5 TCM tips to thrive THROUGH "FLU" SEASON!
First things first, we gotta get some things straight in this crazy world we are living in. This pandemic has exacerbated the "GERM THEORY" that there's germs out there that are hunting us down and coming to get us. It's important to look at things through different lenses to consider different options and make your own opinion on how to proceed. The recommended methods of treating 'germs' (hand sanitizer on everything, bleach all over, masking, social distancing, vxnnes) have not really seemed to make a dent in the panny from ending and all have a focus on your external environment.
The best and most important thing YOU can do right now is focus on YOUR health. Plus, keep in mind that colds, bacteria and viruses do not thrive in a healthy body. They are able to get in and multiply when the body is weak or imbalanced.
In TCM we think of the immune system as a forcefield of energy protecting you from the outside. Things like nutrient dense food, sleep, laughter, exercise can all strengthen your qi or energetic forcefield while things like sugar, alcohol, stress, sitting, processed foods, can all weaken that forcefield. I find this visual very easy to imagine how what we do every day, all our little habits can build that forcefield up... or dim it down.
Will the force be strong with this one? (AKA you)
The choice is yours.
WHAT IS FLU SEASON REALLY THOUGH...
While the enigma that is "Flu Season" isn't actually an influx of germs that fly north for the winter like some people may imagine, it's really a combination of a few different factors :
-Less Sunshine and Vitamin D
-Less movement, more sitting around and indoor activities
-More alcohol, sugar and carbs (Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, New Years, etc)
-Increased stress around the holiday seasons
-Less time dedicated to self-care
All of which affect our immune system and health.
In holistic medicine, we say there are 5 pillars of health:
diet, sleep, movement, connection and stress management.
If one (or more) of those pillars are weak, our health will have a weak foundation and allow disease or illness to occur. That's why it's important that we focus on ALL of these and not just the commonly emphasized, 'diet and exercise'.
We often get sucked into the idea that we can "boost" our immune system with a shot or pill but it doesn't work that way (as cool as it would be). Immune health must be built and maintained over time (much like a home) through the small choices we make every day.
What we eat, how much we're scrolling, sitting at a desk, listening to the negative news, what we say 'yes' to, the amount of solid sleep we get... these all add up to our overall health.
That's why it's important to create a lifestyle that supports and maintains our health instead of yo-yo-ing between detox-to-retox and burnout extremes.
HEALTH IS ABOUT THE SMALL CHOICES YOU MAKE EVERY DAY
One way to support a healthy, sustainable lifestyle is to use the 80/20 rule where you're really on point with your diet, working out, meditation, and self-care 80% of the time, while the other 20% you are a bit more lax, indulgent and loose so it's not so rigid and strict.
I decide when to partake in the 20% based on how I'm feeling. If I'm on the verge of getting sick, I definitely am not "treating myself" with ice cream or sugary treats. Instead I may sleep or nap instead of an exercise class, go for a walk instead of lift, stay in instead of go to that birthday party I said I'd attend.
If you're in the midst of a health crisis, (gut issues, on the verge of getting sick, pain, extreme stress) it's important to listen to your body to see what it needs until you are well again instead of pushing on with your normal routine.
Modern society has developed a "push through it" attitude instead of listening to and nurturing our bodies. The sooner you develop that connection with the body, the sooner you'll be able to detect when you feel off and make a pivot to conserve your energy and protect your health.
We become ill after/during periods of stress, partying, eating processed and sugary foods, poor sleep, lots of sedentary and indoor time. All of which are VERY easy to fall victim to during this 3 month stretch of "Holiday" seasons.
Our bodies are incredibly capable of dealing with these "foreign invaders" like bacteria and "flu" viruses, we just gotta give them a fighting chance.
TCM AND THE CHANGING SEASONS
Let's divulge in a little Eastern wisdom for a second.
The air is chillier, the days are getting shorter, the squirrels are hoarding nuts for the winter and perhaps we find ourselves a little more withdrawn, serious and introspective than our carefree, energetic summer selves.
We always notice the transitions happening AROUND us <leaves turning colors and falling from the trees, cold AF, dreary weather> but do you notice when that energy WITHIN us begins to shift too?
In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), fall is associated with the Metal element, which is big on organization, order, communication, as well as setting limits and boundaries. Summer on the other hand is associated with the Fire element which gives us that spontaneous, exuberant energy that compels us to travel and play outdoors.
We want these elements to be IN balance because when they are not... we start to have issues both physically and emotionally.
It's important for any animal in an ecosystem to adapt to its surroundings and we as humans are no exception. Adjusting our lifestyles to these shifts in energy helps us thrive through the seasons, staying energized, happy and healthy.
Fall is a great time to organize your life for the winter season ahead and become more introspective and reflective. It's about preserving your energy and nourishing the body <instead of burning it out> to keep it energized for the seasons ahead.
Fall/Metal is also associated with the Lungs and Large Intestine, both of which have a theme of "Letting Go".
Each breath we take in is followed by letting go of the carbon dioxide that has filled our lungs.
Nourishing breath in..... Exhaling out what no longer serves us.
The Lung is considered to be a "tender" organ and because it deals with the air flowing in and out of us (we're basically just big wind instruments), it is especially susceptible to wind and cold. The change of temperature can cause things like coughs, sore throats, and colds when we aren't protecting our bodies from the chill. The back of the neck, top of the head, abdomen/low back and souls of the feet are especially sensitive to wind and cold so it's important to dress for the weather and keep these areas covered.
The large intestine gets rid of what the body can't absorb or doesn't need. It lets go of "what no longer serves us" in the form of a big, beautiful bowel movement. Constipation can often be a result of stress and both of which can be viewed as an energetic "holding on" instead of going with the flow.
Fall is an EXTRA important time to breathe deep and make sure you're pooping daily.
Look into meditation, breath-work classes and dial in your bowel movements (acupuncture is great at this!).
Okay, it's finally meat and potatoes time. Let's break down a few of these concepts a little more in a concise numbered list because... us type A people love lists.
1. KEEP IT COVERED
In Chinese Medicine, protecting ourselves from the cold weather is extremely important. In addition to making us sick, it can also aggravate existing conditions like arthritis (cold in the joints). When we ward off cold, Chinese Medicine says we’re not only protecting ourselves from immediate harm but helping to prevent disease when spring arrives. The idea of cold weather making someone sick is not foreign to our own culture. You probably recall instances when your parents told you to bundle up so you didn’t catch a cold.
There's a point at the base of your neck is called "Wind Gate" in TCM and that point is super susceptible to wind and chills which is why a lot of people who get sick from cold weather might get a headache, stiff neck and achy joints. It's important to cover it up so wind doesn't get in your body. Don't forget your scarf and jacket!
As soon as you feel like you're getting a cold, put a warm compress on the area or spend a few minutes with the warm blowdryer here to help dispel that cold and wind.
2. KEEP IT DRY
Never go outside with wet hair especially if it's cold, damp or windy. This is a good way of creating a 'cold-damp' scenario that gets you sick or at least a bad headache.
It’s best not leave your hair wet even during the summer because air conditioning or a fan on a wet head is similar to a very cold and wet February day.
Not leaving the house with wet hair is important for everyone, but it’s especially critical for those who are on their period, pregnant or postnatal.
Be sure to blow dry it (or at the very least the roots) before leaving the house to keep it warm and dry.
3. EAT WARM, COOKED, SEASONAL FOODS
The digestive system in Chinese Medicine prefers warmth and we refer to our"metabolism" as 'Digestive Fire' that helps us turn food into fuel or scientifically speaking, absorbable nutrients.
Eating foods that are warm (to the touch) and cooked make it easier to digest.
Imagine eating a raw potato vs a cooked one. The cooked one is softer and is much easier to chew and digest than a crisp, fibrous raw one.
Or how about trying to cook frozen foods vs room temp ones? Frozen foods are going to take longer to thaw and cook.
The same thing happens within our digestive tract. Our stomachs are very sensitive to pH (acidity/alkalinity) and temperature. If neither is within the necessary range for digestion to happen, the food will sit in the gut and take longer to digest until the pH/temp conditions have been met. If we are eating cold food, it takes longer for us to warm up the stomach in order for digestion to take place. More on this in a bit.
We want to make it as easy as possible to make energy in the winter when the energy we get from the sun and active outdoors has dwindled. This goes 10-fold if you already struggle with digestive issues (bloat, gas, reflux, indigestion, SIBO, IBS, constipation, diarrhea, UC, Crohn's, etc).
Soups are the PERFECT food for fall (actually I love soup year round, even in Summer) because they are warm, cozy and packed with gut healing nutrients and vitamins.
Soups are usually blended and cooked for a long time, both of which make it way easier to digest. Soups are quick to heat up and great if you are short on time or on the go.
Words really can't describe my love for soup and how great it is for your body. Make a note <right now!> on how you're going to incorporate more soup into your life.
There's another aspect to warm that is well-understood in Eastern cultures but is a little harder to grasp for those of us in the West who didn't grow up looking at foods this way. Not only can foods be warm or cool in temperature (like the straight-out-the-oven or brain-freeze way) but each food is categorized warm, neutral or cool based on the internal effect it has on the body.
Warming foods will:
warm and stimulate the body
Cooling foods will:
remove heat and cool the body
For example, cinnamon is easily understood as a warming spice while mint as a more cooling herb. All foods: herbs, spices, vegetables, meats, etc have a certain temperature, with some being more intuitive than others.
An easy way to guess which herbs are warming are to think of the ones associated with fall/winter cooking recipes. Cinnamon, clove, allspice, cardamom, and ginger are all examples of warming herbs. Garlic, onions, horseradish, goat, chicken, and venison are warming as well.
In contrast, fish, seaweeds, shellfish and things from the sea are generally cold as are watermelon, celery, leafy greens -- things we normally think of as refreshing on a hot, summer day.
It needs to be said that Chinese medicine is all about balance! You don't need to be picking ONLY warm/hot foods in terms of spice/flavor. It's okay to have some cooler items but you want to have the overall temperature be neutral to warm in the fall/winter. An example of this would be a warm salad -- raw spinach, cooked squash, onion, brussels, bacon.
Choosing these warm and warming foods will help create energy and provide us with an internal warmth to keep our metabolism and immune system kicking through the chilly days.
In ancient traditions they always ate the local vegetation, noting that the plants growing regionally and seasonally often had benefits for common ailments associated with each season of the region.
Eating seasonally provides our bodies with more nutrients than non-seasonal which is especially important for maintaining our immune system! If we are eating non-seasonal items it means they're either shipped from far away and are less fresh, or they've been stored for a long time since they aren't currently growing/in season.
It's best to shop at local farmer's markets or to choose local foods from your grocery store (they usually have a sticker saying where they're from). This means they're probably riper (more nutrients) and have had to travel a shorter distance from the farm to your dinner plate (fresher + better environmentally).
Foods at farmer's markets are almost always in-season for your local area. You do need to be checking whether they are organic or not but keep in mind that getting that organic certification does cost money which some of the smaller farm's aren't able to afford. The beauty of Farmer's Markets are you're able to TALK TO the people growing your food. Not only does this increase your connection to the fuel you're providing your body with but it also allows you to learn the process of how it's grown. If they're not organic, ask them about their farming techniques.
Remember, the more you're able to adapt and eat with the seasons, the better your body will thrive. And if you haven't noticed... a common theme with adapting to fall is keeping things warm!
4. AVOID COLD, ICE AND RAW FOODS + DRINKS
Raw and cold foods are sacrilege when it's cold out. During the summer they may be a refreshing treat (although it's still not recommended if you have a weak digestive system) but fall and winter is the time for cooked and warm, not cold and raw.
Eating cold, raw foods during the winter invites cold into our bodies which can impact our circulation and immune response.
Fall and winter are not the time for sushi (raw), smoothies (ice, frozen fruit, raw veg), salads (raw), ice water, ice cream (cold, sugar, dairy), etc. Our guts only work within a specific temperature range and if you're dumping icy cold stuff in there it will take longer and more energy for it to warm up before it starts digesting. This means more energy spent (fatigue, brain fog) and more fermentation time (bloating, gas, reflux, indigestion).
Choose the warmer foods we discussed above and notice the difference in your digestion and energy. If you're prone to cold hands and feet or get period pain that's relieved by a hot pad, this is a game changer!
You can still get your greens in and get your salad fix by having a "warm salad" where you sauté the greens (spinach, kale, etc) for a few minutes before eating them to make them easier to digest. You can also pair them with some of the warming spices (cinnamon, ginger, turmeric, cayenne, paprika) and toppings we discussed above to help balance out the meal.
5. sock it to ya
Wear socks. Even in California when we have the tendency to want to flip flop around during fall/winter, it's important to keep the feet warm to ensure circulation is happening from head to toe.
Heat loss occurs through the feet. In Chinese Medicine, the lower part of the body has a connection to the kidneys which we consider the root of our immune system because the "kidney energy" reflects our overall constitution. Our constitution is the genetic tendencies we are born with that is either maintained or depleted by our lifestyles. (Genetics may load the gun but diet, lifestyle, environment pulls the trigger).
By keeping your feet warm, you add another layer of protection that wards off cold attacking the kidneys.
Wear socks at home if you have hard floors like wood or concrete.
That cold can penetrate into the body and weaken our energy making us tired and our blood move slower. This is especially important for women and helping our cycles be smooth and regular. Warm feet=warm uterus. This gives the embryo an environment it can thrive in. So, sock it up!
Wear socks to bed. This tip actually provides us with many benefits! This helps us sleep deeper due to the temperature regulation it creates within the body. This allows for better circulation throughout the body which in turn leads to a better nights sleep (also important for fighting a cold!).
6. CUT THE SUGAR AND ALCOHOL
We KNOW neither is doing the body any favors. Both of these substances are widely available and promoted during the holiday season as they're interwoven into our culture. Alcohol and sugar are both addictive and we're all aware that they're not good for us BUT we use them anyways:
-as a treat
-because it's the holidays
-because they're waved in front of our faces
-because of pressure from family or friends...
the list of excuses goes on.
While they may be hard to avoid it's important to remember the consequences of partaking and to see if the "high risk, high reward" mentality is really worth it in this case.
Alcohol decreases our stomach acid making it so we aren't digesting properly which results in nutrient deficiencies. When our bodies don't have the nutrients they need to make energy, repair, and heal, bacteria and viruses are able to take over.
Sugar creates internal inflammation which allows those bacteria and other unwanted critters (parasites, fungus, etc) to thrive and multiply quicker than rabbits. Those bacteria LOVE sugar and if you have intense sugar cravings it's probably because a) the "addiction" cycle has been turned on and b) your gut bacteria balance is out-of-whack or in what we call a "dysbiosis". This means there's an overgrowth of "bad guys" and they're hungry and craving the sweet stuff.
As hard as it is to say no to all of our favorite holiday treats, it's best to minimize the damage we are doing to our insides.
Bring your own dish to holiday parties/get togethers so you know you have a healthy option
Choose healthier candies or treats (ex: "paleo" or "whole30" recipes for baked goods, organic candies, etc)
Eat before you go to parties so you're less likely to gorge on unhealthy options
Practice saying no and working on boundaries so you don't find yourself guilted into putting something in your mouth or body that you'd rather not. "NO grandma, I'm okay, I'm full -or- I'll get seconds if I feel like it later -or- NO I'm not hungry for that" YOU are the gatekeeper for what goes in your body, no one else.
Be selective about which holiday parties you'll partake in drinking at and trying to stay sober for some. "Drink limits" have never worked for me personally (kudos if they do for you) and it's easier for me to stay sober than it is to limit myself to 3 drinks.
Vodka or Gin/Tonic, Tequila/Soda, Keep it simple and add some cinnamon, cranberries, whole fruit or clove for a festive treat
BYOB: Low sugar wines (Dry Farms is a 3rd party wine subscription that lab tests all their wines for sugars, pesticides, sulfites, etc before sending you them so you KNOW you're getting the cleanest wine there is. If this isn't an option for you, choose French or Italian wines as Europe has higher standards for what is allowed in their wines. Many CA/US wines add things to make it taste good and even Organic wines get run off from their non-organic neighbors making them test high for chemicals. Once you start drinking cleaner wine, the not-so-clean stuff starts tasting like a soda or artificially flavored)
*If you're contemplating your relationship with alcohol I highly recommend reading or listening to This Naked Mind by Annie Grace. That book has helped me break down a lot of the excuses and perspectives I had/have about alcohol and makes it less compelling for me to drink. It's not a hard decision anymore, it's just not that appealing and I really struggled with the cycle of: binge drinking, feeling guilty/anxious/sick, rinse-wash-repeat, until I broke down some of the subconscious and universal "beliefs" about WHY I was drinking.*
Throughout the next few months, really practice paying attention to how food makes you FEEL. Before putting food on your plate think, will this make me feel energized? Or sluggish and brain fogged? What do I want to feel right now?
This will help you filter out what you really want to eat and what you don't .
At this time of the year, plants and animals are less active and abundant. Although our modern conveniences (artificial light, indoor heating) allow us a little more flexibility, it’s still important for our immunity and constitution to respect the cycles of nature. If you can, go to bed earlier during the winter and wake up later than you would in the summer. Following the cycle of the sun helps regulate our circadian rhythm which has an effect on everything from energy to hormones!
Contrary to popular (American culture) belief, rest is productive! You won't continue to be productive if you're sick and tired because you're continuously pushing yourself past your limits. Why do so many illnesses and autoimmune diseases happen during times of extreme stress? Because stress weakens the immune system. Schedule in periods of rest BEFORE your body makes that decision for you.
Fall and winter’s energies are about going inward and restoring so be sure to listen to your body and rest when feeling drained (napping, reading, taking a walk, or something else you enjoy instead of pushing for productivity). Try to do this BEFORE you're feeling completely tanked, drained and run down. It's easier to maintain health than it is to get well again.
Rest can also be choosing yin yoga instead of a HIIT or spin class, going to bed early, saying no to that party or dinner date, or even sleeping a few extra hours instead of that 6th workout of the week. We get sick when we are running low on our energy reserves. Aim to be in bed by 10, sleeping 7-9 hours each night and allowing yourself to sleep in/lay in bed on the weekends if your body craves it.
8. GET ACUPUNCTURE
The best way to treat a disease is to prevent it. It's not best practice to wait to dig a well until you are thirsty so when it comes to health and your immune system it's better to do things preventatively to maintain your wellness than to try to dig yourself out of your state of illness.
Acupuncture is a wonderful preventative medicine because it stimulates your body's natural healing capabilities. It helps regulate your nervous system, circulation and detox systems to help take out any foreign invaders or imbalances before they become a serious problem.
If you do get sick, acupuncture can be helpful in relieving symptoms like chills, fever, headaches, body aches, runny nose, congestion, sore throat, and cough. A few acupuncture treatments and the right herbs or supplements can be enough to speed up recovery. It may even be possible to prevent symptoms from developing into a full on condition. If you receive acupuncture within the first 24 hours of sneezing or a fever developing, it is possible the cold or flu may not fully develop.
The primary goal of Chinese Medicine is to create and maintain balance – both within the body itself and with the body’s relationship to the external environment. A body that is in balance has a stronger immune system and a greater ability to resist illness. This stronger immune system can prevent you from coming down with a cold or flu or other viruses.
If you are interested in strengthening your resistance to illness or you want to speed up recovery because you have caught a cold or the flu, contact us to book an appointment.
I hope you found this informational! Chinese Medicine has always been a fascination of mine because it's very intuitive and brings us back to basics and simplicity. It's easy to get caught up in the shiny new supplement, treatment or diagnosis. Learn how to listen to and take care of your body so you are able to age gracefully and breeze through each season. We all have enough stress in our lives, don't let getting sick add to your full plate!
Leave me a comment below to let me know something you learned.