TCM and the Common Cold

How does Chinese Medicine look at the Common Cold and Flu? Also, some tips on staying healthy all year long.

This time of year, when there are periods of time with freezing cold weather, followed rapidly by periods of milder weather (even warm weather here in Florida!), we seem to become more susceptible to the Common Cold and Flu.  The late fall and winter months have been named "Flu Season" all around the U.S. for a reason.  Today in the #TCMTuesday blog we explore Cold and Flu through the eyes of TCM, and I'll even throw in some tips at keeping yourself healthy when it seems everyone around you is sick.

In Chinese Medicine, the "germs" that cause the cold or flu are considered an external pathogen.  These external pathogens are outside the body, and they stay outside the body if you are in good health and your immune system is working properly.  The immune system is characterized by a form of Qi called Wei Qi, or Defensive Qi.  When your Wei Qi is strong, pathogens cannot get inside your body, regardless of your immediate environment, and you are protected.  Wei Qi is strongest when you are well nourished, and your life is in balance.

Today's fast-paced lifestyle and the myriad of unbalanced behaviors we learn in order to adapt to our hectic lives work against our body's own defensive mechanisms.  Lack of nourishment, whether it be the wrong food or poor mental/emotional sustenance, affects our Wei Qi (and indeed our overall Qi) detrimentally, and leads to our defense systems to shut down due to lack of resources.  Our bodies are wonderful machines which can adapt to any situation, but they have to be fed the right fuel to keep all the engines running.

When our Wei Qi has been compromised, our bodies are unprotected from the external pathogens that are all around us - from the people in your office or on an airplane who are coughing and sneezing all over the place, to cold winds that blow and give you chills that turn into fever. 

And whether or not you admit it, you feel it coming on.  First you feel a kind of brain fog, tiredness at the wrong time of day, maybe even uncharacteristic irritability.  Sometimes we are so busy we force ourselves to ignore this very first and fundamental warning sign that something is wrong in the name of getting things done.  Then you might feel an achy neck and body, or suddenly very warm with a touch of sore throat and stuffy nose, and then...that dreaded first sneeze.

By the time of that sneeze, it is too late.  You are sick.

There are two main kinds of external pathogens that can invade us.  The Chinese call them "Wind-Cold" and "Wind-Heat".  "Wind" means basically that it has come into the body directly from the outside, or it can mean it literally comes from the wind blowing (for example, have you ever been caught in a cold rain, and immediately gotten sick after that?).  Cold pathogens cause the body to feel achy especially in the neck, low fever, more chills, slight sore throat and stuffy nose, amongst other symptoms.  Heat pathogens cause the body to feel hot, higher fevers, inflamed sore throat that sometimes has white patches, headache, and often times alternating chills and fever soon follow.

In TCM, we treat a pathogenic invasion, whether it be Wind-Heat or Wind-Cold, by administering herbs that push the pathogen out and strengthen the Wei Qi.  We may also use Acupuncture to support the actions of the herbs.  Catching the invasion at its earliest stage is very much key to the successful treatment of common cold and flu.  Remembering that our medicine is a preventative medicine in the fundamental sense, being in contact with your Acupuncture Physician is very important at the very first sign of trouble. 

If it is not caught in time and the pathogen is allowed to enter and cause further more severe symptoms, we administer herbs and perform acupuncture based on the pattern of symptoms you present with in order to make the cold last a shorter time and help you feel better than you would have if it were left untreated.

So, how do you avoid getting sick?  Well, I won't say it's easy, because it involves the hardest thing a physician can ask of a patient:  Behavior Modification.  Ultimately, proper nourishment through food, exercise, supplementation and managing your own emotional load and stress levels will keep you healthy when the world around you is sinking into pits of coughing and sneezing despair. 

  • Making your own healthy meals and snacks to take with you will feed you so much better than chicken nuggets from that fast-food place down the street. 
  • Planning your day so that you have some time to yourself to relax, meditate, or do something that you enjoy and that is just for you is critical for the "decompression" process and for handling any additional stress that is thrown at you in life. 
  • A great way to take time for you and to exercise at the same time is to take a walk with your favorite happy music playing in your ears, and just concentrate on the happiness of the music, breathing, the stretching of your muscles, and the invigoration of the exertion in doing something positive for yourself.
  • Take a new attitude with the things that life throws at you that you cannot control - don't blame yourself for things that you haven't done.
  • Forgive yourself for any bad decisions that you have made in the past, leave the past behind, and live life "in the now" - be in the present for each hour of your day, and you will be surprised how much more you can accomplish, which will help balance your schedule, alleviate stress, and allow you to function while still finding time for yourself.

I hope that you stay well during the cold and flu season, and always.  Questions or comments?  I am here to help, as always.

--Marissa Byrum, AP, DOM, Dipl. Ac., is an associate at Ideal Balance Center for Acupuncture and Integrative Medicine in Temple Terrace, FL.


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Steven McBride January 18, 2012 at 02:13 AM
Can a few cups of green tea each day help a person ward off or recover from the common cold?
Marissa Byrum, AP, DOM, Dipl. Ac. January 20, 2012 at 08:44 PM
You know, funny you should ask that. I was just reading an article on National Geographic's website about a study done on tea and immunity. Here's the link: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2003/04/0429_030429_teaimmunity.html While this article infers that the more black teas prime the immune system through exposing the body to alkylamines (which are also found on bacteria and other critters), I am in the process of trying to find a copy of the actual study to see if I can suss out the details. In the meantime, this article is pretty informative! Another online article here: http://www.amazing-green-tea.com/green-tea-and-immune-system.html talks specifically about green tea and cites a joint study by Brigham and Women's Hospital, Harvard Medical School in Boston, and the University of New Hampshire, Durham. To more directly answer your question, I would never discourage you from drinking green tea. There is evidence from other studies that show that all tea has some immune-boosting effects, and green tea has lots of antioxidants and other necessary bioactive molecules that are good for you. And besides, it's delicious! Thanks for the question Steve! (And see you in the Temple Terrace Community Garden!)


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