Currently we are sitting right on the cusp of Winter. From where I sit (in Melbourne) our descent in to the cold, deep, dark Yin months seems pretty obvious. The sun has changed its angle in the sky, bringing us pitch-black mornings and early sunsets.
Right now I’m feeling pretty grateful for my nice warm house where I can sit comfortable and cosy, sheltered from the cold, grey weather outside.
Another sign of the changing seasons is the sudden increase in viruses doing the rounds in schools, workplaces and at home. Here in Melbourne we have been stuck at home for the past two years of cold and flu season. Now our lives have pretty much returned to normal, cold and flu season has also returned with a vengeance!
This means now is a good time to take stock of your immune system and take steps to improve it. Fortunately, there are some very simple ways to support your immune system to help avoid illness and aid recovery.
Today I am going to share with you some simple tips for boosting your immune system. First I’ll explain how Chinese medicine views the immune system. This will help you see for yourself how much power you have in your own life to be able to make significant change, and you will get a very real sense of why these tips are so effective.
The Chinese medicine concept of immunity revolves around a particular type of Qi, called Wei Qi or Defence Qi. Wei Qi is thought to circulate around the body and has the ability to fight pathogens. The quality of a persons Wei Qi can dictate their ability to resist or fight off infection effectively.
Have you ever wondered why some people never seem to catch the bugs that are going around? And why some people always seem to pick up every little thing? The Chinese medicine understanding of Wei Qi may help shed some light on why this occurs.
There are two components that determine the strength of the Wei Qi:
Pre-Natal Qi can be likened to our genetic makeup, the strengths and weaknesses inherited from our biological parents. As you can imagine, there isn’t a lot that can be done to change the quality of this qi.
For instance, someone may have inherited a tendency to catch most of the bugs doing the rounds. Whereas someone else may have inherited a robust immune system, and rarely gets sick.
Bad luck to the person who inherited the crappy immune system, right? Well, yes… and no. This is where Post-Natal Qi comes in.
Post-Natal Qi is a reflection of the way we take care of ourselves in our day to day lives. It is made from the food we eat, the water we drink, the air we breathe, the quality of our sleep and is also impacted by stress.
As such, we have a huge capacity to make change in this area and improve the quality of this Qi. By improving the quality of Post-Natal Qi, you can make big improvements in the way your Wei Qi functions.
I think here it is important to acknowledge privilege when it comes to health and wellness.
Not everyone has the same ability or capacity to make changes in these areas. For instance, not everyone has access to fresh, healthy food. Someone suffering from a chronic illness may find it much more challenging to cook regular, healthy meals. Someone else living in a highly stressful environment may not able to make the kind of changes in their lives to significantly reduce their stress levels.
The key takeaway here is to do the best you can with the tools and resources at your disposal.
Remember: even small changes can have long lasting impact. Take what you can from the following suggestions, and incorporate them in to your life in a way that works for you.
Chinese Medicine places great stock in the importance of eating seasonally. The cooler months call for warm foods to nourish the digestive fire and strengthen the body. Try to avoid cold, raw and icy foods and instead focus on building your diet around warm and cooked foods. Soups, stews and casseroles are perfect for this time of year.
The way food is eaten is also important. Take the time to eat mindfully and savour your
food. Avoid multi tasking while eating as this weakens the digestive Qi. Eating regular meals at regular times is also important.
Cold weather means heaters on. This can have a drying and dehydrating effect, which means that more water needs to go in to keep the body nourished and hydrated. Unfortunately, the cooler months can impact water intake for many people, as the cold weather doesn’t initiate the thirst response in the same way a hot summer day will.
The best way to keep yourself hydrated is to sip on room temperature water throughout the day. Remember coffee, black and green tea and alcohol are all diuretics. This means they will dehydrate you and extra fluid needs to go in to make up for it. If water isn’t your favourite thing, try a herbal tea such as peppermint, chamomile or lemon and ginger instead, or even soda water (known as angry water in our house!). Finally, try to avoid drinking lots of fluid with meals as this can dilute the digestive Qi.
Breathing properly is a great way to reduce stress. You’d be surprised how many people breathe in a way that aggravates stress. This may present as shallow or rapid breathing or holding the breath when concentrating or during times of stress. Pay attention to your breath throughout the day. If you notice you are breathing shallowly or holding your breath, take a minute and focus on breathing deeply. What changes for you when you do this? Does your body feel more relaxed? Does the mind become quiet?
Consider these two simple breathing exercises to help you feel relaxed and strengthen your lung capacity:
Focus on the exhale: When we look at the work the body does while breathing we notice it is mostly done on the inhale. The muscles work to expand the ribcage, the diaphragm moves down and we draw the breath in. When the time comes to exhale, there isn’t a lot of work involved. There is a letting go and a gentle release of the breath.
In order to strengthen our lungs, we can focus on exhaling every last bit of breath out of the lungs. Start by taking a relaxed inhale, then slowly exhale through the mouth, imagining you are pushing the air out through a straw. Do this until the lungs are completely empty, and then try to squeeze a tiny bit more air out. You should notice a feeling of contraction in the torso at this point. Once you’ve pushed every last bit of air out, simply relax and allow the lungs to draw in a fresh breath of air.
This exercise is good for strengthening the lungs and can be done after recovery from a respiratory illness. If you notice pain or emotional discomfort, simply step it back a little. It should feel like work, not panic or pain.
Square breathing: Breathe in through the nose, moving the breath down through the body, causing the belly to expand for the count of four. Hold the breath for one. Exhale through the nose, slowly, for the count of six. Hold for one. Repeat. If holding the breath feels uncomfortable in any way, simply let go of that part of the practice and just focus on breathing in and out.
This is one of my favourite breath practices. It is excellent for calming the mind, increasing feelings of relaxation and can be used at bedtime to promote restful sleep.
Creating a regular bedtime routine is one of the best ways to ensure adequate sleep. Try going to bed at the same time each night, avoid caffeine and other stimulants such as sugar in the evening, and consider taking some screen-free time before bed.
Food remedies for cold/flu
If you do become unwell, there are foods which can be useful for your recovery. As Hippocrates so eloquently put it 'Let food be thy medicine!'
Keep in mind the recommendations above, they are even more important if you are unwell. Additionally, avoid dairy and other damp foods such as oils (including supplements such as fish oil), nuts and seeds, avocado and bananas.
Instead you could try:
Peppermint tea for a sore throat
Hot water with the juice of half a lemon and a spoonful of manuka honey for a sore or scratchy throat, or to boost the immune system
Pears and pear juice for cough, dry throat or other respiratory issues
Fresh ginger for general immune support. This fantastic herb boosts the Wei Qi and is particularly useful for post partum women and during the premenstrual and menstrual phases.
Stewed pears with fresh ginger is great if you are recovering from a cold, or if you are feeling weak after recovery.
These suggestions offer general ways to strengthen your immune system. I think you’ll find them to be easy to incorporate.
If you are looking for support or suggestions to help improve your unique state of Post Natal Qi, then you may benefit from acupuncture treatment and Chinese herbal medicine.
Regular treatment can help to support the immune system. It can also help to improve the digestive Qi, reduce stress, improve sleep quality and to guide you on the most suitable ways for you to boost your Post Natal Qi.
Whether you are feeling run down and tired, have a history of poor immunity or are just wanting to feeling healthy and strong as you move through Winter, acupuncture treatment and herbal medicine may be able to help.