Why do we get more colds in winter, and how can we prevent them (naturally!)

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 cold-canstockphoto17250512are 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:

 

  1. 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.

 

  1. 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 informVegetablesation). 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.

 

  1. Keep active and your energy flowing:
    1. 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)
    2. 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.
    3. Mentally: nourish your mind with interesting reading or self-study; avoid stress where possible and manage your response to stress you can’t avoid.

 

  1. 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.

 

  1. 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 vegetabginger-tea-canstockphoto22045274les
  • 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.

 

Jill Storstein DipAc, MBAcC is a traditional acupuncturist working in Aberfeldy, Perthshire and Edinburgh City Centre

[i] http://www.nhs.uk/Livewell/winterhealth/Pages/Healthywinter.aspx

[ii] http://news.yale.edu/2015/01/05/cold-virus-replicates-better-cooler-temperatures

[iii] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17432639

[iv] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15649831

Nausea in Early Pregnancy and Acupuncture

Early pregnancy is a strange time. It can bring up a range of emotions – sometimes unexpectedly. I remember finding out I was pregnant with my first child. I was in a good relationship, at a good stage in my life to have a child and although not exactly planned, it wasn’t a surprise either. Nevertheless, I felt shocked and terrified for a good while before I felt happy about it. Once it had sunk in, I still felt adrift and very lonely as I adjusted to my new reality… Then there are the physical changes to contend with I was fortunate enough only to experience mild nausea, but I

© Can Stock Photo Inc. / AndreyPopov
© Can Stock Photo Inc. / AndreyPopov

know plenty of other women and patients who have had it a lot worse. Women can feel sick constantly, not just in the morning. Some just feel sick for much of the time, others are actually sick. I remember one friend telling me how she had vomited in the kitchen sink while doing the dishes!

Acupuncture has been shown to help reduce nausea and calm anxieties. In a large scale study conducted in Australia, traditional acupuncture was found to significantly reduce nausea and vomiting in women less than 14 weeks pregnant. You can read more on the findings of the study in this article from the Daily Mail here, and access the original study here.

There are several hypotheses about what causes nausea in pregnancy. It could be due to the change in hormone levels of hCG and oestrogen, or due to the brain stem’s reaction to these hormones. It has also been suggested that women who were deep down tired and under stress prior to pregnancy can be more likely to experience more nausea (Betts, 2006). This last theory would certainly fit with the Chinese medicine model which recognises that pregnancy can accentuate existing minor imbalances in one’s health. In this model, pregnancy can also  exacerbate emotional confusion or upset and cause pregnancy disorders.

Traditional acupuncture looks to support the whole person mentally and physically. It works to restore balance, bringing a sense of calm and helping to alleviate symptoms. Nausea in pregnancy is viewed as a result of rebellious Stomach Qi (energy) which can be caused either by an underlying weakness in the digestive system, emotional difficulties upsetting the natural flow of energy (Qi), or an excess of heat or phlegm. Sometimes it can be a combination of one or more of these. Acupuncturists treating nausea would be looking to address all the underlying causes as well as using points to address the immediate symptoms. Many women who have received acupuncture for nausea relief find they feel better soon after the needles are in and find coming for treatment twice a week initially, then dropping to weekly helps them get through those early weeks more comfortably. Dietary tips based on your specific Chinese medicine diagnosis may also help to lengthen and enhance the effectiveness of the treatment.

If you’d like to ask me more about how acupuncture could help you or you’d like to book an appointment you can either use this contact form here or call me on 07772 501810

There is an excellent advice sheet from one of the leading acupuncturists in obstetric acupuncture (Debra Betts) available here. This short film clip is also interesting about the use of acupuncture for nausea.

Jill Storstein DipAc, MBAcC is a member of the British Acupuncture Council with clinics in Edinburgh and Portobello.

References:

Betts D, (2006) The Essential Guide to Acupuncture in Pregnancy and Childbirth, The Journal of Chinese Medicine, Hove, East Sussex.

Smith C et al. (2002) Acupuncture to treat nausea and vomiting in early pregnancy: a randomized controlled trial. Birth, Mar;29(1):1-9.

Understanding Yin and Yang Theory – Part 2: Yin and Yang Theory in Health and Chinese Medicine

The importance of Balanceskye

The theory of Yin and Yang outlined in Part 1 can be applied to health and is fundamental to the philosophy of Chinese Medicine. Throughout its development and evolution, Chinese Medicine has drawn parallels between patterns observed in nature and people. Lets take the example described in part 1 of the blog which demonstrated the importance of getting the balance between yin and yang right… Plants need the sun to grow – which is Yang – it is light, dry and provides warmth. However the plant also needs water, which is Yin, it is cooling and moistening. If the balance of sun and water is wrong the plant can either shrivel and die or become saturated and rot.

The same can be said for people, we need to live a balanced life. We can use the theory of Yin and Yang to understand what balance means. A good illustration is Hot (Yang) and Cold (Yin) in people. If it is too hot, people become red, to cool themselves down, they need more water due to increased sweating. If the heat continues people can become irritable, get headachy, agitated and so on. If people overheat, it can lead to serious illness such as dehydration and heat stroke. There are similar impacts on the other end of the scale if it is too cold. When someone gets cold, they shiver and lips can go blue as blood is stored in the trunk to conserve heat, eventually they can become sleepy and even hypothermic. However, we as humans have ways to keep warm in the cold and cool in the heat – we naturally try to keep ourselves at the right temperature. We put on jumpers and coats when it is cold or sit in the shade and drink ice drinks when it is too hot.

There is another dimension to this – not everyone will feel the heat and the cold to the same extent – some will be able to tolerate the heat much more than others and similarly, others can tolerate the cold much better than others. From a Chinese medicine perspective, this is due to the balance of Yin and Yang in the individual. Yang is warming, so someone who is lacking in Yang will feel the cold much more than someone who is lacking in Yin. Yin provides basis for the cooling and moistening function in people so if this is lacking, the person may experience symptoms of heat and dryness. This might manifest in agitation, anxiety and restlessness. The Yang deficient person on the other hand, in addition to feeling the cold may also feel sluggish and tired.

The theory of Yin and Yang in health does not just apply to Hot and Cold, but can be applied widely to every part of our lives. If we think about activity and rest – activity is Yang and rest is Yin. If we do not have enough activity in our lives and oversleep and lack exercise our Yang energy can’t move causing us to become more lethargic. The stuck Yang energy can create stagnation and doesn’t flow to the organs and muscles as it should resulting in reduced functionality. On the other hand, if we are overactive and work too much we don’t have enough restful, Yin time. We may also feel tired but struggle to sleep and switch off. Overtime, the over use of our Yang side – this heating, active function, can deplete the Yin as it overworks trying to keep the Yang in balance. This can result in sleeplessness and feelings of anxiousness or an overly active mind.

This is why living in balance is so important for our health. However, lives tend to be complicated and living a life in balance is not always possible. We can try to mitigate it by making adjustments where we can, but where we can’t and imbalance arises, illness or lack of wellbeing can occur. Traditional acupuncture addresses these imbalances in the body and mind’s function. By stimulating carefully selected points, the acupuncturist can move stuck energy, sedate overactivity or restore good function as needed for the individual. This can make significant improvements to our sense of wellbeing.