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by Saima Anto, M.A., R.Ac, R.TCMP

It’s November, which means the holidays are just around the corner, along with cold and flu season. What are some things we can do that will help us stay healthy during this busy time?

It’s common knowledge that we need to eat well, sleep well, and get regular exercise if we want to stay strong enough to resist the common cold when it’s going around. But why stop at common knowledge? Arm yourself with some less-common knowledge, drawn from the three-thousand-year tradition of Chinese medicine, and use these simple tips to reduce your risk of coming down with something this season — and help you recover faster if you do get sick.

Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) views cough, sore throat, cold and flu, and sinusitis as caused by Wind pathogen invading the exterior of the body, together with either cold or heat. The exterior includes the skin and the muscles, the nose, mouth, and upper respiratory tract. The nose and mouth are obvious openings where a pathogen can enter, but we often forget that pores are also tiny openings in the body’s exterior. According to TCM, Wind-cold and Wind-heat can also enter the skin via open pores.

Some simple preventive measures you can use to apply this knowledge:

– Keep your feet warm and dry at all times. When feet are cold, circulation in the nose        and upper respiratory tract is compromised, making it easier for pathogens to invade. Conversely, warming the feet can boost circulation here, so if you feel you might be incubating something, warm your feet actively as soon as possible.

–    Wear a hat or hood, and a scarf! Simple as that sounds, the head and the nape of the neck are seen as especially vulnerable to invasion by Wind pathogen in TCM. So protecting these areas is particularly important for preventing cold, flu, sore throat, cough, and sinusitis.

–    Take extra care when moving back and forth between the (sometimes extreme) cold of the Canadian outdoors, and any heated indoor environment. For example, if you’ve been walking briskly outside, then enter a store to do some shopping, you may soon feel overheated inside those winter clothes. Wearing layers that are easy to remove and replace at need can help manage the transition between environmental extremes.

–    If you are working out, don’t let a fan blow on you. It may seem pleasant and cooling at the time, but if you’re sweating, that means your pores are open. Exposure to drafts at this time can increase your risk of catching something, according to TCM.

–    Avoid sleeping under or near an open window, in a drafty spot, or in a room that’s too hot or too cold. During the day, the body’s defensive energy circulates in the exterior to protect us from pathogenic invasion — but at night this defensive qi withdraws into the interior of the body. So it’s especially important to protect ourselves from Wind, heat, and cold invasion while we sleep.

–    Never go out with wet or damp hair. This used to be common knowledge; many folk traditions besides the Chinese recognize and respect this homely but powerful preventive measure.

If you do start coming down with something, there are at-home measures (besides chicken soup) that can help. In all cases, it’s important to avoid rich or greasy foods or drinks: Milk and dairy products, sweets, deep-fried foods and alcohol are all going to make it harder for your body to fight off invaders.

Traditional Chinese Medicine doesn’t distinguish between bacterial and viral illnesses, but it does distinguish between Wind-heat and Wind-cold invasion, once symptoms have developed. This is important because the wrong treatment can make the condition worsen or persist longer.

For example, some people swear by eating hot peppers, or other spicy hot foods, at the first sign of cold or flu — but if the course of illness is accompanied by sweating and fever more marked than chills, TCM believes that spicy foods will exacerbate the condition. This is Wind-heat invasion; the heat is loosening the pores and causing sweating. Adding heat in the form of spices will only make things worse. A hot bath or shower won’t be helpful either. If you’re already sweating, it’s because the body is trying to push the invader out; more sweat won’t do the job, but can uselessly deplete the energies needed to fight the invader.

If the symptoms include a lack of sweat and chills greater than fever, this means the invader is probably Wind-cold, because the cold constricts the pores, preventing them from opening to allow sweat to escape. It’s still not a good idea to use spicy foods because some will draw pathogens deeper; instead, wrap up in layers of blankets and drink hot tea (fresh ginger slices with peel are good) to try to induce a light sweat.

Too early to be sure you’re coming down with something, but worried you might be? Quick, drink several cups of mint tea in the next few hours. Mint tea is not strong enough to beat an established illness, but if taken early enough (before definitive symptoms develop), it can help your body’s defenses repel the invader and prevent the illness from developing.

These simple measures, some familiar, some not, can help you stay well and active over the coming winter.

Saima Anto, M.A., R.AC, R.TCMP is a Registered Acupuncturist and Registered Traditional Chinese Medicine Practitioner at the Pacific Wellness Institute.  She is available for acupuncture treatments on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays.  Please call 416-929-6958 to inquire about the appointment.