Spicing Things Up
After going out for spicy Mexican or Thai food, you may notice that your sinuses suddenly are clearer. The reason: Hot peppers, the fruits of the Capsicum plant, contain an active ingredient known as capsaicin that actually reduces sinus headache pain and nasal congestion. The good news: Sinusitis sufferers no longer need to eat out to breathe easier and subdue sinus discomfort. Relief is as close as the capsaicin creams at your local health-food store. The chemistry of that spicy meal is quite fascinating. Capsaicin dilates the capillaries in the mucous membranes and skin, which is why your nose runs when you eat spicy food, explains Eric Yarnell, ND, RH (AHG), adjunct professor at Bastyr University in Kenmore, Washington. The dilation of the capillaries by capsaicin permits more efficient circulation of nutrients into tissue and waste material out. This helps remove not only any superficial irritants to the nasal pathway, but also anything deeper in the tissue produced in reaction to the chronic inflammation that has been causing the sinusitis and headaches. Capsaicin also causes the nerves to shoot out large amounts of substance P (a pain-causing chemical), which is what makes capsaicin trigger burning and itching sensations upon application. Eventually the nerves can't make any more substance P, and the pain ceases. People usually experience some immediate relief from sinus pain and congestion with the topical form of capsaicin. However, it may take several days for the pain to fully disappear (both the initial sinus pain and the discomfort of the capsaicin itself). According to Dr. Yarnell, the longer you use it, the less intense the sensations you will feel. If you use capsaicin long enough, the sinus pain will go away completely. What brand or type of capsaicin is best? Dr. Yarnell usually tells his patients to buy capsaicin in cream form at their local health-food store. You apply the cream to the area of concern, carefully following the application instructions on the label. For example, if you have arthritis in your knee, you apply it to the knee. For sinus pain, wearing disposable gloves, apply a small amount to the nasal mucosa. Dr. Yarnell notes that some people cannot tolerate the burning sensation of capsaicin, especially on the sensitive mucosa. Depending on the severity of symptoms, he recommends using it two or three times a day. It is best to start with the mildest formula possible, since if it is too strong or used in too high a frequency, it is extremely irritating. Dr. Yarnell also emphasizes that it is essential to wash your hands with hot water and lots of soap after application to avoid getting the pepper on other vulnerable body parts, especially the eyes and genitals. Better yet, apply the cream with disposable gloves. If you do get some in your eyes, flush them out with lots of water. Capsaicin is very strong and will get the nose running again, says Dr. Yarnell. However, it is not a cure in and of itself. Dr. Yarnell believes that capsaicin is best viewed as part of an overall treatment plan for chronic sinus challenges that should also include other medicines and lifestyle changes to address underlying allergies or infection. A naturopathic physician can help you lay out a plan of action.