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Nasal Warfare

With my head twisted left-side down over the sink, I watched a thin stream of water running out of my nose. I held up a small white neti pot that released its slightly salty water through a narrow spout firmly inserted into my right nostril. I could feel the water move from one side of my nose to the other. The water flowed with the pull of gravity through my nasal cavity and eventually found its way out my left nostril. The exiting water carried with it bits of unidentifiable nasal debris which I had unknowingly collected breathing the dry indoor air of a Northeast winter day. I repeated the process in the other direction and gently blew each nostril clear of mucus (aka snot). My breath seemed less obstructed, and smells a slight bit sharper, after the water had run its course. It reminded me of similar nasal effects I’d experienced as a youth after getting wiped out by powerful Pacific Coast waves that forced ocean water up my nose. I found the neti pot a little easier going.

I first started sniffing water when I was in my late teens. I had been hit by a number of winter colds and my sinuses were getting jammed. I’d been doing some reading about yoga and found reference to a technique for cleansing the nasal zone through rhythmic water sniffing. My technique was crude, and far from the yoga method, but it did provide noticeable relief from the stuffed nose and tight sinuses I was experiencing. Since then, I had mainly resorted to water sniffing when my nasal passages became severely stuffed. That was until I received a neti pot as a holiday gift from my good friend Mary Anne. The neti pot, which looks like a small ceramic teapot with a long rounded spout and no top, got me interested in nasal cleansing and its health effects.

It juts out of the middle of our faces, keeps our eyes separate, and forms a conduit for the flow of air into our bodies. Besides providing a point of distinction for our profile, the nose sifts out olfactory information and floating debris from the air, which it also warms and humidifies. Through seemingly alchemical processes, it initiates the translation of airborne compounds into smells. It also functions as an important environmental system, filtering the air as it passes through this small channel of skin, moist membranes, cartilage and bone. My nose allows me to experience a broad spectrum of scents while it quietly works to cleanse each inhalation and rid my respiratory system of accumulations of potentially dangerous debris.

As I begin a deep breath, I can hear the air being sucked into my nostrils and feel it moving up my nose toward the back of my throat. The air then rushes down into expanding lungs that raise my ribs to some acceptable-capacity level, then my inhale subsides into an exhale. In my lungs, oxygen is absorbed by the blood and sent throughout my body to serve as a major fuel for generating energy at the cellular level. The lungs collect carbon dioxide from the returning blood and release it with each exhale flowing out my nose. The cleaner the air entering my lungs, the better.

My nose’s filtering and sniffing capabilities rely both on tiny hairs called cilia and on the mucus within which they flourish. My nasal cavity and its associated sinuses are lined with moist membranes that support the growth of millions of cilia. The cilia act like both fishing hooks and brooms. They wave back and forth eight to 12 times a second in their shallow sea of mucus, snagging particles of debris as they zoom by with the velocity of each breath. Mucus is a mix of water, antibodies, enzymes and salts, among other ingredients. Hooked pollutants become mired in this mucus and are swept along by the wave-like movement of cilia toward the back of my throat. There, much of the trapped matter drops into my digestive tract for a neutralizing acid bath. Some particles might be ejected through a cilia-triggered cough or sneeze. Very small particles may evade the valiant efforts of the cilia and find their way to the lungs.

It has been estimated that humans inhale up to 17,000 pints of air a day. This volume of air may contain as much as 20 billion particles. The “trash” swept out by my nasal cilia include bacteria, molds and other potentially harmful substances. The health of the cilia and their ability to filter the air rushing toward my lungs is an important part of my immune system, since it helps prevent my exposure to disease. When these tiny hairs are obstructed and unable to perform their job, infection can result, particularly in congested sinuses. Cigarette smoke is a well-documented destroyer of cilia.

So, how do you keep your nose clean? Many pick their way along. According to a study of rhinotillexomania (nose-picking) by researchers at the University of Wisconsin Medical School, 91 percent of those surveyed admitted to the practice, with about half indicated they mined their nostrils at least once a day. Over 80 percent of those surveyed said they put their fingers to work in order to unclog a nostril or to resolve some other form of nasal discomfort. Two out of three use their index finger, with pinkies coming in a distant second for finger preference.

While fingers probably have been going up our noses since our evolutionary ancestors first felt these protrusions on their faces, this is not the most effective and sanitary means for nose cleaning. Water can reach much further into the recesses of the nasal cavity, cleanse more gently and moisturize mucus membranes along the way.

While simple devices like the neti pot might help me to keep my nose working a little better, reducing the human-made pollutants discharged into the atmosphere also would help. You can find neti pots at the Honest Weight Food Co-op.

—Tom Nattell

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