Updated on February 2, 2023
For patients who suffer from allergies, it can often feel like the therapeutic options are severely limited. The most commonly used pharmacological therapies—including antihistamines, corticosteroids, mast cell stabilizers, and decongestants—are not effective for all patients, and they can often result in side effects that disrupt everyday quality of life. After years of frustration with oral antihistamines, nasal sprays, eye drops, inhaled corticosteroids, and other over-the-counter and prescription drugs, many patients are ready to explore alternative therapies to pharmacologics.
Over the last few decades, scientific research into the physiological underpinnings of allergies suggests that inflammatory processes and oxidative stress both mediate the most common symptoms. This has led to increased motivation within the research community to study nutritional supplements as potential therapies. In particular, curcumin has emerged as a non-pharmacological alternative with a strong base of biochemical and early clinical evidence, although there are also several other options, including phytochemicals like quercetin, that have been identified as potential natural therapeutics.
Antioxidants supplements that support the body’s natural inflammatory response have come to the attention of the research community in light of biochemical and clinical evidence suggesting a distinct relationship between allergies, inflammation, and oxidative stress. It is well-known that exposure to allergens leads to systemic inflammation by increasing the circulation of immune cells and by triggering the release of certain proteins and other inflammatory factors. However, scientists have also observed “minimal persistent inflammation” in patients with allergic rhinitis—that is, these patients display chronic, slightly above-average levels of inflammatory markers, even when allergy triggers are not present. Not only can these chronically elevated levels of inflammation make a patient susceptible to the onset of severe allergy symptoms, they can also lead to a rise in oxidative damage—another potential mediator of allergy response.
Both internal inflammation and exposure to external allergy triggers can damage antioxidant enzymes and other key cell factors that play important roles in the cell signaling processes that mediate the manifestation of symptoms. As a result, oxidative stress levels are considerably higher in patients with allergic rhinitis. According to one recent study in children with chronic allergies, blood samples indicated their total oxidant levels were significantly higher than those of their healthy peers. Based on this combination of chemical and clinical research, researchers are increasingly interested in nutritional supplements as alternative allergy remedies.
As an antioxidant supplement, curcumin has emerged as one of the more promising potential therapies to address allergy symptoms. This compound has long been known to support the body’s natural inflammatory response, and there are preliminary laboratory and clinical studies to suggest it can help patients who suffer from allergies. For instance, in 2016, a group of researchers in Turkey conducted a rigorous study on the antioxidant effects of curcumin in rat models of allergic rhinitis. After 28 days of oral curcumin therapy, the researchers measured multiple tissue and serum markers of antioxidant activity (including the levels of seven different enzymes with known antioxidant activity) and observed significantly higher levels in the rats that had been treated with curcumin than in the rats in the control population. Moreover, the researchers noted that serum markers of oxidation were reduced in the curcumin-treated rats, suggesting that curcumin not only supports antioxidant enzyme activity but might also directly limit oxidative stress in patients with allergic rhinitis.
Alongside these findings on the benefits of curcumin as an antioxidant, there is also evidence to suggest that curcumin can have a protective effect in patients with respiratory allergy symptoms. In a 2014 study utilizing mouse models, a group of researchers from China not only demonstrated that curcumin could address inflammatory response in mouse models, they were also able to elucidate the specific molecular mechanism through which the protective benefit is mediated. Through a series of genetic experiments, the researchers showed that the benefits of curcumin in mouse models required the functioning of the Notch1-GATA signaling pathway. When researchers can highlight a specific signaling pathway that directly explains the association between an intervention like curcumin supplementation and its role in supporting the body’s natural inflammatory response, implicating the activity of a particular cell signaling pathway, it strengthens the evidence that the supplement is truly having a beneficial effect—and indicates that human patient studies are warranted.
So far, the clinical evidence for the benefits of curcumin for allergy patients is limited, although a pilot study from 2016 provided the first indication that curcumin can modulate the immune response and help ameliorate nasal and respiratory symptoms in patients. In a randomized, double-blind study of 241 patients with allergic rhinitis, a group of researchers in China found that curcumin led to lower serum levels of multiple inflammatory factors, as well as a drop in the circulation of certain types of immune cells. In addition, the patients who took the curcumin supplement reported direct therapeutic effects, including addressing nasal symptoms and better nasal airflow resistance. For researchers, this study paves the way for more comprehensive human clinical studies in the future. For patients and practitioners, it suggests that a curcumin supplement to alleviate allergy symptoms might be warranted.
Although curcumin is the nutritional supplement with the strongest laboratory and clinical evidentiary support thus far, there is growing evidence that phytochemical nutritional supplements also have positive effects for some patients. These plant-derived compounds inhibit the nuclear transcription factor NF-kappa-B, which is known to mediate the body’s response to inflammation, as well as other transcription factors with similar activity. Some of the phytochemicals that have been highlighted as potential research targets include quercetin, resveratrol, and magnolol.
Indeed, there have been several recent studies highlighting quercetin as a possible natural alternative to antihistamines, including two animal studies in which quercetin supplementation in rat models of rhinitis led to both symptomatic and molecular improvements. There is even growing evidence to suggest there are other ways in which quercetin supplementation supports the allergy-related immune response—that is, beyond the transcription factor inhibition described above. Specifically, quercetin supplementation might also suppress the creation of certain types of immune cells (which can help modulate an unbalanced inflammatory response), limit the release of inflammatory proteins like cytokines, and limit the formation of certain types of antibodies.Clinical evidence on the benefits of phytochemicals for allergy patients is still lacking. However, because these compounds display the same therapeutic properties as curcumin, they are increasingly under consideration as potential alternative allergy remedies. For patients and practitioners who are ready to look beyond prescription and over-the-counter drugs, nutritional supplements like curcumin and quercetin present promising possibilities.
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