Why do we get more colds in winter – the modern science perspective
We all know that people seem to be more likely to catch colds in winter, – 80% more likely according to the NHS[i] – but scientists are less sure why. We also know that the weaker and more vulnerable a person is, the more likely they are for a cold (or flu) to affect them badly. This is why the NHS has its flu vaccine programme aimed at the young, the elderly, the immune-compromised, asthmatics and pregnant women. It has been shown that rhinoviruses (colds) survive better in lower temperatures. Our nasal passages tend be colder than the rest of our bodies therefore, it would seem to follow that it is easier to catch colds when it is colder. A study at Yale University[ii] looked at the relationship between the temperature and the body’s innate immune system’s ability to fight the cold virus in mice. It found the immune cells in the nasal passage were less effective at fighting the virus when the temperature was cooler.
Why we get more colds in winter from a Chinese medicine perspective
These are interesting findings because it supports ancient Chinese medical theories about the relationship between seasons, pathogens (e.g. viruses) and our immune system. Chinese medicine recognises the affect a virus has is relative to the strength of a person’s immune system and the strength of the invading pathogen. Chinese medical theory developed very many years ago and so understands the immune and respiratory system in a slightly different way to modern science. It is known as Wei Qi or “Defensive Qi” and is responsible for protecting the body from invading pathogens and regulates the body’s temperature. If a person’s Wei Qi and/or Lungs are weak, then a pathogen can invade more easily and the stronger the pathogen is, the more easily it can invade. Therefore the more we do to strengthen our Wei Qi and keep our Lungs and supporting systems healthy, the more resilient we will be and able to fight off invading viruses.
In Chinese medicine, the common cold is usually a “Wind-Cold Invasion”. It is the “Wind” which drives in the cold – the stronger the wind or cold or both, the stronger the pathogen. These invading pathogens are strengthened by the environmental weather – therefore, “Wind-Cold invasions” tend to be stronger in winter. Moreover, the body needs to work harder at keeping itself warm and well-nourished in the winter so our wei qi can be weaker at this time.
What we can do to prevent colds?
So, what can we do to keep our immune system strong in winter? According to Chinese medicine, the immune system is regulated primarily by Lungs with support from the digestive system and the body’s constitution. So keeping well and having a strong immune system depend on maintaining the standard pillars of health – with a few seasonally applicable modifications:
- Get enough sleep and relaxation time– and remember in the winter we need more sleep than we do in warmer, lighter months. But don’t oversleep – everyone needs a different amount of sleep – you should aim for 8-9 hours in winter. You can help your body’s natural sleep rhythm by making sure you experience the daylight – open shutters and curtains while it’s light and try to make sure you spend sometime outdoors everyday.
- Eat a good, healthy diet with a broad range of seasonal vegetables, good quality meat, regular mealtimes and warm foods (no cold salads in winter! – see my previous blogs about diet and keeping well in winter for more information). Make sure you are getting enough vitamins and minerals in your diet – good quality produce will help. Nutrients particularly important for supporting the immune system include vitamins C, D and E and zinc.
- Keep active and your energy flowing:
- Physically: do some gentle exercise each day – we do need to slow down in winter so this shouldn’t be as much as you would do in the warmer months. And try to get outdoors – fresh air is good for strengthening the lungs (just make sure you wrap up well)
- Socially: although it can seem more of an effort in the colder weather, it is important to keep our family and friend relationships alive to nourish our souls – just make sure you also leave time for peaceful relaxation.
- Mentally: nourish your mind with interesting reading or self-study; avoid stress where possible and manage your response to stress you can’t avoid.
- Wrap up warm especially vulnerable parts – keeping warm takes more effort and energy in the winter – and putting additional strain on your body weakens its resources and therefore its defences. So help your body out by putting enough layers on and keep vulnerable parts of the body warm. Vulnerable parts are areas where wind invasions can get in more easily and include the neck, feet and back – so make sure you are all covered up using long thermal underwear, scarves and thick socks.
- Have acupuncture! Acupuncture can help to regulate and strengthen the body’s wei qi. If your immune system is working well, you will be less likely to catch a cold and have fewer symptoms that resolve more quickly when you do. Some studies have shown this in a research setting. It has been shown that acupuncture does appear to help modulate the production of immune cells to help prevent colds and can help to reduce the some symptoms of colds[iii][iv].
What if it’s too late and you’ve already caught a cold?
There are some remedies based on Chinese medicine that might help if you have already caught a cold. The quicker you take action the quicker and easier it is to ward it off.
Stage 1: slightly tickly or runny nose, sneezing mild headache:
- Eat spring onions, ginger and garlic. Ginger tea with a little raw or manuka honey and lemon is a nice soothing remedy.
- Eat lots of vitamin C and zinc containing foods such as berries, red peppers and green leafy vegetables
- Have a hot bath then wrap up warm afterwards and sweat it out
- Rest and keep warm!
- Visit your acupuncturist who will be able to treat you to help the cold and give you some acupressure techniques to do at home
Stage 2: streaming nose, sneezing, shivering/chills, headache fatigue:
- Keep up with the spring onions, ginger and garlic and include turmeric and horseradish
- Have bone broth, chicken soup or congee (congee is rice that has been cooked for so long it has become like a porridge) – you can combine all of the above to make a tasty and nourishing meal.
- Avoid mucous producing foods such as dairy, bananas, rich fatty meats, fried food, wheat (including pasta and bread), sugar and sugary foods.
- Rest and keep warm!!
- Visit your acupuncturist if you’re well enough – otherwise ask for some guidance about self-acupressure.