It’s early October and a great time to prepare yourself for cold and flu season, or what some have renamed the “sugar season” which officially begins the day after Halloween. The average person tends to get three colds per year–usually in the wintertime. Do you know that Western scientists don’t actually know for sure why we get more colds and flus in the winter? In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), they have known for thousands of years that being exposed to the wind and the cold, along with a weakened “wei qi” (immune system) can bring on a cold or flu. But it’s just within the last few years that western scientists are beginning to understand this is true!
Scientists have recently discovered that being exposed to and breathing in cold air reduces our immunity. They have also agreed that what we eat directly impacts our immune system. A lowered immunity combined with more time spent swapping germs indoors seems to be one clue to why we get more colds and flus in the fall and winter.
So, in addition to washing our hands and staying warm, here are some good tips for preventing colds and flus by way of boosting your immune system:
- Stop the sugar
High sugar intake decreases immune system cells that attack bacteria for at least a few hours after eating a sugary food or drink. Americans in general consume too much sugar, especially since “low fat diets” came into fashion. All of us tend to eat more sugar than we realize. Between Halloween and New Year’s there are many occasions to indulge–coincidentally during the “flu season.” Is it that more viruses are circulating or that we are weakening our immune systems with sugar? If you’re wondering how much sugar is too much sugar, take a look at this good article. And remember there is also a lot of sugar in that after work glass of wine!
2. Eat Seasonally
Pay attention to the foods coming in to season at the Farmer’s Market–and eat plenty of them! They happen to be high in the vitamins and minerals necessary to boost the immune system and prevent colds and flus. They are also whole foods, which will encourage cooking at home, and avoiding processed foods that are often loaded with bad stuff for your body.
Two good lists of seasonal foods, and other seasonal advice:
Fall foods from a Chinese Medicine perspective
Winter foods from a Chinese Medicine perspective
3. Get Enough Sleep
Being well rested gives your immune system a boost. It may or not be possible or realistic for you to “get enough sleep.” You may be living with babies, pets, your partner’s snoring, etc., and other outside circumstances that interrupt your sleep — I know some of those things can’t be changed. But if they can actually be changed (sleeping in a different room, for example), please take the leap and do it! The world is a different place when you get more sleep.
You may also be someone who wakes up at 3 a.m. worrying, or has trouble falling asleep, or have aches and pains at night– with some help and effort (herbs, acupuncture, meditation, etc.) these problems may have some solutions.
In any case, according to ancient Chinese wisdom, living with the seasons is one of the keys to staying healthy. The fall and winter are times to be a little less social, to slow your activities down, get more sleep, and to cozy up.
Be honest with yourself about how you can get more sleep– turning the TV or your phone off earlier, installing light blocking curtains in your bedroom, or allowing yourself to take naps (or learn how to nap), and saying no to social obligations when you really are too tired. Many of us also avoid realizing how tired we actually are by using caffeine to “get us through the day.” I suggest gradually cutting down on caffeine to allow yourself to be tired, and then to sleep when you feel tired. This might mean taking a little break from your “normal” life. Eventually, you won’t be so tired!
4. Exercise, and move around during the day.
Exercise boosts the immune the system by decreasing the body’s stress chemicals (which compromise the immune system) and increaseing feel good chemicals that encourage a good night’s sleep. Generally, thirty to sixty minutes per day of moderate exercise (walking, for example) is all it takes, in addition to moving around a bit throughout the day–that is, not spending extended periods of time sitting. Even if you exercise 30 to 60 minutes each day, it may not be beneficial unless you are making a point to stand up and do some light activity for a few minutes every hour. For those with desk jobs, please check out this article on “Sitting Disease”.
5. Address Your Stress
Although our lives occasionally give us a break from our troubles, generally we all have stress. In a world where change is the only constant, stressful situations will always arise (or as the Buddhists say “life is suffering”). There is nothing we can do about that. We can, however, learn to respond better to stress. Responding “better” to stress takes commitment to change our habitual responses and get a new perspective.
I strongly encourage learning to meditate, if even for ten minutes a day. One study showed that people who meditated over an 8 week period had improved immune response up to four months later.
There are many good books, websites, and local groups that can help to support a meditation practice. The benefits are countless. I recently discovered some wonderful online resources put out by the sweet and funny Tibetan Buddhist monk Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche. Here is a link if you are interested in trying out a meditation that is shorter than fifteen minutes: short meditation
If you don’t like that style, look around and ask around to find a style that works for you. If meditation is a turn off, you can try yoga, tai chi, and qi gong. If practiced regularly, they are also great stress relievers. Spending time with loving friends and family also can help relieve stress, or watching funny movies, laughing more, dancing, listening to or playing music, getting a massage, acupuncture, taking a bath, exercising….there are many ways to de-stress, you just have to discover (or remember) what your way is, and commit to it before things get out of control. Lowering your stress levels boosts your immune system, not only preventing colds and flus, but other more serious diseases, too.
Here’s a link to some really corny jokes that you can tell to all your friends to boost everyone’s immune system. Ha ha!
6. Use Herbs and Acupuncture
Of course herbs and acupuncture help to boost the immune system and lower stress as well. If you are someone who gets frequent colds during the year, you may be a good candidate for one of several immune boosting herbal formulas. Please ask me! Getting regular acupuncture treatments helps to turn off the stress response as well as boosts the immune cells that kill infection.
IF You Do Get a Cold….
And finally, please remember that if you do catch a cold or a flu, stop taking any herbs you may be on for other conditions. Often those herbal formulas include tonic herbs which will make a cold worse!!! Instead, rely on the age old advice of resting, hydration, and actually yes, chicken soup. Herbs specific to your symptoms (designed for colds) can help a lot, and get an acupuncture treatment to help reduce the duration of the ailment.
There are Chinese Herbal formulas that you can buy at certain grocery stores like Berkeley Bowl or Whole Foods, but they should be specific to your kind of cold. In TCM diagnosis, there are different kinds of colds (mainly two, “Wind Heat” and “Wind Cold”) so you want the formula that’s right for your cold symptoms.
Here is a link to a graphic that can help you decide what kind of cold you have: wind heat vs wind cold
Please Share! If you have tried and true remedies, homemade teas, etc., that work for either prevention or resolving cold symptoms, please share them here so others may benefit from your wisdom and experience.
I am hoping you stay healthy during the coming months, and enjoy the cooler weather!
Frances Wocicki, LAc, MSOM, MA