By Dr. Mercola
Nasal congestion is usually caused by infection or allergy, and is one of the most frequent medical complaints in the United States.
A common belief is that nasal congestion or "stuffy nose" is due to a buildup of mucus.
However, congestion is more often due to swelling of the nasal tissues, caused by inflamed blood vessels.
All in all, nasal congestion can be related to a number of ailments, including:
- Common cold/flu (bacteria or virus)
- Sinus infection (bacteria, virus, mold or fungus)
- Hay fever or other allergies
- Nasal polyps
- Vasomotor rhinitis (non-allergic condition)
- Overuse of nasal sprays/drops
In the case of cold or flu and sinus infections, the congestion typically goes away in about a week.
Chronic sinusitis (sinus infection), on the other hand, can last for months or even years if not addressed properly.
I'll review my treatment recommendations for acute sinusitis below, and special considerations for chronic sinusitis, which is frequently misdiagnosed.
That said, according to a recent study in the journal PLoS Onei, the sensations of nasal congestion may in some cases be related to the temperature and humidity of inhaled air -- perhaps more than any other variable.
How Temperature and Humidity Can Make You Feel "Stuffed Up"
Rhinitis is the medical term for "stuffy nose." Vasomotor rhinitis is a non-allergic condition, characterized by chronic runny nose, sneezing, and nasal congestion. Changes in temperature and humidity have already been identified as a potential triggers. (Other triggers include strong odors, perfumes, smoke, fumes, and bright sunlight.)
The results of the featured study indicate that the sensory feedback from nasal airflow can contribute to the feeling of congestion, and that by altering temperature and humidity levels of inhaled air, you may experience some relief.
The authors of the study suggest that the interaction between temperature and humidity influence "nasal cooling" as the air moves through your nasal cavity. This nasal cooling is detected by "sensors" inside your nose, which stimulate the sensation of air flow being either easy or obstructed, with cooler air resulting in feelings of less obstruction. Essentially, nasal congestion can be sensory related.
According to lead author Kai Zhao, Ph.Dd, a bioengineer, an effective treatment for nasal congestion may need to include restoring optimal humidity and temperature to the patient's nasal airflow.
What's the Ideal Level of Humidity?
According to Dr. Robert Ivker, D.O., former President of the American Holistic Medical Association, the ideal level of relative humidity for sinus health is between 35-45 percent. This level is also generally recommended to avoid mold damage in your home. (To accurately determine the relative humidity in your home you would use a hygrometer, available in most home improvement stores.) In the featured study, the two types of air conditions associated with the most effective decrease in feelings of congestion were:
- Cold air, and
- Dry air at room temperature
If your home or office is too humid (above 45 percent), you may want to consider reducing the amount of moisture in the air, as excessive levels may also cause mold and fungi growth that could wreak havoc on your health—it may even be the root cause if you're suffering from chronic sinus infections. To decrease humidity, you can:
- Use a dehumidifier
- Run the air conditioner
- Take colder and shorter showers
- Install a fan in your kitchen and bathrooms, and leave them on for awhile after you're done cooking or showering
You must be VERY careful about making sure your humidity levels are not too high. This does not need to be due to high outdoor humidity but more commonly is due to some type of water intrusion in the home from a leaky roof, foundation or plumbing. The high humidity will cause mold to grow and could devastate your health as I have written about previously. So the key is to find the cause of the increased humidity and repair it. It would be wise to use a large commercial dehumidifer in your home to lower the humidity until the problem is fixed.
However, very dry air is also known to increase feelings of congestion because drying out your sinus membranes can irritate them further. So depending on your individual circumstances, if the air in your home is excessively dry, then increasing the humidity may help. To increase humidity, you can:
- Use a vaporizer or humidifier
- Create a steam bath by taking a hot shower, or filling your sink with hot water, then placing a towel over your head as you lean over the sink
- Breathe in the steam from a hot cup of tea
Do You Have a Sinus Infection?
Sinus infections (sinusitis) affect over 39 million Americans every year.ii It typically occurs when the mucous membranes in your nose and sinuses become irritated by a cold, allergy, or pollution, for example, which then cause them to become inflamed. Once inflamed, the motion of your cilia (the tiny hairs that coat the mucous membranes and are responsible for moving mucus over their surfaces) slows down. At the same time, the irritation stimulates your mucous glands to secrete more mucus than usual to dilute the bacteria.
As a result, mucus gets trapped in your sinuses, where it can easily become infected.
It's important to understand that antibiotics can spell disaster for this problem. If used long-term, they can lead to very serious complications that may be very difficult to remediate against, including chronic yeast infections and impaired immune function. Furthermore, as I will discuss below, the vast majority of chronic sinusitis cases may be due to exposure to mold or fungi rather than bacteria, which antibiotics will have no effect on at all. Symptoms of sinus infection include:
|Congestion and pressure around your eyes, cheeks and forehead
||Thick, green or yellow mucus
|Cold symptoms lasting more than 10 days
||Postnasal drip (excess mucus dripping down the back of your throat)
Beware: Sinusitis is Often Misdiagnosed
The problem with sinus issues is that that they're very easily misdiagnosed. Sinus problems and post-nasal drip can actually be a tip-off that you're being affected by mold or fungi.
In fact, research done by the Mayo Clinic in the 1990s that strongly suggests NEARLY ALL chronic sinusitis is caused by fungi, but blamed on bacteria—then mistreated using antibiotics. The findings were published in 1999 in two peer-reviewed journals, Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology and Mayo Clinic Proceedings.iii Yet, most physicians are still unaware of this study, or at least of its significance. A 1999 Mayo Clinic press releaseiv stated:
"Mayo Clinic researchers say they have found the cause of most chronic sinus infections—an immune system response to fungus.
The Mayo Clinic study suggests that 96 percent of the people who suffer from chronic sinusitis are "fungal sensitized," meaning they have immune responses triggered by inhaled fungal organisms! This explains why antibiotics are so ineffective for chronic sinusitis as they target bacteria, NOT fungi. Antibiotics and steroids can actually worsen fungal-related infections by destroying your body's natural biological terrain, creating an internal incubation ground for further fungal growth.
The bottom line is, if you have chronic sinusitis, you MUST approach it from the perspective of a fungal infection FIRST, not a bacterial infection, even if it means having to educate your healthcare provider. A good place to start is by sharing the Mayo Clinic study referenced above. The book, Mold: The War Withinv is also a useful resource.
How to Treat Sinusitis Without Drugs
For chronic sinusitis, please refer to this previous article about how to address sinusitis caused by mold and fungi exposure. The following natural treatments can help you get over an acute sinus infection without the use of antibiotics and unnecessary OTC drugs, by keeping your cilia healthy and functioning, thereby preventing excess mucus build-up in your sinuses.
- Drink hot liquids, such as tea or hot chicken soup. It will help moisturize your mucous membranes, speeding up the movement of your cilia and thus washing mucus out of your sinuses more quickly.
- Apply warm compresses to your face, three times a day for five minutes. A small towel soaked in warm water, placed over your face below and between the eyes, will help increase the circulation in your sinuses, which will also help speed up the movement of your cilia.
- Irrigate your sinuses. In a 2007 study from University of Michigan Health System researchersvi, saline irrigation was found to decrease nasal congestion more effectively than saline sprays. It appears to work by thinning mucus, decreasing swelling in your nasal passages and removing debris, bacteria, allergens and inflammatory substances from your nose, hence decreasing swelling that makes it hard to breathe. (If you've never done this before, see these Nasal Irrigation Guidelinesvii by the University of Michigan.)
To make your own preservative-free saline solution, just add one teaspoon of himalayan or sea salt to one pint of distilled water. Make sure you use a saline solution that does not contain benzalkonium, a preservative that can impair your nasal function and might sting and burn.
- Clear your sinuses with an aromatherapy steam bath. To help open up congested nasal passages and sinuses, put a couple of drops of eucalyptus or menthol aromatherapy oil into a bowl of hot water, then breathe the vapors. In lieu of aromatherapy oil, dabbing some Vick's VapoRub on your skin underneath your nose can also be effective.
- Unclog your sinuses with the right foods. Horseradish, grated on top of a sandwich, or some Japanese wasabi mustard can also help open up congested sinuses.
- Elevate your head when sleeping.
- Dust your bedroom. Dust and dust mites can wreak havoc on your mucous membranes, especially when you're asleep and your cilia are at rest. Using a HEPA filter air purifier is also beneficial in keeping your air as free from allergens as possible.
How to Prevent Sinus Infections Before They Start
Poor food quality, excessive exposure to toxic chemicals and a high-stress lifestyle puts you at greater risk for not only sinus infection but all disease. Therefore, maintaining a robust immune system and creating an environment inhospitable to bacterial and fungal proliferation can help prevent sinus problems and infections from occurring in the first place. Here are some of the basic strategies to keep your immune system in top form:
- Avoid eating sugar or grains, as detailed in my nutrition plan
- Take a high-quality animal-based omega-3 supplement such as krill oil, which acts as a potent anti-inflammatory
- Optimize your vitamin D levels by getting appropriate amounts of sun exposure year-round. Alternatively, use a safe tanning bed (one with electronic ballasts rather than magnetic ballasts, to avoid unnecessary exposure to EMF fields. Safe tanning beds also have less of the dangerous UVA than sunlight.) If neither of these are feasible options, then you should take an oral vitamin D3 supplement.
- Consume organic coconut oil. Coconut oil is rich in lauric acid, which is known for being antiviral, antibacterial and antifungal
- Avoid eating these top 10 mycotoxic foods
- Get proper sleep
- Get regular exercise especially Peak Fitness type exercises
By Dr. Mercola
At least half of reproductive-age women suffer from painful menstrual cramps that begin shortly before the start of menstrual flow and continue for several days.
For some the pain is a mild annoyance, but for others it can be so severe that it interferes with daily activities.
Severe menstrual cramps are actually among the most common reasons for missed work and school days among young women.
For treatment, many women rely on over-the-counter NSAIDs like ibuprofen for pain relief, and conventional physicians may even prescribe birth control pills, which prevent ovulation and reduce the severity of cramps.
Both of these "solutions" carry significant risks of side effects while doing nothing to treat the underlying reasons why menstrual cramps occur.
Now researchers have uncovered another option that might ease menstrual cramp pain naturally via the "sunshine vitamin," or vitamin D.
Vitamin D Might Relieve Menstrual Cramp Pain
During menstruation, your uterus contracts to expel its lining, a process that's triggered by hormone-like substances called prostaglandins.
Prostaglandins are associated with both pain and inflammation, and higher levels of these substances are linked to more severe menstrual cramps.
Vitamin D not only helps to decrease the production of prostaglandins, it also helps decrease the production of cytokines, which promote inflammation in your body.
In fact, researchers recently revealed that women with relatively low vitamin D levels (less than 45 nanograms per milliliter (ng/mL)) who took a 300,000 IU mega-dose of vitamin D3 had a significant reduction in menstrual cramp pain. Two months after taking the vitamin D, the women rated their pain more than 2 points lower on a scale of 1-10, and all had stopped using painkillers. On the other hand, those who had taken a placebo reported no reduction in pain, and 40 percent were still taking pain medications.
These are impressive results, however I would caution you against taking this massive dose of vitamin D, especially without medical supervision, as it is possible to overdose on vitamin D when taken in supplement form especially when your vitamin A (not beta carotene) and vitamin K2 are not properly balanced. Very high doses of vitamin D3 supplements may lead to hypercalcemia (high blood calcium) over time. This can result in deposits of calcium in your heart, lungs or kidneys, and the damage can be permanent if your vitamin D levels remain elevated for too long.
The ideal way to optimize your vitamin D levels is through safe sun exposure, as this carries virtually no risk of overdosing on vitamin D.
Regular, Consistent Dosing is Best to Optimize Your Vitamin D
Vitamin D deficiency is currently at epidemic proportions in the United States and many other regions around the world, largely because people do not spend enough time in the sun to facilitate this important process of vitamin D production. This is linked to a number of serious health conditions including cancer and heart disease, not to mention that researchers in the above study found that the lower a woman's level of vitamin D, the more menstrual cramp pain she experienced.
So the first step to ensuring you are receiving all the benefits of vitamin D is to find out what your levels are using a 25(OH)D test, also called 25-hydroxyvitamin D.
There are two vitamin D tests -- 1,25(OH)D and 25(OH)D -- but 25(OH)D is the better marker of overall D status. It is this marker that is most strongly associated with overall health, and it is the one you should ask your physician for. The point of vitamin D testing is, of course, to be sure you are maintaining a therapeutic level of vitamin D in your blood. A few years back, the recommended level was between 40 to 60 nanograms per milliliter (ng/ml), but more recently the optimal vitamin D level has been raised to at least 50 ng/ml.
Sun exposure is the BEST way to optimize your vitamin D levels; exposing a large amount of your skin until it turns the lightest shade of pink, as near to solar noon as possible, is typically necessary to achieve adequate vitamin D production. If sun exposure is not an option, a safe tanning bed (with electronic ballasts rather than magnetic ballasts, to avoid unnecessary exposure to EMF fields) can be used.
As a last resort, a vitamin D3 supplement can be taken orally, but research suggests the average adult needs to take 8,000 IU's of vitamin D per day in order to elevate their levels above 40 ng/ml, which is the absolute minimum for disease prevention. The dosage that is right for you will be determined, ultimately, by how much is needed to keep your levels in the therapeutic range above.
For more details, be sure to read How to Get Your Vitamin D Within Healthy Ranges.
What's Wrong with Conventional Treatments for Menstrual Cramps?
If you visit a conventional physician complaining of menstrual cramps, you're likely to leave the office with a prescription for one of two medications: an NSAID or an oral contraceptive. Aside from the fact that these only cover up your symptoms, and do nothing to heal the problem, they carry significant risks. These are made even worse since most women with menstrual cramps seek long-term relief, and may take the drugs for many months or even years.
NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) are linked to serious gastrointestinal risks, like bleeding of the digestive tract, increased blood pressure and kidney problems. This applies not only to prescription medications like Celebrex but also over-the-counter drugs like aspirin, Advil and Motrin. NSAIDs are also notoriously bad for your heart; a study by researchers at The University of Bern in Switzerland revealed that NSAIDs lead to a two to fourfold increase in the risk of heart attacks, stroke or cardiovascular death, noting that it would only take 25-50 patients being treated with NSAIDs for one year to lead to an additional heart attack or stroke.i
Birth Control Pills
Hormonal birth control methods like "the pill" contain synthetic progesterone and synthetic estrogen -- something that is clearly not advantageous if you want to maintain optimal health. These contraceptives contain the same synthetic hormones as those used in hormone replacement therapy (HRT), which has well-documented risks, including an increased risk of blood clots, stroke, heart attack, and breast cancer.
In fact, studies have found that HRT increases post-menopausal women's breast cancer risk by at least one percent per year, and HRT with progestin increases your risk by eight percent per year, potentially going as high as 30 percent after just four years of use!
Furthermore, using birth control pills to relieve menstrual cramps is counterproductive, because you may end up simply exchanging them for another health condition. Birth control pills have been linked to an increased risk of:
|Cancer: Women who take birth control pills increase their risk of cervical and breast cancers, and possibly liver cancer as well.
||Thinner bones: Women who take birth control pills have lower bone mineral density (BMD) than women who have never used oral contraceptives.
||Heart disease: Long-term use of birth control pills may increase plaque artery buildups in your body that may raise your risk of heart disease.
|Fatal blood clots: All birth control pills increase your risk of blood clots and subsequent stroke. And if your prescription contains the synthetic hormone desogestrel, your risk of fatal blood clots nearly doubles!
||Impaired muscle gains: A recent study found that oral contraceptive use impairs muscle gains from resistance exercise training in women.
||Long-term sexual dysfunction: The Pill may interfere with a protein that keeps testosterone unavailable, leading to long-term sexual dysfunction including decreased desire and arousal.
||Weight gain and mood changes
||Yeast overgrowth and infection
More Natural Strategies to Ease Menstrual Cramps
If painful menstrual cramps are interfering with your quality of life, there are a number of safe, natural strategies to consider, in addition to optimizing your vitamin D levels.
- Evening Primrose Oil: This contains the essential fatty acid gamma linolenic acid (GLA), which is useful for treating pain. It is also helpful to restore abnormal hormone physiology, which can contribute to PMS symptoms.
- DIM (diindolylmethane): DIM is a natural phytochemical found in cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage and Brussels sprouts. It has unique properties that allow it to modify the metabolism of estrogen, promoting optimal estrogen balance and supporting healthy progesterone and testosterone production. The severity of PMS symptoms in women has been linked to elevated estrogen, with symptoms becoming more severe as estrogen rises.ii DIM exerts a balancing effect on hormones and may benefit conditions like PMS, which are associated with estrogen-progesterone imbalance.
- Chinese Herbs: Chinese herbal medicine has been used to treat menstrual pain for hundreds of years, and one study found certain Chinese herbs were more effective than NSAIDs, oral contraceptive pills, acupuncture, heat compressions, placebos, or no treatment at all in relieving menstrual cramp pain.iii Herbs in the study included:
- Chinese angelica root
- Szechuan lovage root
- Red peony root, white peony root
- Chinese motherwort
- Cinnamon bark
- Acupuncture: A review of 27 studies found that acupuncture may alleviate menstrual cramps better than drugs or herbal medicine by stimulating the production of endorphins and serotonin in your central nervous system.iv
- Dietary changes: Dietary changes can be very useful to relieve cramping and other PMS symptoms. You can try:
- Avoiding caffeine, alcohol, and carbonated drinks
- Reducing your sugar intake
- Avoiding smoked cheeses, meats, and fish (as they can increase your fluid retention)
- Making sure you're getting enough nutrients in your diet, specifically vitamin B6, manganese, vitamins A and E, calcium, magnesium, animal-based omega-3 fats and tryptophan
- Exercise: This is another useful tool that helps to relieve menstrual cramps, perhaps because it raises your levels of endorphins, which are chemicals in your brain that are associated with pain relief.
- Heat: Using a hot water bottle on your lower abdomen or soaking in a warm bath may provide temporary relief of menstrual pain.
How Vitamin D Performance Testing Can Help Optimize Your Health
Additionally, a robust and growing body of research clearly shows that vitamin D is absolutely critical for good health and disease prevention. Vitamin D affects your DNA through vitamin D receptors (VDRs), which bind to specific locations of the human genome. Scientists have identified nearly 3,000 genes that are influenced by vitamin D levels, and vitamin D receptors have been found throughout the human body.
Is it any wonder then that no matter what disease or condition is investigated, vitamin D appears to play a crucial role? This is why I am so excited about the D*Action Project by GrassrootsHealth. It is showing how you can take action today on known science with a consensus of experts without waiting for institutional lethargy. It has shown how by combining the science of measurement (of vitamin D levels) with the personal choice of taking action and, the value of education about individual measures that one can truly be in charge of their own health.
In order to spread this health movement to more communities, the project needs your involvement. This is an ongoing campaign during the month of February, and will become an annual event.
To participate, simply purchase the D*Action Measurement Kit and follow the registration instructions included. (Please note that 100 percent of the proceeds from the kits go to fund the research project. I do not charge a single dime as a distributor of the test kits.)
As a participant, you agree to test your vitamin D levels twice a year during a five year program, and share your health status to demonstrate the public health impact of this nutrient. There is a $65 fee every 6 months for your sponsorship of the project, which includes a test kit to be used at home, and electronic reports on your ongoing progress. You will get a follow up email every six months reminding you "it's time for your next test and health survey."