MOM was right: It does pay to keep your nose clean.
Just ask the growing number of sinus and allergy sufferers who are turning to an ancient Indian yogic technique to find relief from the symptoms of seasonal and chronic respiratory woes.
Nasal irrigation might not be the most delicate of personal hygiene practices, but then again, stuffy noses, sneezing fits, and mouth breathing aren't so sexy either.
Pamela Hildebrand was experiencing frequent sinus symptoms ---- headaches, face pain, puffy eyes -- when a friend suggested the Winnipegger try something called a neti pot.
It's a little teapot, short and stout, but the brew contained within is simply warm (non-iodized) salt water, and the spout goes into your nostril. And when you tip it over and pour it out, the saline solution will flow through your nose and out the other nostril -- flushing away excess mucous and the dust, pollen, bacteria and other irritants you inhaled from the air in the process.
"I was a little nervous the first time, but it's actually really easy to use," says Hildebrand, who has been using her neti pot daily for three months.
"This has given me some real relief. I've definitely noticed my eyes are less puffy. I like to use it before yoga, too, because I feel like it allows me to take deeper, better breaths."
Jala neti -- literally "nasal washing" in Sanskrit -- is a millennia-old yogic Ayurvedic technique originally performed with a small pot that looks like a cross between Aladdin's lamp and a gravy boat. The neti pot landed in North America in the early 1970s as a meditation aid, but even as yoga moved into the mainstream, the little pot stayed on the fringes of alternative culture.
Until 2007, when Dr. Mehmet Oz gave it the stamp of approval on the Oprah Winfrey show, that is.
"It was unbelievable. Soon, all we were doing was selling neti pots, and when we ran out, we couldn't find a supplier anywhere in Canada," recalls Nathan Zassman, owner of Aviva Natural Health Solutions.
The neti pot is now sharing shelf space -- in drugstores and department stores as well as health food stores -- with squeeze bottles, giant syringes and other commercial products aimed at making nasal irrigation easier and, well, less yucky.
Sorry, but to fully explain how and why it works, we have to talk about mucous.
Those sticky secretions are your respiratory system's first-line defence, acting like fly paper for pollutants, allergens and bacteria. But there's a catch.
"Your mucous needs to move, it needs to flow to filter all this stuff out," says Dr. Diane Heatley, an ear, nose and throat doctor (otolaryngologist) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
It moves via hair-like filaments called cilia, which either push it to the back of the throat to be swallowed, or to the nose, where it can be blown out. Problems arise when mucous gets too think, Heatley explains, and builds up in the sinus cavity (causing pressure, pain, dark circles under the eyes) or in the nasal passages (leading to congestion, post-nasal drip, bad breath).
"What the saline in nasal washing does is it takes thick mucous, which doesn't effectively filter, and turns it into thin mucous so that your nose can do its job."
Heatley, who specializes in pediatric otolaryngology, says that although doctors in her field used to do sinus flushing in their offices with special equipment, she'd never heard of the neti pot until a recovery room nurse (who was also a yoga enthusiast) suggested she try it with her young patients.
"With sinus surgery, all you can do is make the holes between the sinus and the nose bigger so that, in theory, things drain more easily," she says. "The condition usually came back within a year or two.
After Heatley started using the neti pot, her surgery rate dropped in half.
"And these were kids who had already been through antibiotics, nasal sprays, allergy testing, etc.," she says. "It's not 100 per cent, but it was a huge and significant difference."
In 1997, Heatley founded SinuCleanse, maker of the world's top-selling neti pot. The company, which recently launched a blue-tinted plastic version, also developed SinuCleanse Kids Mist specifically for infants and children.
Dr. Dean Schrader, a Winnipeg naturopathic doctor, says he often recommends the neti pot to help patients with chronic sinusitis and allergies but stresses that relieving symptoms is not the same thing as treating a condition.
"As a naturopath, I'm always trying to get to the root of the problem," says Schrader. "It should be stated that the neti pot can be a very useful tool to decrease congestion, but I'm always wondering what's causing the congestion in the first place."
Dr. Jason Bachewich, another naturopath, calls nasal washing a "band-aid solution" and advises against doing it daily as a preventative measure.
"Ultimately, the body wants to heal itself," he says. "It's completely unnatural to be flushing your nasal cavities with salt water every day. If this is how we are meant to have healthy sinuses, why don't we all live on the ocean?"
The sound of mucous
Our nose and sinuses produce between a pint and a quart of mucous every day.
Blowing your nose creates significant
pressure in the sinuses and nasal cavities -- more than seven times the pressure created by coughing or sneezing. The proper way to do it is gently, one nostril at a time.
Improper nose blowing during a cold can worsen the condition by propelling bacteria and viruses back into the sinus cavities.
Pre-measured packets of nasal-flushing
solutions can be purchased. Otherwise, always use non-iodized salt, such as sea salt or kosher salt, in a neti pot. A pinch of bicarbonate of soda can be added as a buffering agent. It may also help to apply petroleum jelly to the inside of your nose after each washing.
Breathing through your mouth or making
a "k" sound while pouring will prevent
solution from entering the throat.
Antihistamines may temporarily relieve
allergy symptoms, but they also cause
mucous to thicken, impeding its ability to clear out of the nose and sinuses.
One neti pot user's video, How to Irrigate Your Nasal Passages, has attracted nearly a million views on YouTube. In the video (which features a soundtrack with the lyrics "I like to hear the rain come down"), a cartoonist from Ohio who goes by the name Drew demonstrates how to use the neti pot with salt water, then with black coffee and finally with single barrel
Kentucky bourbon. He manages to sputter
an expletive before the camera
suddenly shuts off.