Manataka® American Indian Council








Medicine for the People

By Jim McDonald,




Surviving Sinusitis -

Sinus Infections

(and other catarrhal catastrophes)


I've had the opportunity, over the years, to play around with a number of different plants in addressing sinus troubles of all sorts, and will here offer what I've learnt, which, hopefully, will help out some troubled soul.


Fortunately, it hasn't been me who's had lingering sinus problems.  I think I've had sinus colds only three or four times, and they were completely dreadful experiences which taught me lots about how lousy chronic suffering must be.  Gratefully, though, I have a guinea pig at home whose been willing to let me try this and that on her, and share the results for me to share with you (someday, she plans to write a book called "my life as a guinea pig; tales of an herbalist's wife"... certain to be a best seller, eh?)Several other friends, students, clients and passersby have likewise aided my understanding.


Anyways, back to the sinuses...


First, before jumping right into "take this or take that", let's acknowledge that sinus problems come in various guises, and so too should herbal treatment.  Most often, I've come across three variations of sinus troubles:  Leaky, stuffy and dry.  Different types of herbs are used in each case, and this is quite important to know.  Too many people play name association games with herbs: the kind where they simply associate a problem and the name of the herb that was written next to it in a book.  But trust me, you don't want to go giving drying herbs like Goldenseal to someone with dry sinuses, even though it's supposed to be "good for sinus problems".  It is good for sinus problems, but not that kind.


It’s also useful to recognize whether sinus troubles are chronic (all the time), episodic (they come and go and come and go and...) or acute (you got an inhalation full of some irritating substance and the irritation is the direct result of that).  Chronic problems require a dedicated, consistent, long term commitment to a herbal regimen, as well as making whatever lifestyle changes are called for.  Obviously, the issues that might require attention are myriad, and it’s not really feasible for me to try to list all the possibilities.  But it is safe to say pay attention to your diet, how much rest and relaxation you're getting and minimizing stress levels.  You may know or be told that dairy and wheat are especially bad for sinus sufferers, because they promote mucous production.  This is true, but I think mostly applies to the “plugged up stuffy” variety of sinusitis.  I know people who've successfully recovered from chronic sinus problems without totally eliminating wheat and diary, but they have been smart and steadfast enough to drastically reduce or eliminate it when their sinus troubles have flared up.  The "comes and goes" variety also indicates the need for focused attention, as it suggests the problem is coming and going as your body's resistance is ebbing and flowing.  Acute conditions, more often than not, can be treated acutely as well.  Take you herbs till it gets better, and then go on your merry way.


Leaky Drippy...

The sinuses are leaky, dripping freely down the nose or the back of the throat.  Maybe there's a cough or sore throat from this drainage.  The eyes might be watery and red, there might be sneezing, and there's definitely lots of sniffling.  Hay fever is a good example, though this problem can arise from other causes.  Hay fever does offer, though, a good example to look at what's often going on with this condition...


Ragweed pollen is miniscule, copious (there's lots) and windborn.  The pollen itself looks like a mace - not the pretty red stuff surrounding nutmeg but those heavy metal balls with the spikes on them that you might associate with ogres (or perhaps certain government officials).  So when ragweed is blooming, pollination occurs not through pretty insects like butterflies and bumblebees, but by blowing from one plant to another.  Inhaling this airborne Ragweed pollen is like inhaling powdered fiberglass… what, of course, does the body do when this happens?  It does what makes sense: tries to get the stuff out of the system.  And how?  By causing the eyes to water, the nose to run, sneezing... all methods to get irritating particles out of the sinuses.  So we see that "hay fever" isn't an illness, it's a sensible response by the body to the problem at hand.


Sometimes, though, the body over-reacts; it goes into the full blown allergic response when it might not be called for at all.  Here's a good example of this: Think back to an occasion when you might have had too much, let's say... Southern Comfort at a party.  The next day you get very, very, very sick.  Some time after recovering, you find yourself at another party, and someone has some Southern Comfort, but while you don't drink any, just the smell of it - just knowing it’s there next to you makes your stomach churn... your body is over-reacting in a way that it hopes will let you know: "Not that stuff again!"


Same thing can happen with allergies.  You're exposed to a house with 138 cats, and tufts of cat hair floating around like pixies, and all the sudden you can't be in a room with one cat, which doesn't make sense cause you grew up with two who you liked very much and whose presence certainly never bothered you.  What's happening is that you've become sensitized to the ________________ (fill in appropriate allergen here).    


Of course, this problem might be due to a perfectly legitimate reaction to an ever-present irritant.  There are molds growing happily in old ductwork who are unwittingly spreading their spores throughout households every time the furnace kicks on.  I know a carpenter whose sinus problems are undoubtedly the result of his intimate & ongoing relationship with sawdust.  Or perhaps the offending irritant has injured the tissues, and so they no longer possess the strength to "close back up and reel in the secretions."


The leaky nature of this complaint calls for astringents.  Astringents tighten and restore tone to tissues, and in doing so lessen secretion. As I think it’s important to fully understand herbal properties, I might suggest you suck on or chew a green banana peel, which will provide you with a lifelong, clear as day understanding of astringency (you just can't beat physically feeling it).  There are certain astringents that seem to have a particular affinity for the upper respiratory tract and sinuses.  The ones I use most for this are Goldenrod, Ox Eye Daisy and Ragweed (yes, Ragweed... if that's too much for you to handle, just call it Ambrosia and it'll be OK).  All are quite prolific, and a sufficient quantity for personal use can be easily gathered without too much effort.  A tea or tincture (I like tincture better than tea here) can be made from any of these flowering plants, and taken as needed.  Or, in a pinch, you can simply grab some leaves, give them a few cursory chews, and put them in your cheek to suck on.  Plantain, too, is a plant that adds a nice influence here; try adding some to your tincture, tea, or chew. 


I've seen incredible results obtained by making a saline tea (add 1/4 teaspoon salt per 8 ounces of tea) of these plants, with a little bit of Plantain leaf, and using this in a nasal spray bottle or neti pot to irrigate the sinuses.  "Wow!" one person said.  Be sure to rinse and refill a nasal spray bottle everyday or so... you don't want to go spraying spoiled tea up your nose if you're sick.


It's important to understand, as well, that using astringents should be done consciously, with the intention of restoring tone and function to weakened mucous membranes, and not just taken to stop your damn nose from running.  This is to say that you should not be trying to suppress the bodies response, but to support healing.  This is why I like adding Plantain to these formulas; just as it is a remarkable healing agent for the skin, it is also one for the mucosa.


Plugged Up Stuffy...

This manifestation of upper respiratory woe is characterized by lots of congestion & mucous, but it's not leaking or dripping, it's stuck.  The mucous seems to have filled up the sinuses, the eyes are usually sore, the head hurts, there's a tired feeling emanating from the sinuses and the person wants to lie down in a quiet dark room away from stimulation and (hopefully) fall asleep and wake up feeling better.  Lots of chronic sinusitis is of this sort, and while this condition may manifest after an initial infection, it rarely is associated with the onset of an acute conditions.


I've tried lots of different herbs for this, and in different combinations.  Finally though, after reading about "Amnemopsis californica" (Yerba Mansa) while perusing Michael Moore's Herbal Tinctures in Clinical Practice, I said, "Wow, this seems intriguing..."  Since then, I've been using it quite a lot and quite successfully for stuffy sinus congestion... not only because it works so good, but because when I give it to somebody they rarely want to use anything else afterward. 


Small doses of the tincture, say from 3-15 drops, should be taken as needed, but long term and consistently.  Yerba Mansa acts both as an astringent and stimulates circulation into the sinuses, and seems to have some underlying tonic action that helps not only ease the symptoms of stuffy sinus congestion, but can resolve the process that causes it.  When I've seen people use this herb daily, on a long term basis, the severity and duration of sinus headaches, congestion and infections lessen and can altogether cease.  As the symptoms ease, the person can taper down the dosage and frequency of use, and may eventually be able to use the herb only when/if they need to.


As an adjunct to internal use, Yerba Mansa Nasal Spray can also be of special value: combine 5-30 drops Yerba Mansa tincture with a teaspoon of glycerine and enough water to make two ounces, then use this to fill a nasal spray bottle.  I got this recipe from an old issue of Ellingwood's Therapeutist I printed out from Michael Moore's site.  Paul Bergner makes a similar blend, but adds 15 drops Goldenseal to 15 drops Yerba Mansa.


Goldenseal (organic, please), in and of itself is another remedy worth considering.  Though the two plants are entirely unrelated, their usage is exceedingly similar, with the primary difference being that while Yerba Mansa is warming in nature, Goldenseal is cooling.  Small doses of the tincture should be used; 5-15 drops, 2-3 times a day.  Larger doses do not work better; quite the contrary they're likely to cause aggravation.


Garlic, possibly with the addition of Cayenne, is favored by some (the name “Dr. Christopher” comes to mind, even though Samuel Thompson should really get the credit…)… certainly they’re easier to obtain than Yerba Mansa.  But, to be completely honest, I haven’t used it for anyone, and it’d be much more appropriate to direct you to Paul Bergner’s book “The Healing Power of Garlic”… that’s certainly worth having whether you’ve got sinus problems or not…


Stuffy congestion can also be addressed via certain aromatic herbs.  One of the absolute best means of relieving such congestion is a steam inhalation of Sage tea.  Simply throw a handful of Sage (Salvia) into a pot of water, cover, and bring to a boil.  Remove the pot from the stove, set it on a table or counter, and lean over it with a towel draped over your head.  Carefully remove the lid (because it’s obviously hot) and inhale the rising steam.  This helps open stuffed up respiratory passages better than anything else I know. 


Other aromatic herbs that can be used to help disperse stuffy congestion include Angelica, New England Aster (which can also be used as a steam inhalation), and chewing certain varieties of Sweet Flag (Acorus calamus).


Be aware, though, that while such aromatic plants will help dispel congestion, they don't seem to have the long term tonic effect of Yerba Mansa or Goldenseal on the sinus tissues.  Nothing else I've come across seems to possess their restorative virtues.



The mucous is dried out, kinda like rubber cement on the sinus tissues.  Usually not as many overtly distressing symptoms, but lots of nose picking with this one...

I think a real good thing to do here is to make up a tea of, let's say.... Plantain and a teeny pinch of Marshmallow or Slippery Elm.  Strain this well, and then add 1/4 teaspoon of salt per 8 ounces of tea to make a saline solution.  You can use this to fill up a nasal spray bottle, and use as needed to alleviate the dryness of the sinus tissues.  If the dryness is really intense in the nostrils (this happens in the winter sometimes from the constant exposure to furnace heat), dip a cotton ball in and then stick this up your nose (please, not so far that you won't be able to get it out...) for awhile.  It'll do a lot to moisten the tissues and ease the inflammation.  If there's bleeding from the dryness, it probably wouldn't hurt to add a bit of Comfrey to the tea to speed healing of the tissues.


In Ayurvedic medicine, there is a practice known as Nasya, which basically refers to the nasal administration of medicines.  There are many forms of this, but one involves the use of oils or ghee (clarified butter), and this can be very beneficial for chronically dry sinuses.


Chronic Sinusitis...

People can have chronic sinus problems without having an active infection; in some cases, irritants play a predominant role (as in the case of my friend the carpenter).  But most people suffering from chronic sinusitis are likely to have a concurrent bacterial and fungal infection.  The fungal aspect makes this more or less untreatable with the use of antibiotics, which is why there is so little success with conventional treatment. 


Usually, chronic sinusitis manifests as the damp, plugged up stuffy variety described above.  And, interestingly, the best herbs for addressing this (Yerba Mansa, Goldenseal and Garlic), in addition to acting as restorative tonics to the mucous membranes, are broad spectrum antimicrobials, killing not only bacteria, but fungus as well.  It is important to be clear here; particularly in regards to Goldenseal: 


Goldenseal is a mucous membrane tonic, and specifically addresses  congested secretions  of the mucous membranes of the sinuses.  Its underlying effect is one of drying, and therefore it should not be used when the sinuses are dry, or at the early onset of a cold when you don't want to inhibit the immune function of good, fresh mucous.  A good way to know when to use Goldenseal is this:  If you blow your nose, and the mucous is yellow, green, brown or some combination thereof.  This indication falls nicely into the doctrine of signatures; the mucous is the same color as the goldenseal.  But, this color of mucous also is indicative of heat and infection.  As Goldenseal is cooling and antimicrobial, it makes an excellent match for such a condition.


It is well known nowadays that Goldenseal contains a compound called berberine, which is touted as an "herbal antibiotic".  This is really somewhat misleading.  While berberine - and Goldenseal - certainly do kill bacteria, this action is not analogous to the use of synthetic antibiotics: Goldenseal's "antibiotic" properties do not travel through the bloodstream, killing invading bacteria.  Rather, they have are "contact" antibacterials; they kill bacteria that the Goldenseal directly comes into contact with as it passes through the body.  This limits its true "antibiotic" effect to the mouth & digestive tract; the organs and systems that metabolize and eliminate it, or to direct applications to other tissues (such as an eyewash or nasal spray).  So why can its internal use resolve sinus infections?  Well, I've already told you: It’s a mucous membrane tonic.  The infection is resolved via restoring the proper conditions of the sinuses.  This process can be potentiated by using goldenseal in a nasal spray or neti pot concurrently with internal use; particularly because the fungal element of the infection is best treated externally (the inside of your nose is external to your interior).


Not all chronic sinusitis, though, shows heat signs (yellow/green/brown mucous); sometime there is just an endless supply of thick, thick white mucous.  This shows sign of cold, and indicate the use of Yerba Mansa.  Again, as in the use of Goldenseal, concurrent internal and external use will yield the best results.


Garlic is also useful here, especially as it is one of the only ones whose antimicrobial properties will be secreted by the mucous membranes themselves, effectively attacking the bacterial and fungal infection from underneath.  The problem with garlic is that it is much hotter than Yerba Mansa, and so more likely to cause aggravations.  Few people will be excited about making a garlic nasal spray, and among those few, many of their friends (and particularly partners or spouses) will likely serve as deterrents to compliance.  Beyond that, Garlic is hot enough to potentially injure membranes; so any topical application would need to be used in adequate dilution.  Sorry I can't offer a recipe for a garlic rinse; the Yerba Mansa spray is my mainstay here.


A plant I've not used yet, but expect would prove valuable, especially in regards to its antifungal nature, would be Wild Bergamot.  I think Matthew Wood has used it in such conditions, and perhaps I can get him to elaborate with me and share that here...


About Neti Pots...

A neti pot is a (usually) ceramic "Aladdin’s lamp" type thing, with an open top and a pouring spout.  You use it by filling it with a saline solution (1/4 teaspoon salt per cup of water), leaning your head sideways over the sink and pouring the saline into one nostril, through the sinuses, and out the other.  Though this may feel initially uncomfortable, one quickly adapts to the experience, and the long term benefits certainly outweigh any perceived “weirdness” in doing this.


Simply stated: The daily use of a neti pot will have a tremendously beneficial action on sinus woes.  I cannot suggest strongly enough that if you suffer from chronic sinus irritation, a using a neti pot will help you resolve the problem faster than not using one.  As mentioned above, herbal teas, made saline by adding 1/4 teaspoon salt to 8 ounces of tea, can be used instead of plain old saline.  Or, a few drops of herbal tincture may help.


So... that's as much as I have to offer here, and if I can offer one parting thought (well... certainly I can... it's my website, who's gonna stop me?) it's this:


Be consistent, keep at it, follow through, and hang in there for the long haul.  If you've had sinus problems for a while, they're not going to disappear overnight.  But they can be resolved; just stick with it, and be sure to thank the plants you're using.


© 2000-2009 jim mcdonald