Sinusitis may be one of the most miserable everyday ailments that can afflict you during seasonal change. Unbearable pressure, mucus to the max, and throbbing or wincing pain can leave you unable to think, function, or smell. If you get one sinus infection, chances are it’ll become a repeat performance throughout the year, triggered by allergies and the occasional common cold. For “sinus people,” a milieu of factors come together to create a perfect storm in their nasal passages. Fortunately, you can find quick relief and long-term support with natural approaches, getting you out of the “sinus people” category for good.
Sinus Health and Triggers
If you’re a “sinus person,” you know all too well where your sinuses are located, because you often feel pain and pressure within them. Your sinuses are hollow cavities in your skull above your eyebrows and nose, down into your nose, and along the sides of the nose under your eyes. The mucosal lining can produce more than a liter of mucus in a normal day, which helps keep the area from getting dry and traps germs and allergens that you inhale to prevent them from infiltrating the body. You swallow this mucus without noticing. Within mucus are enzymes and antibodies that help eliminate or neutralize invaders.
When infections or allergies kick in, histamine bumps up mucus production, swells your mucosal lining, and increases antibody activity. The mucus can thicken as well. Sinusitis refers to inflamed sinus passages, and can be acute or chronic, infected or not. Symptoms include local discomfort and pain, post-nasal drip, runny nose, pressure, congestion, cough, bad breath, fatigue, difficulty concentrating, hearing problems, and difficulty sleeping.
People who have chronic or frequent bouts of sinusitis or sinus infections often have one or more underlying factors. Addressing these root causes directly helps resolve acute and chronic sinusitis.
- Physical abnormalities, such as a deviated septum or nasal polyps, that block the sinuses, especially if the mucosal lining becomes inflamed.
- Environmental allergies or respiratory infection.
- Chronic fungal infection in the sinuses.
- Multiple coexisting chronic infections, often a combination of fungus/yeast and bacteria.
- Underlying food sensitivities, leaky gut, or sluggish detoxification systems that up-regulate immune over-reactivity to environmental allergens.
- Underlying dental infection.
Relieve Your Discomfort: Drain and Dry
In most cases of sinusitis, discomfort comes from thick mucus and the pressure and unpleasantness it causes — difficulty breathing, pain, post-nasal drip, and a stuffy or runny nose. Mucus isn’t your enemy, but you want it to be healthy — not too thick, not too much, not too little. You should stay well-hydrated with water, tea, broth, and soup.
Steam. Increasing moisture can help relieve dry, stuffed-up symptoms, and although a humidifier helps at night, an actual steam once or twice a day can work wonders. Bring water to a near boil. Remove from heat and let cool a bit — you don’t want to burn your face. Add dried or fresh aromatic herbs or 1 to 5 drops of essential oil to the water, rest your head near the steam, and tent yourself with a towel or blanket. Useful herbs include bee balm (Monarda fistulosa), oregano (Origanum vulgare), thyme (Thymus vulgaris), eucalyptus (Eucalyptus globulus), and peppermint (Mentha piperita). In a pinch, you can put a few drops of essential oil on the floor of a hot shower. When you’re done, gently blow your nose or continue with a nasal rinse, allowing for a more productive release.
Neti pot or nasal rinse. Gently flushing nasal passages with warm salt water helps dislodge, clear, and drain mucus. Adding 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon of non-iodized salt per cup of water creates a saline solution, which is more soothing and antimicrobial than pure water. Make sure the water is sterile or well-boiled to avoid exposure to potentially deadly pathogens. You can add herbs to the rinse by using well-strained tea (made with boiled or sterile water) as your base, or adding a few squirts of liquid herbal extract. Useful herbs include organic goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis) or other berberine-rich herbs. If your nasal passages feel dry afterward, you can use a cotton swab to dab them with unrefined (not toasted) sesame oil to restore skin moisture.
Horehound (Marrubium vulgare). Best known for its ability to thin phlegm and aid expectoration in wet coughs, horehound is my favorite herb for thinning and draining congestion in the sinuses as well, especially post-nasal drip and allergies. A fresh, preferably homemade aerial or leaf tincture works best, because most of the dry material on the market is of surprisingly poor quality. Be warned: Horehound tastes terribly bitter. Try 1 milliliter (or 30 drops) in a little water or juice a few times a day as needed.
Goldenrod (Solidago spp.). Although it’s possible to be allergic to goldenrod, more often people with seasonal allergies react to ragweed, an inconspicuous wind-pollinated weed that grows and blooms profusely right next to showy goldenrod. Use the fresh plant tincture, made from the aerial parts just as it’s beginning to flower; use the same dosage as for horehound. They blend well together. Goldenrod acts as a mild antihistamine to gently dry excessive mucus secretions while also helping to move and drain mucus. It’s also a diuretic, so don’t be surprised if you have to pee more often (perhaps don’t take it before bed).
Horseradish (Armoracia rusticana). For thick, stuck, dry mucus, pungent herbs quickly get things moving (though temporarily). This aids acute congestion, followed up with more long-term support. According to herbalist Rosemary Gladstar, simply grating and eating fresh horseradish works wonders. Wasabi or fire cider might work in a pinch, but horseradish loses its oomph over time.
Give Support Where It’s Needed: Histamine and Immune System
Histamine and an over-reactive immune system trigger and often coexist with chronic sinusitis and allergies. Limit exposure to allergens or other triggers as you can. Avoid foods you may be sensitive to (dairy sensitivities are common for sinus sufferers, in my experience); avoid items that may harbor dust, such as carpets; avoid animals if you’re allergic to them; address household mold; and filter the air. In addition, certain herbs and mushrooms can help modulate the immune response that makes you feel miserable.
Nettle (Urtica dioica). It may seem counter-intuitive since fresh nettle injects histamine into you when you get stung by the plant, but fresh nettle tincture provides quick relief for allergies and histamine overload for some people — harvest the aerial parts in spring before flowering, and use the same preparation and dosage as for horehound. It blends well with the other herbs mentioned here, especially goldenrod. Nettle leaf tea provides much subtler long-term support.
Reishi (Ganoderma lucidum) and chaga (Inonotus obliquus). These medicinal fungi have a particular reputation for helping respiratory and immune systems, and decreasing inflammation as long-term support. They help strengthen a weak immune system while down-regulating an overactive one, including cases of allergies and asthma. They’re best taken simmered for tea or broth, or as a special liquid or capsule extract. If mushrooms aren’t your thing, consider astragalus root (Astragalus membranaceus), which has similar properties.
Butterbur (Petasites hybridus). Butterbur root, prepared to remove all liver-toxic pyrrolizidine alkaloids (sold as Petadolex), boasts the most research for allergies and sinus-related conditions (albeit primarily funded by its manufacturers). I especially consider it when sinus issues coincide with migraines, allergies, or asthma.
Peach (Prunus persica). You might be more familiar with the peach tree’s fruit, but the twig and leaf provide useful medicine for a hyper-reactive immune system, including cases of allergies, autoimmune disease, and hives. Although not for sinuses in particular, they may still be useful in a tea or tincture blend.
Acute or chronic infections often underlie sinusitis, triggering the inflammation, immune response, and inappropriate mucus production. Researchers at the Mayo Clinic tested more than 200 people with chronic sinusitis and found that the vast majority, 96 percent, had fungal cultures present. Fungal infection appears to be a factor across the board, whether or not the afflicted had nasal polyps. The research team then gave 51 chronic sinusitis sufferers an antifungal medication — 75 percent saw improvement, with 35 percent no longer afflicted by the condition. But a multifaceted approach might be even more effective. A different research team found a variety of fungal and bacterial infections, present in sinusitis sufferers, often 3 to 5 simultaneous colonies. Alongside a healthy diet and lifestyle, steams, nasal rinses with saltwater, or salted antimicrobial teas, I recommend that you consider adding the following antimicrobial herbs to your routine.
Yerba mansa (Anemopsis californica).This antimicrobial herb from the damp areas and hot springs of the Southwest helps clear excess “catarrh,” or mucus buildup. It tones boggy mucosal lining while improving the flow and quality of secretions, and can be used internally as a tincture, or externally.
Berberine-rich herbs. Organically cultivated goldenseal, as well as Oregon grape root (Mahonia spp.) and barberry (Berberis spp.), all contain “berberine,” an alkaloid that has potent antimicrobial activity on contact, such as when rinsing with a neti pot. Systemically, it does not appear as antimicrobial, but it does help dry up excessive secretions.
Bee balm. While bee balm remains my personal go-to, oregano and thyme have similar properties and can be used interchangeably. They help move and disinfect the fluid and air spaces within the respiratory tract. Bee balm makes a lovely steam, and it combines well with horehound and goldenrod when infections are present.
Choose a couple of the above herbs and remedies that seem best suited to your needs — perhaps an acute herbal tincture blend; some tonics; and a steam, sinus spray, or nasal rinse. In an acute state, you’ll want to hit all of your remedies pretty hard — take them 2 to 5 times a day. As your symptoms resolve, you can gradually taper back to a maintenance routine. If you’ve been symptom-free for several weeks or months, you may find you need no remedies at all to maintain well-being, or that a daily nasal rinse will suffice.
Simple Sinus Infection-Congestion Tincture Blend
- 1 ounce bee balm tincture
- 1 ounce goldenrod tincture
- 1 ounce horehound tincture (optional)
Combine the ingredients and take 1 to 3 milliliters of tincture in water or juice as needed, up to 5 times a day (when in an acute condition). It’s also beneficial to use a neti pot or sinus spray simultaneously.
This recipe is from Paul Bergner, the director of the North American Institute of Medical Herbalism (NAIMH) in Portland, Oregon.
- 1 teaspoon glycerine
- 15 drops each goldenseal and myrrh tinctures
- Fill to 2 ounces distilled or sterilized water
Combine the ingredients in a sinus spray bottle and shake well. Use the spray 4 times a day, as needed. Typically effective within 4 days.
Bone broth with benefits! If you’re vegetarian, feel free to skip the bones and use a vegetable stock base (carrots, onions, garlic, and celery are good choices), or add a spoonful of miso paste just before serving.
- Chicken carcass or vegetable stock base
- 1 ounce dried shiitake mushroom, ground or powdered
- 4 slices or 1 tablespoon reishi mushroom, ground or powdered
- 1 head of garlic, minced
- 1 tablespoon dry oregano or bee balm
- Salt, pepper, and cayenne to taste
Simmer the bones or vegetable stock base and mushrooms all day on the stove or in a slow cooker. Add crushed garlic, herbs, and seasonings and let simmer for an additional 5 to 10 minutes. Strain and sip as desired throughout the day; consume at least 1 cup daily as a general health tonic.
Maria Noël Groves is a registered clinical herbalist nestled in the pine forests of New Hampshire. She’s the author of the best-selling Body into Balance: An Herbal Guide to Holistic Self Care, and the forthcoming Grow Your Own Herbal Remedies. For herbal articles; recipes; and information about her books, long-distance consults, and online classes, visit Wintergreen Botanicals.