This post was originally written for my personal blog a few years back, but has been so incredibly popular with folks trying to manage their own chronic sinus troubles naturally that I wanted to share it here with you.
Last weekend Minneapolis had a heat wave and while everyone else was riding bikes and grilling outside, I was laid up in bed with some very angry sinus pain. Not fun. But that was a week ago, and now this weekend is almost here, and I'm feeling great and ready to get back on the saddle (literally and figuratively).
A few patients this week asked me if I took antibiotics to get over my sinus woes, and were surprised when I told them I didn't. Their next question was always: "How?"
Before we start, please take note that I don't shun all uses of antibiotics - I just believe that they are both over-prescribed and over-consumed in our current pharmaceutical based medical system. This over-consumption is already leading to strains of antibiotic resistant bacteria - otherwise known as superbugs. This is leading us to a time and place where antibiotics won't be nearly as effective when they are truly needed.
So, how did I do it?
A little history
First off, I have a long and painful history with sinus infections. I had more of them (and took antibiotics for more of them) than I have fingers (and maybe even toes) before the age of 25. My doctor even ordered a head CT during an especially nasty bout. So, this would be a good time to explain that the term sinus infection is really misleading. The Oxford Journal reported that generally less than 2% of sinus infections are complicated by a true bacterial infection. The actual medical term is acute rhinosinusitis, which actually means acute inflammation of the nose and sinuses. And this inflammation can be caused by just about anything: a cold, allergies, or irritation. The inflammation makes it difficult for mucus to drain properly, which leaves us with lots of congestion and a painfully full sensation in our heads.
So, because of my long sinusitis history, I have a pretty good idea of when my sinuses are angry and inflamed - my head feels like a brick, I can't blow my nose, and I get a pounding feeling behind my eye each time I take a step. Fun times, right?!
Well, after attending a bonfire at a friends house and being in the line of smoke all evening, I woke up the next morning with excessive sinus congestion and post nasal drip (when mucus runs down the back of your throat). I knew what it meant and where it was leading, so I took action immediately!
Here are the list of things that I do immediately when I come down with a case of sinusitis. This routine usually clear everything up for me within five or so days. If your sinus symptoms are lasting longer than 7-10 days, there is a larger chance that it could be due to bacteria and a visit to your physician might be in order.
Rest, lots of it. It sucks being sick. You miss out on fun shows or bike rides or gorgeous sunny March days. I get it. But our bodies do most of their healing work while we're sleeping, so sleep I did.
Drink clear fluids. I ate Phở at my favorite Vietnamese restaurant, drank lots of herbal tea (this one is my fave), and kept drinking good old fashioned water. This step is the most important. Clear fluids are needed to help thin out the mucus as much as possible so that it can drain out of the small, inflamed passageway. The more you drink, the thinner your mucus will become, which will make you better, faster. Stay away from milk products and sugary beverages though. The dairy will thicken your mucus and the sugary beverages will increase the inflammation. I also start taking shots of fire cider to help thin out the mucus even more.
Acupuncture and Chinese herbs. Most people are familiar with the fact that acupuncture is great for chronic pain, but did you know that it works great for colds, the flu, and sinus pain too? At the first sign of congestion, I started taking some Chinese herbs and made an appointment for myself.
*Please only take Chinese herbs that have been prescribed to you by a board certified Chinese herbalist. They are powerful healing tools that can produce amazing effects when used correctly, but can also create further complication when the wrong herbs are self-prescribed. Also, only a board certified herbalist will be able to check any possible interactions with your prescription medications. OK, rant over!
Whole food supplements. I prefer 100% food based supplements over super-dosing with isolated vitamins that we're grown in a lab. So, for those who are wondering, here's what I took:
Standard Process Congaplex. This is my supplement of choice whenever I feel a virus coming on. Its a mix of carrots, alfalfa, mushrooms, echinacea, and calcium lactate to provide the nutrients bodies need during inflammatory states. But the kicker is the addition of animal glandulars such as thymus (the home of white blood cells) to help kick start our own white blood cell production. BOOM!
Green Pastures Fermented Cod Liver Oil and Butter Blend. I apologize if you just threw-up a bit in your mouth after reading that, but listen to me when I tell you that it really isn't bad tasting. I know that when I'm sick I need an extra dose of vitamins A and D to help soothe my irritated mucus membranes and boost my immune system. And I know the best and most natural way to do that is with this blend of healthy fats. So down the hatch it goes. (I prefer the cinnamon tingle flavor by the way.)
Herb Pharm's Goldenseal and Usnea. Years before I became a Chinese herbalist, I fell in love with traditional western herbalism. I had (and still have, much to my fiance's dismay) shelves and shelves of tincture bottles in our kitchen, all filled with the powerful magic of plants. (Sorry, is this getting too woo woo for you?) I was fairly certain that my sinusitis wasn't a bacterial infection, but just to be safe, I decided to incorporate these two traditional herbs into the mix for their bitter taste and strong anti-microbial properties. Usnea has even been shown to be effective against penicillin resistant gram positive bacteria (fellow science nerds out there will be super into that fact).
Two over the counter drugs: Mucinex and Advil. What? An acupuncturist is taking OTC meds? Yep! Here's my take on pharmaceuticals. They're not all evil (though some of them might actually be Satan's spawn), and sometimes they're necessary, but for my body, I prefer not to take anything long term. I believe there's a time and a place for everything, and if a few days of Advil and Mucinex get me healthier, faster - keeping me away from a round of Amoxicillin - then so be it. Why did I choose these two specifically? Mucinex helps thin out the mucus clogging my sinuses (remember we talked about the importance of thinning out that mucus earlier?) and Advil helps reduce the inflammation that was narrowing the sinus passages.
*Please note that not everyone reacts well to over the counter medicines and my experience is mine alone. While Advil and Mucinex are both considered safe by the FDA, each has their own list of side-effects. Please do your due diligence before starting any new over the counter drugs.
Other tips and tricks
I made a batch of my daikon & honey cough syrup to add to the herbal tea I kept downing. Also, since it's delicious, it helped mask the incredibly bitter taste of the goldenseal tincture.
I used Simpler's sinus blend essential oil in a diffuser (this is the one I have at home) and even placed a drop or two in my nostril when I was super stuffed up. This blend of eucalyptus, rosemary, and inula essential oils always opens my nose up immediately and I love the smell.
According to Chinese medicine, excessive mucus in the head is due to an abundance of dampness and phlegm. The best foods to eat when trying to transform damp phlegm are warm, aromatic foods and spices. Think onions, garlic, ginger, and black pepper. Also try to avoid dairy products (we talked about that earlier) and raw fruits and veggies. Those might sound super healthy, but if you don't have the strongest digestion in the world you body might not be able to break down those cold foods very well, which can result in even more dampness.
Many of you are probably wondering where my neti-pot was this whole time. Well, in the first two days I did use it a bit and I felt it was helping. Then, the mucus just stopped moving. Once that happens I never try to force it with the nasal flush. Because in my experience, it always makes my situation worse. I prefer to use it as a preventative measure during allergy season, as opposed to using it as a treatment method. But everyone is different and I know tons of people that swear by it. So if you're someone who loves it? Then that's awesome.
And lastly, the most important thing you need to heal your sinus pain...patience. Healing the body takes time. It's important to give your body the time it needs to let your immune system get to work. So often people freak out at the first sign of sinus pain or green snot and rush to request antibiotics. I simply chose not to do that because I knew I had other options - and I'm glad I did.
**The information provided on this site is intended for your general knowledge only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice or treatment for specific medical conditions. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat a health problem or disease without consulting with a qualified healthcare provider. Please consult your healthcare provider with any questions or concerns you may have regarding your condition.
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