How to Prevent Colds and Flus this Winter
First it’s a runny nose. Then a tickle in the chest. Before you know it, you’re in bed with a fever, chills, body aches and a stuffy head.
Colds and flus tend to pass through the population during predictable seasons. While they can occur at any time of year, the bulk generally strike during the cooler months – that is April to October. Why so? I explain below and make some suggestions as to what you can do to keep yourself strong.
Why do colds and flus strike in cooler weather?
From a Western medical perspective, there’s a few theories. For a start, when weather is humid, the heavier water particles in the air sink downwards taking viral particles in the air out of inhalation height fairly quickly. In Winter, the colder drier air means water particles, including the virus laden ones blasted into the air by a cough or sneeze, can stick around longer before sinking.
Another theory suggests that when it’s cold, we spend more time in doors and in more contact with germy air and surfaces. Further, more time indoors will bring about lower vitamin D levels which in turn will impact immunity.
As way of prevention, modern medicine suggests exposing yourself less (via hand washing, sterilizing surfaces, covering your mouth when you sneeze or cough) and an annual flu vaccination.
Traditional Chinese medicine also has its theories
From a TCM perspective colds and flus belong to a broad category of illnesses called External Disease – that is, illness acquired from externally, rather than generated from within.
We talk in Chinese medicine of 6 climactic factors that can affect us from externally and influence our health. They are Heat, Cold, Dampness, Dryness, Wind and Warmth. All of these influences are present in the environment at any given time, though in constantly varying proportions. Summer will obviously have more Heat and less Cold than winter will.
When the body is strong and has good defensive strength (basically the Chinese medical equivalent of immune function), it is alert to the constantly changing proportions of the 6 climactic factors in our environment, and responds effectively to keep us well. If we are over exposed to any of these factors, or we are unable to quickly respond to restore balance, we get sick. The type of sickness we get is defined by which of the climactic factors we were damaged by.
So back to the question of why we get colds and flus in winter …. Well it happens partly because Wind, being the predominant environmental energy of Autumn, and Cold of Winter, are the ones making us sick. And the symptoms of cold and flu are the symptoms characteristic of Wind and/or Cold generated illness.
There are other reasons too. Wind and especially Cold are the two factors out of the six that are the most damaging to human health. If we are weak in any way, Wind and Cold illnesses are the first and most common we are likely to see.
Autumn is also very changeable weather-wise, being the transition time between the heat of summer and the cold of winter. The ratios between the climactic influences are unstable at this time. It takes a strong defensive system to be responsive enough to keep you well during such a changeable season. The body would ultimately prefer slow incremental changes in the climate we are exposed too, but in Autumn, change is more erratic.
This is also why we tend to get sick easily when we travel. Modern medicine would explain it as being exposed to more pathogens and different pathogens than we are used to. Chinese medicine would say it’s the rapid change in climate (on the plane, in the new location) that a weak defensive system is unable to respond to in a timely enough fashion.
What makes us weak and unresponsive to climactic changes to begin with and how can we correct this?
First and foremost is to protect yourself from extremes of weather and sudden changes. When you are out on a lovely Autumn or Winter day, in a t-shirt, enjoying some sun, then 4pm comes around and the temperature drops by 10ᵒ, that’s when you are likely to get sick. Protect yourself and ease the transition by always over dressing and carrying warm clothes during these in between seasons.
Beyond simply dressing well, defensive strength (immunity) is all about your diet and lifestyle choices. All the regular suggestions for a long, happy and healthy life really matter here – get some exercise, get plenty of sleep, keep stress levels in check, eat an unprocessed diet of largely meat and vegetables, drink enough water, limit toxic exposure (including alcohol) etc.
The importance of “living well” isn’t some new thing that we’ve recently discovered. It was well known through ancient Asia, and also in ancient Europe. 2500 years ago, Hippocrates, said:
Illnesses do not come upon us out of the blue. They are developed from small daily sins against Nature. When enough sins have accumulated, illnesses will suddenly appear.
Can Traditional Chinese medicine help with cold and flu prevention?
Ideally, the medicine would stand on the shoulders of sound diet and lifestyle practices, but near perfect practices are of course not always possible in this modern world of ours. Regardless of your health state to begin with, Chinese medicine can be a great tool for boosting your strength to prevent colds and flus.
For such purposes, an ideal treatment schedule would be 2 or 3 acupuncture sessions, plus a few weeks of taking Chinese herbs, in the first month of each new season. Again, good for anyone, but especially relevant for those unable to employ all of those diet and lifestyle factors mentioned earlier.
To paraphrase one of the classical texts of Chinese medicine (Huang Di Nei Jing Su Wen) in a discussion of prevention versus treatment: Treating an illness once it has taken hold is like forging weapons after battle has begun, or like digging a well only after you are thirsty.
Treatment is far inferior to prevention. Dietary advice and lifestyle counselling are an integral part of the holistic Chinese medicine approach to health. If I can help with these, please let me know. In the meantime, now is the time to be assisting the body through a change of season with the use of acupuncture and Chinese herbs.
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