Having the common cold or flu is miserable, but developing sinusitis on top of it makes matters even worse. Sinusitis, also known as rhinosinusitis in medical terms, happens when the lining of the sinus cavities become inflamed. This can result in blockage of the nasal passages, leading to a full-blown cold that feels like the worst one you've ever had.
Sinusitis is usually diagnosed when you have nasal blockage, persistent nasal discharge, and/or feel pain and pressure in your face. If you don't seek medical attention, the build-up of secretions can lead to bacteria, virus or fungus infection – not fun!
Sinusitis is categorised as acute when lasting for four weeks or fewer, subacute when lasting four to eight weeks, or chronic when lasting for 12 weeks or more (1).
For those who suffer from recurrent sinusitis, you may want to reassess your nutrition and diet as your choices can prevent and/or alleviate the uncomfortable symptoms. Foods can't guarantee that you will get rid of the issue, but they can reduce the risk of developing it or help symptoms be less severe.
How to prevent sinusitis
The ideal situation is to prevent acute or chronic sinusitis from developing in the first place. Since it often follows the common cold or flu or is stemmed from inflammation, a strong immune system is essential for prevention. A well-balanced diet rich in a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables, limiting highly processed foods, and drinking enough water to stay hydrated will help keep the immune system functioning at its best. Sleep is not diet-related, but it's so essential to proper immune function too, so make sure you're getting enough sleep for your body.
Click here if you need some more helpful tips on how to combat insomnia.
What to avoid when you have sinusitis
Reducing inflammation is one of the essential tools when fighting sinusitis. For some people, foods can trigger inflammation if the body has an allergy, intolerance or sensitivity which can lead to making the symptoms worse (2). Many people have a mild allergy or intolerance to a certain food and usually ignore it and just deal. Actually, if you know you have a food sensitivity and eat the food anyway, you'll probably just give the sinusitis more of a reason to stick around. It may be helpful to avoid that particular food entirely – keeping a food diary can be useful to see if it helps your symptoms.
Natural ways to get rid of a sinus infection
1. Be on top of your vitamin D levels
• Get some blood work done
There are a few important home remedies for sinus congestion, but Vitamin D has drawn a lot of attention with respect to how important it is (3). It's not a surprise then that inadequate amounts of vitamin D is possibly linked to sinusitis, not to mention beneficial for bone health, immune function, protection from cancer and more.
While a direct cause-and-effect link has not yet been found, Khalid et al. found an interesting correlation that people with less than 20 ng/ml of 25-hydroxyvitamin D (the form of vitamin D in the blood), had a 33% higher risk of developing acute rhinosinusitis, compared to people with more than 20 ng/ml of 25-hydroxyvitamin D in their bodies (4). The researchers propose this might be because vitamin D has an anti-inflammatory function as well as aiding the proper immune functions of the body.
Many people take a multivitamin every day, and that's fine. However when you add on vitamin D3 every day, like many do in grey cities like London, over supplementing can be harmful. You don't need to take a supplement if you don't have a vitamin D deficiency. The thing is that many people who are low in vitamin D don't even know it. If you haven't had your blood vitamin D levels checked in a while or at all, it's a good idea to have a doctor or nurse take a sample to check. Then you can take action only if your levels are low.
• Get some sun
The body can absorb UVB rays from sunlight to make its own vitamin D, but it only makes as much as it needs. The body is also fairly efficient in producing it. Most people only need 5 to 30 minutes of sun exposure during peak hours. For those who avoid too much sun exposure or live in areas that don't naturally get enough sunlight, a few food sources can help.
• Eat foods with vitamin D
Many foods are now fortified with added vitamin D, such as cow’s milk, breakfast cereals, and orange juice. Fatty fishes like cod, salmon, mackerel, tuna, sardines, as well as egg yolks and mushrooms are good sources of vitamin D to include in your diet.
2. Eat an anti-inflammatory diet
• Antioxidant-rich foods
Antioxidant-rich foods can play a big role in reducing inflammation in the body, as discussed in a review by Nayan et al (5). The Mediterranean Diet which is high in freshly prepared plant foods and olive oil, low in red meat, and moderate in alcohol, eggs, poultry, and dairy foods, has been shown to have high levels of antioxidants. These promote anti-inflammatory properties beneficial for reducing the risk of many chronic diseases.
Click here to learn more about the Mediterranean Diet and how you can adapt to it.
• Omega-3 fatty acids
Fatty acids have also been shown to promote anti-inflammatory functions in the body. However, the typical Western diet tends to be relatively low in omega-3 fatty acids. Both omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids are required by the human body and must be obtained from food. However, we tend to eat far more foods abundant in omega-6 fatty acids since they are found in soy, corn and sunflower oils – often used in processed and convenience foods. To get enough omega-3 fatty acids, choose a diet that favors both fatty fishes like salmon, albacore tuna and mackerel, and plant oils from walnuts, flaxseed, and canola (5).
3. Know your probiotics and prebiotics
Nayan et al. also discuss the important role of the gut microbiome in alleviating sinusitis. 'Gut microbiome' refers to the types of and amounts of various bacteria in the intestines, which are beneficial for digestion, maintaining the immune system, and reducing inflammation. The balance of these beneficial bacteria can be affected by the types of food we eat. Growing research suggests that gut health is optimized by higher intake of fresh fruits and vegetables with low-to-moderate intake of sugars and animal proteins and fats.
Eating probiotic foods, or fermented foods containing beneficial live bacteria, like yoghurt, some cheeses, kombucha, tempeh, sauerkraut, kimchi, pickles, kefir and miso can help reintroduce the bacterial strains that are scarce in the gut.
However, it's eating prebiotic foods, or fruits and vegetables that contain lots of non-digestible fiber and fermentable carbohydrates, that help sustain the presence of the good bacteria. Prebiotic foods include garlic, onion, oats and other whole grains, avocado, soybeans, asparagus, bananas, apples, flaxseeds, broccoli, cauliflower, kale, radish, and seaweed.
You might notice something in common about the food recommendations here to prevent or alleviate the symptoms of sinusitis – whole, minimally processed foods with lots of fruits and vegetables are beneficial for the immune system and can fight inflammation. Highly processed foods and high intakes of red meat and animal fats can potentially dampen the immune system and promote chronic inflammation. Bear in mind that other animal proteins like eggs, poultry, and dairy should be consumed in moderation when you're fighting sinusitis.
The best thing for a sinus infection is knowing that the human body is resilient and can usually fight for itself... but it does this best when it's at its healthiest. Remember, food is medicine, so feed your body nourishing, fresh foods as often as possible, and it will have the best opportunity to function the way that it's supposed to!
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1. Meltzer EO, Hamilos DL. Rhinosinusitis diagnosis and management for the clinician: a synopsis of recent consensus guidelines. Mayo Clin Proc. 2011 May;86(5):427-43.
2. Helms S, Miller A. Natural treatment of chronic rhinosinusitis. Altern Med Rev. 2006 Sep;11(3):196-207.
3. Lappe JM. The Role of Vitamin D in Human Health: A Paradigm Shift. J Evid Based Complementary Altern Med. 2011 Jan;16(1):58-72.
4. Khalid AN, Ladha KS, Luong AU, Quraishi SA. Association of Vitamin D Status and Acute Rhinosinusitis: Results From the United States National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey 2001-2006. Medicine (Baltimore). 2015 Oct;94(40):e1447.
5. Nayan S, Maby A, Endam LM, Desrosiers M. Dietary modifications for refractory chronic rhinosinusitis? Manipulating diet for the modulation of inflammation. Am J Rhinol Allergy. 2015 Nov-Dec;29(6):e170-4.