Best and Worst Foods for Your Sinuses

Eat well to breathe well.
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The good, the bad, and the cloggy

Before you ever had your first bout with clogged sinuses, you probably didn’t give much consideration to what sinuses are. Like many hidden parts of the body, these narrow air paths in the bones of the face don’t get a second thought until something goes wrong. But 37 million people every year start to wonder once an episode of sinusitis—the inflammation or infection of sinus passages—leaves their head feeling swollen, tender and under intense pressure. The foods we eat, surprisingly, can have a significant impact on the condition.
Everyone’s body responds differently, but we can establish a few sweeping connections between food and clogged sinuses. Foods that elicit an allergic responses, those that stimulate mucus production, and dehydrating drinks are just a few of the common culprits.
Read on to discover some healthy choices that'll help you breathe easier. 
1 of 11 Woman squeezing bridge of nose (© Dave & Les Jacobs/Getty Images)o/Corbis)

Milk and other dairy foods

Dairy should be avoided when combating sinusitis since it’s associated with sinus-blocking phlegm. In the narrow passages of the sinuses, phlegm (thick and viscous mucus) can impair drainage and even cause the tiny airways to close down and back up, creating an ideal environment for the proliferation of bacteria. Whether milk and other dairy products actually cause increased phlegm production or just thicken existing phlegm has been debated. However, when it comes to sinuses, the result is the same: The presence of phlegm worsens a sinus condition.
2 of 11 Dairy foods (© Jeffrey Coolidge/Getty Images)

Horseradish and hot sauce

If you have any doubt about the connection between the mouth and the sinuses, recall what it’s like to be taken unaware by a chicken wing soaked in an alarmingly hot sauce or a smear of wasabi hiding in a sushi roll. The spice and acid in these foods can momentarily break up and release mucus in the nasal membranes, leaving you with a running nose and the sensation of cleared sinuses. But don’t start whaling down the horseradish and hot mustards just yet. As explained on the next slide, there’s a catch.
3 of 11 Fresh wasabi on a grater (© Kevin Black/Getty Images)

Spicy foods

Foods that trigger heartburn or acid reflux—spicy ingredients being among the most common culprits—can also trigger an episode of sinusitis. “When stomach acids and partially digested foods come back up the throat, there is some evidence that this can cause issues with the ears, nose and throat, including sinusitis,” says Dr. Joshua Makower, who was instrumental in pioneering a treatment for chronic sinusitis. “Certainly a lot of factors can cause sinusitis, but it is important to rule out the possibility that foods may be playing a role before considering drugs or surgery. The mechanism isn’t completely clear, but a likely theory is that the regurgitation of … stomach acid causes irritation and inflammation in the nasopharyngeal region, where the pharynx connects to the nasal cavity. The inflammation eventually causes the drainage pathways to become swollen and blocked, and that’s sinusitis.”
4 of 11 Red Thai chilies (© Foodcollection RF/Getty Images)

Late-night meals

Sufferers of GERD know that the condition is influenced as much by when they eat as what they eat. If you have sinus issues and are in the habit eating within an hour before bedtime, reflux may explain the link between the two. As Makower explains: “The nasal cavity is interconnected with the digestive system. We don’t typically think of it that way, but there’s no dividing line, just a smooth transition from the nose to your stomach. So when you’re horizontal and get a little bit of reflux from the stomach, it doesn’t just stay right around your tonsil area. Some runs forward into your mouth, resulting in that sour taste—and some runs up into the nasal cavity. That mixture of acid and partially digested food gets up into your nasal cavity and can be inflammatory. The whole connection between reflux and sinusitis is that these substances can cause inflammation.”
5 of 11 Woman snacking at night (© William King/Getty Images)

Alcohol

As anyone who’s suffered through a hangover can tell you, alcohol dehydrates the body. Even the casual consumption of one or two drinks can contribute to the hardening of mucus and the swelling of membranes lining the nose and sinuses. Alcohol is also dehydrating by virtue of being a diuretic; since it promotes urination, alcohol causes the body to lose more of the fluids needed to break down mucus and keep it flowing. Furthermore, drinking is a common trigger of acid reflux, so it can contribute to the irritation and inflammation of sinuses.
6 of 11 Flutes of champagne (© Plush Studios/Getty Images)

Tea and other hot drinks

One effective home treatment for relieving pressure and draining mucus is to steam your sinus cavities in a hot shower or breathe in the steam rising from a bowl of hot water (a towel draped over your head will help trap the steam). A hot cup of tea, similarly, can serve the function of a mini sauna right under your nose. The steam and warm fluids in your nose and mouth and at the back of your throat help loosen hardened mucus like butter warmed in a frying pan. Be sure to use caffeine-free teas, and avoid flavors that give you heartburn, as a strong lemon-flavored tea might.
7 of 11 Woman with a cup of hot tea (© Rachel Weill/Getty Images)

Caffeinated drinks

It can be tempting to substitute coffee for a salubrious cup of tea, especially when stuffed sinuses leave you feeling worn down and groggy. But caffeine, like alcohol, is a diuretic and contributes to the dehydration of nasal membrane. Coffee is also acidic and a commonly identified cause of heartburn. Sodas should be avoided as well, not only because many contain caffeine but because effervescent drinks introduce more gas into the system, and intestinal gas can lead to reflux.
8 of 11 Cola in glass (© Martin Poole/Getty Images)

Water

The body craves water, and there are few conditions not bettered by drinking an ample amount. When it comes to remedies for sinusitis, drinking plenty of water is usually top among the recommendations, because it helps dilute secretions, loosen hardened mucus and promote drainage. Juice is also commonly recommended, though sweetened juices should be avoided since sugar and additives can promote the thickening of mucus.
9 of 11 Close up of man drinking glass of water (©Jose Luis Pelaez, Inc/Blend Images/Getty Images)