Unstuffing Sinusitis

IThe most common chronic respiratory condition needn’t leave you reaching for tissues
and popping antibiotics. With a few simple lifestyle changes and some smart supplementation,
you can naturally conquer sinusitis once and for all.

By Claire Sykes

March 2007

You have been devouring vitamin C and echinacea, guzzling gallons of water and sleeping every chance you get. Despite this diligence, your cold’s still not better. But wait…what if it’s not a cold after all? A sinus infection—or sinusitis—might be the most likely suspect.

Often mistaken for a cold or allergies, sinusitis is an inflammation of one or more of the sinuses—those four pairs of air-filled cavities behind and around the nose and eyes that help protect the lungs by filtering and humidifying the air we breathe. Due to its ambiguous symptoms, sneaky sinusitis can invade right under your nose. “Many people who have chronic sinusitis don’t know it,” says Robert Ivker, DO, of Littleton, Colorado, author of Sinus Survival: The Holistic Medical Treatment for Allergies, Colds and Sinusitis (Tarcher/Putnam).

So how do you know if what you’ve got is sinusitis and not something else? “If there’s gradual improvement with a cold and then it starts to get much worse, or if you have what seems like ‘the cold that just won’t quit’ after two to three weeks, you probably have sinusitis,” says Ivker. Afflicting 15% of the population, sinusitis is the most common chronic respiratory condition in the United States according to the most recent National Health Interview Survey. Once diagnosed with chronic sinusitis, most people are told by conventional MDs to “just live with it”; these individuals wind up taking round after round of antibiotics and even resort to surgery, frequently with only temporary relief. Wendy Cook was one of those people.

Maintaining a Healthy
Home Environment

All your anti-sinusitis efforts can go for naught if you don’t keep your indoor atmosphere as clean as possible. Ivker says, “A healthy home can provide an oasis in which to breath life-enhancing air.”

One threat comes from mold, a problem that has increased as homes become more airtight to save on energy costs, so check for plumbing leaks. And while keeping a lid on heating bills is important, so is bringing in fresh air through adequate ventilation. Air conditioning can help; make sure the ductwork is cleaned regularly. Extend that effort to your carpets, which can harbor allergens by the ton, by using a vacuum cleaner equipped with either a water-capture system or a high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter. HEPAs—which can snag pollen, bacteria, dust and more—are also available as freestanding air filtration systems, as are negative-ion generators (look for a well-designed unit that won’t put out excessive ions). Finally, don’t shun the simple houseplant; many species will absorb indoor pollutants while providing extra oxygen.

For 20 years, until May 2006, Cook suffered from chronic sinusitis. “In the beginning, my condition wasn’t too bad, and then it worsened to the point where I was getting a sinus infection every month,” says the 42-year-old homemaker and mother in Indian Hills, Colorado. “I was becoming resistant to every antibiotic and I’d already had two surgeries that didn’t work. I knew this wasn’t a healthy way to go, but I didn’t know any other options. It was so frustrating and depressing.”
Cook’s turning point came when her mother told her about Ivker, who himself had struggled with chronic sinusitis for ten years before he beat it through holistic means. “That gave me hope,” comments Cook, who “felt a noticeable difference” after ten days of following the program outlined in Ivker’s book. Over six weeks—and two visits with Ivker—most of her symptoms vanished. Those that remain she can easily treat.

Cold Beginnings

A sinus infection often starts with the sore throat and nasal congestion that marks a cold, generally during the “cold season” that stretches from October through March. The infection causes swelling and congestion in the lining of the nose, which decreases sinus ventilation and drainage. “When secretions can’t drain normally, the potential for infection is high,” explains Ivker. (Unlike the common cold, no research has proven sinus troubles to be contagious.) That foggy feeling which accompanies congestion is another sinusitis symptom, along with facial pain, headaches and fatigue (from a lack of sleep and a weakened immune system). Meanwhile, thick, foul-smelling, yellow-green mucus—a sign that bacterial infection has taken hold—may escape through the nose and into the back of the throat.

Sinus problems can take a few different forms. Ivker identifies three types of chronic sinusitis: the low-grade infection that never completely goes away, with periodic flare-ups; the infection that goes away with antibiotics, but then comes back several times during the cold season; and the chronic sinus inflammation with little or no infection. Frequent bouts of sinusitis further inflame your mucous membranes and weaken your immune system, which elevates risk for other respiratory problems like bronchitis or asthma.

Colds may be the most common trigger for sinusitis but there are other root causes as well. About half of those who suffer from chronic sinus woes surrender to the condition via their allergies—from either airborne irritants like pollen or various foods, such as wheat, dairy, chocolate, oranges or eggs.

Meanwhile, air pollutants (indoors and out) and smoke of any kind, especially when combined with dryness and/or extreme cold and heat, “can act as chronic irritants to sensitive nasal mucous membranes,” according to Ivker. “It’s like rubbing very fine sandpaper across the back of your hand 23,000 times a day—the average number of breaths you take. Your hand would never heal.” Dental infections and physical malformations that obstruct the sinus openings (including enlarged adenoids, polyps or cysts) are also risk factors.

So, apparently, is emotional stress. In Ivker’s 26 years of researching and treating sinusitis, he has found that “repressed anger, particularly, is the single most important determinant in whether someone develops chronic sinusitis. Most people who get it are high achievers and tend to be perfectionists. When they can’t reach the high standards they’ve set for themselves, they’re often angry, whether they’re aware of it or not.” Too much stress weakens your immune system, leaving your body even more sus­ceptible to any type of infection, including sinusitis.

And what about those antibiotics that doctors seem to dispense like candies? “They can make the situation worse,” continues Ivker. “Along with killing the bad bacteria, they kill off the good, contributing to an overgrowth of yeast in your system. A 1999 Mayo Clinic study reported that an allergic, immune system response to fungus, rather than bacterial infection, is the cause of most cases of chronic sinusitis.”

Sweet Relief

With Ivker’s help Cook discovered the reasons for her continued misery; “Now I understand that many attributes have led to my weak sinuses,” she says. That knowledge enabled her to discover effective treatments, from nutrition and herbs to nasal hygiene and exercise. The idea—for Cook and for you—is to get to the root causes of sinusitis while improving mucus drainage and alleviating other symptoms.

For starters, keep the air in your home as healthfully clean as you can. Some internal cleansing is a good idea, too. Ivker recommends using a saline nasal spray every two to three hours on a daily basis. A steam inhaler (or placing your head under a towel, over a sink of hot water) sends moisture into your nasal passages so the mucus can flow better. Follow this with nasal irrigation, and do both two to four times a day, every day. (Look for a netti pot, which is designed to gently wash out the nasal passages, at your health food store.) Ivker also recommends drinking lots of water, “one-half to two-thirds of an ounce for every pound of body weight.”

When it comes to diet, “eliminate, at least temporarily, the common sources of irritants and allergies, such as sugar, alcohol, dairy, wheat and any processed foods,” says Rose Paisley, ND, who practices at Nature Cures Clinic in Portland, Oregon. She also encourages a balanced, chemical-free diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes and protein. Augment your diet with such supplements as vitamin A, vitamin C, bioflavonoids, selenium and zinc. “They’ve been used clinically by physicians for years, and have been shown to be effective,” Paisley says.

Myriad medicinal herbs can help rid you of your sinusitis; among the ones Ivker recommends are echinacea, garlic and grapefruit seed extract. In addition, “eucalyptus oil and peppermint oil help with inflammation and increase blood flow,” he says. “Put them in a steamer, or dab them in a tissue and inhale them that way.”

Don’t underestimate the importance of a good night’s sleep—your sinuses are begging your body to get proper rest so you have the energy to repair cells damaged by infection. Exercise is also crucial, “to breathe and get air going through the sinuses,” says Neal Wieder, DC, chiropractor, acupuncturist and holistic practitioner in Sanford, Florida. (The Eastern exercise systems of yoga, t’ai chi and qi gong are good choices if you tend to become breathless.) “To determine whether there’s a deficiency or inappropriate amount of nerve supply coming from the cervical spine to the sinuses, see a chiropractor,” he suggests.

Sometimes you can do everything your practitioner says, but you still feel ill. That’s when you might need some additional assistance: “If sinusitis symptoms persist for more than ten days to two weeks without any improvement, in spite of aggressive and appropriate alternative treatment, see a medical doctor,” Ivker advises.

A regular MD is someone that Wendy Cook hasn’t visited, at least for sinusitis complaints, in over a year. No more antibiotics or allergy medications for her, either. “I can breathe easily again,” she says. “I even caught a cold from one of my kids and it never developed into a sinus infection.” To prevent sinusitis, she still watches her diet (eating dairy, sugar and wheat products in moderation) and depends on her supplements. Good nasal hygiene, ample sleep, stress reduction and allergy avoidance also help her keep sinusitis out of sight.

“These are things I’ll be doing for the rest of my life. Not only will they prevent me from getting sinusitis, but they’ll also continue to make me healthier,” says Cook. “It takes a lot of discipline—but it’s worth it.” Getting to the bottom of your sinus problems will be worth it for you, too.

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