Patients often ask me how they can avoid getting sick so often during “flu season”. Now that we’re officially into the fall, let’s tackle that question.
The theory of Chinese medicine is grounded in the belief that humans and our environments are interconnected, and to be healthy, we must live in harmony with nature. In the animal world, many species hibernate or experience some form of metabolic suppression in the winter. How do our human bodies change with the seasons?
Modern science is finding evidence that our bodies’ interdependence with changing environments occur at the genetic level. A study published this year in Nature found that about 25% of our DNA shifts significantly with the seasons, and the changes in gene expression varies depending on where we are from. For those interested in this type of research, studies have also found that the outer shell of viruses gets more resilient in colder temperatures.
With this understanding of our interconnectedness, it’s clear that as seasons change so should our lifestyles. Chinese medicine postulates that as we move in to fall and winter, it is a more yin time of the year. Yin is slow, cool, dark, and heavy. It’s a time to contract and go inward, to rest and nourish our organs.
Yet in our culture, fall and winter are often a time of new beginnings and emotional stress. It’s when the school year starts and major holidays land, and when many people have hectic end of the year deadlines. Then in January, a whole segment of the population begins New Year resolutions of hardcore exercise, cleanses, and diets. This disharmony can weaken our bodies and make us more susceptible to colds and flus.
You might be thinking, the Bay Area doesn’t really have seasons! Or, what about global warming? While the change in temperature here between seasons might be modest, it still has an effect on our physiology. Changes in moisture levels and wind patterns also have an impact. And most significantly, our bodies still need to adapt to the shorter days and longer nights.
Tips for Staying Healthy this Fall & Winter
Sleep. If there’s one thing I would recommend for staying healthy this season, it’s to get more sleep. Even if you’re not able to sleep a full 8-10 hours a night (and I can empathize, having a small child), try to get as much down time as possible in the evenings. If insomnia is a problem for you, come into the clinic and we will create a treatment plan.
Nutrition. I don’t recommend drinking chilled beverages or eating too much cold foods any time of the year, but especially during the fall and winter. This is a time to warm and nourish. Sip plenty of tea and try to have hot soup at least once a day.
Incorporate yin-nourishing foods into your diet, including yams, sweet potatoes, squash, kidney beans, eggs (if you’re not vegan), and pork and beef (for those that eat meat).
Although it may be rainy here in the Bay Area, fall is considered a “dry” time of the year according to Chinese medicine (have you noticed that your skin and scalp often become drier and itchy around this time?) Moistening foods are important in the fall, including apples, pears, apricots, oranges, avocados, and black sesame seeds. During the colder months, try to cook with more onions, garlic and chives to add heat to your diet.
If you have particular dietary needs or don’t know if these foods will work well with your constitution or current health conditions, schedule a consultation and we will go in-depth to create an herbal and dietary treatment plan for you.
Activity. While we don’t need to go into hibernation, I suggest that you try to decrease your activities by at least 15%. One day a week, take a leisurely walk outside if you usually go hard at the gym. One night a week, go to bed early or curl up with novel instead of spending a night out on the town.
Cold air outside and dry air indoors can cause the aerosol droplets from sneezes and coughs to spread more easily. So even when it gets cold and rainy, make sure you open your windows and allow air circulation at least a few times a day.
Enjoy this slow time of the year and rest as much as you can so we can bloom when springtime arrives.