How to Protect Your Immune System From the Dreaded "Flu Season"

The truth is you can get sick any time of year — here's how to take care of yourself during winter.

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"The most important decision we make is whether we believe we live in a friendly or hostile universe." —Albert Einstein 

Even before I was an acupuncturist, the conceit that certain months of the year yield a dark force cloud of disease heading my way, sent by the vengeful hand of Mother Nature herself, seemed scientifically sketchy. But that fear definitely confirms the existential pit I have developed this year that says I must be on constant high alert for suffering and aggression and I should absolutely be afraid to leave the house.

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It's like a big box-office disaster movie: COLD AND FLU SEASON. Don't. Touch. That. Restroom Doorknob.

Though the flu, specifically, does peak between the months of December and March in the United States, I refuse to believe that the universe is hostile to me. And that is hard work for me to remember, especially in 2017. I'm on Facebook: I don't need any more encouragement to fear facing the break of day. But I have to do this work; I have to remind myself that I live in harmony with a peaceful universe because my life depends on my loving it and fostering compassion for those who live in it.

Winter is not an aggressive season. As nature actually intends it, winter is meant to be the season of utmost Yin: utmost darkness, utmost softness, and utmost rest. It is meant to be the period of consolidation and conservation so that new life may burst forth in spring. If you were many other mammals, you would just sleep right through it. But you are a human living in 2017, so instead of resting, you are going to work right through it, oftentimes working even harder so that you can take one week off, which you will cram with hyper-socializing, traveling to environments your body is entirely unacclimated to, eating shit your body has to work twice as hard to digest, and managing the insane pressure of being full of "joy and gratitude" while fending off the expectations of your family and shopping for the perfect gifts for a seven-year-old you've met once and your husband's weird aunt who calls you Raquel even though your name is Rachel.

"Cold and Flu Season" does not mean the environment is pumping norovirus and strep into every subway station and kindergarten playground: it is our cultural resistance to recognizing the necessity of conservation and our inability to adapt to limited sunlight exposure and cold, with an overconsumption of refined sugar and dairy, reduced water intake, unusual stressors, and reduced physical activity.

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According to the Huang Di Nei Jing, the fundamental doctrinal source for Chinese medicine, there are ALWAYS pathogens in the air. Our bodies have a natural intuitive defense for these pathogens, an energetic layer of immunity and vitality that sits on the surface of the skin called Wei qi, or "righteous qi." Getting sick from external causes (colds, flu, allergies) is ultimately about the battle between what's in the air ("wind" or "evil qi"; yes, that's what the old books call it) and the strength of our Wei qi. "Wind" hits us first in the neck, which is why we wear scarves and why the two symptoms that precede a cold or flu are stiff neck and sore throat. As the evil qi and the righteous qi collide, heat and stagnation are on the surface of the skin, and that's what we feel those first couple of days of illness: muscle aches, body soreness, alternating chills and fever.

Western medicine really likes to focus on the evil qi, or the germs in the air, but Eastern medicine dictates that it is less important to worry about the pathogens (which are always there and we can't control) and instructs us to focus instead on self-care and cultivating strength. When our bodies are strong, we're resting and eating properly, we're exercising and managing stress, we're taking the best care of ourselves, our immune system functions best and protects us adequately.

Even before I was an acupuncturist, the conceit that certain months of the year yield a dark force cloud of disease heading my way, sent by the vengeful hand of Mother Nature herself, seemed scientifically sketchy.

I don't believe the environment is closing in on me in the winter; rather, I live in harmony with it and simply must adapt to the two empirical environmental changes predominant this time of year: darkness and coldness. Shortened daylight will affect your mood and, more important, eliminates natural sunlight — Vitamin D — which is a huge component of our immune system. Cold, by definition, causes a lack of circulation and a deficiency of energy (and it incubates germs, which is why hand-washing is so vital), so we must do what we can to balance that: keep our bodies moving and warm. Keep covered, especially the back of your neck (where the Wind attacks) and your legs and feet (nothing inspired the temper of my teacher, a feisty and fiery Taiwanese doctor, more than seeing a pack of women eating brunch outside on an overcast day wearing flip-flops. "Shoes!!!" she would scream from the passenger window of my car. "You do this to yourself!").

Here are some tips I offer my patients to help them adapt to winter:

  • To counteract the limited sunlight exposure, try to take at least a short walk every day and a 1,000- to 2,000-IU supplement of Vitamin D3 daily.
  • Cod-liver oil is an excellent and natural source of Vitamin D.
  • Everything consumed should be at room-temperature or warmer. No raw foods, no salads, no iced beverages. Instead, choose stews, soups, broths, even foods that are cooked too long.
  • Eat foods that grow during winter (squash, potatoes, root vegetables, winter greens) or the foods that specifically warm and nourish the kidneys (beans, bone broths, lamb, chicken, walnuts, dark leafy greens).
  • Refined sugars, in addition to being phlegm-producing, deplete our bodies of vitamins and minerals, especially magnesium, zinc, and potassium. Be smart.
  • Dairy is essentially phlegm, so limit consumption of milk products during damp and cold periods.
  • Do not sleep in the direct line of a heater or fan blowing on you.
  • If you do feel like you are getting sick, the first 24 hours is the most important time to address it. At the hint of the initial stiff neck, sniffle, or dry throat, drop some liquid oil of oregano (nature's antibiotic) down your throat and get sweaty either through exercise or a sauna, which warms you, opens the pores, and pushes out the pathogen trying to get in.
  • If the Wei qi loses the battle and the germs go in deeper, to the sinuses, to the chest, and to the belly, sweating won't help, and all you can really do is sleep and flush it out with a ton of fluids.
  • If you can't hibernate, at least do one less thing a day. Take a night off.

Buying into the mentality that there is unquestionably a rolling wave of phlegm and sniffles coming your way in every handshake at work and Starbucks sneeze, and that your immune system is totally powerless, is just one way of viewing the world. There are other ways. And I fully tell my patients to get the flu shot if they think that is best for them — I am not trying to dissuade anyone from vaccines — but it doesn't take the onus off personal responsibility when it comes to health. It doesn't give you license to guzzle ice cream all day and stick your fingers in your mouth at the gym.

I have spent the past year living in abject terror of impending doom, and I hate it. I have hated going through the motions of my life this year feeling already beaten and inert. I am doing everything in my power to not engage my existence from a place of fear. I prefer to choose not seeing my world as hostile or germ-hostile. I am writing this essay to you — and I tell this to my patients — because I believe the most important thing right now is that we feel strong and still loved by this world. The most important thing right now is that we know — deep in our bones — that we are powerful and guided by a divine grace that has equipped us to survive. This is not the time to forget that you were born with the inherent intelligence and resources to adapt to the transitions that come with living in a universe that brought you here and needs you here.

As the cold wind stings your skin and chaps your lips this winter, I need you to remember your resilience, because it reminds me of mine.

Russell Brown is a licensed acupuncturist and the owner of POKE Acupuncture in Los Angeles. He thinks Cold and Flu Season would make an amazing, Valentine's Day–esque, A-list-ensemble, Garry Marshall-style romantic comedy.

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