Wellness advice: How do I strengthen my immune system?

Your natural medicine questions, answered by Dr. Christopher Peacock at Yinova Brooklyn Heights

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Dear Dr. Peacock,

Every single year when the weather starts getting cooler I get a cold. It would be one thing if I only got one, but I seem to just get cold after cold until spring. Any advice on strengthening my immune system as cold/flu season approaches? 

—Sniffly in Sunset Park

Dear Sniffly,

One of the biggest concerns we hear at the Yinova Center in late October and early November is getting sick often in the winter. An understandable concern as sick days can turn into weeks that cost us money, time, and other resources. It seems as though some folks are always sick and others never are. So what’s the deal? How can we help our bodies avoid the bugs that get spread as temperatures drop?  

Even if you wash your hands often or skip movie night with that friend with the sniffles, you won’t be able to avoid all of the germs, all of the time. What you can do is make sure you body is in tip-top shape to deal with the pathogens it does encounter.

Whenever we hear about “stress relief,” we usually think of soothing an unpleasant emotional state in one way or another. Of course it does mean this, but it can also mean avoiding things that put undue stress on the body. So, when we are thinking of strengthening your immune system, I think it’s helpful to think of ways that we can make it easier for your body to work properly. 

It’s largely considered a myth that cold weather causes the common cold. In fact, it’s thought to be the fault of contact in closed environments with other people (cozy crowded coffee shops, for example) during colder temperatures that is responsible for greater transmission of viruses and bacteria. While this is definitely a major contribution to catching colds, think also of the stress your body goes through when it’s cold outside: it’s hard work to heat up a cold shivering body, and all that extra stress can take its toll; little by little we become worn down. 

This wisdom has been present in Chinese culture for millennia. There are even acupuncture points on the neck and upper shoulder areas that are considered gateways for pathogens, and leaving those areas exposed can make you vulnerable to catching a cold. So even if the chilly weather alone might not be what’s causing you to catch a cold; it could very well be what’s causing your body stress and in turn weakening your immune system. So, for starters, bundle up! Wear a scarf and dress in layers. Your immune system will thank you. 

It’s not just the cold that surrounds us that can take its toll, but also the cold things we consume. What do you think our body has to do with salads and smoothies in the winter? It has to heat them up! In our bodies! A great way to conserve immune system energy is to cook your food before eating it. For example, now is a great time to switch to hot oatmeal instead of cold smoothies for breakfast. 

Now is also a good time to take stock of what foods you have difficulty digesting. When we want our immune system to be in tip-top shape, it’s best to avoid the things that make digestion more difficult. Sadly, this means overindulging in alcohol too. Friday night parties can lead to Monday morning malaise especially if our bodies are also busy trying to deal with that 4 am slice of pepperoni pizza.  

Finally, don’t forget that Chinese medicine practitioners are experts at bolstering immune systems. When it comes to incorporating herbs, I always like to consider the old saying “one man’s meat is another man’s poison.” What I mean is that all immune modulating herbal medicines are not ideal for all people. Before stocking up on every immune system herb that is available at the apothecary, it’s best to get a proper diagnosis from a licensed and board-certified herbalist. Look for a practitioner that is board certified in Chinese herbal medicine. A combination of acupuncture and herbs is a great way to set the stage for a harmonious transition into cooler weather.

While we want good advice from experts when it comes to incorporating therapeutic grade herbs, we can certainly delve into the world of food grade herbs to help with immune system function. One of the most accessible food grade herbs is fresh ginger root. A good way to quell a cold that is just beginning to take hold is by drinking a cup of fresh ginger tea before bed. It’s really as simple as it sounds. Buy a piece of fresh ginger root and cut three slices that about ¼ inch thick. Simmer in boiling water for about 10 minutes and sip. Just when you are about to break a sweat, crawl into bed for the night and “sleep it off,” as they say.   

I hope this helps. Wishing you a healthy season sans sniffles.  

In Good Health,

Dr. Christopher Peacock

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