This is the time of year when we see a lot of sinusitis. There are several causes, and many things that can get rid of the condition.
It helps to understand how sinuses work. The sinuses form a kind of cup that serves to lubricate our respiratory tract. Sinuses work like an overflowing teacup, filling with a thin liquid that moves up with the cillary action of small hair like cells and drips down your nose and throat, lubricating the tissue and providing mucus, potentially a designer antibiotic fluid that can fight off infection, prevent abrasion and protect tissues. The problem comes when the fluid is cooked down and is too thick to flow. This is considered pathological Phlegm in Chinese medicine. The problem isn’t usually that you make too much mucus, it is that the mucus has cooked down and exerts pressure on your sinuses, nasal tract and lungs.
Sinusitis refers to the inflammation often caused by bacterial, viral or fungal infections of the sinus cavities. Other causes include blockage from polyps, enlarged nasal turbinates, scar tissue, dental infections or a deviated septum, all of which require surgical intervention. Inhalation of irritants can cause sinusitis- I have even seen inhaled poison ivy sawdust create a chronic condition.
First determine if your sinusitis is acute or chronic. Acute sinusitis is somewhat easier to treat. It tends to be hot energetically and to respond to herbs like goldenseal, eyebright and xanthium, preferably in a heavy boiled tea called a decoction. If your phlegm is really stuck, marshmallow may add a demulcent quality. Treat the underlying infection, drink lots of water and other fluids and sleep by a vaporizer, preferably with an essential oil like eucalyptus or rosemary. Western medicine include antihistamines which can lower inflammation, but these should only be used for a short term since they suppress your immune response. If you feel sinusitis coming on, head for the sushi bar and take lots of wasabi or eat strong horseradish- you need to taste it, but you can feel the clearing go right to your sinuses.
Eyebright is an herb that is specially called for in treating sinusitis. Contrary to its name, eyebright (Euphrasia) is not an optical herb, although your eyes may shine brighter if you don’t have a sinus headache. It is often mixed with nettles for allergic sinusitis or with horseradish. Xanthium, an herb used in Chinese medicine for sinusitis may also be mixed with it although I am unaware of commercial products that do it. I prefer liquid forms like tinctures or teas because your body can taste, and therefore prepare to use the herbs. You can also put them in your neti pot easily.
If you have chronic or frequent sinusitis, then you should consider that your environment or diet have a part to play in your condition. Your respiratory function is affected by foods that do not digest well- allergens like dairy, gluten or soy for instance. Foods that are not allergens may also affect your sinuses- oranges in northern climates can often exacerbate phlegm.
Dairy and soy can be either helpful or harmful. If you tend to always be damp and snivelly, then you probably want less dairy or soy which can promote mucus. However if you tend to have thick dry, green or yellow phlegm, you may wish to promote mucus to liquefy it. In Chinese medicine lung yin tonics like rhemannia, wild asparagus root or licorice are often given to dispel this latter type of phlegm. In Switzerland, dairy is often given.
Eat foods with rich gold, red, blue and green colors. “The difference in lung function between people who consumed above-average amounts of four major antioxidants and those who consume lower-than average amounts “was approximately equivalent to the difference between nonsmokers and people who have smoked a pack [of cigarettes] a day for 10 years” according to Patricia A. Cassano of Cornell University (Hu G, 1998). Eating plenty of flavanoid-rich carrots, tomatoes (especially sauce), yellow squash, apricots, blueberries, pomegranate, rosemary, basil, turmeric in curries, and similar foods will increase your antioxidants and can exert anti-inflammatory action.
If you smoke, you will exacerbate sinusitis. Acupuncture can help, but you need to want to quit and to be willing to go through a period of discomfort while you restore your lung function. If you live with a smoker, try to prohibit smoking indoors, restricting it to a smoking porch or a room with good ventilation. Tobacco smoke is very penetrating though, so you will need air filters running and frequent cleaning of fabric, carpets, curtains and cupboards. Don’t allow ashtrays to be left around- enclose cold ashes in plastic bags when you dispose of them because the resins are irritating, and wash ashtrays well.
Carpets are not recommended for anyone with respiratory illness. Nor are canopies or other soft surfaces that can collect dust. Moldings in rooms should be dusted before vacuuming.
Mold is a frequent cause of chronic sinusitis. Although you may have not paid attention to black mold in your bathroom, basement or attic, it may have lodged in your respiratory tract. You most likely need to remediate the mold, including stopping leaks, replacing moldy sheetrock or grout, killing off mold with chlorine and installing ventilation so that mold will not grow. Do not just use surface treatments if you have mold allergies- painting over mold in a bathroom will not stop spores from being released into the air, and it will come through again.
Animal dander is another frequent cause of sinusitis. If you must acquire a new animal, choose a breed that has little shedding and low dander. Existing pets are more problematic since you have a relationship with them. If they can live outdoors or be restricted to certain areas of the house, the problem can be minimized. Animals should not be allowed in bedrooms, because this gives you eight hours or so without exposure to the allergen. Vacuum frequently and get a good air cleaner, and change the filters often.
For chronic sinusitis I suggest using a neti pot with a herbs. I make up a very strong decoction of goldenseal, xanthium, eyebright, sea salt and xylitol, a natural sugar that prevents mold and bacteria from attaching to the respiratory tract much as cranberry works in the urinary tract. A little of this in a neti pot delivers the herbs to the area affected and liquefies the phlegm for good measure. I prefer goldenseal to coptis or Oregon grape because it has an affinity for the mucosa.
Neti pots come in a few different styles, so if you object to one, try another. The Nasopure system, for instance allows you to keep your head upright while it creates a vacuum to gently bring down thick phlegm from the sinuses. (See below). There are also continuous irrigation systems that allow you to be more efficient than you might tend to be on your own. I like simple xylitol and saline for washes between bouts of sinusitus, or use a nasal spray like Xlear.
Winter can cause further problems if you live in an area where heat dries out the air. A humidifier that is kept scrupulously clean can help, as can turning off radiators in the bedroom. I suggest using an oil wash called a nasya to lubricate the nose. There are commercial nasyas available through Ayurvedic stores, but you can take almond oil, add several drops of the essential oils of sandalwood, frankincense and eucalyptus (I like Eucalyptus smithii.) You rub a few drops into each nostril in the morning and at night. In a pinch, you can just apply a little olive oil to each nostril.
There are herbal over the counter formulas that help, providing they fit your pattern of sinusitis. Pe Min Kan Wan (“Allergic sinus nose pills”) are made with magnolia, xanthium, isatis, mint, chrysanthemum, and several other herbs that reduce sinus symptoms and infection. Eyebright or eyebright and nettles can be purchased as a tincture, or if you must, as capsules.
Acupuncture is also quite useful for the long term reduction of sinusitis. You can try acupressure on either side of your nose, from the side of the nostrils up around the arch of the eyebrows to the temples, which gives symptomatic relief. But in real acupuncture, the underlying pattern of your condition will be identified and treated. I used to be sick annually with continuous respiratory conditions including sinusitis for three to four months out of the year, but with acupuncture and herbs I haven’t been sick with more than an occasional cold for the last twelve years. It is one of the reasons I went into Oriental medicine.