Spicy Foods & Your Sinuses

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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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