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Experts Reveal The Foods And Drinks That Cause Congestion, And Now I Think It’s About Time I Changed My Diet


You know that feeling you get when you’re stuffy, that your sinuses ache and you feel like you can’t breathe? Whether you’re fighting a cold, dealing with allergies or breathing in air pollution, there are many reasons your nose may get clogged up.

So why does this happen? You may be surprised to learn that food and drink can play a part in this.

When something (like an infection or allergens) irritates the lining of your nasal passages, it causes inflammation and swelling, and your body produces more mucus to try to clear it out.

“When mucus gets trapped, it gets thicker and stickier. … That mucus is then going to just sit there and become like a spa for bacteria,” explained Dr. Sam Huh, assistant professor of the department of Otolaryngology at Mount Sinai. “In order to avoid congestion and sinusitis, you want a good flow of mucus, good airflow and a good immune system.”

There are foods and drinks that may aggravate nasal congestion because they affect the buildup and flow of mucus and your immune system. We talked to experts about which of these edible ingredients could be making you more stuffed up — and which could actually provide some relief.

Food And Drinks That May Aggravate Congestion

Dairy Products

Assorted cheeses, nuts, and figs on a wooden board with cheese knivesAssorted cheeses, nuts, and figs on a wooden board with cheese knives

Valentynvolkov / Getty Images

“While many people may anecdotally report that foods and beverages containing cow’s milk worsen congestion and mucus production, this has not been proven by … clinical studies,” said Dr. Jyothi Tirumalasetty, a clinical assistant professor specializing in allergy and immunology at Stanford Medicine.

But with that said, Huh noted that some people feel more “phelgmy” after eating dairy products, and it seems to vary person-to-person. If you are allergic to casein, a protein in milk, that can increase mucus production and congestion, he added. Casein is not only in other dairy products like yogurts and cheeses, but it can be hiding in foods you may not expect, like canned tuna or chocolate.

Foods High In Histamines

So what is histamine? It’s a chemical produced by our immune system when it experiences a threat, like a potential allergen.

“When histamine builds up and you don’t have enough of the enzyme … that breaks it down, you’ll have an intolerance to histamine,” explained Sue-Ellen Anderson-Haynes, a registered dietitian, Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics spokesperson, and founder of 360Girls&Women.

Histamine intolerance can lead to many symptoms, including digestive issues, headaches, skin irritation and nasal congestion.

There are some foods and drinks that naturally contain a high amount of histamines. If you consume these when you already have a histamine intolerance, your symptoms could get worse, according to Amy Kimberlain, a registered dietitian and Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics spokesperson.

Foods that are high in histamines include: most processed meats (like sausage and bacon), aged cheeses, fermented foods (like sauerkraut and kimchi), fermented beverages (like alcohol and kombucha), dried fruits (like raisins and apricots) and some vegetables and fruits (like tomatoes and citrus fruits).

A bowl of lentil stew with chunks of sausage and carrot, served on a white plate with a spoon on the sideA bowl of lentil stew with chunks of sausage and carrot, served on a white plate with a spoon on the side

Cris Cantón via Getty Images

Foods High In Salicylates 

Some people may be more sensitive to salicylates (natural chemicals made by plants), which could trigger nasal congestion, according to Kimberlain. One study looked at how a salicylate-free diet showed a positive improvement in sinusitis symptoms.

Foods that contain a high amount of salicylates include certain legumes (like lentils and beans), vegetables and fruits (like cauliflower and strawberries), cereals (like buckwheat or corn), and herbs and spices (like rosemary and thyme).

Fried Foods

Some vegetable oils (like corn oil and soybean oil) that are used to cook fried foods are high in omega-6 fatty acids, and too many of these can lead to inflammation, according to WebMD. When you’re dealing with nasal congestion, the tissues lining your sinuses are already inflamed.

“Your body’s trying to fight inflammation … you don’t want to add insult to injury by eating an abundance of fried food,” Anderson-Haynes explained.

Added Sugars

Refined sugars (not the natural sugars in fruit) signal to your body to release cytokines, which can lead to inflammation. These added sugars are often found in sodas, desserts, juices, sauces, salad dressings, cereals and other foods.

One study found that a diet high in refined sugars could worsen sinusitis by increasing inflammation.

“Research in this is limited, however … reducing added sugars is beneficial to health overall, and in doing so if this helps to improve your symptoms, this can only be of benefit,” Kimberlain said.

Foods And Drinks That May Relieve Congestion

Chili flakes being poured from a wooden spoon into a bowl with whole chilies in the backgroundChili flakes being poured from a wooden spoon into a bowl with whole chilies in the background

Igorr1 / Getty Images

Anderson-Haynes suggests consuming anti-inflammatory ingredients to help reduce congestion. Capsaicin, an active compound in cayenne and other hot peppers, can cause blood vessels to open up.

“Sinusitis restricts our blood vessels and blood flow … Cayenne opens up those sinuses and it reduces the inflammation,” she said.

Compounds found in garlic and ginger also reduce inflammation. When you cook with them, some of the compounds get reduced, so it’s better to consume only slightly cooked or raw. There’s a variety of ways you can add both of these to your daily diets, from sprinkling chopped garlic in salads to using ginger in teas, soups, smoothies or mocktails, Anderson-Haynes said.

While there is not a lot of scientific evidence, Huh has noticed anecdotally eating hot soup can help with congestion. “Steam will mix with the thick mucus and make it more watery so everything can flow better,” he said.

Because a strong immune system is key for sinus health, Huh advises eating foods that boost your immune system, like nutrient-rich fruits and vegetables.

Also, drinking plenty of fluids (non-alcoholic) can help thin the mucus and make it easier for congested sinuses to drain, according to Kimberlain.

When Should You See A Doctor And/Or Dietician? 

Huh recommends you should see a health care professional when you have nasal congestion that doesn’t go away after two weeks.

If you suspect a food or drink is making your congestion worse, Tirumalasetty suggests keeping a diary of what you’re eating and drinking and when you feel congested. She doesn’t recommend food allergy tests for congestion: “[They] are really designed to identify life-threatening food allergies — not symptoms like nasal congestion.”

You can also talk to a registered dietician about elimination diets and substitutes for foods that may be triggering your symptoms.

Remember: There are lots of treatments for nasal congestion, and you don’t have to just suffer through it.This article originally appeared on HuffPost.



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