Say goodbye to stuffed sinuses

Saturday March 2 2013


Until I began my studies in nutritional medicine, I do not think I ever gave the sinuses a second thought. But as anyone with sinusitis (inflammation of the sinuses) will tell you, those hollow cavities hidden in the bones around the nose are supremely important.

As 28-year-old Christabel described, it was like “having my head filled with cement. Every breath was a struggle.”

Christabel had suffered from repeated attacks of sinusitis for six years, each attack lasting up to four weeks. Despite several medical interventions, from antibiotic treatments, steroids, and even surgery to drain the mucous and clear any nasal polyps, things remained unresolved.

Inflammation is the culprit

Sinusitis is a condition where the sinuses become swollen and since most experts believe that infections cause the problem, antibiotics are prescribed. But as research over the past decade has showed, it is highly unlikely that sinusitis has to do with infections at all; rather it is all about inflammation.

Hence the new wave of steroid use. But as doctors have found, this does not necessarily work too well either.

Normally, the sinuses produce mucous and drain it through small openings into the nasal passages. But in rhinosinusitis, as the disorder is technically known, the swelling in both the nose and sinuses blocks that drainage.

The result is not just a stuffy nose, but also an endless outpouring of green or yellow mucous. As this worsens, pain or pressure may build up around the eyes or in the face, which in turn can lead to headache and toothache.

So the first place I usually start is with the mucous. But does mucous not have a role in the body? Why do we produce it? Mucous is one of our body’s mechanisms for eliminating dirt, bacteria, and other toxic waste.

For example, for some people, catarrh could be triggered by an allergic response to airborne allergens, such as dust mites, or cat fur. The fact that congested sinuses are more likely to become infected means that it is important to get to the root of the problem.

So I asked Christabel to make herself aware of what foods are considered to be mucous-forming. While she already knew about dairy produce, others include root vegetables, white rice, pasta, and flour (brown varieties contain less starch), processed sugars, bananas, eggs, citrus (especially oranges), and salt.

Lessen catarrh

Rather than getting her to eliminate these foods altogether, cutting down on them really helped to lessen catarrh to a level that can be tolerated by the body, thereby reducing the general “stuffiness” she experienced.

By the same token, she boosted her intake of warming herbs and spices, such as cinnamon, black pepper, clove, horseradish, ginger, garlic, and cardamom, as these help to decongest and break up mucous in the diet. Black cumin (nigella sativa) can also help to clear the congested head and sinuses.

In certain parts of India, these are ground to a paste, then mixed with oil, a little salt and green chilli, then eaten with rice to stimulate the taste buds after a cold.

Another factor is food sensitivity. For some individuals, certain foods seem to induce mucous formation in the sinuses, causing congestion. It is worth keeping a food diary, then consulting a qualified health professional if you think that could be the problem.

The author is a clinical nutritionist. Find her at