Monday, January 16, 2012

Winter Cold & Flu Prevention: Nine Simple Lifestyle Adjustments

1. Fresh Air: Be sure to spend some time outdoors at least once every day. Being inside puts us in more direct contact with other people's germs. Winter air tends to be dry, pulling moisture out of cough and sneeze droplets, causing them to hang in the air longer. Our nasal passages are also drier and more susceptible to invasion by airborn pathogens.

A 2010 Appalachian State University study showed that people who walked briskly outdoors 30-45 minutes per day, 5 days per week, during winter had fewer seasonal illnesses than their sedentary counterparts. For a broader perspective, here's an inspiring article on the health-enhancing value of time spent outdoors by SF Acupuncturist Chris Kresser.

2. Exercise: Exercise improves immune function by fostering an increase in natural killer cells, neutrophils and monocytes in the body. Another image is that exercise increases your body temperature, improving your body's ability to fight off viruses and other infections. The effect of exercise on body temperature can be likened to a mild fever. A 2011 study, published in the Journal of Leukocyte Biology, showed that mild fever raises the number of a specific type of lymphocyte, called a CD8+ cytotoxic T-cell. This lymphocyte is responsible for destroying cells infected with viruses.

Exercise in winter should be mild. Strenuous exercise is a stressor. When coupled with pre-existing stress, poor sleep patterns or poor diet, strenuous exercise can actually trigger infection. A daily brisk 30-45 minute walk is enough. Gentle qi gong, taiji or yoga practices are also wonderfully restorative at this time of year.

3. Relaxation: Find ways each day to reduce stress and relax. Prayer, meditation, gathering with friends, and taking walks are great stress-busters, as are receiving health-enhancing treatments like acupuncture or massage.

Under stress, your body releases stress hormones like glucocorticoids which impede your body's ability to produce cell-signaling molecules called cytokines that trigger a disease-fighting response from your immune system. Also, when you're under stress you're less likely to take care of yourself by sleeping, eating well, and exercising.

4. Sleep: Getting at least 7-8 consecutive hours of restorative sleep per night (for adults) is critical to immune health. A 2009 Carnegie Mellon University study found that anything short of seven hours of sleep per night nearly triples your odds of catching a cold-- and that's seven consecutive hours of unbroken sleep. Your immune system is most effective when you're not sleep-deprived. The more rested you are, the quicker you'll recover if you do catch a virus.

5. Handwashing: Viruses can survive for two to eight hours on hard surfaces (doorknobs, tabletops). To avoid spreading cold or flu viruses through touch, try to avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth, and master the art of handwashing.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) continue to tout soap and water as best measures for preventing the spread of cold and flu. Use pumped soap rather than bar soap, lather for 20 seconds before rinsing, and dry your hands thoroughly. Use alcohol-based hand wipes or sanitizers when soap and water is not available. Sneeze and cough into the crook of your elbow and wash your hands after sneezing or coughing.

6. Bundle Up: Dress warmly during the cold season. According to Chinese medicine theory, the pathogenic influences that give rise to colds and flus are carried into our body by wind and drafts. Our neck, shoulders and back are particularly vulnerable to such drafts, so be sure to keep those areas covered with hats, scarves, and coats. Keep in mind that body heat is one of the body's ways of mounting a defense against infection.

7. Eat warm, cooked foods: Healthy digestion is a key to good health & strong immunity. According to Chinese medicine theory, the digestive process begins with the Stomach turning ingested food into a warm soup or mash. The warmth for this process is provided by the Yang Qi of the Spleen. Until food is turned into a warm mash, no further digestion can take place. As the process of digestion continues, the Qi of the Spleen transforms this "mash," separating the pure essence from the dregs, and driving the pure essence upward to the heart and the lungs, where it turns into the precious substances of Qi & Blood which underly and drive all physiological function of the body.

One of the take-home messages of this colorful set of images is that good digestion requires warmth. The closer a food is to 100-degree-Fahrenheit soup, the more easily digestible it is. Warm soups and rice porridges garnished with cooked meats and vegetables are great examples of this type of food. By extension, cold and uncooked food places a burden on the body and particularly on the Spleen. Since the health of the Spleen Qi is critical to the health of the Lungs and the immune system, one can see the importance in eating warm, cooked foods for preventing colds during the winter months. See my 2011 article on the relationship of the Spleen and Lungs to immune health in Chinese medical theoory.

From a more biomedical perspective, keep in mind, from point 2 above, that a slightly elevated body temperature boosts immunity. Eating warm foods is one way of warming the body.

8. Avoid Sugar/ Eat Your Vegetables: According to an article by health guru Dr. Mercola, the average American currently eats 75 gm of fructose per day, as compared to an average of 15 grams per day 100 years ago. Overconsumption of sugar impairs the immune system. In Chinese medicine terms, excess sugar creates damp and phlegm in the body, which weakens the function of the Spleen, giving rise to symptoms of fatigue, weakness, edema, weight gain, all sorts of digestive complaints and impaired immunity. Damp accumulation provides an excellent breeding ground for microbial pathogens like cold and flu viruses.

From a western naturopathic perspective, excessive sugar impairs immunity by imbalancing the microflora of the intestines. Sugar is 'fertilizer' for pathogenic bacteria, yeast, and fungi that can set your immune system up for an assault by a respiratory virus. Says Dr. Mercola, "Most people don't realize that 80 percent of your immune system actually lies in your gastrointestinal tract."

In addition to eating less sugar (as well as sweets in the forms of fruits and refined grains), increasing your intake of fresh vegetables is a great way of strengthening your immune system, not only from the standpoint that vegetables provide a range of vitamins and minerals for your body. Again, from the naturopathic perspective of gut microflora, the fiber in vegetables is "pre-biotic." It provides a growth material substrate full of nutrients & fertilizers for probiotics, or "good bacteria," in our gastrointestinal tracts.

9. Receive Regular Chinese Medicine Treatments: Acupuncture, massage and herbal medicine help your body and mind function optimally. Chinese medicine can help you recover from illness; but it is equally or, even, more useful in helping prevent illness or rebuilding your body after illness. Practitioners of Chinese Medicine have always recognized preventive care as the most important aspect of medical practice. Chinese medicine can help you stay healthy by:
  • improving digestion
  • regulating appetite
  • enhancing sleep and relaxation
  • regulating hormones
  • boosting energy
  • optimizing immune function
Consider prioritizing your health by making time to receive acupuncture, massage or herbal therapy on a regular basis all year around. I am happy to work with patients to make this more affordable and accessible. Regular Chinese medicine treatments are one step toward avoiding a nasty illness during the cold and flu season.