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Strong Winter Immunity: Getting Healthy

I'm writing from the couch, in pajamas, while I recover from the aftermath of holiday travel. My normally bullet-proof immune system (years of inoculation via sick patients!) could not stand up to the assaults of too much yang during the most yin time of year. What does this mean? Yang describes motion and mechanism, heat, moving and shaking, while Yin describes material, stillness, quiet and reflection.

So which could you imagine was the dominant force during a trip to Colorado to see family and friends that involved the following: multiple flights, sick kids, altitude/dryness, skiing, alcohol, coffee, sugar, late nights and mega-social time? Not that these are bad or unhealthy things, of course these are the great joy and spice of life, and ultimate holiday gifts! But as a follow-up to an overly busy (excess yang, deficient yin) life that doesn't change with the season, this is the perfect storm for illness.

This presents an ideal opportunity to tell you how to strengthen your immune system. Though after beautifully cold and snowy Colorado it barely feels like winter has come to Vermont, this is still the season of colds, flus, sinus and ear infections, and a big dose of depression for many (which I'll address in the next post). But these are not inevitable, and there are much more effective prevention and treatment options available besides shots and drugs, minus the side-effects.

First I'll tell you what I did to treat myself once I got sick (easy staples), and then address what I would do differently next time (prevention).

Treatment Staples from the Chinese Doc

1. Kitchen Medicine
After texting with colleagues to prescribe a Chinese Herbal Formula for myself, I realized a few things about Chinese Medicine that are important for patients to know. First, our pharmacopeia (herbal medicine) is extremely complex, specific, and effective when done by a qualified practitioner. So it's not something for self-treatment. When you are sick, go to an herbalist (like me) and have us prescribe a formula for you (we studied this for 4 graduate years and beyond, after Pre-Med Prerequisites like Anatomy, Physiology, Chemistry, Physics, not to mention Mandarin, so we ought to know how to help!).

Secondly, not only is it difficult, it is no fun to treat yourself! It was hurting my brain to think it all through. But it made me feel already better that people wanted to think about what would help me. When you are sick, get care, it's part of the medicine, we need each other.

But we have a lot in our own kitchen already that can really help. Here are a few staples:

-Soup. Ideally you'll have bone broth glugging away in the crockpot when you're sick, like I do right now . But in a pinch, a good chicken soup from an Asian restaurant or even boxed broth is better than nothing. Not only is soup easy to swallow when your throat is sore and you're congested, it supports immunity, lowers inflammation, and packs a punch of amino acids, vitamins and minerals, and l-glutamine. One study showed bone broth inhibits neutrophil migration (helps a cold).

-Herbs and Spices. Cinnamon and Mint are two key helpers to keep in your kitchen. Cinnamon, called Gui Zhi ("guay jer") in Chinese, circulates and as we say "releases the exterior." This basically translates to supporting the immune system to kick out pathogens. Mint, called Bo He ("bow huh") is a powerful throat-opener, and as you may have noticed if you drink a cup of strong mint tea, nice and cooling.

-Honey. Raw is best (active) and Manuka even better (anti-microbial). Honey soothes the throat and fights pathogens. It is so good at killing bugs and regenerating tissue, that many hospitals use it on serious wounds.

-Sauerkraut. More probiotics and Vitamins A and C than most anything else. Probiotics are like "fertilizing your garden": a healthy gut means stronger immune system and less inflammation.

2. Effective Available Supplements
Like herbs, it helps to have guidance from a practitioner so you don't waste your money. But some basics are easy to find and high enough quality to be worth it, especially when you are sick and can only do a quick trip to the store.

-Vitamin D3. An oil-based dropper (simply in coconut oil) is the easiest to absorb. A big dose of this at the onset (contact me for more dosage recommendation) can ramp up your immune system so you don't get sick. This one is so important for those of us in darker climates or anyone who doesn't get at least 20 minutes of direct sunshine 4 times per week, and not just for immunity but also mood and bone health, to name a few.

-Cod Liver Oil. Yummy! Actually there are some that taste pretty good, like Carlson's or Nordic Naturals, covered up with lemon oil. This nutrient-dense super-food supplies Vitamins A, D and E, as well as fatty acids, that all lower inflammation and boost immunity.

-Elderberry Syrup. Ok this makes up taste-wise for the Cod Liver Oil! Though Elderberry is an herb, I consider this a supplement because it takes little diagnosis to administer; it can be used generally and widely. Often they will contain honey or echinacea for general immune-enhancement. But Elderberry alone is a great immune-booster, and the syrup calms sore throat and cough.

Prevention (or what I'd do differently next time to not get sick!)

1. Schedule Stress
Before I left for holiday vacation I did what we all do, which is pack it all in and run around. Excess work, exercise, shopping, socializing, running as if there are no limits. As excessively privileged westerners, we have few natural limits and don't value them, so don't set them for ourselves. But this isn't how nature works; inherent in life is the fact that the sun always sets and everything ages and dies, as two major examples.

I noticed in previous years when I attended a meditation retreat during the holidays, not only did I not get sick, my whole year provided more robust health and fortitude. When we "store up" at the right time, we have more to expend at other times. Otherwise life has a beautiful way of giving us limits anyway; illness makes us move at the pace of winter, imposed hibernation! But if we have an eye on prevention, we can slow down and take even moments of calm and self-care before this happens.

2. Diet
The holidays are ripe for inflammation and immune suppression via food. Though sharing meals and treats are a beautiful way of sharing love, many of our bodies are not up for the "heating" effects of common holiday foods. So if you are indulging in more wine, caffeine, sugar, chocolate, meat and dairy than normal, expect that at some point your body will say enough is enough. I could feel this on Day 2 of coffee, but since it is such an addictive stimulant, I decided not to listen and kept indulging even after developing a sore throat. Now I'm back on green tea and "Throat Coat," and in hindsight, would have ditched the coffee sooner, just as an example.

To be clear, I'm not saying coffee (or any food) is "bad" or that it caused me to become sick. I'm saying we all have a threshold for physiological stress, which is brought on by our own unique factors, and health means paying attention and adjusting accordingly.

3. Listening
This is always a theme in my thinking as a practitioner and my writing about health, because it has been the foundation of healing both for my patients and me. Particularly during times such as the holidays, when our own voice can get crowded out by old family patterns and cultural pressures, it is too easy to stop listening to what we truly want and need. But we continually practice, and in doing so, rather than striving to get it "right," the practice itself builds trust between you and yourself.

The way the body listens to the psyche is like a toddler listening to a parent; they are registering every signal and adjusting accordingly. This is how our nervous system actually forms; by attaining information from the formed ones around us (adults). So if we use our powerful "supercomputer" brain (parent) in service to the body (toddler), it can end up thriving. More simply, this just means the very direct sensation-relationship inherent: rest when tired, eat when hungry, stop when full. 

I hope these immune-supporting tips are helpful, and can not only mitigate some of your winter cold symptoms, but prevent you from getting sick altogether. Of course Acupuncture is my favorite immune-booster! Not only does it increase circulation and decrease inflammation, but if you get treated regularly over time, your immune system will regulate and you will get sick much less often. I have seen this over and over with patients and of course with myself over the last 10 years. But if you do get sick, please know that an Acupuncture treatment greatly eases symptoms and often kicks the pathogen right out, especially if caught early.

Please call with any questions and know that I appreciate all the learning that comes from my patients, readers, friends and family. We are getting healthier together!