*Updated: January 29th, 2016*
This article is dedicated to those funky, dry late-winter months, blending into Spring – a time when cold and flu season seems to be over, and yet you find yourself still blowing your nose, over and over.
You might be a bit unsure about whether you are dealing with allergies, or the last cold of the season to kick your butt.
In fact, at this very particular time right now during late Winter/early Spring, I’ve been seeing and hearing a lot about folks coming down with something: not quite a cold, but not quite something easy to ignore, either.
Think inflamed, stuffy sinuses, allergies, plugged ears, and the vestige of a cough, with some lingering respiratory issues as if they have just overcome a cold. Sometimes there are even swollen lymph nodes, tonsils, and throat symptoms thrown into the mix. Sound familiar?
I have found myself hesitant to just recommend the typical cold and flu herbs in these situations. Immunity is always important to focus on, and the tried-and-true bulls-eye of the practicing herbalist. But what about the best relief, on top of all that, and with the help of herbs used at home – sinus relief?
Neti Pots and Their Virtues
The past couple years, Neti pots have been my constant go-to when I’m in the midst of cold, flu, and allergy troubles. Especially when it takes a while for those immune-stimulating anti-cold herbs to kick in, or an herbal steam just won’t get into the sinuses fast enough – I open up my cupboard, and take my Neti pot off the shelf.
It gets rid of all of the gunk, and quickly. Once I realized I could combine herbs with Neti rinses, I have since chosen this method as a top one in my arsenal for colds and flu fighting.
What’s the low-down on using Neti pots? If you don’t know, Neti pots (also called “nasal lavage”) are little magical-looking genie bottle-type containers you fill with warm water and a bit of salt. You then hold back your head, put the spout in your nostril, breathe through your mouth, and let the water flow through your sinuses – through one nostril, and then out the other. Read more on the Mayo Clinic’s recommendations on how to use the Neti pot here.
Is using a Neti pot safe? Most doctors and health practitioners (including herbalists) dub Neti pots safe and effective, with a few guidelines (that I happen to agree with).
- Good first line of defense against cold symptoms and allergies
- Great for thick, chunky mucus
- Sporadic, non-regular use is best
- Use boiled, distilled, sterilized, and filtered water
- If using tap water, make sure it is filtered through hole sizes 1 micron or smaller, or boiled several minutes then cooled before use
- CLEAN your Neti pot regularly
Why all the concerns? Some studies have shown that regular use of Neti pots may actually increase the chances of sinus infections and bacterial growth. Think about it: adding yet more water to a part of the body that is warm, damp, and dark could end up being the fuel to the fodder that bacteria actually needs to get started.
It’s also apparent that Neti rinses may actually remove the beneficial microbes and the body’s natural immune, organism-fighting agents we need to fight infections and illnesses on our own.
That’s certainly not in the spirit of an herbalist or holistic practitioner, right? We want to be aiding the body’s battle, not hindering it.
As a result, I use Neti pots only in a real pinch – and no longer than about 2 weeks at a time in a daily series. I also make sure that both the water and Neti pot I use is completely sterilized, to avoid adding more bacteria to the fire than before I had even started.
My Experiences with Herbal Neti Pot Rinses
I started my use of the Neti pot with the standard salt rinse, as usual, with strong warm water.
Then one day, it hit me: the Neti rinse could easily use a bit of an herbal twist, particularly after I happened upon an herb shop’s Sinus Care tincture: formulated specifically for the Neti pot!
Since then, I can’t resist adding a supporting herb into the mix each time, depending on the type of sinus issue or cold I’m dealing with.
There are so many varieties of herbs and varieties of herbal actions that would suit a Neti rinse perfectly: vasodilating, bronchiodilating, anti-inflammatory, antiviral and antimicrobial. If you have dry sinuses, you can rinse with moistening herbs; goopy sinuses, and you can turn to more drawing and drying ones. Through my personal explorations with my Neti pot, I’ve found a delightful selection of herbs to include in my rinses – which I will be happily covering in this article.
How I Use My Neti Pot
*Dosage/Preparation: To each Neti Rinse you prepare, use warm (not hot!) water, and add roughly a teaspoon of salt.
- Neti solution should not be too salty – to taste, the water should be “as salty as your tears.”
- Avoid using tap water. Use filtered, reverse-osmosis, or pre-boiled then cooled water – or bottled and/or distilled water.
- To each solution, add about 10-20 drops tincture, or whatever you are comfortable.
If you aren’t comfortable with tinctures- or, if you don’t have a tincture of any these herbs handy- you can make a tea, decoction, infusion, or tisane of these herbs, but make sure that the plant matter is WELL STRAINED to avoid putting any thing foreign in your sinuses that shouldn’t be there, and could only make matters worse.
Choice Herbs For the Herbal Neti Pot
GINGER (Zingiber officinalis) – Warm and damp, this culinary root is prime for drier sinuses, with or without accompanying dull pressure – and those dealing with lingering viral infection.
Ginger is also one of an exclusive circle of helpful herbs that can stave off a good deal of viral activity, while modern medicine has yet to come up with anything synthetically antiviral to match. This makes Ginger great for colds or viral bugs, soothing what feels like inflammation and a lot of pressure – and, overall, quite a perfect addition to the Neti.
Surprisingly, while you might think Ginger could “burn,” the most potent of my Ginger tinctures haven’t caused a single discomfort (though I’m sure you would have to be careful with a decoction).
You can replace Ginger with native Wild Ginger if you’d prefer, though Wild Ginger is not reputedly anti-viral.
CHAMOMILE (Matricaria chamomilla) – Or, along the same lines, Feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium). Sinus headaches/pressure with either drip or dryness could call for either of these two white-flowered, dainty and aromatic herbs, especially if there is sneezing involved. They are both relatively easy to find in herb gardens and herbal sections of food stores.
Sinus allergies are a good target – whether runny or dry, these two plants are known to prevent histamine reaction in a unique way, and a rinse with these is quite gentle. Check out this research on both Feverfew and Chamomile, supporting their uses for allergies.
If you have sinus issues or allergies that often transform into migraines, these could be your buddies especially. A warning to those allergic to Ragweed pollen- avoid these herbs and anything in the Asteraceae family altogether. They will most likely make you feel much, much worse.
RAGWEED (Ambrosia artemisifolia/trifida) – Before you say “What? Why?!!?” Ragweed can be amazing for sinus allergy symptoms, particularly for those who are NOT allergic to its pollen.
Yet for those who are allergic to Ragweed, there is strong supporting research out there nonetheless, revealing that the antidote to the poison might be just a bit of the plant itself. To top it all off, the FDA did approve a drug that contained a bit of Ragweed itself in a pill for allergy relief symptoms due to Ragweed pollen itself in 2014.
Again- if you know you are allergic to Ragweed or other Asterids, it might be wiser to steer clear. For those who aren’t (including myself), a tincture or tea of in-season Ragweed blooms can provide amazing relief, particularly when you feel a histamine reaction going on. I experimented with some tincture last Summer for some dusty-stuff sinus problems, and wow- just, wow.
This is best aimed at allergy-related sinus issues specifically, and less so for cold or viral stuff. If you are the brave sort of Ragweed-allergic, I’ve been told that Ragweed leaf (NOT flower) can be alright and less harmful to Ragweed-sufferers…but that is not a recommendation or suggestion. Experiment at your own risk please.
GOLDENROD (Solidago canadensis + other species) – The dried blossoms of Goldenrod are similar to Chamomile or Feverfew in action, making it best suited to allergies once again – but more so the damp and drippy kind. For whatever magical reason too, this plant has a stronger affinity to pet allergies, and sinus flare-ups that might happen as a result.
Another great thing about it: it’s well-known support of Ragweed allergies in the empirical knowledge of herbalists. Growing right next to Ragweed in the Fall and blooming twice as “showily,” not many folks know that a well-worked herbal cure to Ragweed allergies might be growing just a couple feet away. What more – preliminary studies are showing that Goldenrod has some marked anti-inflammatory activity.
Goldenrod flowers have a sweet, astringent, and pleasant flavor that I love adding to herbal allergy blends of any sort. Out of all the possible Neti, sinus and allergy herbs altogether too, Goldenrod stands out as my very favorite- combine this one with Ginger if you’re having a viral cold with a fever, and it could help bring the fever down.
USNEA (Usnea spp.) – Along with Goldenrod, Usnea is one of my favorites for a sinus rinse. Its astringency and anti-microbial action are very highly desirable for the average sinus infection!
Best for damp and runny sinuses only, this lichen contains usnic acids that pack a punch against notorious bacteria including staph and strep (with studies to prove it). While fighting off infection, this plant will also aid in drawing and pulling out the nasty gunk you’re trying to forget, helping airways unclog and clear.
MULLEIN (Verbascum thapsus) – You can never do without Mullein. Whether raspy or goopy, this fuzzy, common plant can be of help – although I do think it stands out best in situations where the sinuses are much drier.
This plant is simple; and in being so, there really isn’t much else more to say about it. It’s a top pick among herbalists for such things having to do with colds, flu, and sinuses.
A tincture of the root may be effective, but a fresh, hot tea of the leaves or flowers (without having reached the boiling point) can help loosen stuff up when your stuffed up, too.
Allergies and colds can be relieved with Mullein as well – and some studies support not only that Mullein’s plant “mucilages” could be what truly relieves sinus inflammation, but also that there are compounds in the plant that have been seen killing viruses on contact.
PLANTAIN (Plantago major) – Like Mullein or Ginger, I like to put Plantain in practically all of my Neti rinses as a feature role of the blend.
This is because Plantain leaf does something special that the remainder of these herbs don’t do as well: Plantain is a “drawing” agent in herbalists’ experience, which can help pull foreign objects out of the sinus while helping neutralize the amount of irritation or goop you have going on.
So if you simply feel like you’ve got “stuff”- any kind of stuff- lodged in your sinuses, Plantain is your go-to remedy. Beyond allergies, colds or normal sinus issues, you could turn to this herb for the weirder stuff: inhaling a bug, food, or something else accidental. Plantain can help you pull that out.
The other great thing about Plantain? You can use it for both wet and dry sinuses. Plantain is both mucilaginous and astringent: it will help draw up and pull out any excess mucus, but at the same time soothe, moisturize, and tonify the soft tissues of the nasal cavities.
Studies are also beginning to support this plant’s use for inflammation, too – even showing that it could have protective capabilities against certain bacteria perilous to the nose and throat, such as strep bacteria and others included!
This article is not meant to diagnose, prescribe, promise, or suggest cure. It’s purpose and intent is to be purely educational.