May 7, 2013 - Treating Seasonal Allergies the Old School Indian Way..Revisited -Linda Thioleunwin Bishop


Treating Seasonal Allergies the Old School Indian Way…Revisited

By:  Linda Different Cloud

Last spring when I wrote the article “Treating Allergies the Old School Indian Way”, I felt as if I had been inducted into a new brother/sisterhood. The response from my fellow allergy sufferers was massive. We could have started a club: “Natives with Allergies” or “Indigenous Allergy Resistance.” It seems that more and more of us are suffering as a result of the many non-Native plants, animals, and foods that have been introduced to our homelands.  Well, once again, theThunder Beings have returned, and  we are all basking in the glory of Spring (finally). That means that many of us are also suffering the wrath of histamine responses.

Don’t get me wrong…we love plants, right? Ok, as an ethnobotanist, I probably love them a lot more than most people, but I think we pretty much all appreciate wildflowers, trees, and vegetation in general. For many of us, including myself, our love of Mother Earth is balanced only by our disdain for allergic reactions to plant reproductive dust…aka pollen…aka seasonal enemy number one. For those of you who read my article last spring, please keep reading. I have included much of the same information, but I have made sure to include new information as well.

Seasonal allergies are documented as being almost non-existent among Native peoples prior tocolonization. Today, however, Native Americans suffer from allergies as much as any population, if not moreso. There are hundreds of reasons why this is the case:  intermarriage with non-Indigenous groups,  the introduction of invasive and non-native plant species, weakened immune systems, strange and unhealthy diets, etc. The usual prescription and over-the-counterallergy medications can have some serious side effects. Western medicine has been studying and using diphenhydramine (AKA Benadryl) for a little less than 70 years (which is not very long when you consider that Indigenous peoples have been using plant medicine for tens of thousands of years!).  According to WebMD, diphenhydramine can thicken lung secretions, cause severe hallucinations, and it can even cause blood disorders. Zyrtec can cause everything from an abnormal heart rhythmn to bronchiospasms and seizures. Singulair has multiple, severe side effects including nearsightedness and skin infections.

I have difficulty understanding why people would take those risks when a FREE, EFFECTIVE,and TIME-TESTED alternative is available. (Now, I am NOT saying that you should quit takingyour prescriptions. I REPEAT! DO NOT STOP USING your regular medications unless you first consult your regular doctor.)  That said, traditional healing has a much longer and less suspicious history than Western medicine. So, we must ask ourselves: “Who do we trust?” Do I trust a pharmaceutical industry ripe and rank with corruption, greed, and self-serving policies?Or do I trust my ancestors?

I know who I trust.

There are a number of amazing plants that I personally use for my family and myself to treat all manner of allergy and asthma symptoms. Before I go there, please use common sense. Do not run through a field of wormwood in August. Do not sniff goldenrod unabashedly in July. Do not frolic gaily in a field of ragweed in June. Always carry your rescue inhaler. If you’re overweight (like me), lose some.

Licorice Root

Many of my students at Sitting Bull College will remember using licorice root (Glycyrrhizalepidota) in class. I will never forget the first time I gave it to the class as a tea. We had just gotten back from a long hike through shoulder-high “forests” of absinth wormwood (Artemisiaabsinthium). The pollen was so thick that it looked hazy outside. When we got back to the college, one of my students took off his shirt and shook it – and a literal “cloud” of pollen flew into the air. Students who had never experienced allergies were coughing and rubbing their itchy eyes. I was close to a nervous breakdown from the severe itch on the roof of mouth (a key indicator of allergies), and one of my students was taking puffs of her Albuterol inhaler almost every minute. I immediately brewed some licorice root tea and gave a cup to each of my students. I didn’t even tell them what it was for. They all drank it and enjoyed the mild, natural sweetness of this beautiful (see photo) wildflower.

After 15 minutes, one of my students spoke up and said, “My allergy symptoms are totally gone.” Indeed, everyone in the class, including myself, agreed that their symptoms were completely gone or had greatly subsided. I use licorice root to treat allergy symptoms including sneezing, sinus congestion, and itchy nose and eyes. To make this tea, I boil 2-3 tablespoons of the dried root in three cups of water.  I drink one cup per day or as needed. I have often drunk three cups a day when my allergies were at their worst.

Licorice root, also known as “wináwizi číkʼala” in the Lakota language, is also chewed treat toothaches. A strong tea of the dried root or leaves is used to treat diarrhea, upset stomach, fever, coughs, chest pain, and sore throat. The leaves are sometimes steeped to produce a topical treatment for earaches. It is also widely known as “horse medicine,” because the leaves are chewed and applied as a poultice to the sore backs of horses.  The Lakota name translates as “The Little Jealous Woman” and indicates the use of this root in protecting pregnant women from spiritual harm or “bad medicine.” If you have high blood pressure or cataracts, use licorice root with caution.


Sometimes I sit and ponder over the serious lack of understanding and acceptance of Indigenous medical knowledge by the wider, dominantly Western, medical profession. Face it … we know what we are doing! Our long term data collection and participation with the landscape has given us an intimate knowledge of the ways that plants, people, and other animals can work together to stay healthy and treat illness. Prime example? Petasites frigidus or P. hybridus, which is also known as butterbur or sweet coltsfoot in English. This incredible allergy remedy has been called “The Singulair of the herbal world” by folks such as David Rakel, MD, founder and director of the University of Wisconsin Integrative Medicine Program. Native peoples have long been using butterbur to treat allergies of all kinds – including allergies to rabbits and horses. Best of all, while butterbur has been found to be just as effective as synthetic medications such as Zyrtec and Allegra, it won’t cause sleepiness or that mental “fogginess” cause by many other medications.

To make butterbur tea, simply add three teaspoons of butterbur root to three cups of water. Let stand for about 8-12 hours.  Next, heat the water to boiling for three minutes. Remove from heat and strain. You may wish to sweeten this tea with a bit of honey or Stevia.


Curlycup Gumweed

One of my favorite ways to use gumweed (Grindelia squarrosa) is to place a bunch of it in the rafters of a sweat lodge before everyone goes in. When the warm steam rises into the air, itreleases volatile medicines that open breathing passages and relieve congestion and allergy symptoms. In the absence of a sweat lodge, it is just as easy to boil the plant in a pot and place a towel over one’s head to inhale the steam. I like to make a tea out of the leaves, stems, and flowers by steeping two tablespoons of dried plant material in one cup of water. This can be sweetened with a little honey if necessary.  This tea is an absolute necessity in my house because I use it to treat chest congestion, cough, and asthma and allergy symptoms.

The coin-sized, yellow flowers of curlycup gumweed are very sticky due to a thick resin, and it is sometimes called “rosin weed.”  It is probably because of this resin that the plant is useful intreating coughs, bronchial irritation, asthma symptoms, and even skin irritations such as poison ivy, minor burns, and eczema. However, the plant should not be used by those with heart or kidney disorders.



I regularly recommend elderberry juice, tincture, or syrup during flu season, but I have also recently learned from an elder that elderberries are used by numerous tribes to treat allergic rhinitis (the itchy, runny nose associated with seasonal allergies). I did some further research, and I found that, in clinical trials, elderberries have been shown to reduce mucus secretions in sinus cavities, and some studies also suggest that elderberries reduce swelling of mucous membranes, which will improve sinus drainage and relieve congestion.

Elderberry syrup is simple to make and it is incredible delicious. You can even use it on pancakes and cheesecake – personally, I think allergies are a pretty good excuse to eat elderberry cheesecake. To make the syrup, simply boil two cups of elderberries in six cups of water. Let liquid reduce by about half. Strain and add one cup of raw honey. Keep refrigerated.

Stinging Nettles

Don’t let the name of this important medicinal herb frighten you: you DO NOT have to be afraid of stinging nettles (Urtica dioica). Yes, they have tiny, stinging hairs that run the entire length of the stem and leaves– but the stinging effect is mild and is easily negated if you dry, blanch, or boil the plant. Stinging nettles contain a natural antihistamine and are well known for treatingcoughs, sneezing and runny nose. A tea made from the leaves is anti-inflammatory and is therefore useful in treating inflammation of breathing passages. According to a study inPhytotherapy Research [Jul 23(7):920-6. 2009], nettle leaves block histamine receptors, and haltthe production of a compound that causes your airways to “close up.” That is a sort ofcomplicated way of saying that nettles are great at relieving allergy symptoms, and scientists agree.

I use nettles on a regular basis each spring and summer. To treat allergies, I make nettle tea by steeping two tablespoons of the young leaves (if I’m using fresh nettles, I use three tablespoons) in one cup of water. My kids and I drink about three cups of nettle tea each day. It is deliciouswith honey. We use the leftover cooked nettles in everything from soup to lasagna!

Young nettle leaves, as I implied earlier, make a delicious and nutritious green vegetable when cooked, and they are high in micronutrients and protein. The tea can be used to treat stomach aches, arthritis, rheumatism, and eczema. Have you ever wondered what the Lakota and other Native peoples used to make ropes and cordage? Well, the stem fibers of mature nettle plantsproduce strong and long-lasting fibers. Additionally, the whole plant is used to make a salve that is excellent in treating sciatica, eczema, and dandruff. I remember the first time I saw an elder sitting on his front porch “whipping” his arthritic knee with a nettle plant. That is the day I learned that nettles are an amazing arthritis remedy. The stinging effect will cause a mild skin irritation, but it will reduce painful joint inflammation long term. Best of all, elders say that if you pick it without gloves, you will not get arthritis in your hands when you get older!


Disclaimer: The uses of plants contained herein are not intended as medical advice. Linda Different Cloud, lastrealindians, and any associates do not accept any responsibility for any adverse effects from the uses of any plants. Always seek advice from a professional before using a plant medicinally. Always seek advice from your physician before you stop taking any prescription medications.

Last Real Indians