Updated: Aug 24, 2020
Recently the two petri dishes that I live with (aka my children) brought home some hideous virus and shared it with their Dad and me (they share their germs far more willingly than their food or toys) with the end result of me developing sinusitis. If you’re reading this then you’re probably not a stranger to the misery that can accompany sinusitis – pressure and pain in the face, endless flow of snot, headache, difficulty breathing and sleeping, aching teeth (feels as weird as it sounds). If you want to know the strategies I use to manage sinusitis and ensure it resolves as quickly as possible, then read on Macduff (a little Shakespeare joke for my fellow literature nerds.)
What is sinusitis?
Sinusitis is inflammation or irritation of the sinuses – the air filled passages between the bones of the face. It can be acute or chronic (meaning it can last for a short time and then resolve, or it can last a long time, coming and going as the triggers set it off), and can be caused by a virus or bacteria. Common pharmaceutical treatments include nasal sprays and antibiotics. The problem with these however is that while they may provide relief in the short term, their repeated use can can actually make things worse for sinusitis over the longer term.
Why shouldn’t I take antibiotics?
I think we all know by now that we have a real issue with the overprescription of antibiotics, leading to resistant bacteria. This is actually some scary stuff, and we should all be doing everything we can to reduce our use of antibiotics. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not against antibiotics – I wouldn’t want to live in a world without them – which is precisely why I advocate for their appropriate prescription and use. Antibiotics won’t work in the case of viral sinusitis, and bacterial sinusitis usually goes away in about a week without antibiotics anyway.
To throw the Chinese Medicine spin on things, antibiotics are also really harsh on the gut (which is why they can cause diarrhoea and nausea) and Chinese medicine believes that an unhappy gut can lead to an increase in the production of mucous and phlegm, which in turn leads to more bouts of sinusitis, which leads to more antibiotics, which leads to an ongoing self-fulfilling prophecy.
What the heck can I do? Because I feel like I’ve been hit in the face with a brick.
The number one heavy hitter that I use to deal with my sinusitis is nasal irrigation. Which sounds completely bizarre and, if I’m honest, is a little bizarre. But once you get used to it and realise the benefits you’ll become a fan.
Nasal irrigation has been around for a long time, with the Neti pot being used as part of Ayurvedic medicine practices in India. The Neti pot looks like a little teapot and is filled with warm salty water. Users place their head on the side with their mouth open, stick the spout up one nostril and tip the pot. The salty water runs into the nostril, up into the nasal cavity (washing away bacteria, pollens, and mucous) and then runs out the other nostril. Modern research into nasal irrigation supports it’s use for the management of sinusitis and rhinitis (hay fever and allergies) and these days you can pick up a simple nasal wash kit from the chemist. These have sachets of hypertonic solution included but the comfort level is highly variable between individuals (as in, it can hurt like hell for some people).
Saline Solution Recipe
I opt out of the included sachets and make up my own saline solution instead. I use a teaspoon of pure sea salt flakes (you don’t want to be using iodised table salt here peeps) and a pinch of bicarb soda stirred into 500ml of boiled, filtered water. Stir to dissolve, then leave to cool to lukewarm before using. If you find this concentration is still a little stingy you can cut the salt down to ½ a teaspoon and see how that goes.
How often do I use it?
Begin by using it 2-3 x per day, for a few days until things have improved. If you’re dealing with an acute attack that can be the end of it. If you’re a chronic sufferer then you can continue usage a few times a week, dropping down to once a week as thing continue to get better.
How long should I keep using it for?
Once your sinusitis has cleared up you don’t need to continue with regular nasal washing and instead can just use it as a first line defence option in the future if you feel something may be stirring in your nasal passages. Studies showed that chronic sufferers who used nasal irrigation and then stopped, experienced fewer recurrences than those sufferers who continued with regular irrigation.
I’m a fan of essential oils. I use them on myself and my children and I believe that if used correctly they can be really strong forms of home care. To help with the symptoms of sinusitis I take a few drops each of tea tree, eucalyptus radiata, lavendar, and lemon essential oils mixed with whatever carrier oil I have on hand (usually coconut or macadamia) and rub all over my chest and back.
CAVEAT FOR TOPICAL USE: You will need a carrier oil (especially if you are using tea tree oil), and if you’ve never used essential oils before PROCEED WITH CAUTION. Patch test on the skin on the inside of your arm first to check for sensitivity and use oils one at a time to begin with in case you react to something, that way you’ll know which one. If you do throw a reaction (uncomfortably hot, itchy, burning, tingling sensations are all an indication of this) then wash off with warm soapy water immediately.
Alternatively you can add these oils to a diffuser, in the bedroom is a good option.
I sound like a broken record but food is your first form of medicine. One of the big differences between Chinese medicine and Western medicine – and I’m talking about Western nutrition not just pharmaceutical medicine – is diet theory (I’ve written another blog post on the digestion where I go into a little more detail about why this is, you can find it here.)
In Chinese medicine we look at the nature and properties of the food as well as its nutritional profile. Different people have different digestive systems and constitutions. You know this is true, you’ve no doubt seen it amongst your friends and family. Some people only have to look sideways at a croissant and they bloat, while Uncle Roger can eat the unpasteurised Brie that’s been sitting in the sun for 7 hours and he’s fine.
If you have sinusitis you need to avoid the phlegm forming foods in your diet. Which according to Chinese medicine are:
Refined carbohydrates (white bread, pasta, cakes, biscuits etc)
Rich or greasy foods
Iced foods (iced water, iced drinks, smoothies – oh lawd don’t get me started on smoothies)
Cold and raw foods (cook your veggies, don’t eat things straight from the fridge)
You also want to avoid EXCESS consumption of:
Nuts and nut butters
Milk alternatives (soy and nut milks)
These foods are healthy, but you can get too much of a good thing.
You may have heard that you can clear your sinuses with spicy food like hot curry and chilli peppers, and while this may temporarily get your snot flowing, it’s likely to be doing you more harm than good, especially if you’re producing green or yellow mucous. Avoid chilli and other spicy and warming foods. Ideally you shouldn’t drink coffee. As a realist however I say keep it to one cup a day and drink it with as little milk as possible.
What am I supposed to eat then?
When you’re suffering from an attack of sinusitis you can still eat lots of delicious foods! Choose freely from any cooked vegetables you like, meats, eggs, soup, stir fries, white rice (in moderation), fruits (preferably cooked or stewed), porridge, quinoa, lentils, beans… you see the common theme here, yes? Healthy, whole foods.
Here’s an example of foods you could eat in a day:
Breakfast: Gluten free quinoa and chia porridge Lunch: Pumpkin soup with a whole grain sourdough toasted ham sandwich Dinner: Roast chicken and vegetables Snacks: Boiled eggs, rice cakes with tahini and honey, tuna with rice and corn Drinks: Water, peppermint tea
See, you didn’t starve.
Get plenty of rest and stay hydrated
Blah blah blah, I know, it’s so boring but it’s true.
Support your overall health
If you’re down and out with sinusitis it might also be time to run yourself in for an appointment with your healthcare practitioner to take a look at the state of your overall health.
Written by Joanna Macmeikan Doctor of Chinese Medicine
Follow on instagram: @joanna_macmeikan