Using herbs with your neti pot is perfect for those funky, dry late-winter months that blend into spring – a time when cold and flu season seems to be over and yet you find yourself still blowing your nose, over and over. You might also be a bit unsure about whether you are dealing with allergies, or the last cold of the season to kick your butt!
At this very particular time I’m writing (originally in March of 2014 – though this article has been updated January 2016 and now again in 2022!) I’ve been seeing and hearing a lot about folks coming down with something not quite like a cold, but still hard to ignore. Inflamed, stuffy sinuses, allergies, plugged ears, and the vestige of a cough, with some lingering respiratory issues, as if they have just overcome a cold.
I have found myself hesitant to use just typical cold and flu herbs in these situations. Immunity is always important to focus on, and the tried-and-true bulls-eye of the practicing herbalist. But what about the best relief, on top of all that, and with the help of herbs used at home – sinus relief? Over the years I have had tons of success and adventures using herbs with a neti pot in different ways, even concocting specific neti formulas, and I have much to share and praise about this method.
Neti Pots and Their Virtues
Neti pots have been my go-to for nearly a decade. When I’m in the midst of cold, flu, allergy troubles, and my chronic allergic rhinitis and sinusitis issues (not pleasant!) they provide instantaneous relief while those immune boosting foods or herbs take some time to kick in. An herbal steam, though lovely, just won’t get into the sinuses fast enough. When all these things are the case, I open up my cupboard, and take my neti pot off the shelf.
A sinus rinse gets rid of all of that gunk, and quickly (with the help of salt in the solution). Then, one day, I realized I could combine herbs with neti rinses to enhance these effects. I have since then chosen this method as a top one in my arsenal for colds and flu fighting.
How do I use a Neti pot?
What’s the low-down on using neti pots? If you don’t know, neti pots (also called “nasal lavage” or just sinus rinsing pots) are little magical-looking genie bottle-type containers you fill with warm water and a bit of salt. You then hold back your head, put the spout in your nostril, breathe through your mouth, and let the water flow through your sinuses – through one nostril, and then out the other. I would highly recommend reading more on the Mayo Clinic’s recommendations on how to use the Neti pot here.
Is using a Neti pot safe? Most doctors and health practitioners (including herbalists) dub Neti pots safe and effective with a just a few extra guidelines to consider and adhere to, and which I follow closely too.
- Neti pots are good first line defenses against cold symptoms and allergies.
- They’re great for thick mucus and blockages (of ears and nasal passages).
- Use them sporadically: non-regular use is best.
- Use boiled, distilled, sterilized, and filtered water (I personally use water from my Brita filter, boil it, then cool it to a warm temperature. Some experts will recommend more thorough or sophisticated filters however.)
- If using tap water, make sure it is filtered through hole sizes 1 micron or smaller, or boiled several minutes then cooled before use. (Yep – read above.)
- CLEAN your neti pot regularly.
Why all the concerns? Some studies have shown that regular use of neti pots may actually increase the chances of sinus infections and bacterial growth. Think about it: adding yet more water to a part of the body that is warm, damp, and dark could end up being the perfect fodder for infections.
It’s also apparent that neti rinses may actually remove the beneficial microbes and the body’s natural immune, organism-fighting agents we need to fight infections and illnesses on our own. That’s certainly not in the spirit of an herbalist or holistic practitioner, right? We want to be aiding the body’s battle against illness, not hindering it.
As a result I use neti pots only in a real pinch – and no longer than about 2 weeks at a time in a daily series.
My Experiences with Herbal Neti Pot Rinses
I started my use of the neti pot with the standard salt rinse, as usual, with strong warm water. As an herbalist it became all too logical to think that the neti rinse could easily use a bit of an herbal twist. No, I’m not the first herbalist to think of this idea: after I happened upon an herb shop’s sinus care formula tailored to the neti pot, I thought, I really need to start making my own formula and using herbs in a sinus rinse myself. (Especially considering my own sinus issues.)
Since then, I can’t resist adding a supporting herb into the sinus rinse mix each time. It usually depends on the type of sinus issue or cold I’m dealing with, but there are so many varieties of herbs and herbal actions to choose from, and that suit a neti rinse perfectly: vasodilating, bronchiodilating, anti-inflammatory, antiviral, antimicrobial, and a good balance between astringent and emollient. If you have dry sinuses, you can rinse with moistening herbs. Goopy sinuses, and you can turn to more drawing and drying ones.
Through my personal explorations with my neti pot, I’ve found a delightful selection of herbs to include in my rinses – which I will be happily covering in this article. Over the years too, instead of putting so much work into whipping up a complicated herbal sinus rinse every time– using various herbs, tinctures, teas, and then finally, the sea salt– which sounds exhausting when I’m already exhausted from stuffy sinuses, I came up with a unique herbal formula for the neti pot that combines all the ingredients in one place. All you have to do is heat the water, let cool, add the formula, rinse, and feel the relief! Feel free to check it out.
How I Use My Neti Pot
*Dosage/Preparation: To each Neti Rinse you prepare, use warm (not hot!) water (or boiled water that has cooled to a tolerable temperature) and add roughly AT MOST a teaspoon of salt (make sure it is a fine type of salt, not coarse).
- Neti solution should not be too salty – to taste, the water should be “as salty as your tears.”
- Avoid using tap water. Use filtered, reverse-osmosis, or pre-boiled then cooled water – or bottled and/or distilled water. Again, I filter through my Brita (charcoal), boil, and then let cool.
- To each solution as it is cooling, add about 10-20 drops tincture, or whatever you are comfortable. (I tend to use 1-2 dropperfuls of my own neti formula.)
If you aren’t comfortable with tinctures- or, if you don’t have a tincture of any these herbs handy- you can make a tea, decoction, infusion, or tisane of these herbs but make sure that the plant matter is WELL STRAINED to avoid putting any thing foreign in your sinuses that shouldn’t be there, and could only make matters worse.
Choice Herbs For the Herbal Neti Pot
GINGER (Zingiber officinalis) – Warm and damp. This culinary root is prime for drier sinuses, with or without accompanying dull pressure – and those dealing with lingering viral infection. Ginger is also one of an exclusive circle of helpful herbs that can stave off a good deal of viral activity. This makes ginger great for colds or viral bugs, soothing what feels like inflammation and a lot of pressure – and, overall, quite a perfect addition to the neti pot.
Surprisingly, while you might think ginger could “burn,” the most potent of my ginger tinctures (or any tincture formula I’ve made or used, for that matter) haven’t caused a single discomfort, though I’m sure you would have to be careful with a decoction! You can replace ginger with native Wild Ginger if you’d prefer, though Wild Ginger is not reputedly anti-viral.
CHAMOMILE (Matricaria chamomilla) – Or, along the same lines, feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium). Sinus headaches/pressure with either drip or dryness could call for either of these two white-flowered, dainty and aromatic herbs, especially if there is sneezing involved. They are both relatively easy to find in herb gardens and herbal sections of food stores.
Sinus allergies are a good target for these – whether runny or dry, these two plants are known to help support the prevention histamine reaction in a unique way, and a rinse with these is quite gentle. Check out this research on both Feverfew and Chamomile, supporting their uses for allergies. If you have sinus issues or allergies that often transform into migraines, these could be your best buddies especially.
RAGWEED (Ambrosia artemisifolia/trifida) – Before you say “What? Why?!!?” Ragweed can be amazing for sinus allergy symptoms, particularly for those who are NOT allergic to its pollen. Yet for those who are allergic to ragweed, there is strong supporting research out there nonetheless, revealing that the antidote to the poison might be just a bit of the plant itself. To top it all off, the FDA did approve a drug that contained a bit of ragweed itself in a pill for allergy relief symptoms due to Ragweed pollen itself in 2014.
Again- if you know you are allergic to ragweed or other plants from the Asterid family, it might be wiser to steer clear. For those who aren’t (including myself), a tincture or tea of in-season ragweed blooms can provide amazing relief, particularly when you feel a histamine reaction going on. I experimented with some tincture last summer (2013) for some dusty-stuff sinus problems, and wow- just, wow.
This is best aimed at allergy-related sinus issues specifically, and less so for cold or viral stuff. If you are the brave sort of ragweed-allergic, I’ve been told that ragweed leaf (NOT flower) can be alright and less harmful to ragweed-sufferers…but that is not a recommendation or suggestion. Experiment at your own risk please.
GOLDENROD (Solidago canadensis + other species) – The dried blossoms of goldenrod are similar to chamomile or feverfew in action, making it best suited to allergies once again – but more so the damp and drippy kind. For whatever magical reason too, this plant has a stronger affinity to pet allergies (according to many herbalists) and sinus flare-ups that might happen as a result.
Another great thing about it: it’s well-known support of ragweed allergies in the empirical knowledge of herbalists (without being actual ragweed). Growing right next to ragweed in the Fall and blooming twice as “showily,” not many folks know that a well-worked herbal support to ragweed allergies might be growing just a couple feet away. What’s more, preliminary studies are showing that Goldenrod has some marked anti-inflammatory activity.
Goldenrod flowers have a sweet, astringent, and pleasant flavor that I love adding to herbal allergy blends of any sort. Of all the possible neti, sinus, and allergy herbs altogether too, goldenrod stands out as one of my very favorites – combine this one with ginger if you’re having a cold to support immune health, respiratory health, and perhaps even reach a cooling fever.
USNEA (Usnea spp.) – Along with goldenrod, usnea is one of my favorites for a sinus rinse. Its astringency and anti-microbial action are very highly desirable for helping support the average sinus infection. Best for damp and runny sinuses only, this lichen contains usnic acids that pack a punch against notorious bacteria including staph and strep (with studies to help support it). While fighting off infection, this plant will also aid in drawing and pulling out the nasty gunk you’re trying to forget about with its astringency, helping airways unclog and clear.
MULLEIN (Verbascum thapsus) – You can never do without mullein. Whether raspy or goopy, this fuzzy, common plant can be of help – although I do think it stands out best in situations where the sinuses are much drier.
This plant is simple. In being so, there really isn’t much else more to say about it. It’s a top pick among herbalists for such things having to do with colds, flu, and sinuses. A tincture of the root may also be effective, but also a fresh, hot tea of the leaves or flowers (without having reached the boiling point) can help loosen stuff up when you’re stuffed up, too. Allergies and colds may be supported by the actions of mullein as well.
PLANTAIN (Plantago major) – Like mullein or ginger, I’ve put plantain tincture into a lot of my sinus rinses. This is because plantain leaf does something special that the remainder of these herbs don’t do as well: plantain is a “drawing” agent in herbalists’ experience, which can help pull foreign objects out of the sinus while helping neutralize the amount of irritation or goop you have going on. So if you simply feel like you’ve got “stuff”- any kind of stuff- lodged in your sinuses, plantain could be your go-to.
The other great thing about plantain: you can use it for both wet and dry sinuses. Plantain is both mucilaginous and astringent: it will help draw up and pull out any excess mucus, but at the same time soothe, moisturize, and tonify the soft tissues of the nasal cavities. Studies are also beginning to support this plant’s use for inflammation, too – even showing that it could have protective capabilities against certain bacteria perilous to the nose and throat, such as strep bacteria and others included!
This article is not meant to diagnose, prescribe, promise, or suggest cure. It’s purpose and intent is to be purely educational.