Natural Antihistamine: Types, Benefits, and Alternatives

People often take over-the-counter or prescription antihistamines for seasonal allergies, but there are some natural antihistamines that may also help ease symptoms like sneezing, itchy, runny nose, and a scratchy throat.

The evidence supporting these alternatives is generally weak, so speak with your healthcare provider to be sure that they are safe and don’t interfere with any medications you are taking.

This article takes an unbiased look at several natural and alternative antihistamines that may help control your seasonal allergy symptoms.

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How Do Antihistamines Work?

Allergies come from an abnormal immune system response. When you come into contact with an allergy-causing substance (allergen), your immune system mistakes it for a threat. In response to the threat, it releases a chemical called histamine.

Histamine causes seasonal allergy by triggering inflammation in the sinuses and nasal passages. This causes blood vessels to widen and leak fluids into surrounding tissues. It also makes the swollen tissue hypersensitive. These combined effects lead to symptoms such as sneezing, runny nose, nasal stuffiness, or post-nasal drip,

Antihistamines work by blocking histamine’s effects.

Natural Antihistamines

Several natural substances contain compounds broadly categorized as antihistamines. Research on their safety and effectiveness is in its early stages, but some of it is promising.

Stinging Nettle

Stinging nettle (Urtica dioica) comes from a shrub that grows all over the world. It’s a centuries-old herbal medication that is used both topically (on the skin) and orally (by mouth) to treat numerous unrelated conditions. Some naturopathic practitioners tout its effects as an antihistamine.

The evidence supporting the use of stinging nettle for allergies is limited. A 2017 study from Iran evaluated its effects among 37 people with hay fever who were given a daily dose of a stinging nettle supplement for one month and 37 others who were given a sham drug (placebo). At the end of the study period, the stinging nettle supplement worked no better than the placebo.

Even so, the supplement was well tolerated, and no notable side effects were reported.

You can buy stinging nettle in several forms, including teas, tinctures, or supplements. Possible side effects included upset stomach, fluid retention, sweating, and diarrhea.

Vitamin C

You may know of vitamin C’s benefits in shortening the duration and severity of colds, but it also has potent anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects. Research suggests that inflammation is a major contributor to allergy symptoms and that the alleviation of inflammation may ease symptoms.

This is evidenced by a 2018 study published in the Journal of International Medical Research in which high doses of intravenous vitamin C (delivered into a vein) improved allergy symptoms in 71 adults with skin and respiratory allergies. A single 7.5-gram dose was used.

This does not suggest that taking 7.5 grams (7,500 milligrams) of vitamin C by mouth will have the same effect. More research is needed.

Moreover, taking more than 2,000 milligrams per day is generally not advised as it can lead to side effects like nausea, stomach upset, cramps, and diarrhea. High doses can also interfere with the absorption of other essential vitamins and minerals.

You can buy vitamin C in supplement form, or you can get it from vitamin C–rich foods like:

  • Red and green peppers
  • Oranges or orange juice
  • Grapefruits and grapefruit juice
  • Kiwi fruit
  • Broccoli 
  • Strawberries
  • Brussels sprouts

Quercetin

Quercetin is an antioxidant found in many plants that appears to have anti-allergy effects. Studies in rats suggest that quercitin may block the pathways that trigger the release of histamine into the bloodstream. It is thought to do so by preventing specialized blood cells, called mast cells, from breaking open and releasing histamine.

A study conducted in 2022 involving 66 subjects with seasonal allergies—half of whom were given a 200-milligram quercetin supplement and half of whom were given a placebo—reported a reduction in eye itching, sneezing, and nasal discharge after four weeks of use.

Quercetin is available as a nutritional supplement and is found in a lot of foods and herbs, including:

  • Dill
  • Fennel leaves
  • Onions
  • Oregano
  • Chili peppers
  • Cranberry and blueberry
  • Spinach and kale
  • Cherries
  • Lettuce
  • Asparagus

Side effects include headache or upset stomach. If you have kidney disease or are pregnant or breastfeeding, quercetin may not be safe and should be avoided.

Butterbur

Butterbur (Petasites hybridus) is a shrub native to Europe, parts of Asia, and North America. It has been used medicinally since the Middle Ages for the treatment of urinary tract symptoms, stomach upset, headaches, allergic rhinitis, and other conditions.

With respect to allergies, butterbur is thought to ease inflammation in the same way as vitamin C and thereby reduce inflammation-induced allergy symptoms.

A 2021 study in the journal Pharmaceuticals reported that a butterbur extract used for up to eight weeks afforded significant and sustained relief of seasonal allergy symptoms. However, the findings were limited by the fact that 41.5% of the participants also took other anti-allergy medications.

Butterbur is sold in supplement, extract, or dried forms. Side effects include belching, headache, itchy eyes, diarrhea, and breathing problems.

Butterbur as a Cause of Allergy

Some people are allergic to butterbur and should avoid the product altogether. The risk is especially high if you have allergies to ragweed, chrysanthemums, marigolds, or daisies.

Bromelain

Bromelain is a group of enzymes found in pineapples that may have health benefits. Historically, pineapple has been used in Central and South America to treat a variety of illnesses, including digestive disorders and sinus pain. Some naturopaths believe that it can help ease nasal congestion by reducing nasal inflammation.

A small study from Italy reported that people with seasonal allergies given a twice-daily, 500-milligram dose of bromelain had high levels of the enzyme in their nasal passages, suggesting an anti-allergy benefit.

However, the study did not investigate whether the high concentration offered any actual benefit in terms of relief from sneezing, runny nose, nasal stuffiness, or post-nasal drip.

Bromelain supplements are a better source of the enzyme than fresh pineapple. In fresh pineapple, the concentration of bromelain is highest in inedible parts, like the stem and core.

Possible side effects include upset stomach and diarrhea. Bromelain may interact with certain antibiotics, including Amoxil (amoxicillin), and should be avoided if you are being treated for a bacterial infection.

Probiotics

Probiotics are live bacteria and yeasts that naturally reside in your gut which are thought to be beneficial to your digestive and immune health. Recent studies suggest that they may even help with allergies.

A 2022 review of studies published in Frontiers of Immunology found that, based on an evaluation of 28 human trials, probiotics significantly relieved symptoms and improved quality of life in adults and children with allergic rhinitis.

It is hypothesized that the normal balance of microorganisms in the digestive tract (known as the gut microbiome) plays a central role in the immune response. An imbalance of microorganisms, on the other hand, may lead to an abnormal immune response and the development of immune disorders like allergies.

By restoring balance to the gut microbiome, probiotics may potentially temper allergic reactions.

That’s not to say that all probiotics are created equal. Of the many different probiotics used in supplements, a small handful can produce histamines. These include Lactobacilli casei, Lactobacilli bulgaricus, and Lactobacilli saerimneri. Taking these probiotic bacteria can potentially cause a reaction in people who are highly sensitive to histamine.

With that said, the majority of probiotic organisms do not produce histamine (or produce amounts unlikely to cause an allergic reaction).

In addition to supplements, you can also get probiotics from fermented foods like yogurt, kefir, kombucha, pickles, tempeh, kimchi, miso, sourdough bread, and sour cream.

Natural products can cause side effects and negative drug interactions. Be sure to talk to your healthcare provider before taking natural allergy remedies.

Alternative Allergy Treatments

Many alternative products or practices are touted as natural allergy remedies. While most generally lack robust evidence to back them up, there are two that are believed to help:

  • Acupuncture: The practice, involving the use of thin needles to stimulate energy flow (chi), is among the alternative therapies included in some allergy treatment guidelines.
  • Nasal irrigation/neti pot: Pouring sterile saltwater into your nasal passages and rinsing has been shown to ease nasal allergy symptoms.

These approaches may be most effective when combined with other allergy treatments, such as over-the-counter (OTC) antihistamine medications like:

First-generation antihistamines like Benadryl, Chlor-Trimeton, Dimetapp, and Tavist can cause drowsiness and may be more appropriate at night to help you sleep. Second-generation antihistamines like Allegra, Claritin, and Zyrtec are generally non-drowsy and the better option for daytime use.

If allergies are severe and neither natural nor OTC antihistamines help, speak with your healthcare provider about stronger prescription antihistamines like Clarinex (desloratadine), Vistaril (hydroxyzine), and Xyzal (levocetirizine).

There are also antihistamine nasal sprays like Astepro (azelastine) and Patanase (olopatadine) and antihistamine eye drops like Emadine (emedastine difumarate), Lastacraft (alcaftadine), and Livostin (levocabastine) available by prescription.

Summary

Natural antihistamines may help you control your seasonal allergies. Common ones are stinging nettle, vitamin C, quercetin, butterbur, bromelain, and probiotics. Some alternative practices—such as acupuncture, nasal irrigation, and exercise—may also help you manage symptoms. Don’t stop taking antihistamine medications or start using herbal or nutritional supplements without first talking to your healthcare provider.

Arguably, the most important thing to do if you have seasonal allergies is to identify and avoid allergy triggers as best as you can.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What is the most powerful natural antihistamine?

    Researchers haven’t yet established any natural product as the “best” or “most powerful.” Natural antihistamines with the most research backing their use include stinging nettle, vitamin C, quercetin, butterbur, bromelain, and probiotics.

  • Does water flush out histamine?

    No, water doesn’t flush out histamine. However, hydration is important for controlling your allergies. Dehydration is believed to increase levels of histamine in your body, which simulates an allergy attack.

  • How do natural antihistamines work?

    Natural antihistamines work by blocking histamine activity in your body, just as antihistamine medications do. Some also decrease inflammation or oxidative stress, which contributes to allergic reactions.

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