Cold and Flu Prevention Through the Seasons: Part 1
In the past few months, we have been seeing an influx of patients with cold and flu symptoms. This season, some patients have been hit especially hard, with residual coughs and sinus congestion lasting for weeks after the initial onset of the illness. Many of our patients only come to see us when they realize that the symptoms have persisted longer than they should, and for this, our specially prepared Chinese herbal remedies have been very helpful in assisting the body in expelling and resolving those stubborn traces of phlegm and infection lodged within the respiratory tract. We also successfully treat many children and toddlers with stubborn cold symptoms using our specially prescribed herbal formulas!
In fact, during the current pneumonia pandemic caused by the Coronavirus, the Hubei Provincial Hospital of Traditional Chinese Medicine has diligently used Traditional Chinese Medicine in conjunction with western medicine treatments to improve the outcomes and manage the symptoms of patients with the virus. Chinese herbal formulas harbor the unique potential to reduce fever and cough symptoms, limit disease progression, and improve a persn's overall immune response to the virus.
Besides frequent washing of hands with soap and warm water, avoiding close contact with people who are under the weather, minimizing touching your nose, eyes, and mouth, discussing with your doctor about getting an annual flu shot , and taking herbs at the first onset of respiratory illness, what are some everyday preventative measure you can take to avoid getting sick in the first place? Below, we offer some suggestions:
1. Go for a walk in nature!
Did you know that spending time in the outdoors actually causes a significant increase in the number of natural killer cells in the body? Natural killer cells help fight off cancer and can help reduce the incidence and severity of colds and flus. A study of over 1,000 men and women found that those who walked at least 20 minutes a day, at least 5 days a week, had 43% fewer sick days than those who exercised once a week or less. And if they did get sick, it was for a shorter duration, and their symptoms were milder. Walking also helps lower blood pressure and reduces the stress hormone cortisol. So why not combine two healthy habits - the outdoors and walking - to keep your immune system in optimal condition?
2. Get your Zzzzs.
Getting an adequate 7 to 8 hours of sleep not only reduces your risk of diabetes, heart disease, and obesity, but it also makes you less susceptible to colds and flus. Cytokines - proteins that target inflammation and infection - are produced during sleep; not getting enough sleep, therefore, can significantly decrease your body's virus-fighting ability! It can even decrease your ability to effectively respond to the flu vaccine.
3. Stay warm.
In TCM theory, pathogens and viruses can enter through the exterior of the body, which includes our skin (pores), eyes, nose, mouth, and upper respiratory tract. We consider the common cold, cough, sore throat, sinusitis, and flu to be different forms of Wind Cold or Wind Heat pathogens attacking the exterior and invading internally if left untreated. Thus, it is important to keep your body warm and dry during the flu season. In particular, your head, neck, upper back, chest, and feet and legs. Have you ever stayed out late at night and not worn enough clothing, only to find yourself getting a runny nose and sore throat the next day? This happened because your skin, when left bare, became susceptible to the drafty Wind pathogen, enabling it to enter through your pores and respiratory system and getting sick as a result. Avoid sleeping or resting in drafty areas as well, and avoid switching back and forth between extreme cold and hot environments. It is much easier to make yourself prone to becoming sick this way.
4. Reduce stress.
This one should be a no-brainer. While short-term stress can temporarily boost one's immune system, long-term stress suppresses the immune system and makes us more vulnerable to illness, infection, and disease, including cancer and heart disease. Chronic stress creates a cascade of unfavorable effects on the body, including an increase in cortisol and thus inflammation, a decrease in natural killer cells (cells that kill cancer), an increase in tumor growth, and an increase in the chance for infection and tissue damage. There are many things we can, however, to ward off the damaging effects of stress: relaxation, meditation, guided imagery, positive thinking, writing in a journal, reading a good book, detaching ourselves from overly-stimulating activities in the evenings, and having a strong social support network are some such things that can help us deal with stress.
5. Eat well to stay well.
Getting a balanced mix of vitamins and minerals by eating a mostly plant-based, varied diet of organic fruits and vegetables as well as healthy sources of protein will provide your immune system the nutrients it needs to function optimally. Protein, antioxidants such as vitamins A, C, and E, zinc, selenium, iron, vitamin D, B vitamins, and the prebiotics and probiotics found naturally in foods are all vital sources of fuel for your immune system. On the other hand, excess intake of sugar, dairy, alcohol, refined carbs, and greasy fried foods will weaken your immune system, exacerbate inflammation, and make it more difficult for your body to ward off and recover from viruses and colds.
In part 2, we will discuss more specific food and herb tips for both preventing and dealing with different types of colds and flu symptoms. Stay tuned!