Yoga for hay fever and other health techniques to help relieve seasonal allergic rhinitis
What is Hay Fever?
Hay fever, or seasonal allergic rhinitis, is hugely irritating. Commonly known symptoms are familiar: frequent bouts of sneezing and itchy eyes, nose and throat. Less often mentioned are the symptoms of mild anxiety and tension, coupled with a lack of energy and low mood. This comes from the effect histamine has on the adrenal glands. Anti-histamine medicines can help relieve some symptoms, but can make people feel even more whacked out. It is important to realise that these medicines treat the symptoms of the condition rather than the underlying root cause. In this way you will reduce your dependence on medication and improve your overall health.
What Causes Hay Fever?
Theories vary, but current research is showing that hay fever is related to gut health. Without going into too much detail, certain foods and drugs (alcohol, NSAIDs, wheat, dairy, pesticides) cause the gut to become more permeable.
This leakage through the gut wall puts the immune system on high alert and it becomes over reactive to harmless substances such as pollen, dust, certain spores and moulds. People with hypermobility issues might be more at a risk of gut permeability due to the lack of tone in connective tissue. Symptoms can also be made worse with a diet high in histamine foods.
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
My journey with hay fever involved coming off the drugs that were prescribed to, me since I was child, for asthma and excess mucus rhinitis.
NB: If you have asthma, never attempt to come off your drugs without the regular support and guidance of a skilled health professional.
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 medicine 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
If your hay fever is quite severe your nervous system will be under great stress as you are continually on “high alert.” Deep and nourishing regular rest is important. Taking anti-histamines might be necessary until you feel the effects of your diet, breathing and lifestyle changes. Seeing a craniosacral therapist, homoeopath, Zero Balancing practitioner or naturopath will help to support you throughout the healing process.
Dietary Change for Hayfever Reduction
You’ll need to clean up your diet in order to heal your gut. A good nutritionist can guide you here. The most important change is to eliminate wheat (it is thought that wheat damages the gut lining when eaten in excess) and eat more vegetables. The herbicide Roundup is used on non-organic gardens, allotments and farms and many nutritional specialists believe that glyphosate (the chemical name for Roundup) is damaging to the gut lining. An important part of getting well from chronic allergic rhinitis is to organic food whenever possible. This list of foods named the “dirty dozen” are the most important foods to buy organic.
These clean fifteen foods you can buy non-organic versions.
Until you clean up your diet, supplementation is not really so important, just eat lots of vegetables and get the nutrients from your foods.
If you are vegetarian or vegan try a vitamin B complex as you’re likely to be low and supplementing will support your nervous system Quercetin Complex is also good for all hayfever sufferers, but it won’t make much difference until you heal your gut and clean up your diet.
To heal the gut your nutritionist will advise you to cut out wheat and dairy products, until symptoms show signs of improving and your tolerance improves. You may also be asked to experiment with removing high histamine food in your diet. You’ll find a comprehensive list here.
It’s tricky to eliminate them all, but if you find you are eating a lot of histamine foods, (e.g. spinach, chard, tomatoes, chocolate, cheese, avocados, tuna, pickles, aged beef, cured meats, fermented foods, cashews, peanuts, walnuts) then it might be wise to cut down.
Herbs for Hayfever
There are a few herbs that might be useful for hayfever, although it is very dependent on your individual case, so always good to see a herbalist (especially if you are on regular medication of any kind or have another chronic illness). Two herbs that are great for healing the gut lining are slippery elm powder and marshmallow root powder.
Take half a teaspoon of each in water morning and night. A lovely herb for soothing the nervous system is vervain, you can buy this as tea bags or loose tea (which is stronger, but really bitter!).
Do your best to limit or avoid caffeine as it has a disruptive effect on the nervous system and adrenal glands.
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 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 is easy to do with yoga breath awareness practices and you will feel the benefits immediately.
When the vagus is more toned it becomes more efficient at switching off the stress response. It means we recover from stressful situations more easily. When we strengthen the vagus nerve, we are able to switch off stress mode and get back to rest digest and repair mode more quickly. New research has found 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. These illnesses include all ailments ending in -itis such as sinusitis, bronchitis, arthritis and cystitis. In addition, 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, Alzheimer’s disease, chronic fatigue, heart disease, cancer and many others.
Yoga Breathing for Hayfever
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 5-6 breaths a minute, we can increase the tone of the vagus nerve. This is 5-6 seconds approximately for each inhale and exhale.
This breath pattern enables us to relax more easily and control inflammation. The average breath rate is about 12 breaths a minute. In the specially created sound track you can follow the music and the pulses to attune your breath to the right rate for coherent breathing. For some people it will feel too long, for some too short. However, it is the right rate for coherence for everyone! For more information on the science of coherent breathing see James Nestor’s book Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art.
Buteyko and Hayfever
There is another crucial aspect of correct breathing. To foster a healthy respiratory system, we must breathe through our nose. The runny nose associated with hay fever is easily cured by switching from mouth breathing to nose breathing. Obviously this is tough if it’s blocked!
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 and immune 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. I’ve certainly drastically reduced my own symptoms by learning to breathe in this way. Breathing in less air helps to balance the gases in the bloodstream thus leading to 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, sleep apnoea, 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. Definitely consult a Buteyko teacher.
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 breathing 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
- Sit up straight in a chair
- Breathe out
- Hold your breath 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.
Using the tip of the index or second fingers of each hand, press down with heavy pressure on the three points as described below
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.
A regular yoga practice will support you in reducing hayfever symptoms. However, you cannot recover from hayfever unless you create fundamental changes in both your diet and breathing habits. Remember to close your mouth, avoid wheat, dairy and Roundup (glyphosate) and you’ll give your body the right conditions to heal.
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