*This post was written in 2010 as the second chapter of a book that I had started writing about nutrition and my own struggles with health. I’ve shared other sections from the book but I had never shared the following chapter because of the taboo nature of nasal mucous — common sense suggested that it is just too controversial a topic to write about nasal congestion — but snot’s all right, we need it to help stabilize the thin layers of membranous cell walls that surround all of our cells and organs.
A more recent article from Harvard.edu: All About That Mucus: How it keeps us healthy.
“Good behavior is attained at a young age.” – Burkino Faso proverb
To sniff or blow? When is nasal discharge too much of a good thing? When allergies cause thin watery discharge that continually drips or causes congestion and difficulty breathing. Nasal discharge does typically drain to the back of the throat where it may be swallowed naturally. Childhood is too often filled with shaming about runny noises and dirty faces or sleeves or fingers. Is picking it and eating it a disgusting and filthy habit or an oral vaccination boost to the immune system? Traditional Eskimo cultures conserved fluid and heat by picking and eating it.  My mother tried to teach me good manners, as mothers do in Africa and all around the world, but I had allergies and wasn’t good at always having a fresh tissue with me.
Just what is snot, or more politely – mucus/mucous? It may be described as a freeform gelatinous matrix of glycolipids and glycoproteins that covers our internal surfaces and is known as the glycocalyx.
Good snot, bad snot, it’s not all the same. Healthy mucous layers are two millimeters thick — about the same width as a piece of thread or single strand of hair. Obviously we can produce a lot more than that in response to sickness or allergies. Over the course of my life I have had a lot of experience with nasal mucous and congestion. Most of my childhood was spent breathing through my mouth because I was so congested, so often. On a good day I would be able to breath through one or the other nostril but usually both were congested – and messy. Eventually I learned how to tell whether I needed antibiotics or more antihistamine based on the color, texture, and smell of my nasal mucous.
Gross yellowish-green mucous that had a rotten smell and a stringy, sticky texture meant go to the doctor and get antibiotics because the congestion has become a lung infection.
Thin, watery, clear or whitish mucous is produced in large amounts during allergy attacks. Mucous produced due to allergies didn’t have smell associated with it in my experience. The thin fluid mucous produced in such large amounts during allergies may be helping the body carry the allergen debris up and out of the lungs. Constantly suppressing this response with medications may produce short term symptom relief, however in the long run using medications that dry up mucous may be allowing the allergens full access to deeper lung tissue made accessible through the artificially opened airways. The mucous is part of our body’s defense system.
Coughing and sneezing and moving the mucous out may be better for your health than regularly using an over the counter medication. Cleaning up the environment and removing dust and allergens would also probably be better for your health, when possible, ie: you can stop smoking but you have little control over smog alert days beyond wearing a face mask and voting for environmental protection; or you can vacuum and wash your bedding weekly but you may not be able to give away the family pet as easily.
I tried a nasal steroid spray for the first time recently and discovered myself producing a brand new type of mucous. My airways felt more open than usual but I also developed a new cough that felt like I had something stuck in my throat that I was choking on, like a cat with a hairball. When I successfully cleared the mucous, it appeared a typical whitish color but the texture was much stickier and slimier — more like my childhood toy can of Slime. I stopped using the steroid nasal spray fairly quickly; free flowing snot’s all right — sticky, slimy snot is not — it isn’t able to be expelled as easily. Free flowing mucous allows the body to carry allergens and pathogens up and out of the lungs when the mucous is thin enough to allow productive coughing.
Occasionally I would blow my nose and find little round globule of clear semi-solid mucous — fascinating for an easily amused and not easily disgusted child — they looked just like a gelatin dessert without the bright food coloring. The chemical structure of mucous is similar to a gelatin dessert or fruit jams and jelly. Fruit jams and jelly thickens when the pectin fiber is cooked. Heating the pectin fibers cause them to change shape and form the semi-solid structure of the jam or jelly. Gelatinous mixtures are all fairly chemically unstable and minor changes in acidity or hydration may cause changes in the structure or cause the gelatinous mixture to dissolve back into a fluid.
Chemical mixtures are made when we cook food. Tiny chemical changes can produce big changes in a “free-form gelatinous matrix.” You could experiment by adding a little lemon juice or carbonated beverage to a bowl of a gelatinous dessert or scoop of jam. The acidity should cause the gelatinous structure to break apart and get watery looking again.
The glycocalyx may act a little like glue between cells or like a sealant coating pipes in a plumbing repair. The jelly-like glycocalyx helps protect our inner surfaces around cells and in the lining of blood vessels and throughout the intestinal tract. A healthy glycocalyx layer may help prevent allergens from leaking through the intestinal lining into the bloodstream. Pectin is important for making jam or jelly and eating fiber rich foods everyday is probably just as important for maintaining a healthy glycocalyx. Good sources of fiber include any whole plant foods such as: vegetables, fruits, mushrooms, whole grains, beans, nuts and seeds, and herbs and spices. There is also a healthy type of fiber in edible insects called chitin.
— on fiber rich foods of course. ;-)
*Having enough water every day is also important for healthy mucous. And the electrically active minerals sodium, potassium, calcium, and magnesium are also important in fluid balance and healthy mucous .
Read more: Electrolytes are essential, magnesium helps protect brain cells
/Disclosure: This information is provided for educational purposes within the guidelines of fair use. While I am a Registered Dietitian this information is not intended to provide individual health guidance. Please see a health professional for individual health care purposes./
Bioslime is another word that is used specifically to describe the gelatinous glycocalyx layer produced by pathogens on the surfaces of transplant devices and tubing used in patient’s wounds for drainage or tube feedings.