilted) or freshly dried herbal oil infusion. (Fresh lemon balm is apt to mold in herbal oil infusions. Also a wonderful tea, wash, bath, poultice tincture…. It’s not a bad idea to take it internally (tea or tincture) since it is soothing, calming, and slightly anti-inflammatory, which usually benefits its external uses.
    * Comfrey leaf (best for salves) or root (Symphytum officinale, S. x uplandicum) – This is a classic herb for wound healing and strengthening the skin. The primary known constituent allantoin is a cell proliferative and may or may not be extracted in oil (modern science says it’s water soluble only—more so in hot water—yet herbalists have traditionally used in oil-based products). Dry herbal oil infusion. Note: Internal use is controversial. Comfrey also makes a great wash, fresh or dry poultice. Taking it internally is controversial due to liver toxins in the plant.
  • * Green or White Tea leaves (Camellia sinensis) – As we know, the tea plant is one of our most useful antioxidants. This can be helpful in fighting free radical damage including sun damage and signs of aging. Tea has astringent properties that lend it to varicose and spider vein and cellulite formulas, and can be used safely for most people. Dry herbal oil infusion. Green tea is also lovely as a bath, tea/wash, or a cooling spray.

Essential Oils

Essential, or volatile, oils are highly concentrated, strongly aromatic, evaporate quickly, and are used in small quantities only (1-2% of an entire formula). They’re usually made via a complex distillation process. LOTS of plant material makes just a little essential oil, which is why they’re so strong (just a drop or so will do it) and often expensive. Essential oils provide natural fragrance, healing properties, and natural preservative properties to your products. They’re generally much better than synthetic fragrances—which are often carcinogenic, neurotoxic, and endocrine-disrupting—but they are still potent extracts that should be used with caution, and in only as little of a dose as you need.
Note: Essential oils are generally toxic when used internally, particularly in doses of more than a DROP. 1/4 teaspoon of wintergreen essential oil can kill an adult.

Essential Oil Simples:
Lavender, Orange, Peppermint, and Spearmint are all popular and inexpensive single oils if you don’t feel like blending. Rose and Sandalwood (note: often unethically harvested) are expensive, but also popular.

Simple Skin Care Recipes

Simple Lip Balm
Makes 25-35 lip balm tubes (~5 oz lip balm base total). Divide/multiply the recipe as needed.
  • 1 oz of beeswax, crushed or grated*
  • 4 oz of olive, grapeseed, and/or coconut oil or other carrier oils like jojoba, apricot, almond…
  • essential oils, optional for scent
Gently melt beeswax and olive oil together in a double boiler or microwave, stirring frequently. When the beeswax melts thoroughly, test consistency by dripping some of the mixture onto a cold metal spoon or bowl. If too hard, add more oil. If too soft, add more beeswax.  Once desired consistency is reached, remove from heat. Add essential oils and pour into lip balm tubes or jars. Allow to harden before capping.

*Beeswax Tip: Wrap beeswax in a clean cloth, place on a hard surface (ie: concrete, a rock, pavement), and bang with a hammer until broken up. Note: Lip balm tubes hold 0.15 oz. You can also use jars, tins.

Same basic idea as a lip balm!
  • 1 oz of beeswax, crushed or grated*
  • 4 oz of herb-infused oils
  • essential oils, optional for scent and added medicinal activity
Follow same instructions as above for lip balm. Pour into jars or tubes for use.

Perfect Cream

This recipe is adapted from Rosemary Gladstar's Family Herbal (Storey Books, 2001) recipe “Rosemary’s Perfect Cream” (recently reprinted in softcover as Rosemary Gladstar’s Herbal Recipes for Vibrant Health (Story, 2008)). This recipe does not need to be stored in the refrigerator. If it separates, just stir it with a spoon.

  • 1/2 to 1 ounce grated or smashed beeswax*
  • 3/4 cup (6 oz) “liquid oils” (grapeseed oil, herb-infused olive or sesame oil…)
  • 1/3 cup (2.5 oz) “saturated fats” (coconut oil, cocoa butter, shea butter...)
  • (Note: In my favorite recipe, I use .75 oz beeswax, 6 oz grapeseed oil and/or herb-infused oils, 1.5 oz coconut oil, 1 oz cocoa butter)
  •  2/3 cup (5.5 oz) distilled water, vanilla extract, rose water, herbal tinctures, flower essences…
  • 1/3 cup (2.5 oz) shelf stable aloe gel or juice, optional
  • 1-2+ drops of essential oil of choice per jar, optional
  • (Note: In my favorite recipe, I use 2 oz Frontier Coop vanilla extract and 3.5 oz distilled water, no aloe or essential oils. It comes out smelling like cake.)
  1. In a double boiler over low heat, combine the oils. Heat just enough to melt. Once melted, pour into a glass mason jar (for immersion blender) or blender. Let cool to room temp. The mixture should become thick, creamy, semisolid, and cream colored.
  2. While the oils are cooling, combine the “waters” in a pour-able container. Let warm to room temp.
  3. When both mixtures have reached room temperature (1-2 hours), use an immersion blender or regular blender to mix the cooled “oils.” Slowly drizzle the “waters” into the whirling oils. If necessary, stop blending occasionally to mix with a spoon or spatula until everything has combined.
  4. Pour or scoop into cream or lotion jars with clean caps, preferably sterilized to discourage mold and bacteria growth. Store in a cool, dry place. The cream will thicken as it sets.

Simple Aromatherapy Mist
This basic concept can easily be adapted to be perfume, air spray, bug spray, sunburn spray, anti-microbial spray, etc, depending on what essential oils you choose (and if  you decide to mix up the base).  
  • 1 oz distilled water & 1 oz vodka (or tinctures, vanilla ext, flower h2o, vinegar)
  • 10+ drops of essential oils (lavender or lavender-rose geranium is a great combo for many uses!)
Mix all ingredients and essential oils of choice.
Pour into spray bottles and use as needed.

Quick Guide to Summer Skin Herbs                                             

My favorites are underlined

Sun Protection (Slight):
  • Herbs: St. John’s wort, Comfrey leaf, Chaparral, maybe Green Tea
  • Oils: Sesame, Coconut, Shea, Jojoba, Hemp
  • Minerals: Zinc oxide, Titanium dioxide

Post Sunburn:
  • Herbs: Pure Aloe Gel (fresh leaf = best), St. John’s Wort oil, Green Tea, Chaparral, Witch Hazel, Lemon balm &/or Anise Hyssop tea
  • (internally & externally)
  • Essential Oil: Lavender
  • Other: Vinegar (apple cider), Cool Bath or Spray, Yogurt
  • General: With a few exceptions (SJW oil, Lavender EO), oils are usually not good at the beginning of a sunburn. Opt for cool water-based remedies instead. Oils may be used after the initial “burn feeling” is gone to support healing.

Rashes & Poison Ivy
  • Herbs: Jewelweed (frozen in ice cubes = great!), Grindelia (not local), Plantain, Calendula, Chickweed, Cleavers, St. John’s Wort, Witch Hazel, Lemon Balm, Gotu Kola (not local)
  • Essential Oils: Lavender, Peppermint
  • Oils: Olive, Coconut, Shea (although certainly others are ok, too)
  • Other: Clay, Ice
  • General: Although salves can be helpful, often in the first stage of poison ivy it’s best to use drying or water-based remedies like tincture, vinegar, or water sprays.

Bug Repellent
  • Herbs: Catnip or Yarrow in vinegar or vodka spray, Rub basil on the skin
  • Essential Oils for All: Lemon eucalyptus (not local), Citronella, Lavender, Lemongrass
  • EOs for Mosquitoes: Catnip
  • EOs for Ticks: Rose Geranium
Bug Bites
  • Herbs: Plantain, Calendula, Chickweed, Cleavers
  • EOs: Lavender, Peppermint
  • Other: Ice, Clay (esp w/a few drops of lavender or peppermint)
Learn how to ID some common summer skin herbs here.
More herbal recipes here.

The statements made on this blog have not been evaluated by the FDA and are not intended to diagnose, prescribe, recommend, or offer medical advice. Please see your health care practitioner for help regarding choices and to avoid herb-drug interactions.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Natural Answers for Allergies

By Maria Noël Groves, Clinical Herbalist & Co-op Wellness Educator

I live with a pollen count barometer. He starts honking and sneezing as soon as tree pollen releases into the early spring breeze. He peaks again with the grass mid-summer, and he doesn’t end until the last of the ragweed dies back to the ground. If we have a wet fall, the mold kicks in. We can’t have any pets because of, you guessed it: allergies. Unfortunately, indoor/outdoor allergies including pet dander and ragweed pollen bog down a lot of folks. Nearly 40 million Americans suffer from allergic rhinitis due to indoor/outdoor allergies, and seasonal allergies alone account for more than 8 million doctors visits each year.

We may see the natural world as a major cause of allergies, but it can also be a source for relief. Several herbs and foods have antihistamine effects. You can reduce or eliminate your seasonal allergies by taking a few natural remedies and tweaking your lifestyle and diet. You don’t have to turn to Claritin. I promise. Here’s how…

Allergies 101

Ragweed - a culprit AND a remedy!
Your basic allergic response begins with an allergen, such as pollen. Once the allergen enters your body, it encounters a type of white blood cell called a B lymphocyte. The B cell produces antibodies, which recognize the allergen and also contain immunoglobulin (Ig). IgE is most often involved in allergic reactions. The antibodies grab onto the allergen, which attract other immune cells including mast cells. The mast cells release histamine, which causes your allergy symptoms: tissue inflammation, sneezing, itching, swelling, watery eyes, etc. From your body’s point of view, the histamine response controls any possible infection, eliminates the allergen through runny noses, etc, and activates immune cells to fight the perceived infection.

Unfortunately, our bodies often become allergic to substances that would normally do little or no harm. Pollen, pet dander, peanuts, and dust are not inherently bad; however, our bodies may mark them as dangerous and produce antibodies for them. Two major things can determine your allergic reaction: 1. the intensity of exposure to one or more allergens, and 2. the health of your immune system. Several experts also believe in the “hygiene hypothesis”: we develop allergies to harmless things because our environment is too clean of disease-causing microorganisms. Studies have found that children who are exposed to ample germs and have more small infections when they’re young have fewer allergies and illnesses as adults compared to children who grew up in less germy environments. On the flip side, environmental pollutants like smog, new carpet chemicals, fresh coats of paint, and second-hand smoke can aggravate asthma, allergies, respiratory health, and chemical sensitivities/allergies.

Solution 1: Underlying Food Allergies, Lessening the Load

Many alternative health practitioners theorize that allergies become worse as the load or stress to the body is increased. I know several people who had terrible seasonal or pet allergies and/or chronic respiratory issues that almost entirely disappeared once food sensitivities like dairy or gluten were recognized and eliminated.

Targeting your own individual allergies and sensitivities can be tricky. Common food allergens include dairy, soy, wheat and gluten, corn, eggs, nuts, chocolate, coffee, citrus, and tomatoes. Common environmental allergens include mold, yeast, dust, animal dander, and various types of pollen. However, anyone can be allergic to anything. I know people who are allergic to beans, bananas, kiwi, and quinoa. Skin/scratch tests can be helpful for diagnosing specific allergies. They are not always accurate, but they are easy to do and inexpensive. Your doctor, naturopath, or allergist can also take a blood sample and perform a test tube allergen-specific IgE antibody test. This is more expensive and rarely covered by insurance. However, it tests a broad range of foods and allergens and can be extremely helpful (but also not perfectly accurate) in pin-pointing sensitivities and allergies. Listen to your body; you might already know what you’re sensitive to once you reflect on it. Keep a food diary to look for patterns. Try eliminating all common allergenic food for a few weeks and reintroduce them one at a time. Once you identify an allergy or sensitivity, try to avoid or reduce exposure to it. This is your best bet for better health and reduced allergy symptoms overall. You may not be able to avoid pollen, but you can control your diet.

Solution 2: A Happy, Healthy Lifestyle

Inflammation, stress, and a weakened immune system can also aggravate allergies. For example, I don’t generally have allergy problems, but if I run myself ragged, ragweed knocks me off my feet. It’s always a good idea to take a few steps back and get a good night’s sleep, especially if you know your worst allergy season is approaching. Address stress because it can cause inflammation. Too much sugar, dairy, refined carbohydrates, red meat, trans fats, fried food, processed food, and perhaps even nightshades (tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, potatoes) can also contribute to inflammation in the body. Inflammation can manifest itself via allergies, arthritis, skin problems, etc. A diet rich in fruits and vegetables – especially those green leafies like kale and nettles and deeply colored berries – can help the body favor a more anti-inflammatory environment. Omega-3 fatty acids found in wild-caught salmon, herring, and sardines, as well as flax seed oil and raw walnuts, encourages the body to make more anti-inflammatory compounds. Beneficial bacteria from supplements, yogurt, keifer, fermented vegetables, and sauerkraut, may also reduce inflammation and allergies. Culinary seasonings – turmeric, ginger, cinnamon, Indian spices, and Italian herbs – can be eaten or taken in supplement form to curb inflammatory processes and fight cranky free radicals.

Solution 3: Herbs, Supplements & Techniques

Horehound, fresh from the garden

These remedies can be used with or without the diet and lifestyle suggestions above. While diet and lifestyle are more likely to get to the root of allergy problems, many people keep their allergies in check with remedies alone.

Horehound (Marrubium vulgare) ~ Clearing Mucus, Post Nasal Drip & Wet Coughs
This bitter mint-family herb gained popularity as an expectorant for wet coughs and in the old-fashioned horehound candy. However, I’ve had great response using homegrown fresh horehound tincture for clients who can’t seem to clear up mucus associated with allergies: post nasal drip, sinus congestion, and wet lung congestion. Horehound generally works quickly and effectively, bringing relief when little else would do the trick. My teacher Michael Moore found horehound useful for asthmatic children as well, and noted that store bought herb didn’t seem to be as effective. Harvest the fresh leaves and flowers in summer to tincture fresh. Dry for tea or homemade capsules. Cautions: Horehound may (rarely) raise blood pressure, and it tastes bad.
Note: Horehound tincture is oddly uncommon in allergy products commerce - the only Co-op allergy product I could find it in was the Co-op brand Sinus Breaker (which includes other great sinus-clearing herbs like horseradish), but it is also in a nice expectorant Compound Horehound formula by Oregon's Wild Harvest (look with the cough syrups). However, you can easily grow this herb and make your own tincture - see directions at the end. You can special order Herb Pharm's hourehound tincture as well.

Goldenrod - a remedy oft wrongly blamed
Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) & Ragweed (Ambrosia artemisiifolia) ~ Weedy Allergy Help
These two herbs are often thought to cause allergies, yet they may also act as remedies. It’s true that ragweed is the nearly invisible culprit behind most late summer hayfever symptoms. Goldenrod rarely causes allergies, but its showy yellow flowers bloom at the same time, right next to inconspicuous ragweed. I’m impressed by the apparent anti-histamine effect of goldenrod as well as its ability to help thin mucus and drain the sinuses. Ragweed seems to also reduce histamine and dry up congestion. Both tend to take effect within the day. Harvest the top third of goldenrod just as the flowers begin to open. Harvest ragweed leaves well before they flower or produce pollen. Once you train your eye for ragweed’s distinctive leaves, you’ll see it everywhere. I prefer to tincture both plants fresh, but you can also dry them for tea. (Goldenrod flowers turn to fluff when they dry; it’s ok.) You’ll have a hard time finding either remedy in stores, but they can be easily made at home. Most species within each genus work similarly. Cautions: Although it’s unlikely to cause problems, don’t take ragweed if you’re pregnant.
Note: The Co-op doesn't carry plain goldenrod tincture; however, it's easy to make from the wild herb (see directions at the end), and it is an ingredient in most of the herbal allergy tincture blends sold at the Co-op, including Herbal Energetics' AllerFree and Sinus Aid, and Herb Pharm's Pollen Defense. You can special order plain goldenrod tincture from Herb Pharm as well. Ragweed is nearly nonexistent in commerce as an herbal extract, though the homeopathic form is often included in homeopathic allergy formulas.

Nettles (Urtica dioica) ~ Nutritive & “Antihistamine”
Stinging Nettles are worth a shot
A few small studies on freeze-dried nettles found that it reduced allergy symptoms for participants. Results were not as positive for tea or non-freeze-dried forms of the herb, though some people do find those forms helpful. In my experience and that of my peers, nettles only quells allergies in about half the people who try it. However, it’s such a beneficial, safe herb to try first. The mineral-rich leaves make a nutritious tea and can be cooked like spinach in recipes. On top of this, the plant is diuretic, alkalizing, and may decrease inflammation in osteoarthritis. Harvest nettles in spring before they flower; wear gloves and long sleeves to avoid the sting. Cautions: Nettles are generally very safe and can be consumed in ample amounts as food. Fresh nettles sting, which is painful but rarely dangerous.

Quercetin ~ “Antihistamine” Bioflavanoid
Though not specifically herbal, I have seen the most universal allergy improvements with this bioflavanoid extract. Found naturally throughout nature in apples, green and black tea, red onions, red grapes, lovage, and oak bark, quercetin supplements are usually derived from corn.  In supplements, you’ll often find it in combination with bromelain and vitamin C. Quercetin works best as a preventative. Start taking it a few weeks prior to, then throughout the allergy season. Research on quercetin is limited; however, it appears to act and an antihistamine, antioxidant, and phytoestrogen. Some studies found that increased apple consumption (naturally high in quercetin) improved lung health in people with lung disease including asthma and bronchitis. Different supplement manufacturers use different concentrations and formulas; follow label instructions. Eating more organic apples and other quercetin-rich foods may help. Bear in mind that conventional apples are among the most pesticide-ridden produce out there; even organic apples should be washed thoroughly. Cautions: There is a theoretical drug interaction with hormone drug therapies due to quercetin’s estrogenic activity. Consult your practitioner if you are pregnant, breastfeeding, or have a risk for estrogen-dependent cancers.

Bromelain (Pineapple) ~ Anti-inflammatory Enzyme
This protein-digesting enzyme is found in pineapple, particularly the core. For allergies, it is often combined with quercetin, and it has the most scientific evidence of all the remedies discussed. (Of course, a lack of research doesn’t mean a remedy doesn’t work!) While bromelain can be used to improve digestion, it is better known and researched as an anti-inflammatory. It appears to “digest” protein-based inflammatory compounds and act as an antihistamine. Research on sinusitis suggests that it also helps by thinning mucus secretions. The supplement is also used for pain, inflammation, sprains, tendonitis, post-operative swelling, rheumatoid arthritis, asthma, and bronchitis. Research suggests it may also improve immune health via white blood cells. Measurements of activity vary, as do dosage ranges in products. Follow label suggestions. Enteric-coated supplements appear to be more beneficial, although they are also less available. Fresh pineapple and pineapple juice have a milder yet useful effect, but they sometimes cause mouth irritation. Cautions: Bromelain is generally safe. Don’t use it if you have a pineapple allergy. Because bromelain thins the blood, use caution if you take blood-thinning medications or have a bleeding disorder.

Butterbur (Petasites hybridus) ~ Anti-inflammatory for Allergies, Asthma & Migraines
Butterbur has been prescribed in Germany for more than 30 years for the treatment of migraines, and it’s just gaining popularity in the United States. I’m most apt to turn to butterbur for clients who have a pattern of allergies, asthma, and/or migraines since it works well for all three conditions. Several studies have confirmed its use, and I’ve seen it work better than migraine medication for some people. It appears to inhibit inflammatory compounds leukotriene and histamine and relax smooth muscles. In a German study with more than 300 participants, butterbur worked better than placebo and as well as Allegra for hay fever symptoms with experienced fewer side effects (no drowsiness) compared to the drug. Most of the research has been done on the trademarked Petadolex, a special extract of butterbur that does not contain pyrrolizidine alkaloids (PAs), which can be toxic to the liver. Because of butterbur’s PAs, this is one of the few herbal remedies I don’t make myself. According to research and epidemiological evidence, PA-free butterbur is well tolerated with few side effects or drug interactions. However, I personally experience extreme nausea when I take it, and I know a few others who have the same response.

“Bitter Berberines” ~ Dry Things Up & Fight Bacteria & Fungus
Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis), Goldthread (Coptis spp),
Oregon Grape Root (Mahonia aquifolium) & Barberry (Berberis spp)

These herbs come from two different plant families but have a common primary constituent: berberine. This bright yellow alkaloid concentrates in the roots and is also present in the leaves; it has potent antimicrobial and astringent properties. It is the basis for goldenseal’s claim to fame as an herbal antibiotic. All the herbs tighten boggy, inflamed membranes and fight bacterial, fungal, and protozoal infections, particularly on contact. Small doses help stimulate and tonify tissues, high doses for infections. For allergies, these herbs help dry up weepy eyes and nasal passages while fighting co-infections like sinusitis. The plants’ antihistamine-like action works when taken internally as a tea, capsule, or tincture. Berberine tastes bitter, stains yellow, and is hard to disguise. Antimicrobial actions of berberine work best on contact. For sinusitis or similar infections, try using berberine-rich tea or tincture along with salt water in a neti pot. I limit my use of goldenseal and coptis because they’re highly threatened in the wild. Opt for organically cultivated herbs when you must use them, and also seek out more sustainable sources of berberine like Oregon grape root and barberry root. Do not use these plants while pregnant or nursing. Long-term use of berberine is controversial (and usually unnecessary) due to its antibacterial effect.

Nasal Irrigation & Neti Pots
If Oprah and Dr. Oz like neti pots, then they’re good enough for the rest of us, right? Several recent studies have confirmed what Ayurvedics have been practicing for centuries: nasal irrigation with a hypertonic saline (high salt) water solution significantly decreases nasal irritation in allergies and sinusitis, and it prevents/reduces symptoms throughout the allergy season. Dead sea salt solutions may be more beneficial than regular salt because the magnesium in it could be anti-inflammatory. Nasal irrigation is well tolerated, inexpensive, and effective for a variety of age groups, including children. Neti pots look like genie lamps or teapots. Fill the pot with warm salty water, lean forward and tilted over a sink, and then gently pour the solution into one nostril. If your nasal passages are mostly clear, the solution will work its way around the septum and out the other nostril. If they are not clear enough, it will gradually help resolve some of the mucus and irritation. It feels like snorting salt water at the ocean, but you get used to it. Most neti pots come with directions. Goldenseal, echinacea, Oregon grape root, and other herbal extracts or teas can be added to the solution for a stronger effect. Be sure to blow your nose gently, without covering one nostril, so that you don’t force fluid toward your ears.

Make Your Own Fresh Herb Tincture

 Tinctures are incredibly easy to make! (Pictured: horehound)

 Have fun and save money: Make your own tinctures from common anti-allergy herbs and weeds like horehound, goldenrod, and ragweed. Once you’ve harvested the herbs, simply chop them up, stuff as much as you can into a jar, and cover it with 50 to 95 percent alcohol (100-proof vodka or 190-proof whole grain alcohol). Let it sit for at least one month and strain, squeezing as much as you can through a clean cloth. Your finished tincture will keep in a cool, dark, dry place for about one decade. Other helpful respiratory herbs to look into include dandelion root, echinacea, elecampane root, mullein, thyme, hyssop, bee balm, lobelia (with caution), horseradish.

Horehound seedlings are sometimes hard to find, but this is a good time to look for them. Click here and here for lists of local herb growers and herb-friendly nurseries, and then call to see if they have it in stock. Some other plants are also called horehound, so be sure it has the Latin name Marrubium vulgare. One plant will easily provide you enough medicine for a year (or more), and they usually overwinter. Plant it in a well-drained, sunny spot. Good soil isn't necessary.

  The statements made on this blog have not been evaluated by the FDA and are not intended to diagnose, prescribe, recommend, or offer medical advice. Please see your health care practitioner for help regarding choices and to avoid herb-drug interactions.