With cold and flu season soon upon us my thoughts now turn to how to help you stay well through winter. We are constantly being exposed to infectious agents and yet, in most cases, we are able to resist these infections. Exposure alone to viruses and bacteria does not always lead to illness, it is a weak immune system together with the exposure that is more likely to do so.

Traditional Chinese Medicine is able to support your immune system naturally through acupuncture and Chinese herbs. Studies have found that acupuncture increases white blood cell production and enhances Natural Killer Cells and Lymphocytes which leads to increased immune response and decreased risk of infection. So the next time you feel too sick to make an acupuncture appointment or feel like cancelling one because you are sick   think again as a treatment or two can lessen the severity of your signs and symptoms as well as shorten the duration of your cold or flu.

In Chinese medicine, immunity comes from Qi, or energy, which gives us the power and energy to do things including fight off viruses and bacteria. Generally we consider two types of energy within your body: (1) constitutional or Prenatal Qi is the energy we are born with, that we inherit, and (2) Acquired or Postnatal Qi is the energy we acquire from the air we breathe, the food we eat and the lifestyle we choose. Included within the category of Postnatal Qi is both Ying Qi, or Nutritive Qi, and Wei Qi, or Defensive Qi. The combination of Nutritive and Defensive Qi describes the body’s natural resistance against diseases and its ability to repair itself as your energy flows freely around your body. So nourishing your Qi and ensuring its smooth flow is one of the keys to supporting your immunity. It is interesting to note that similarly within our immune system we also consider two types of immunity: (1) the innate, non-specific or inherited immune system, our first line of defense against invading organisms and (2) the adaptive, specific or acquired immune system that acts as a second line of defense and also affords protection against re-exposure to the same pathogen.

Your immune system responds to signals from many of the systems within your body, particularly the nervous system and the endocrine system. As a consequence, environmental events such as the air we breathe, the food we eat, and the lifestyle we choose elicits responses from our nervous and endocrine systems which then affect our immune system.

Let us start with the air we breathe. Each day you inhale thousands of germs (bacteria and viruses) that are floating in the air. Your immune system generally deals with them without a problem. A cold or flu is a sign that your immune system failed to stop the germ, however, the fact that you get over the cold or flu is a sign that your immune system was able to eliminate the invader after learning about it.

Another aspect of breathing, however, is its amazing ability to shift us between our Sympathetic Nervous system (our flight and fight response which usually has us breathing short, shallow breaths) and our Parasympathetic Nervous system (our rest and digest response which we can activate by breathing with long, deep belly breaths). Psychologists in the field of psychoneuroimmunology have shown that your state of mind affects your state of health so using your breath to help you release stress and relax can improve your immunity.

It is your immune system’s ability to regulate inflammation that predicts who will develop a cold. When you are under stress your immune cells are unable to respond to hormonal control and as such produce levels of inflammation that promotes disease. With the common cold, symptoms are not caused by the virus or bacteria but by your inflammatory response that is triggered as part of your body’s effort to fight infection.

Secondly, the lifestyle you choose. If you find yourself using unhealthy behavioural coping strategies to reduce your stress, such as smoking, drinking too much alcohol, poor diet, lack of exercise, and lack of sleep then this will also affect your immunity. So finding constructive ways to manage stress, especially chronic or long-term stress (even if it’s not intense), may help you do everything from combating the common cold to speeding up healing after surgery. Regular acupuncture treatments are a great way to manage your stress and during treatments we also focus on encouraging good health behaviours such as eating, sleeping and exercising well.

Finally, the food you eat, or more importantly how well you absorb the nutrients you require for your immunity to function optimally. Your stress response affects your digestive system. During stress your digestion is inhibited and absorption is minimal after stress your digestive activity returns. Stress produces an increase in blood cholesterol levels, through the action of adrenaline and nor-adrenaline on the release of free fatty acids. And the chronic inflammation that we have already discussed as linked to many diseases may also be linked to dysfunctional gut microbiota.

Our digestive system plays a huge role in immune function. Our intestines contain more immune cells than the entire rest of our body. In a healthy person, the microbes in the gut stimulate the immune system as needed. Unfortunately there is an increasing disruption of these microbes from our modern lifestyle, diet, overuse of antibiotics and other issues. Problems ranging from autoimmune disease to clinical depression and simple obesity may in fact be linked to immune dysfunction that begins in your digestive system and it could be as simple as rebalancing it with prebiotics and probiotics and fermented foods as well as using Chinese herbs and acupuncture to help restore good digestive function.

So if you want to be well this winter then it will be important for you to breathe deeply, eat well and manage your stress. Some regular acupuncture treatments would be of great benefit too.

Your feedback and questions are always welcome so please leave a comment below.

For further information on Chinese Medicine contact Tania Grasseschi (Acupuncture, Chinese Herbs, and Wholefood counselling). Tania is an AHPRA registered practitioner of Traditional Chinese Medicine located in Botany and Katoomba, NSW.