Advice on how to build a stronger Immune System
Noah K. Goldstein, L.Ac MSTOM - Boulder, CO
I fell in love with my wife for the first time before we were even dating when she took care of me while I was sick. It was a cold wet day in Brooklyn, and she came over with hot chicken soup, comforted me, and made me lots of tea while we watched a movie together. Her nurturing care soothed my aches and melted my heart. I got better quickly. Over the course of the next couple years it became evident my immune system wasn’t as strong as it should be. Winter after winter I would get colds and coughs while others glided through the season uscathed. Fortuitously, I had just begun acupuncture school where I was learning how to take care of myself and build up my immune system and improve my vitality in new ways. Acupuncture and herbal medicine have uniquely powerful immune boosting capabilities that work preventatively to help you avoid getting sick or hasten recovery during cold season whether you live in Boulder or in Shanghai.
Boost Your Immune System with Acupuncture and Herbal Medicine
The primary cause of immunodeficiency (a weak immune system) in Chinese medicine is “Qi Deficiency”. This can be thought of as a lack of metabolic energy to prevent and expel pathogens like viruses and bacteria. I see this often in my Boulder acupuncture practice. Symptoms of Qi deficiency include fatigue, poor digestive functions (which can manifest as gas and bloating or diarrhea), an aversion to wind or cold, and decreased stamina and strength. Qi Deficiency can have a number of different causes. When we’re overworked and under-resourced, “burning the candle from both ends,” the body may prioritize putting energy towards managing that stress. When this is the case, it is best to take a step back to re-evaluate responsibilities. A patient I work with at my Boulder acupuncture clinic recently used the analogy of juggling glass and rubber balls. Maybe you can drop a ball for the sake of your health and long-term well-being (just make sure it’s a rubber ball).
Another cause of Qi Deficiency is improper nourishment. It may be the result of skipping meals or eating too many unhealthy foods. In dry cold weather, like what we see here in the winter in Boulder, we need to eat more cooked earthy foods like winter squash, pumpkins, carrots, and sweet potatoes (that beta-carotene sure is good for us!) and be sure to eat plenty of healthy fats from avocados, olive or coconut oil, and butter from grassfed cows. Bone broth is a great nourishing food that will support the digestive system’s ability to absorb nutrients while providing your body with essential nutrition. If you live in Boulder you can find Bone Broth at most of our local groceries like Alfalfas and at some local restaurants (including our personal favorites: Wonder and Fresh Thymes). Without healthy fuel our bodies cannot mobilize the immune system to protect us from external threats.
Immunodeficiency can also be caused by blood deficiency. Blood deficiency in Chinese medicine does not necessarily equate directly with anemia or blood loss, rather it is a pattern that indicates a lack of nourishment. Symptoms include pallor, dry skin and hair, brittle nails, constipation, difficulty sleeping or light sleep, anxiety, and difficulty focusing and thinking. It gets tricky with symptoms like fatigue, low mood, weakness, which can be caused by deficiency of qi or blood. That is precisely why it is helpful to have a professional help identify and treat the underlying pattern. Personally, I spent almost 2 years trying to strengthen my immune system unsuccessfully until I discovered that my self-diagnosis of “qi deficiency” was actually blood deficiency thanks to a mentor.
Regardless of the cause, there are a number of things you can do to help support your immune system and prevent colds. I’d like to share with you the advice that I give my patients at our acupuncture practice.
Immune System Strengthening Protocol
Probiotics - it’s becoming more and more clear the the bacteria in our guts do a lot. Beyond the basic quality of our ability to digest food, our gut bacteria impact our mood, energy levels, and our immune system. Taking a probiotic daily and making sure to eat fermented foods like sauerkraut, yogurt, kefir, and kombucha can help you maintain and healthy balance of gut flora and a strong immune system. Fermented foods can be surprisingly fun and simple to make but when there just isn’t time, I personally love to support Ozuke, a Boulder based fermented foods company (the Citrus Ginger Kraut is our family favorite!). For Kombucha, you can’t beat Rowdy Mermaid, also produced here in Boulder. I especially appreciate that their kombucha isn’t overpoweringly sweet like many of the bigger companies.
Teas/Hydration - our bodies operate best when well hydrated. Drinking warm water with lemon or herbal teas throughout the day is a great way to stay hydrated and keep all of your systems running smoothly. In the winter, I recommend warming teas which include black tea, oolong tea, or teas with ginger or cinnamon. In the warmer parts of the year cooling teas such as green tea, peppermint, or hibiscus are more appropriate.
Immune Supplement Trifecta:
Good Ol’ Vitamin C - a daily dose of 1000mg during cold and flu season will definitely improve your immune system.
Vitamin D - there is no way to get enough Vitamin D naturally during the winter months. This vitamin is a powerful immune tonic and a vital part of your daily prevention plan.
Selenium - this lesser known mineral has been shown to improve the body’s ability to fight viruses and help strengthen the immune system overall. It can be found in high doses naturally in Brazil nuts or supplemented. We used to get our selenium from wheat, but due to modern farming practices most of the soils have been depleted.
Hats and Scarves and Jackets - believe it or not, it isn’t just an old wives tale and weather has an impact on us and on the immune system. Making sure to bring extra layers with you, especially to cover up your neck and head on windy days, will help your body stay healthy.
Exercise - moderation is key here. Research shows that moderate levels of exercise improve the functioning of the immune system, but pushing yourself too hard can actually run you down and make your more susceptible to catching a cold. If you exercise at a gym, be sure to wash your hands frequently and use a towel to wipe down the machines before and after you use them.
Rest and sleep - it can be difficult to get enough sleep these days, with screens distracting us from our beds and the next episode of most tv shows available instantly. However it has been shown that not getting enough sleep can weaken our immunity and make us more susceptible to the sniffles.
Acupuncture and Herbal Medicine - the things that helped me not just overcome my seasonal colds and coughs, but also improve my resistance to them in the first place were (no surprise here!) acupuncture and herbal medicine. Over the course of a year of somewhat regular acupuncture (1-2x/month), appropriate herbal formulas, and some lifestyle modifications I’ve improved my immune system significantly. I now get sick less often, even in the erratic Colorado weather, and when I do succumb to illness (which is bound to happen especially with a 3.5 year old running around the house) I tend to recover much more quickly.
Building your immune system will make you less likely to get sick, however you won't become invincible. If (or when) you do get sick, take it as a sign you need to slow down and get rest. When we forget how to say no, our bodies will eventually do it for us. Give yourself some time to recover.
If you are looking for ways to beat the Colorado cold and flu season this year, I would highly recommend adding in acupuncture treatments and herbal medicine into your routine. If you have questions, or would like to schedule an appointment, please get in touch with us here.