Maybe you heard it from your grandmother, or maybe from a practitioner of Traditional Chinese Medicine, like me: you need to bundle up when it’s cold outside or you’re going to get sick!
Until fairly recently, medical doctors believed this was a folk myth – only microorganisms can get you sick, not the weather. And because people crowd closer together indoors when it’s cold, they are more likely to share germs. But researchers at Yale have confirmed now that colder weather (and a colder body) actually slows our immune response, making rhinovirus and other pathogens more likely to get us sick.
TCM practitioners have known this about cold weather for thousands of years. Here’s a greater explanation of why you should listen to them (and your grandmother) when it comes to preventing illness when the temperatures drop.
How Weather Influences Us From A TCM Perspective
Cold is considered one of the “6 Evils”, along with Wind, Heat/Fire, Summer Heat, Damp, and Dryness. This might sound a little wacky to a modern mind, but if you place yourself in a world thousands of years ago when TCM was first developed, it makes perfect sense.
This is simply the way the Chinese explained how humans can be negatively affected by changes in nature. And what is happening outside of us can influence our inner landscape. For our discussion here about illness during cold weather, we are focusing on Cold and Wind.
External cold can create inner cold from the TCM perspective. Cold is congealing (think of water forming ice). It stagnates our vital energy and inhibits free movement of blood (slowing our immune response). It can also lead to sluggishness and cause muscles to contract & joints to stiffen.
This is why we TCM practitioners suggest that you stay warm in cold weather!
It’s why we use heat instead of ice to circulate energy around stiff, painful muscles & joints.
It’s why we suggest you limit cold, raw foods to the hottest months of the year and eat well-cooked food as well as inherently warmer foods (like onion and garlic if tolerated), during the rest of the year.
And it’s also why we suggest drinking fluids at room temperature or warmer.
The ancient Chinese Text Nei Jing says that “100 diseases develop from Wind”.
External Wind carries with it microorganisms and allergens. It’s light, airy, changes quickly, and likes to combine with other influences.
When wind is created in the body by itself, we experience dizziness, gas, tinnitus, tremors, and convulsions, depending on where it shows up in the body. When combined with Cold, a condition called Wind-Cold is created, which presents as initial symptoms of the Common Cold: stiff neck, headache, runny nose, chills, and possibly a fever.
Wind carries Cold into the body (in addition to Heat, but we’re not going there today). Certain areas of the body are more vulnerable than others, particularly the head, neck, and upper back. There is even a point on the upper back called Wind Gate that we use to “release exterior wind” when someone gets a cold. It’s important to stop the “invasion” here before Cold progresses to the Lungs and causes further complications.
But remember, any experience of cold and shivering with any exposed body part can lower your immune response, so these are not the only areas we need to guard.
Staying cooped up indoors is not a healthy option. Getting fresh air is still a good idea.
So how do you prevent Wind-Cold invasion?
Wear a scarf and hat
Cover up immediately when your pores are open, like after a sweaty gym workout or getting out of a hot bath
Wear socks or slippers in the house, especially on cold tile floors
Wear pants and shoes (seriously Californians!)
Suffering from the wind and cold is not fun, so why don’t we listen to our bodies and just cover up? I know you don’t want to get sick and you certainly don’t want your family members to get sick either.
Hopefully the information I shared here is enough to encourage you to cover up sufficiently (in addition to eating well and avoiding stress) to protect your immune system and prevent colds. Because not everyone exposed to rhinovirus and influenza gets sick – only those who have a weakened immune system.
Next week we’ll look at TCM treatments you can apply at home if you do actually get ill…
Do you cover up sufficiently when it gets cold outside? Is it because you’re trying to prevent a cold or you’re just uncomfortable? As always, I’d love to read your comments and have a discussion about this!