By Jim Kulackoski
I know I am not alone when I say that fall is my favorite season. Like so many people, I love the crisp air, the colorful foliage, the smell of bonfires, as well as the impending holiday season that allows us to celebrate and spend time with our families and loved ones.
For many people though, the fall season associates with health concerns, namely seasonal allergies as well as the cold and flu season. These concerns make people nervous about staying healthy. This year, the current circumstances of a pandemic exacerbates that fear.
Pandemic or not, our current health and medical paradigm, despite all of its merits, often falls short of meeting the challenges of preventing the types of illnesses that occur during the fall. When it comes to getting a cold, flu, or other type of infection, we are often at the mercy of our surroundings and circumstances. While advice such as washing our hands, getting a shot, taking vitamin C or wearing a mask, offer some help in preventing illness, they only go so far with regards to cultivating (and maintaining) a state of healthfulness and immunity.
Fortunately, there are a number of other ways to approach the seemingly impossible task of not getting sick during this time. One of them is Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). TCM is a complex 5,000-year-old system oriented around the cultivation and perpetuation of health, which continues to evolve to this day. This system considers, not only the potential pathogens which cause illness (like bacteria and viruses), but also the person who is affected by them as well as their environment.
This perspective includes examining how the changes that occur within the environment during different seasons affects an individual based on their own internal strengths and weaknesses, in this case, their immune system. This is an important distinction, and one that is mostly beyond the scope of our contemporary paradigm.
TCM and Immunity
According to TCM, the dramatic changes that occur within our environment which manifest as the seasons, also occur within our bodies. The body reacts differently to each season, and consequently has different needs at different times of the year in order to stay healthy.
For example, the summertime is a time of growth and increased activity, with long days filled with outdoor fun and lots of physical activity. During this time, our metabolisms decreases to prevent our bodies from overheating and our overall “energy” moves outward toward the surface of the body. Consequently we are more active and crave lighter and cooler foods such as seasonal fruits and salads. In the winter, the opposite occurs. During this time, our “energy” retreats inwardly and although we are less active, our metabolisms must increase as do our appetites in an effort to keep us warm. As a result, we crave more food, as well as denser and more warming, nourishing foods during that time, such as grains, soups, or winter vegetables. While this is not rocket science, we normally treat the body the same regardless of the season.
If we examine the changes that occur externally in our environment, we can get clues to how our bodies will respond and, consequently, be able to align ourselves with nature. By adjusting our behavior accordingly, we can attune ourselves to the changes that occur within each season and consequently, we are much more likely to experience health and balance.
In TCM, each season is correlated to a particular organ system of the body. Each organ has specific diseases that affect it, and those diseases become more prevalent during their corresponding season. If there is a weakness in a particular organ system, the diseases associated with that system may arise during that season.
Within this paradigm, the fall relates to the lung/large Intestine system. This system includes the actual lungs and large intestine organs, as well as the nose, throat, skin and immune system. In short, this system includes any part of the body which interfaces between the internal and external environment.
According to TCM, if the lung system is strong, the body will be resistant to external pathogens, but if it is weak, a person may find themselves at the mercy of whomever and whatever they come into contact with. In other words, to maintain strong immunity, it is essential to strengthen this system.
There are a number of things that we can do to make sure that this transition between summer and winter goes smoothly by strengthening this system. As a practitioner of TCM, I have found that even if someone has a compromised immune system due to age or other factors it is very much still possible to avoid getting sick and stay strong and healthy throughout the year.
Here are a few things you can do to strengthen your immune system according to TCM and stay strong and healthy in the fall (and throughout the year).
Spend time outside.
No matter season, it’s a great idea to actually spend time outside to allow your body to acclimate to the season at hand. Be sure to dress so that you are comfortable. Layering is recommended for both staying warm as well as being able to adjust your comfort as needed.
Wear a scarf.
Scarves not only look great (think Paris anytime of year), but they also protect what are called the “vital gates” in TCM. There are several places that are particularly sensitive to changes in the environment (such as temperature) at the base of the skull, neck and top of shoulders. When these areas are subject to dramatic changes in temperature, it can throw the immune system out of balance and contribute to a sore neck or headache as well as catching an illness such as a cold.
Keep your kidneys warm.
In TCM, the kidneys are the source of the body’s vital energy. By keeping the kidneys warm, you can preserve your energy and help prevent getting sick. One thing you can do is to wear an extra layer around this area. In some cultures, such as Japan, people traditionally wore a “harimake” or cummerbund under their normal dress for this very purpose. Although we aren’t necessarily accustomed to this sort of dress, it is a good idea to keep the area around the waist and small of the back protected from the cold.
We are a part of nature and therefor intimately connected to it. Whether we realize it or not, nature gives us everything we need in terms of the types of foods available during each season. In TCM, food is not just about nutrition, it is also therapeutic. Different foods affect the body differently, and in much more ways than their simply their nutritional content. For example, eating a cucumber feels cooling and calming, where eating a chili pepper feels stimulating and heating to the body. In the fall a number of foods become available which naturally cleanse the body from excess “heat “and toxins which may have built up over the summer, while helping to fortify the body for the coming winter months. These foods include apples, winter squashes, cranberries, sweet potatoes, Brussels sprouts, beets, kale, and carrots. Think about favoring foods which are available in your local produce section or market during this time. Many of these foods are said to strengthen the functioning of the lung/large intestine system and therefor the immune system as a whole.
Additionally, we often associate fall with spices such as cinnamon, ginger and nutmeg (think pumpkin spiced latte or pumpkin pie). It is no coincidence that we have traditionally used these spices for generations to stimulate digestion, boost our metabolisms, warm up in the fall.
Eat fermented foods.
Fermented foods strongly affect the balance of flora in the large intestine, another component of the immune system. Including fermented foods in your diet such as kimchee, sauerkraut and yogurt is not only good for the digestion but can make you more resilient to getting sick as well.
Set healthy boundaries and work through unresolved grief.
TCM takes into accounts all aspects of a person. Besides the physical body, TCM also examines the psychological and emotional state of an individual as well. The lung/large intestine system is related to the emotion of grief. If someone has unresolved grief, it can affect the strength and functioning of the immune system. Fall is a good time to examine, resolve and let go of emotions we may not have completely dealt with and resolved, whether during the previous year during life as a whole. There are many ways to help resolve these emotions such as meditation, journaling and confiding in someone you trust such as a close friend or therapist.
In addition, the immune system is also viewed as a physical expression of healthy boundaries, because it has the ability to recognize and defend the body against potential threats from the environment. If you have weakened immunity, it may also be worth examining how you relate to the people closest to you in your life.
Supplement your diet with herbal supplements as needed.
TCM offers many times tested herbal supplements which traditionally strengthen and fortify the immune system and help out to defend against external pathogenic factors. Consider trying the following which are available online, or from a TCM practitioner.
Yu Ping Feng San
This traditional supplement contains a blend of several powerful herbs that strongly enhance the body’s immune system. It is used strengthen the body’s defense and prevent one from getting sick. It is ideal specifically for people who are at risk, like the elderly and those with compromised immune systems. I personally recommend this one to many patients in such situations.
Gan Mao Ling and Yin Qiao San
These 2 herbal formulas are must in everyone’s medicine cabinets. Gan Mao Ling is more used for colds, where Yin Qioa San is more often used for flu-like diseases. If taken at the first sign of a cold, flu or viral infection, they strongly stimulate the body’s immune response, causing it to push the pathogen out. This most often results in the prevention of the illness taking hold. In addition, each formula contains special anti viral herbs. To work most effectively, both formulas should be taken as soon as one feels symptoms, and only if you are actually sick or symptomatic.
Yoga and Qigong Exercises
We are all familiar with yoga, and TCM also recommends its own form of yoga called Qigong. There are many types of Qigong which specifically affect different parts of the body. Consider adding the following to your exercise regime:
This exercise is a Qigong exercise which is very useful in stimulating the functioning of the immune system. It directly affects the Thymus gland, which considered to be the center of the immune system in western medicine.
Making a loose fist, tap your sternum, beginning at the top and working your way down towards the bottom. Repeat for 1-2 minutes, a couple of times a day, especially during the fall or if you feel like your immune system needs some extra support. People oftentimes notice a “buzzing” sensation underneath their breastbone upon completion of the exercise, which can happen due to the stimulation of the thyme gland. Note: only tap to a point that is comfortable to you.
This exercise warms the body, increases the energy and mobilizes it to the surface of the body where it can be used to fight off impending pathogens. I like to combine it with the previous exercise each several times.
Stand with your feet shoulder distance apart, with your knees slightly bent. Make loose fists and place then on the small of the back over the kidneys. Push the small over your back against your fist and begin to vigorously rub the kidneys with your fists in a circular motion. While doing so, breath in and out through the teeth. Continue rubbing around 40 times in each direction. You will quickly notice the body getting warm and energized.
To see how to do these 2 exercises, visit https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qPx8aCFysEU&t=15s for a short instructional video.
Acupressure and Yoga:
Both TCM and yoga utilize special ponts on the body which help create and maintain homeostasis. Consider practicing this simple acupressure routine along with the following exercise here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aZ4tisd-UU4
This yoga exercise not only promotes good poster, but also helps open the lungs. Stand with your feet hip width apart and interlace your fingers behind your back. Lift your arms as high as possible and hold for several deep breaths. Then, keeping your fingers interlaced behind your back, fold forward. Hold for a few deep breaths then relax your arms forward. Repeat 2-3 times.
Qigong and yoga offer many different types of breathing exercises which can have dramatic effects on strengthening immunity. Try this simple one.
Lie on your back, placing your right hand on the navel and your left hand on your chest. Imagine you are breathing into your pelvis, feeling your right hand rise and fall with each breath. Next, continue breathing as before, but now allow the breath to fill the upper part of the lungs as well. feeling your left hand rise and fall with each breath. In short, you are filling your lungs as fully as you can from the bottom to the top, and emptying them from the top to the bottom. The point is to explore the full capacity of the lungs, looking for neglected areas you normally don’t use, like the back of the ribs between the shoulder blades.
Staying healthy is perhaps the most important thing we can do to ensure that our lives are enjoyable and happy. At the end of the day, if we aren’t healthy, it’s more difficult to live a full and meaningful life. These are just a few things that can significantly help you stay healthy and avoid getting sick during the fall. In my experience, the effects of routinely adjusting behavior according to the seasons becomes cumulative, and with practice, the body naturally becomes accustomed to meeting the challenges each season presents. On a deeper level by connecting to our environment, we not only potentially enhance our health, but also gain a greater understanding and appreciation for the interconnectedness of all things.