Written by Nutritional Therapist Kate Fisk DipCNM, mBANT, mANP, rCNHC
Although having a blocked nose isn't the worst thing in the world, it can make us feel pretty lousy. Struggling to breathe properly can affect the quality of our sleep, and a bunged-up nose often comes with other symptoms, such as a headache or face pain.
The sinuses (there are eight in total) surrounding our nose are air-filled pockets within the bones of the skull. They're lined with the same mucus-producing membrane found throughout our respiratory system. Connected to our nose, they provide the first line of defence in protecting the lungs. Every time we take a breath, we are potentially inhaling harmful invisible particles such as allergens or bacteria. The mucus produced in these sinuses acts as a kind of filter. It traps these particles, causing them to flow to the back of the throat, where they're swallowed and subsequently destroyed by the acid in our stomach. In a belt and braces approach, this mucus also contains antibodies and other immune-supporting substances, which can stop potentially infectious bacteria in their track. Not only that, but the mucus also prevents our airways from drying out and warms the air when we inhale.
When we have a cold or are suffering from allergies, it can feel like our nose and sinuses are blocked or bunged up with mucus. But in fact, the blood vessels and the lining of the nose and sinuses are swelling up. This inflammation increases the blood flow to these areas, allowing for speedier delivery of white blood cells. White blood cells are the next line of defence against any potential threats we may have inhaled. This process makes us feel congested, and the build-up of pressure can be painful. At the same time, our mucus can become more watery. This makes our nose run, which helps remove any of those potentially harmful microbes from our body as quickly as possible.
The most common causes for a short-lived blocked nose include:
Infections, such as the common cold. These can sometimes develop into sinusitis which may take two or three weeks to clear up and may be accompanied by worsening pain and a temperature.
Air travel. The air-conditioning on planes is notorious for drying out the mucus membranes, causing inflammation.
More persistent or recurrent cases, root causes could include:
Polyps. These benign growths can develop inside the nasal cavity and the sinuses. Although they're not life-threatening, they can increase the feeling of being congested and stop mucus from flowing freely, increasing the risk of infection. If you're worried you may have polyps, talk to a GP.
Injury can cause a change to the physical structure of the nasal cavity, making it feel congested.
Exposure to pollution, environmental allergies, or chemical irritants. This can include mould within the home, exposure to which is often accompanied by other symptoms such as fatigue, brain fog and headaches. Other environmental triggers include pollen, pet hair, cigarette smoke and dust mites.
Food sensitivities. When I see a client in my clinic with persistent sinus problems, my first line of investigation will often be establishing whether they're suffering from food sensitivities. A constantly stuffy nose indicates the immune system is overactive, and I would try an elimination diet to see if that alleviates symptoms. The most common culprits include wheat, gluten and dairy. However, it can be down to less obvious foods such as corn, soy, and histamine-rich foods such as fermented foods, alcohol, and processed meats. Other symptoms accompanying food sensitivities often include headaches, joint aches, skin issues, and digestive issues such as bloating.
So what can we do to alleviate a blocked nose?
The warmth and moisture of steam inhalation encourages mucus to flow freely through the sinuses. Try adding a few drops of an antibacterial essential oil such as peppermint, eucalyptus or rosemary to a bowl of steaming water. Place a towel over your head and inhale as deeply as possible for 5 minutes, repeating a few times a day. A hot shower can also be effective for the same reasons.
Sip on some ginger tea. Ginger contains some unique anti-inflammatory compounds that can help reduce inflamed airways. Ginger also has antimicrobial properties, so it'll help keep infections at bay. Adding a squeeze of lemon and half a teaspoon of raw honey will provide vitamin C and antioxidants to further support your immune health.
Make sure you've drunk enough water. Being dehydrated contributes to mucus becoming thicker, adding to the sensation of being congested. If drinking cold water isn't appealing, sip on herbal teas and hot soups instead. Warm drinks can help clear the sinuses and moisten the mucus membranes.
A warm compress can help relieve the inflammation in your airways. Soak a flannel in hot water, wring thoroughly and then, with your head tipped back, place it on the bridge of your nose. Sprinkling a couple of drops of peppermint or eucalyptus essential oil can help relieve stuffiness.
Eating hot spicy foods can provide instant relief from a blocked nose. Try making a curry using lots of chillies, ginger, mustard and garlic.
Pineapple contains bromelain, which helps break down and expel mucus. Try whizzing some up with some coconut milk, ginger and turmeric to make an anti-inflammatory smoothie.
A blocked nose often feels worse at night, as the mucus can drain back into our sinuses. To help keep your airways open, try sprinkling a few drops of peppermint oil on a tissue which you can put inside your pillowcase. Olbas Oil, a blend of several essential oils, also works well.
Life would be miserable without it, but central heating can dry the air in our homes and offices, contributing to sinus issues. You could invest in a humidifier, or a cheaper alternative is to place a few small bowls of water around the house on top of radiators or on windowsills in direct sunlight. House plants also increase humidity.
Avoid foods which contribute to inflammation. These include processed foods and anything containing sugar. Instead, go for whole foods, including lots of immune-supporting fresh vegetables and fruit.
And when your nose is blocked, try not to blow it too hard as this can cause further irritation to the lining. Instead, blow each nostril very gently, one at a time.
If you've been suffering from a stuffy nose for a while, you might consider talking to a nutritional therapist who can help you rule out sensitivities to certain foods and other allergies.