Spicy Foods & Your Sinuses


I’ve been writing this week about the joys of cooking with fresh wasabi, as well as favorite organic wasabi products. In fact, during this time of year, many individuals turn to spicy foods like chili peppers and wasabi to clear their sinuses as they endure seasonal allergies, a winter cold or the flu. It seems like a perfectly sensible approach to personal care—but you may be setting yourself up for trouble.

According to the latest research, eating wasabi and other spicy foods offers brief relief, causing your nose to run, itchiness to disappear and your sinuses to drain. But in reality, your nasal congestion will worsen, making you even more miserable. Here’s why: Allylisothiocyanate—the pungent ingredient found in wasabi, horseradish and mustard—causes a transient burning sensation in the nose, and the dilator naris muscle temporarily allows more air to enter. Receptors within the nose then tell your brain that you’re breathing easier.

Unfortunately, your nose is fooling your brain. Eating spicy foods ultimately produces greater nasal congestion and increased mucus production, according to a clinical study conducted by Drs. David S. Cameron and Raul M. Cruz of the Department of Head and Neck Surgery at Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in Oakland, California.

So, Mom may have known best after all: Drink plenty of fluids, particularly hot beverages like organic tea and chicken soup (often referred to as “Jewish penicillin”).

“For a long-term effect, we recommend rinsing the sinus cavity twice a day with a saline solution,” says Dr. Mark Kerner, an otolaryngologist (ear, nose and throat specialist) with offices in Encino and Northridge, California. “See a qualified otolaryngologist who specializes in sinusitis if the problem continues.” He or she will want to rule out a bacterial sinus infection.

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  • Paula  February 2, 2006 at 8:48 pm

    PERFECT article. I was just sitting here eating Chinese Pork with super hot mustard and wondering if that burning sensation was healthy. thanks!

  • Charles  December 11, 2006 at 8:25 pm

    Why not directly cite the study and link to eat for those of us interested in seeing the actual data and argument presented?

    “Eating spicy foods ultimately produces greater nasal congestion and increased mucus production, according to a clinical study conducted by Drs. David S. Cameron and Raul M. Cruz of the Department of Head and Neck Surgery at Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in Oakland, California.”

    Well, okej, but this isn’t convincing enough. Show me the data.

    What does “ultimately” mean? Many of us find these conclusions counter-intuitive based on our practice of using chili peppers and other similar herbs on occassion. The results in increase mucus flow appear beneficial and not illusory.

    Thanks, though, for staring the discussion.

  • Home Remedy For Sinus Infection  November 6, 2007 at 6:17 am

    I have been having sinus infection for more than 10 years without realising it. Most of the time it is mild and the main symptoms would be sinus headaches in the mornings together with puffy eyes. Subsequently, it became worse and I started to have
    blocked eustachian tubes, facial pain and thick green mucus dicharge.

    Thankfully, I found an ENT specialist who treated the condition and advised me to perform nasal irrigation of the sinuses daily with a plastic syringe.

    I am glad to say that I don’t succumb to flu that often since I started irrigating my sinuses.
    Just like to share this with all of you.

  • Alex Leibowitz  February 2, 2008 at 6:11 pm

    What if you eat spicy foods AND drink a lot of water?

  • sinus  April 2, 2008 at 10:02 pm

    great info..thanks..

  • maz  December 3, 2008 at 9:29 pm

    Good article..thanx..spicy food…yummyyyy..

  • claire unabia  April 26, 2009 at 6:01 am

    I think horseradish and spicy foods in moderation with the nasal flush are still good. I agree that increase production of mucus may be beneficial to clear your problem out.
    I am dealing with a sinus infection right now. My kungfu teacher’s directions were to eat horseradish, garlic, carrot juice, spinach, fruits, no cooked food, ginger tea and lemons and the nasal flush. I felt better after eating the foods but especially after the flush.
    Someone else also recommended putting hydrogen peroxide in ears and nose.
    My mother recommended hot towels on the sinuses.
    An intense breathing exercise also clears out the sinus like our kungfu line.
    I am doing all these things, will let you know how it goes

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