Yoga for Hay Fever
Yoga for Hay Fever and other health techniques to help relieve seasonal allergic rhinitis
What is Hay Fever?
Hay fever, or allergic rhinitis, is hugely irritating. If you are reading this you’re probably with the annoying symptoms of this seasonal allergy. These include: itching eyes, throat and skin; frequent bouts of sneezing; runny eyes and nose. Less often mentioned are the symptoms of mild anxiety and tension, coupled with a lack of energy and low mood. Anti-histamine medicines can help relieve some symptoms, but can make people feel tired. These medicines currently treat the symptoms of the condition rather than the root cause. The substances that trigger the symptoms are tree pollens, grass pollens and weeds. Allergic rhinitis can also be caused by dust, animal hair and various types of mould. Hence people can continue to suffer well into autumn.
Trees: pine, birch, alder, cedar, hornbeam, horse chestnut, willow, poplar, plane, linden (lime blossom), olive
Grasses and Weeds: most grasses particularly ryegrass and timothy, nettle, plantain, ragweed, mugwort, sorrel
My Journey with Hay Fever
I’ve suffered from hay fever and sinusitis since my early teens and bronchitis since I was an infant. In my late teens, I realised that I had to find an alternative way of managing my respiratory health. The medicines my doctor recommended (Sabutomol – a bronchodilator) was making me feel jittery and anxious. Coupled with this, the frequency of sinusitis and wheezing episodes was increasing year by year. In the spring and summer months, I had such bad hay fever I could not go outside when the pollen count was high. Above all, I didn’t feel that that my health was improving. In a search for an alternative, I enrolled in an adult education class about natural health. Through this class, I embarked on my natural health journey and began to consult a naturopath.
Natural Treatments for Hay Fever
The naturopath gave me cranio-sacral therapy treatment and nutritional supplements. She recommended cutting down on milk products and upping my intake of raw vegetables. With the aid of a specific hydrotherapy technique, I came off the asthma drugs that I had been on for most of my life. I have not taken them since.
Herbal Medicine for Hay Fever
Even though I no longer suffered from bouts of bronchial asthma, I continued to get sinusitis and hay fever. The symptoms were milder and I no longer needed the decongestant and anti-histamine medication. In my mid twenties I started working at the Haelan Centre and was introduced to the wonderful world of herbal medicine. Alongside the raw food I found herbal teas helped to manage the symptoms. The tea that helped me most was vervain tea, a herb that helps calm the nervous system. I was intrigued by this, but having got so used to dividing up the body’s systems into separate compartments, I didn’t really consider then that perhaps the root cause of my respiratory ailments was a disturbance in my nervous system.
The Nervous System Connection
My nervous system has always been a little on edge. I was very shy, physically tense and easily alarmed. Social situations, interviews and performing would fill me with dread. Thankfully at six form college I started taking yoga classes and practiced at home with the guidance of BKS Iyengar’s Light on Yoga. Regular practice of yoga helped me to manage my nervous tension. Practising often helped to soothe my frazzled nerves and and calm me down. The postures and breathing also helped to increase my confidence and helped me to feel less tense physically. Yoga quickly became an important part of my life.
Yoga for the Nervous System
Yoga offers a huge set of tools and techniques for calming the nervous system. Particular asanas, relaxation and breath practices help us to recover from stress by strengthening the parasympathetic nervous system. Alternating back bends and forward bends has the effect of balancing the nervous system. Forward bends help to soothe adrenal glands and activate the parasympathetic nervous system. The back bends help to maintain a sense of alertness and energy, they also help to clear the lungs. Recently scientists have become particularly interested in how yoga can help to tone a complex nerve called the vagus nerve. This research is showing how yoga works to help us recover from stress more quickly and easily.
What is the Vagus Nerve and How Does it Affect to the Immune System?
The vagus connects the brain to the whole digestive system, lungs and the heart, as well as the spleen (part of the immune system). Creating health or “tone” in the vagus means it becomes more efficient at switching off the flight or flight processes of these organs once the danger is over. This means our breathing slows, down, our heart rate lowers and our digestion gets to work again. New research has found that that a healthy vagus nerve is also needed to switch off the inflammatory processes of the immune system.
This is a very new finding and has great implications for many inflammation based illnesses. This illness include all ailments ending in -itis such as sinusitis, bronchitis, arthritis, cystitis. Yet other conditions like peptic ulcer, asthma, Crohn’s disease and chronic pain also involve chronic inflammation. In fact many medical professionals are now starting to think that unchecked inflammatory processes are at the root of most chronic diseases including diabetes, obesity, chronic fatigue, heart disease, cancer and many others.
Yoga for the The Vagus Nerve
The good news is that there is a simple way of bringing health and tone to the vagus nerve. Numerous studies have found that by slowing our breath rate to approximately 6 breaths a minute, we can increase the tone of the vagus nerve. This enables us to relax more easily and control inflammation. The average breath rate is about 12 breaths a minute.
Buteyko and Hayfever
To do this Yoga Nidra you will have to have a clear nose which you can breathe through. The Buteyko system of breath retraining offers a simple nose clearing exercise. This system was designed by a Russian scientist specifically to relieve asthma and other respiratory problems. The key is to reprogram the body-mind to breathe in less air. This has the effect of creating the correct balance of carbon dioxide and oxygen in our blood for optimum oxygenation of our tissues. As oxygen transport is so crucial for each cell, Buteyko breathing has been found to support cardiovascular health as well as improving general levels of energy and resistance to chronic disease.
Close Your Mouth!
The central tenant of Buteyko breathing is CLOSE YOUR MOUTH. Inhale only through the nose, or at least very rarely inhale through the mouth. If you sleep on your back, have a dry mouth in the morning or snore at night, it is likely you are breathing through your mouth. One person I know has eliminated her hay fever symptoms, just by learning to nose breathe. Breathing in less air helps to balance the gases in the bloodstream thus leading to a more efficient transport of oxygen from blood to body cells. Buteyko suggests that respiratory problems (such as constriction and inflammation of the bronchial tubes; increased mucus production) are the body’s way of trying to reduce air intake.
Should I learn Buteyko?
Buteyko Breathing itself is more complex than I can or should explain in here. If you have had heart problems, asthma, or another serious respiratory condition it is best to go to a teacher. There are other contra-indications below. Do not reduce your breathing if you have any of these conditions.
Contraindications – Please read carefully before commencing reduced breathing and the breathing exercises below
Arterial aneurysm; Hemorrhagic stroke; Thrombosis; Current cancer treatment; Recent heart attack within 12 weeks; Brain tumour; Uncontrolled hypertension; History of serious cardiac rhythm disorder (unless pacemaker fitted); Severe renal failure (includes dialysis); Uncontrolled hyperthyroidism; Sickle cell disease; Acute schizophrenia; Chronic Obstructive; Pulmonary Disease; (COPD) with cor pulmonale; Pregnancy (first trimester).
Don’t practice any of the breathing exercises if you have any of the above conditions. If you do not have any of these complications and your hay fever is not severe, you might find that you don’t have to learn the whole method. Below are two breath exercises and one acupressure exercise that hay fever sufferers may find useful.
1. Breath Exercise – Clearing the Nose
This exercise will unblock the nose in at little as five minutes. You need to breathe through the nose to practice reduced breathing, so this exercise is a must if your nose is blocked. Do it before you settle down for the Yoga Nidra. Remember, if you are not breathing in though your nose, it is likely that you are over breathing. This will exacerbate your hay fever symptoms.
Sit up straight in a chair
Normalise and calm your breathing – small breath in and small breath out – through the nose as much as possible, but if not then through the corner of your mouth take little sips of air.
After a small breath out, pinch your nose and hold your breath. Keep your mouth closed.Gently nod your head or sway your body until you feel you cannot hold your breath any more.
When you choose to breathe in let go of your nose and breathe in through it gently in and out, with your mouth closed.
Avoid taking a deep breath when you breathe in. Calm your breathing as soon as possible by focussing on relaxing.
Repeat the steps until you can breathe through your nose fully.
2. Breath Exercise to do if you have hay fever or allergic rhinitis
Being around animal hair (cat hair, dog hair, horse hair, even guinea pigs hair!!); eating the wrong foods (wheat, chocolate, dried apricots, red wine, nuts can all set off allergic rhinitis); or simply a high pollen count can set off allergic rhinitis. Please avoid wheat and dairy in your diet as they are the most likely culprits, and try the following exercise: (notice how I didn’t suggest giving up chocolate!?)
Sit up straight in a chair
Hold your breathe for 5 seconds (it’s best to use a clock)
Inhale through your nose as gently as you can
Exhale through your nose and hold your breath for 10 seconds
Inhale gently through your nose
Exhale for a round of 15 seconds
Inhale through your nose and start breathing as shallowly as you can for 5 minutes
3. Acupressure – The Nose Exercise
From Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) comes this wonderful exercise for allergies, runny noses and blocked sinuses. These are spots which open up into the meridians that supply the nose and surrounding areas with energy or chi. By pressing these points we encourage a continual flow of energy through the nasal and sinus passages.
The exercise can be done several times throughout the day, as many times as necessary to help correct sinus or nasal problems.
Begin at the base of the nose and press these points for about ten seconds. Then rub these points briefly
Next press the points midway up on either side of the nose for about ten seconds. Then rub briefly
Press the point midway between the eyebrows with both fingers. Then rub briefly
Repeat this progression three times, always beginning with the lower point and ending with pressing the point between the eyebrows
Rub in a continual flowing motions starting at the lowest point, passing thought the second and third points, then continuing up through the middle of the forehead.
Repeat this movement for a total of three times.
Throughout the exercise the pressure exerted should be penetrating and deep. Often when just beginning, the points will be sensitive and painful. This is an indication of weakness or blockages within the meridian. Continue to perform this exercise daily and the pain will disappear in time. You may notice that you acquire fewer colds, allergies and sinus conditions.
Sources and Recommended Reading
Chang, Dr. Stephen, The Complete System of Self Healing Internal Exercises (Tao Publishing, San Francisco, CA; 1986)
McKown, Patrick, Asthma Free Naturally (Asthma Care, Ireland; 2010)
Stalmatski, Alexander, Freedom from Asthma, The natural way to relieve asthma permanently (Kyle Cathy, London; 2002)