The leaves are falling, the days are getting shorter, the nights are getting colder, and you can see your breath in the morning when you leave the house to go to work: Fall is upon us, and winter is right around the corner. While this means many wonderful things, like hot cocoa and warm fuzzy slippers, holiday parties, and watching the world covered in the magic of the first snowfall, it also means the onset of flu season. Already, it seems like everywhere we go people are sneezing, pulling out their tissues, picking up their kids at school with a fever or a sore throat, and calling into work sick. So how do you stay healthy this winter? In this post, we tackle simple steps you can take to prevent getting sick this winter. Our next post will give you the tools you need to take care of yourself if you do catch a cold or flu.
One of the best ways to prevent getting the flu this winter is to maintain a normal sleep cycle and get as much sleep as your body needs. From a biomedical perspective, sleep is closely related to the healthy functioning of your immune system – and when you don’t have enough sleep, your immune system doesn’t have the strength that it needs to keep you healthy. In fact, a recent study at Carnegie Mellon University found that people who sleep less than 7 hours a night are three times more likely to get sick than people who sleep over 8 hours per night.
In Chinese medicine, everything in our bodies – and the universe – is based on yin and yang. Yin represents all that is cold, heavy, quiet, turning inward, sinking, passive, and still, like water or the night. Yang represents all that is warm, light, airy, loud, expansive, rising, and active, like fire or the day. In order to maintain a state of health, your own personal yin and yang must remain in balance. Sleep is the most yin thing that we do every day. If we don’t allow our body to have this peaceful yin resting time, then our body will not be in balance and we will get sick. Sleep is even more important than usual in the winter months, because winter is the most yin time of the year, and it requires us to devote more of our days and nights to yin activities, like sleep.
Also, from a Chinese medical perspective, sleep is the time during which your body builds lots of its energy – particularly the energy of the blood. If you don’t get enough sleep, your body doesn’t have a chance to replete its energy stores, and you can end up experiencing symptoms of energy deficiency, such as fatigue, headaches and dizziness, digestive problems, respiratory problems, and an easier susceptibility to getting sick.
Most of Chinese medical theory is based upon watching the rhythms of the natural world. Many prominent Traditional Chinese Medical Doctors have argued that the high rates of disease in modern culture can be attributed to living out of harmony with nature. This means that it matters when you sleep, not just the amount of time you sleep. While it is completely unrealistic in today’s society to say that you should base your sleep patterns on the patterns of the sun, it is realistic to keep in mind that night is the yin time, and the time for sleeping. Even if you can sleep in late the next morning, try to be in bed before 11:00 pm, so that you are asleep for the most yin time of the night – the middle of the night.
Just as sleep and rest (yin) are important in prevention of seasonal colds and flus, so is movement and exercise (yang). A recent study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that individuals who exercised at least 20 minutes per day, 5 days/week, had 40% fewer sick days than individuals who exercised only one day per week or less. While science is not completely sure why this happens, researchers postulate that the increased activity awakens the immune system and helps transport immune cells around the body.
From a Chinese medical perspective, exercise is important in maintaining health because it prevents your qi – or vital energy – from becoming sluggish, stagnant, or stuck. When your qi is stagnant, numerous disease symptoms can occur, most commonly relating to pain. When your qi is not moving in the way it is supposed to, it cannot get to all the places in your body that it needs to get to, including the surface of your body, where it protects you from any pathogens that might make you sick. Also, when your qi is stagnant, your body slows down its production of qi, leaving you without the energy reserves to fend off a sickness.
It is important to note that Chinese medicine emphasizes moderation in all things, particularly exercise. Too much or too vigorous exercise will only weaken your body more and make you more likely to catch a cold. If you are not used to exercising, start slow and simple, perhaps with a gentle yoga class or a 20 minute walk outside. If you are used to exercising, remember to pay attention to your body and find the intensity that makes you feel better, not worse.
Over the past few decades, there has been increased research into the relationship between stress and the immune system. It is well documented that stress – particularly chronic stress – takes a toll on our bodies and our ability to stay healthy. From a biomedical perspective, stress causes our body to pump more cortisol into the blood stream. Cortisol is an important hormone in our body that serves many important functions. However, the high levels of cortisol in our body during a stressful time are meant to return to normal following the stressful event. Given today’s fast-paced lifestyle, our bodies are often never given the chance to recover from one high stress event before the next one is upon us, and we end up living in a state of chronic stress. The increased levels of cortisol over a long period of time, along with other hormonal changes, weaken our immune system and make us less able to fight off a virus or bacterial infection.
In Chinese medicine, stress influences the body in many ways. If we deal with stress by excessively worrying, we weaken our Spleen energy, which is in charge of producing the qi that we need to stay healthy from the food that we eat. If we deal with stress by getting upset or angry, then we weaken our Liver energy, which is responsible for ensuring that qi is flowing smoothly throughout our body. If the stress makes us overly sad or fragile, then we weaken our Lung energy, which makes us unable to fight off respiratory pathogens. If stress makes us anxious or agitated, then it disturbs our Heart energy, which interferes with our sleep and our emotional calm, which our body needs to maintain health. If we are severely stressed or overworked for long periods of time, then the stress weakens our Kidney energy, which in turn weakens our core ability to balance and protect ourselves.
So you are stressed. What do you do? Unfortunately, given the numerous responsibilities that many of us have, and stresses about jobs and family and money, it may be impossible to eliminate the stressors from your life. But it is possible is alleviate some of them. Try to find something that helps you relax, and devote 15 minutes to it every day. It could be yoga, or meditation, or reading a good book. Perhaps it is sitting in your kitchen drinking your favorite kind of tea, or going for a jog, or taking a long shower. Make sure you carve out that dedicated 15 minutes each day. Soon you may find yourself allotting 20 or 30 minutes to this practice, and then you will be on your way towards remembering to slow down and take care of yourself.
Humans are social beings. And amazingly, being social has a positive impact on your health! Over the past 20 years, researcher Sheldon Cohen and his associates at Carnegie Mellon University have researched the effects of social support on health outcomes. In numerous studies, they have found that participants with greater sociability and social support are less likely to get sick when exposed to a common cold virus than participants with less social support. So just as we encourage you to take time for you, take time for your friends and those you love, as well. It is good for both them and you!
Eat Well for Winter
As with so many things in Chinese medicine, to understand what we should be eating, we look to earth and nature. In Massachusetts, winter is not a time when fruits are abundant, so they should be limited in the fall and winter diet. In Chinese medicine, foods have heating or cooling properties, regardless of the temperature they are when you eat them, although that is also important. Avoid overuse of cool or cold foods like cucumbers, most fruit, salad, wheat, and juices. Eat lots of warm stews, soups, and casseroles. If you eat meat, eat more of it than you do during the other seasons. This is the time when we are storing up our energy reserves and trying to warm our bodies from the inside out. If you don’t eat meat, then increase the protein content of your meals during the winter. Eat winter squash, yams, potatoes, leeks, and onions, all of which are warming foods. Eat rye, quinoa, pinenuts, and walnuts. Flavor your food with warming spices like cinnamon, pepper, and ginger. Mmmmm…
If you are susceptible to catching colds with lots of mucus and phlegm, try to reduce the amount of dairy in your diet. In Chinese medicine, mucus and phlegm are formed from something called Dampness, which is an abnormal fluid collection in the body. Dampness occurs when our Spleen energy is weak (from lack of sleep, or stress, or worry, or eating too many cold foods), and it often gets stored in our Lungs, where it causes coughing and wheezing. It can also occur from an outside pathogen – such as a cold or flu that causes a runny nose. Dairy products contribute to dampness in the body, so try to limit their use if you tend to suffer from phlegm and congestion in the winter months.
Protect your neck
In Chinese medicine, colds and flus are caused by a combination of the body’s weakness and the invasion of an outside pathogen. These pathogens – many of which Western medicine understands as viruses and bacteria – have a temperature quality to them. Thus Chinese medicine teaches us to protect ourselves from extreme temperatures, which is a good lesson to remember as we head into winter in New England.
In Chinese medicine, Cold-type pathogens enter our bodies from the back of our neck. This means it is incredibly important to keep this area covered when you are walking outside in the cold and windy weather. Wearing scarves is not only fashionable, but it protects that sensitive area and stops the cold from penetrating into your body and causing sickness. Hats are also important!
Take care to be sure that you are dressed appropriately for the weather. Staying in cold and wet shoes or clothes for too long is a good way to increase your chances of coming down with the flu.
Basically, this all boils down to taking care of yourself – body, mind, and spirit. If you put the work into doing that now, you lower your chances of sick days spent miserable in bed with a box of tissues. Plus, you’ll find that not only do these measures prevent future disease, but taking care of yourself also feels pretty good in the here and now.