(and other catarrhal catastrophes)
I've had the
opportunity, over the years, to play around with a
number of different plants in addressing sinus troubles
of all sorts, and will here offer what I've learnt,
which, hopefully, will help out some troubled soul.
Fortunately, it hasn't
been me who's had lingering sinus problems. I think I've
had sinus colds only three or four times, and they were
completely dreadful experiences which taught me lots about
how lousy chronic suffering must be. Gratefully, though,
I have a guinea pig at home whose been willing to let me
try this and that on her, and share the results for me to
share with you (someday, she plans to write a book called
"my life as a guinea pig; tales of an herbalist's wife"...
certain to be a best seller, eh?). Several other friends,
students, clients and passersby have likewise aided my
Anyways, back to the
First, before jumping
right into "take this or take thats", let's acknowledge
that sinus problems come in various guises, and so too
should herbal treatment. Most often, I've come across
three variations of sinus troubles: Leaky, stuffy and
dry. Different types of herbs are used in each case, and
this is quite important to know. Too many people play
name association games with herbs: the kind where they
simply associate a problem and the name of the herb that
was written next to it in a book. But trust me, you don't
want to go giving drying herbs like Goldenseal to someone
with dry sinuses, even though it's supposed to be "good
for sinus problems". It is good for sinus problems, but
not that kind.
It’s also useful
to recognize whether sinus troubles are chronic (all the
time), episodic (they come and go and come and go and...)
or acute (you got an inhalation full of some irritating
substance and the irritation is the direct result of
that). Chronic problems require a dedicated, consistent,
long term commitment to a herbal regimen, as well as
making whatever lifestyle changes are called for.
Obviously, the issues that might require attention are
myriad, and it’s not really feasible for me to try to list
all the possibilities. But it is safe to say pay
attention to your diet, how much rest and relaxation
you're getting and minimizing stress levels. You may know
or be told that dairy and wheat are especially bad for
sinus sufferers, because they promote mucous production.
This is true, but I think mostly applies to the “plugged
up stuffy” variety of sinusitis. I know people who've
successfully recovered from chronic sinus problems without
totally eliminating wheat and diary, but they have been
smart and steadfast enough to drastically reduce or
eliminate it when their sinus troubles have flared up.
The "comes and goes" variety also indicates the need for
focused attention, as it suggests the problem is coming
and going as your body's resistance is ebbing and
flowing. Acute conditions, more often than not, can be
treated acutely as well. Take you herbs till it gets
better, and then go on your merry way.
The sinuses are leaky,
dripping freely down the nose or the back of the throat.
Maybe there's a cough or sore throat from this drainage.
The eyes might be watery and red, there might be sneezing,
and there's definitely lots of sniffling. Hay fever is a
good example, though this problem can arise from other
causes. Hay fever does offer, though, a good example to
look at what's often going on with this condition...
is miniscule, copious (there's lots) and windborn. The
pollen itself looks like a mace - not the pretty red stuff
surrounding nutmeg but those heavy metal balls with the
spikes on them that you might associate with ogres (or
perhaps certain government officials). So when ragweed is
blooming, pollination occurs not through pretty insects
like butterflies and bumblebees, but by blowing from one
plant to another. Inhaling this airborne Ragweed pollen
is like inhaling powdered fiberglass… what, of course,
does the body do when this happens? It does what makes
sense: tries to get the stuff out of the system. And
how? By causing the eyes to water, the nose to run,
sneezing... all methods to get irritating particles out of
the sinuses. So we see that "hay fever" isn't an illness,
it's a sensible response by the body to the problem at
Sometimes, though, the
body over-reacts; it goes into the full blown allergic
response when it might not be called for at all. Here's a
good example of this: Think back to an occasion when you
might have had too much, let's say... Southern Comfort at
a party. The next day you get very, very, very sick.
Some time after recovering, you find yourself at another
party, and someone has some Southern Comfort, but while
you don't drink any, just the smell of it - just knowing
it’s there next to you makes your stomach churn... your
body is over-reacting in a way that it hopes will let you
know: "Not that stuff again!"
Same thing can happen
with allergies. You're exposed to a house with 138 cats,
and tufts of cat hair floating around like pixies, and all
the sudden you can't be in a room with one cat, which
doesn't make sense cause you grew up with two who you
liked very much and whose presence certainly never
bothered you. What's happening is that you've become
sensitized to the ________________ (fill in appropriate
Of course, this problem
might be due to a perfectly legitimate reaction to an
ever-present irritant. There are molds growing happily in
old ductwork who are unwittingly spreading their spores
throughout households every time the furnace kicks on. I
know a carpenter whose sinus problems are undoubtedly the
result of his intimate & ongoing relationship with sawdust.
Or perhaps the offending irritant has injured the tissues,
and so they no longer possess the strength to "close back
up and reel in the secretions."
The leaky nature of this
complaint calls for astringents. Astringents tighten and
restore tone to tissues, and in doing so lessen secretion.
As I think it’s important to fully understand herbal
properties, I might suggest you suck on or chew a green
banana peel, which will provide you with a lifelong, clear
as day understanding of astringency (you just can't beat
physically feeling it). There are certain astringents
that seem to have a particular affinity for the upper
respiratory tract and sinuses. The ones I use most for
this are Goldenrod, Ox Eye Daisy and Ragweed (yes,
Ragweed... if that's too much for you to handle, just call
it Ambrosia and it'll be OK). All are quite prolific, and
a sufficient quantity for personal use can be easily
gathered without too much effort. A tea or tincture (I
like tincture better than tea here) can be made from any
of these flowering plants, and taken as needed. Or, in a
pinch, you can simply grab some leaves, give them a few
cursory chews, and put them in your cheek to suck on.
Plantain, too, is a plant that adds a nice influence here; try
adding some to your tincture, tea, or chew.
I've seen incredible
results obtained by making a saline tea (add 1/4 teaspoon
salt per 8 ounces of tea) of these plants, with a little
bit of Plantain leaf, and using this in a nasal spray
bottle or neti pot to irrigate the sinuses. "Wow!" one
person said. Be sure to rinse and refill a nasal spray
bottle everyday or so... you don't want to go spraying
spoiled tea up your nose if you're sick.
It's important to
understand, as well, that using astringents should be done
consciously, with the intention of restoring tone and
function to weakened mucous membranes, and not just taken
to stop your damn nose from running. This is to say
that you should not be trying to suppress the bodies
response, but to support healing. This is why I like
adding Plantain to these formulas; just as it is a
remarkable healing agent for the skin, it is also one for
plugged up stuffy...
This manifestation of
upper respiratory woe is characterized by lots of
congestion & mucous, but it's not leaking or dripping,
it's stuck. The mucous seems to have filled up the
sinuses, the eyes are usually sore, the head hurts,
there's a tired feeling emanating from the sinuses and the
person wants to lie down in a quiet dark room away from
stimulation and (hopefully) fall asleep and wake up
feeling better. Lots of chronic sinusitis is of this
sort, and while this condition may manifest after an
initial infection, it rarely is associated with the onset
of an acute conditions.
I've tried lots of
different herbs for this, and in different combinations.
Finally though, after reading about "Amnemopsis
californica" (Yerba Mansa) while perusing Michael Moore's
Herbal Tinctures in Clinical Practice, I said, "Wow, this
seems intriguing..." Since then, I've been using it
quite a lot and quite sucessfully for stuffy sinus congestion... not only
because it works so good, but because when I give it to
somebody they rarely want to use anything else afterward.
Small doses of the
tincture, say from 3-15 drops, should be taken as needed,
but long term and consistently. Yerba Mansa acts
both as an astringent and stimulates circulation into the
sinuses, and seems to have some underlying tonic action
that helps not only ease the symptoms of stuffy sinus
congestion, but can resolve the process that causes it.
When I've seen people use this herb daily, on a long term
basis, the severity and duration of sinus headaches,
congestion and infections lessen and can altogether
cease. As the symptoms ease, the person can taper down
the dosage and frequency of use, and may eventually be
able to use the herb only when/if they need to.
As an adjunct to internal
use, Yerba Mansa Nasal Spray can also be of special
value: combine 5-30 drops Yerba Mansa tincture with a
teaspoon of glycerine and enough water to make two ounces,
then use this to fill a nasal spray bottle. I got this recipe from an old issue of Ellingwood's Therapeutist I printed out from Michael
Moore's site. Paul Bergner makes a similar blend,
but adds 15 drops Goldenseal to 15 drops Yerba Mansa.
please), in and of itself is another remedy worth
considering. Though the two plants are entirely
unrelated, their usage is exceedingly similar, with the
primary difference being that while Yerba Mansa is warming
in nature, Goldenseal is cooling. Small doses of the
tincture should be used; 5-15 drops, 2-3 times a day.
Larger doses do not work better; quite the contrary
they're likely to cause aggravation.
Garlic, possibly with the
addition of Cayenne, is favored by some (the name “Dr.
Christopher” comes to mind, even though Samuel Thompson
should really get the credit…)… certainly they’re easier
to obtain than Yerba Mansa. But, to be completely honest,
I haven’t used it for anyone, and it’d be much more
appropriate to direct you to Paul Bergner’s book “The
Healing Power of Garlic”… that’s certainly worth having
whether you’ve got sinus problems or not…
Stuffy congestion can
also be addressed via certain aromatic herbs. One of the
absolute best means of relieving such congestion is a steam
inhalation of Sage tea. Simply throw a handful of Sage
(Salvia) into a pot of water, cover, and bring to a boil.
Remove the pot from the stove, set it on a table or
counter, and lean over it with a towel draped over your
head. Carefully remove the lid (because it’s obviously
hot) and inhale the rising steam. This helps open stuffed
up respiratory passages better than anything else I know.
Other aromatic herbs that
can be used to help disperse stuffy congestion include
Angelica, New England Aster (which can also be used as a
steam inhalation), and chewing certain varieties of Sweet
Flag (Acorus calamus).
Be aware, though, that
while such aromatic plants will help dispel congestion,
they don't seem to have the long term tonic effect of
Yerba Mansa or Goldenseal on the sinus tissues.
Nothing else I've come across seems to possess their restorative virtues.
The mucous is dried out,
kinda like rubber cement on the sinus tissues. Usually
not as many overtly distressing symptoms, but lots of nose
picking with this one...
I think a real good thing
to do here is to make up a tea of, let's say.... Plantain
and a teeny pinch of Marshmallow or Slippery Elm.
Strain this well, and then add 1/4 teaspoon of salt per 8
ounces of tea to make a saline solution. You can use
this to fill up a nasal spray bottle, and use as needed to
alleviate the dryness of the sinus tissues. If the
dryness is really intense in the nostrils (this happens in
the winter sometimes from the constant exposure to furnace
heat), dip a cotton ball in and then stick this up your
nose (please, not so far that you won't be able to get it
out...) for awhile. It'll do a lot to moisten the
tissues and ease the inflammation. If there's
bleeding from the dryness, it probably wouldn't hurt to
add a bit of Comfrey to the tea to speed healing of the
medicine, there is a practice known as Nasya, which
basically refers to the nasal administration of medicines.
There are many forms of this, but one involves the use of
oils or ghee (clarified butter), and this can be very
beneficial for chronically dry sinuses.
People can have chronic
sinus problems without having an active infection; in some
cases, irritants play a predominant role (as in the case
of my friend the carpenter). But most people
suffering from chronic sinusitis are likely to have a
concurrent bacterial and fungal infection. The
fungal aspect makes this more or less untreatable with the
use of antibiotics, which is why there is so little
success with conventional treatment.
sinusitis manifests as the damp, plugged up stuffy variety
described above. And, interestingly, the best herbs
for addressing this (Yerba Mansa, Goldenseal and Garlic),
in addition to acting as restorative tonics to the mucous
membranes, are broad spectrum antimicrobials, killing not
only bacteria, but fungus as well. It is important
to be clear here; particularly in regards to Goldenseal:
Goldenseal is a mucous
membrane tonic, and specifically addresses congested
secretions of the mucous membranes of the sinuses.
Its underlying effect is one of drying, and therefore it
should not be used when the sinuses are dry, or at the
early onset of a cold when you don't want to inhibit the
immune function of good, fresh mucous. A good way to
know when to use Goldenseal is this: If you blow
your nose, and the mucous is yellow, green, brown or some
combination thereof. This indication falls nicely
into the doctrine of signatures; the mucous is the same
color as the goldenseal. But, this color of mucous
also is indicative of heat and infection.
As Goldenseal is cooling and
antimicrobial, it makes an excellent match for such a
It is well known nowadays
that Goldenseal contains a compound called berberine,
which is touted as an "herbal antibiotic". This is really
somewhat misleading. While berberine - and Goldenseal -
certainly do kill bacteria, this action is not analogous
to the use of synthetic antibiotics: Goldenseal's
"antibiotic" properties do not travel through the
bloodstream, killing invading bacteria. Rather, they have
are "contact" antibacterials; they kill bacteria that the
Goldenseal directly comes into contact with as it passes
through the body. This limits its true "antibiotic" effect to
the mouth & digestive tract; the organs and systems that
metabolize and eliminate it, or to direct applications to
other tissues (such as an eyewash or nasal spray).
So why can its internal use resolve sinus infections?
Well, I've already told you: It’s a mucous membrane tonic.
The infection is resolved via restoring the proper
conditions of the sinuses. This process can be
potentiated by using goldenseal in a nasal spray or neti
pot concurrently with internal use; particularly because
the fungal element of the infection is best treated
externally (the inside of your nose is external to your
Not all chronic
sinusitis, though, shows heat signs (yellow/green/brown
mucous); sometime there is just an endless supply of
thick, thick white mucous. This shows sign of cold,
and indicate the use of Yerba Mansa. Again, as in
the use of Goldenseal, concurrent internal and external
use will yield the best results.
Garlic is also useful
here, especially as it is one of the only ones whose
antimicrobial properties will be secreted by the mucous
membranes themselves, effectively attacking the bacterial
and fungal infection from underneath. The problem
with garlic is that it is much hotter than Yerba Mansa,
and so more likely to cause aggravations. Few people
will be excited about making a garlic nasal spray, and
among those few, many of their friends (and particularly
partners or spouses) will likely serve as deterrents to
compliance. Beyond that, Garlic is hot enough to
potentially injure membranes; so any topical application
would need to be used in adequate dilution. Sorry I
can't offer a recipe for a garlic rinse; the Yerba Mansa
spray is my mainstay here.
A plant I've not used
yet, but expect would prove valuable, especially in
regards to its antifungal nature, would be Wild Bergamot.
I think Matthew Wood has used it in such conditions, and
perhaps I can get him to elaborate with me and share that
about neti pots...
A neti pot is a
(usually) ceramic "Aladdin’s lamp" type thing, with an
open top and a pouring spout. You use it by filling it
with a saline solution (1/4 teaspoon salt per cup of
water), leaning your head sideways over the sink and
pouring the saline into one nostril, through the sinuses,
and out the other. Though this may feel initially
uncomfortable, one quickly adapts to the experience, and
the long term benefits certainly outweigh any perceived
“weirdness” in doing this.
Simply stated: The daily
use of a neti pot will have a tremendously
beneficial action on sinus woes. I cannot suggest
strongly enough that if you suffer from chronic sinus
irritation, a using a neti pot will help you resolve the
problem faster than not using one. As mentioned above,
herbal teas, made saline by adding 1/4 teaspoon salt to 8
ounces of tea, can be used instead of plain old saline.
Or, a few drops of herbal tincture may help.
So... that's as much as I
have to offer here, and if I can offer one parting thought
(well... certainly I can... it's my website, who's gonna
stop me?) it's this:
consistent, keep at it, follow through, and hang in there
for the long haul. If you've had sinus problems for a
while, they're not going to disappear overnight. But they
can be resolved; just stick with it, and be sure to thank
the plants you're using.