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Dr. Aimée Derbes, LAC

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How to reprogram your immune system and stay healthy this winter

Not a totally boring blog about acupuncture, breathwork, energy medicine, and self-healing

At my office in Manhattan (Flatiron / Union Square / Chelsea), I see patients who are dealing with chronic pain (back pain, neck and shoulder pain, knee pain, hip pain, and ankle pain), headaches + migraines, digestive issues (IBS, colitis), infertility, stress, insomnia, PMS, women's health, and autoimmune conditions (Lyme, Hashimoto's, thyroid conditions, and many more).

How to reprogram your immune system and stay healthy this winter

Aimée Derbes

Yesterday, a patient told me that she felt more fatigued than usual, with neck pain and some sniffles. She suspected she was fighting something off, and had even taken a nap that afternoon because she was so tired. Later on, during the treatment, she mentioned one more thing: “I don’t know if this would be useful for you,” she said, “but this morning I went to the gym and exercised, and then went into the sauna, and the whole time, I never broke a sweat. I even double checked on the sauna temperature to make sure it was really hot, and it was. Isn’t that strange?”

This is exactly the kind of detail that acupuncturists absolutely love. In fact, absence of sweating is a hallmark symptom of one type of cold, also know as an “exterior wind-cold invasion” in Chinese medicine speak. Since Chinese medicine doesn’t group all colds together as a single health condition -- instead, it breaks them down and treats them all differently -- I love being able to use acupuncture and Chinese herbal formulas with people who are dealing with colds, as many people don’t know that this medicine dazzles and nails it at cutting down the severity and duration of colds. 

This is the time of year when we’re really getting into those circular lingering colds and respiratory infections, though the cold snap that’s upon us in NYC and much of the US has also done no one any immune-boosting favors. Do you tend to get every cold and flu that goes around your office or your kids’ school? Do you feel like it takes you weeks to recover from one cold, only to catch another one? If so, read on and learn what you can do to recover your immunity and break the cycle.

BUT FIRST, why are colds happening in the first place?

I already mentioned that there are many types of colds that are all interpreted and treated differently through Chinese medicine. But stepping back from that, what’s a cold, anyway, and why does one person get them and not another?

First, colds are seen to be exterior “evils” that “attack” us. They are floating around and carried in by the wind, which is why we tell you not to sit or sleep by a fan or AC unit. Colds tend to enter us through the nape of the neck, which is why many colds start as a stiff neck and shoulders or an occipital headache (though many of us modern urban people who carry heavy shoulder bags and backpacks everywhere may not differentiate our stiff neck and shoulders being due to a cold until it’s too late).

Once we are “attacked” by a cold, the most exterior level of our bodies’ qi, called wei qi or “protective” qi, is mobilized to help fight off the cold and prevent it from entering the interior of our bodies. The strength of our wei qi determines whether or not we fully succumb to the cold. This is why some people in your office get sick and others don’t: some people have stronger wei qi, whether in general or just at a particular moment, and can ride it out, while others get taken down by every possible cold. And what determines strength of our wei qi, you might ask? 

Wei qi is created through a series of refinements of the food that we take in, which depend upon two things: the strength of our constitution, and the strength of our digestive system. While we can’t change our constitution, or what we inherited from our ancestors at the moment of conception, we can preserve and enhance it by doing things like eating nourishing foods, moving our bodies, getting enough sleep, doing good work in the world, practicing meditation and qi gong, and so on. 

The digestive system, on the other hand, is really where we have the most opportunity to enhance our wei qi and therefore our immunity. This is where our bodies break down and extract nutrients from our food, and where our immune system encounters and learns how to handle the tons of pathogens that come in.

Most people who easily catch colds and flus have digestive systems that could use some support. They tend to run cold, have low energy and/or difficulty thinking or concentrating, and have digestive issues like lack of appetite, easily feeling overly full or bloated, or diarrhea. Supporting the digestive system lies at the root of supporting wei qi and immunity during cold and flu season.


For prevention and to rebuild a tired immune system....

Get acupuncture

Full disclosure: I’m an acupuncturist, so I’m going to (surprise!) recommend acupuncture. It boosts the immune system's production of natural killer cells for up to 3 days after each treatment, among many other things that help improve immunity, such as reducing inflammation and stimulating blood and lymph circulation. It’s so, so amazing at building immunity so that you can avoid colds, flus, and lingering coughs and infections.

Sleep like it’s your job

I’ve said it before and I’ll probably say it again, but getting at least 7 hours per night of sleep is the single most impactful action you can take to improve your immunity, energy level, mood, and overall health. (Not to mention that it’s totally free!)

When patients walk into my office with head or chest colds, they often say something like “I felt like I had been fighting something for a few days, and then it hit me after I stayed up too late the other night.” Lack of sleep suppresses the immune system, according to both clinical research and practitioner experience. And, less than 6 hours of sleep per night increases susceptibility to colds by up to 4.5 times, compared to 7 hours per night.

The more sleep before midnight you get, the better the quality, and the more positive the health outcomes. A few things you can do to improve sleep are cutting out the caffeine; turning off all electrical devices and screens 1 hour before sleep time; and doing a writing exercise 30 minutes before bedtime where you simply write down everything that's on your mind. Try it!

If you haven't been sleeping enough or have a couple of nights of insomnia or staying out late, you can add in daily meditation sessions, which will also boost your immune system and increase antibodies.

Wash your hands

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that handwashing *alone* can reduce rates of the common cold by 21%. 

I bet you're thinking, "This tip doesn't apply to me because I'm a grown-up and wash my hands when I'm supposed to!" But most of us simply don't realize how many surfaces we come into contact with: it wasn't until I started training in a medical clinic that I fully noticed just how many different surfaces, items, and people we all touch throughout the day. An extra hand washing with soap and warm water (more effective than hand sanitizer) here and there can keep you healthy.

(PS. Don’t use antibacterial soap, unless it’s required (at work, for example). That stuff is not good for our bodies or ecology.)

Dress for the weather

Just a common-sense reminder like your grandma used to give you. Keep your body warm by wearing a scarf and appropriate layers, so it doesn’t have to do extra work. I recommend a coat with a hood for extra protection, not to mention coziness; I also suggest ditching cotton socks until April or so, and instead stocking up on wool and/or Uniqlo Heattech socks. Better to have an extra jacket that you need to take off, than leave the house for the day slightly chilly and end up bone cold and exhausted by the end of the day....and wake up aching and sniffling with a cold the next morning.

Feed your digestion

Some of our common everyday foods can, either alone or in combination, be causing low-level inflammation in our digestive tracts. While everyone’s digestive systems are unique, some of the more common inflammatory foods are gluten, corn, soy, and cow dairy. Also, sugar. When our guts are irritated, our food isn’t being broken down or absorbed efficiently, so we’re not extracting enough qi to keep us fully healthy.

Our gut flora is also affected by lack of fermented vegetables in the diet, and antibiotic use. (For the record, antibiotics can be lifesaving, but even when being used in necessary situations, they still disrupt gut microflora for up to 6 months.) 

You can eat to support your digestive system by eating at consistent mealtimes and including things like fermented vegetables, nondairy yogurt, and miso in your daily diet. Avoiding the common irritants I mentioned above will always help; if you’d like to try a full on allergy elimination diet, the Whole30 is a good place to start. Also, it’s helpful to avoid cold raw foods in the winter. This means no frozen smoothies or salads until the weather warms up again next spring or summer. Instead, focus on warm cooked vegetables, root vegetables, and soups and stews.

In addition to those dietary suggestions, you can also take a daily probiotic of at least 15 billion.

Supplements for prevention

Always talk with a qualified healthcare professional before making any changes to your supplement or herbal routine. If you're out of stock of anything or would like to see the brands I prefer, you can pick these up through Wellevate.

  • Vitamin D3: Especially useful for boosting mood and energy in winter (AKA seasonal affective disorder season), vitamin D is vitally important to immune system function and response, and for successfully fighting infections. If you haven’t had your levels checked lately, I’d suggest checking in with your primary care provider and finding out what your level is. For optimal health, shoot for a level in the range of 45-65. Aviva Romm recommends supplementing with 2,000-4,000IUs daily.
  • Curcumin / Turmeric: This is a powerful inflammation fighter when dosed at 500-1,000mg 1-2x day. 
  • Medicinal mushrooms: Mushrooms like shiitake, reishi, maitake, and cordyceps have all been shown to strengthen immunity in different capacities. You might start with something like reishi, which in addition to improving immunity and resistance to colds, also relaxes and calms the nervous system.
  • Vitamin C: Note that this does not reduce your chance of getting a cold, but it can reduce the duration and severity of colds in people who already take it regularly.
  • Probiotics, probiotics, probiotics.

If you’re already sick...

Again, get acupuncture

Again, acupuncture boosts the immune system's production of natural killer cells for up to 3 days after each treatment. It also relieves aches and pains, calms coughing and wheezing, and helps stuffed sinuses drain. 

Eat soup

Preferably, hot soup full of things like ginger, scallions, and garlic. One way to go is a miso soup. Another is a spicy Thai broth. Yet another is pho, loaded up with those fresh hot peppers. Best yet, rotate them all around and keep up that hot spicy coup diet while you're under the weather.

Take a few supplements

Stock on up these through Wellevate or your natural pharmacy of choice, to have on hand if you do happen to come down with something.

  • Oscillococcinum: This is a homeopathic remedy made by Boiron. Keep it on hand and take it if you feel like you maybe might be ever so slightly starting to come down with something, as evidenced by the beginnings of slight headaches, body ache, fever, or chills. It works amazing wonders if taken at the hint of a cold, but if you wait until you’re already fully achy, headach-y, sore-throat-y, cough-y, or congestion-y, it’s no longer the right remedy.
  • Zinc: While zinc can help prevent catching colds, it also helps treat them. When taken within 24 hours of the first sniffle or sore throat, zinc lozenges, tablets, or syrups can significantly reduce the duration (from 7 down to 4 days) and severity (coughing for 2 days instead of 5) of common colds.
  • Chinese herbs: In the fall and winter, I often send my patients home with a Chinese herbal formula appropriate for their constitution and types of colds they tend to get (ie. head cold vs. chest cold, or respiratory infections, or chronic recurring sinus infections, or long lingering cough, etc). I believe these should be in your medicine cabinet the way that most of us keep bandaids on hand at any moment. Some of my favorites are Gan Mao Ling, Yin Qiao San, Gui Zhi Tang, Bi Yan Pian, Qing Qi Hua Tan Wan, and Sheng Mai San. Ask you local qualified acupuncturist/herbalist for the most appropriate formula(s) for you.

Need some help kicking a cold? I'm available for acupuncture treatments and herbal consultations in Brooklyn and Manhattan, and you can make an appointment here. You can also send over a note if you don't know any acupuncturists in your area and would like a recommendation.