Updated on February 8, 2023
For individuals with allergic rhinitis and other allergic conditions, finding long-lasting, effective and well-tolerated therapies can be a major challenge. Although antihistamines can resolve common symptoms like sneezing, swelling, hives, and eye-watering, relief often comes at a steep cost; after taking antihistamines, many individuals experience dry mouth, dizziness, sleepiness, and other side effects that can be just as disruptive to daily life as allergy symptoms themselves. There are also certain allergy symptoms, such as photosensitivity and contact dermatitis, that do not respond well to antihistamines.
Because antihistamines do not offer the ideal solution for all patients, researchers are looking into alternative allergy therapy to create additional symptom relief without compromising quality of life. One promising natural option is quercetin, a flavonoid compound found in many vegetables, fruits, and flowers. Early research in vitro and in animal models has provided insight into the potential benefits of using quercetin as a natural alternative. Comparative studies also suggest that high-quality quercetin supplements might be more promising than other alternative allergy therapies currently on the market.
For years, scientists have recognized the wide range of potential health benefits of quercetin. These benefits stem from its antioxidant properties, as well as its ability to support the body’s natural inflammatory response. However, because comprehensive clinical trials are lacking, the specific clinical implications of quercetin’s unique properties are not fully clear. Still, in vitro and in vivo animal studies provide intriguing initial insights. A 2016 Japanese study, using rat models of allergic rhinitis, demonstrated that quercetin has the potential to address nasal allergy symptoms and promote molecular changes in nasal fluids associated with a dampening of the inflammatory response to common allergy triggers.
These findings were based on a week-long intervention in which the responses of rat models to varying dosages of quercetin were monitored and recorded. First, nasal allergy symptoms were induced in the rats through a well-established sensitization procedure. When the rats were introduced to nasal allergy-inducing challenges, the researchers counted their sneezing and nasal-rubbing behaviors during the first 10 minutes after encountering a trigger. Additionally, six hours after each challenge, the levels of three allergy-related neuropeptides (substance P, nerve growth factor, and calcitonin gene-related peptide) were measured. Not only did the researchers find that oral administration of quercetin addressed sneezing and nasal rubbing movements in the rats, they also reported statistically significant increases in all three neuropeptides. By combining molecular evidence with direct observations of symptom reduction in animal models, this study provides evidence that quercetin might be an effective alternative allergy therapy.
Of course, animal model studies do not always translate directly to humans, so patients and practitioners who are considering quercetin as an alternative therapy should explore different dosage and administration options. In the above study, the researchers found that the minimum dosage significantly benefit symptoms was 25 mg per kg of body weight daily. It is unclear whether a similar dosage would be needed for human patients, especially because some of the latest quercetin supplements are strategically designed to enhance bioavailability, which might make lower doses effective. Practitioners and patients should also note that the researchers only observed a significant impact on symptoms and neuropeptides after five days of quercetin supplementation. This suggests that a long-term, ongoing supplementation approach might make sense for patients who are considering quercetin as an alternative allergy therapy.
Like quercetin, disodium cromoglycate—more commonly known as cromolyn—has been proposed as a possible alternative allergy therapy for patients with allergic rhinitis and other allergic conditions. Cromolyn is considered a “mast cell stabilizer” because it works primarily by inhibiting the release of cytokines from mast cells. A mast cell is a certain type of immune cell in the blood, and these cells release cytokines, which are proteins that communicate with other cells to escalate immune response. Therefore, mast cell stabilization can help keep inflammatory processes from starting and/or progressing. So far, the results from preliminary, small-scale clinical studies on cromolyn are promising: the compound has few known side effects, and in controlled studies where the symptom-reduction effectiveness of cromolyn was compared to that of antihistamines, steroids, and placebo, cromolyn proved to offer the most significant benefits.
However, for allergy patients and practitioners who are exploring various alternative therapies, it can be helpful to look at studies that directly compare the options. In 2012, a research group from Tufts University conducted a series of in vitro experiments to explore differences in the effectiveness of quercetin and cromolyn for mast cell stabilization. Using cultured human mast cells, they found that quercetin was more effective than cromolyn for modulating the release of IL-8 and TNF—two cytokines that are both released by mast cells as part of the immune response. In addition, supporting the body’s natural inflammatory processes with quercetin was associated with inhibited NF-kappa-B (a protein involved in immune-related cell-to-cell communication) and lower calcium levels in the cytosol (which indicates that immune cells are not activated). Neither of these beneficial effects was observed in the experiments on cromolyn. Other researchers have also described the beneficial immune response activities of quercetin, including suppressing the production of other compounds by mast cells and inhibiting unnecessary antibody formation.
Not only does this research suggest that quercetin is a more effective mast cell stabilizer than cromolyn, it also indicates that a quercetin supplement is a better choice for patients with ongoing symptoms. In their experiments, the scientists from Tufts found that cromolyn only stabilized mast cells after they had been stimulated by a trigger and induced symptoms, whereas quercetin works prophylactically—that is, it displays its activity in the absence of a trigger, so proactive patients might avoid future symptoms. This finding is consistent with the results from the Japanese research group, which reported that the effects on rats were greater after they had been taking a quercetin supplement for at least five days. Based on these results, quercetin presents a promising natural alternative for patients and practitioners who are interested in nutritional supplementation for long-term symptom relief.
So far, results from clinical trials on alternative therapies for allergy patients, like quercetin and cromolyn, are limited. For instance, as part of their study, the research group at Tufts University included two pilot, open-label clinical trials on quercetin, and their findings suggest that quercetin might also address contact dermatitis and skin photosensitivity, especially when provided in bioavailable forms. However, tests were conducted on only 10 patients, and they only addressed two symptoms. In the future, larger-scale studies should provide greater insight into the specific benefits of natural alternative allergy therapies. Until then, patients and practitioners can draw from the preliminary findings to explore whether a supplement like quercetin might offer symptom relief for individual patients who are seeking such alternatives.
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