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Herbs for Sinusitis

Sinusitis is a common condition of inflammation of the nasal passages, with the normal flow and drainage of mucus obstructed and accumulating. It can become chronic if it lasts for more than three months or becomes a recurring condition.

Sinusitis is usually accompanied by an infection which may follow a cold or another respiratory infection, allergic reaction or reduced immune function. Common thought is that nasal polyps (growths) or deviated septum (center cartilage in the nasal cavity leaning to one side) may cause sinusitis, however, some people with deviated septum never have sinus problems, and nasal polyps may appear as a result of chronic sinusitis aggravation. In most cases these conditions are aggravations rather than root causes of sinusitis.

The tissues lining the sinuses are mucus membranes, a type of tissue that lines all the body cavities that open to the exterior. Normally, these membranes are constantly bathed in mucus secretions which carry the first line of defense against invaders, a crucial element of the immune system. When the immune system has been signaled to the possible presence of dangerous pathogens, the membranes begin to secrete much more mucus in an attempt to engulf and flush out the invaders. You have experienced this if you have an “allergy attack” or head cold symptoms of sneezing and runny nose. Additionally, the tissues may become inflamed, that is, swollen, red and hot, as blood and immune factors surge into the area to fight off the invasion. As a result you may it difficult to breathe through your nose. The area around your eyes and face may feel swollen, and you may have throbbing facial pain or a headache. At this point you have sinusitis, and, because the mucus accumulates and is blocked from normal drainage, an unwanted microbe may find you a welcome host and thus the tissues become infected as well.

Common Symptoms of Sinusitis

Drainage of a thick discharge from the nose or down the back of the throat
Nasal obstruction or congestion, causing difficulty breathing through your nose
Reduced sense of smell and taste
Pain in ear canal
Aching in your upper jaw and teeth
Cough, which may be worse at night
Sore throat
Bad breath
Fatigue or irritability

Danger Symptoms of Sinusitus: see your doctor right away

Pain or swelling around the eyes
Swollen forehead
Severe headache
Double vision or other vision changes
Stiff neck
Shortness of breath

Conventional Medical Treatments

Conventional medical treatments for sinusitis are generally focused upon killing infecting bacteria and relieving the unpleasant symptoms. You can learn more about conventional treatments elsewhere online or from your doctor. I mention the general categories of these treatments below and the potential problems associated with their repeated use.

Antibiotic drugs may be helpful in a single or simple case of bacteria-mediated sinusitis, but repeated courses of antibiotics can suppress immunity and encourage the development of antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria surviving to continue the suffering. Antibiotic therapy often decimates the beneficial flora in the respiratory and digestive tracts, leaving the patient a welcome host to aggressive fungal overgrowth. Studies have shown that more than 95% of chronic sinusitis sufferers had background fungal infections in their sinus tissues evidenced by lab cultures. In addition to common side effects, years of antibiotic therapy can lead to chronic fatigue syndrome or chronic autoimmune conditions such as colitis or cystitis. Antibiotic medications are designed to kill only bacteria, but they do not kill fungi, reduce inflammation, clear out congestion or help mucus membranes to heal. Even if the infectious pathogen is killed by the antibiotic, the remaining debris in the sinus cavities can be an ideal site for a new infection. Certainly, antibiotics have saved the lives of many of us at one time or another, but if we can find another effective treatment, we can reserve antibiotics for life-threatening emergencies.

Corticosteroids, either in nasal sprays (such as Flonase or Nasonex), oral or injected (such as Prednisone), are sometimes prescribed for the inflammation of sinusitis, but these medications have serious side effects and suppress the immune functioning. Dependency can develop with extended use. Although corticosteroids give relief from inflammation, they can slow the healing process by making it harder to fight off the infection and drying the mucus membranes, suppressing their normal function.

Decongestants such as Sudafed, Actifed or Afrin may help relieve congestion, but they can also create dependency, excessively dry the tissues and suppress normal mucus membrane function and result in rebound congestion when the medication is stopped.

Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory pain relievers (NSAIDS) such as aspirin, Tylenol or ibuprofen may give temporary relief of pain and reduce some inflammation, but have their side effects and complications as well.

Endoscopic sinus surgery gives relief to some sufferers when polyps and problematic tissue are removed, but surgery may also encourage the formation of scar tissue which will not function as well as normal healthy tissue.

Although some people are satisfied with conventional medical treatments, many others continue to struggle with reoccurring bouts of sinusitis, experiencing decreasing relief from the medications and even surgeries to relieve their suffering.

Herbal Choices

A holistic approach to treating sinusitis is based on the principle of respect for the amazing self-healing ability of the human body. The two primary “symptoms” of sinusitis, inflammation and excess mucus production, are actually normal healing processes in the body’s attempt to re-establish healthy balance. Therefore, from a holistic perspective we will choose treatments that activate, facilitate and moderate these healing processes, rather than suppress them.

Our goals of treating chronic sinusitis with herbs are to eliminate the infecting microbes, reduce inflammation, clear out accumulated mucus and return the mucus membranes and immune system to a healthy functioning state.

Antimicrobial Herbs
While antibiotic drugs have a broad-spectrum effect of killing bacteria throughout the body, anti-microbial herbs tend to act through a variety of different pathways, some by enhancing certain activities of the immune system and others by shifting the ecology slightly so that the microbes cannot thrive. Since herbs can be used together effectively, we have the advantage of being able to select several antimicrobial herbs that will have activity against pathogens. With multiple herbs and multiple paths of action, we can have a better chance of chasing out both troublesome bacteria and fungi.

Immune & Lymphatic Stimulating Herbs
Herbs that stimulate immune function and facilitate lymphatic movement can be especially helpful in chronic sinusitis where the healing process is blocked by immune weakness and congestion, and where the microbes are proliferating unchecked.

Anti-inflammatory Herbs
Some herbs help to moderate the inflammatory response and the mucus secretion without completely suppressing it or suppressing immune function, thereby allowing the body’s healing activity to continue, while reducing pain and blockages.

Decongesting Herbs
In the herbal apothecary we have a good selection of herbs that promote decongestion by different actions. By selecting a good combination of these herbs, we can achieve a delicate balance that doesn’t over-stimulate the mucus membranes, suppress their functions or dry them out excessively.

Although many sources recommend the use of just one or two herbs for treating sinusitis, I have found that the healing process is better supported and balanced with a combination of several herbs. For example, using just taking echinacea or echinacea with goldenseal may have a chilling and excessively drying effect on the tissues, blocking the effectiveness of the healing process. By adding a few other herbs to the mix, we can balance the actions and have a better outcome.

Here are some of my favorite herbs included in my “SinuClear” blend:

Echinacea root
stimulates the immune system, stimulates lymphatic activity and reduces mucus membrane inflammation. Echinacea has an overall beneficial effect on mucus membrane ecology.

Baikal Scullcap root
(Scutellaria baikalensis) has broad activity against many pathogens including both bacteria, fungi and flu virus. It is anti-inflammatory and helps moderate excess immune activity such as allergies and auto-immune conditions.

stimulates immune and lymphatic activity and is strongly anti-fungal, anti-bacterial and antiviral.

Usnea lichen
is strongly anti-fungal, antibacterial against gram-positive bacteria and active against a broad spectrum of pathogens.

Goldenseal root
(Hydrastis Canadensis) is one of the most powerful anti-microbial herbs, and is anti-inflammatory, however it must be used only in small amounts and best in combination with other herbs to prevent excessive mucus membrane stimulation and dry out.

Yerba Santa
(Eriodictyon californicum) is a stimulating expectorant with good anti-microbial and anti-inflammatory activity as well.

(Grindelia squarrosa) is antibacterial, stimulates expectoration from a deep level, calms irritated airways and stimulates lymphatic movement.

Balm of Gilead, Poplar bud
(Populus balsamifera) is anti-fungal, a stimulating expectorant with a warming and pain-relieving and anti-inflammatory effects due to its salicin content.

Bayberry root
(Myrica cerifera) calms excess mucous production and helps normalize mucus flow.

Licorice root
(Glycyrrhiza uralensis or glabra) calms coughing, has a soothing and moistening effect of irritated tissues, and "harmonizes" the formula by supporting the functions of the other herbs and normalizing immune function.

(This formula of tinctures is meant to be taken internally, not inserted into the nasal passages.)

After treating the sinusitis effectively, so that the healthy state is regained, herbs for strengthening immunity should be considered, particularly if the sinusitis has been chronic or recurring. Astragalus root, licorice root and reishi mushroom as well as other medicinal mushrooms can be helpful to strengthen immunity. If you have a history of asthma or other chronic respiratory condition or if you are pregnant, please talk to an herbalist who can work with you to develop an appropriate plan of treatment.

Other Home Remedies

Supplementing with Vitamin C and Vitamin D can help reduce inflammation and strengthen immune response. Although zinc supplementation can be helpful, it will be more effective if included in a good multivitamin on a daily basis rather than attempting to load up during an illness.

Rest helps by allowing the body to channel as much as energy as possible to the healing process.

Drinking plenty of water and herbal teas can help the healing process by improving lymphatic and mucus flow. Avoid beverages that contain caffeine or alcohol, as they can be dehydrating. Drinking alcohol can also worsen the swelling of the lining of the sinuses and nose. Be cautious of excessive fruit juices, sodas or sugary foods, as sugar suppresses the immune system. Smoking or exposure to smoke or other airborne pollutants can also severely impede the healing process.

It may help to moisturize the sinus cavities by draping a towel over your head as you breathe in the vapor from a bowl of medium-hot water or take a hot bath or shower, breathing in the warm, moist air. This will help ease pain and help mucus drain. Adding herbs or essential oils to the steaming water can enhance the effectiveness of these treatments. Effective herbs to use would include some that you may have in your kitchen, such as chamomile and peppermint from your tea cabinet and culinary herbs such as sage, oregano and thyme from your spice cabinet.

Apply warm compresses to your face. Dampen a towel in hot herbal tea and place around your nose, cheeks and eyes to ease facial pain. Rinse out your nasal passages using a neti pot filled with warm salt water or herbal tea. Eating pungent foods such as hot, spicy Latin or Indian food or fresh horseradish can help clear congested sinuses, too.

Sleeping with the head elevated can assist the drainage, reducing congestion and minimizing nighttime coughing. Using essential oils in a diffuser in the bedroom can help both by encouraging decongesting, but also by dispersing anti-microbial oils into the air, discouraging infection. Rosemary, lavender, eucalyptus and pine are all helpful essential oils for this approach.

If you have chronic or recurring sinusitis, consider reviewing your diet to see if eliminating food allergens such as dairy products, wheat or other gluten-containing grains may help.