In the last few months, I’ve changed my approach to cold and flu prevention in a big way, and it's put my family's wellness front-and-center in my life. I'm applying the lessons I learned in Chinese Medicine school has led to me trusting my own body, and working with its vital intelligence instead of against it. And, as a result (and I knock on wood as I say this!), nobody in our family has been hit with a cold.
Things have been getting real in the last few days, with pronouncements that the new Corona Virus will inevitably impact our country. But luckily, these interventions work with any cold or flu-like illness, including COVID-19.
Until recently, I never seriously tried the Chinese Medicine approach to cold/flu care. Crazy, right?! But, like so many others, I thought that the medicine we have for treating these illnesses (cough meds, fever reducers, decongestants, etc.) were good enough. However, after getting a simple cold that seemed to go on and on for weeks, I started to wonder, “how effective are these medications, really?” Maybe our focus on simply masking the symptoms of colds and flus is actually making us stay sicker, longer.
So what exactly am I doing differently? I’m putting more effort into prevention, and sticking to a strategy that I can kick into gear the instant I start noticing the first signs of an illness.
Now, I think about cold and flu prevention in terms of the four stages listed below. The idea is that, at each stage, I am being proactive to lessen the impact that these omnipresent pathogens have on our lives.
Here’s our approach at each stage:
Passive Prevention: What we do - all the time - to keep our home and bodies from playing host to nasty microbes.
Active prevention: There are certain scenarios when I can predict that someone in our house will almost definitely get sick: when we are traveling or have lots of activities planned (hellooooo, holidays), or, when something is “going around.” At this stage, we take a more proactive approach to supporting our family's immunity, and keeping germs at bay.
First intervention: Sort of like "stop, drop, and roll" for colds! These are the things you do THE INSTANT your body lets you know that you’re hosting some kind of pathogen. The key is to support your body's natural immune response from the very moment you start to get sick.
Treatment: The treatment-phase goes into effect as soon as chills start, or the person in question registers an actual fever. It’s totally possible for a person to have a nasty cold and never get a fever, in which case I stay in “first intervention” mode, focused on keeping the body warm and treating whatever the symptoms are.
Still with me? Time to get into specifics…
The Passive Protection phase
The key concept here is to assume that, during cold and flu season, someone, somehow is going to bring their germs into your house (BUT, don’t get weird about it). Common-sense cleaning tactics, along with supporting your body with diet, rest, and tonic herbs, is often enough to prevent illnesses from making you a host.
Cleaning: I clean all surfaces with simple baking soda and a homemade citrus peel vinegar. This combo is safe, gets things really clean, and most experts agree that while it doesn’t completely disinfect, it does the trick for taking care of the “normal” germs that you find on household surfaces that cause colds and flus. Hand washing should also be a no-brainer.
Sleep: When it comes to keeping your immune system humming, good sleep is key. There’s no substitute for good sleep!
Warm, nourishing food: I don’t believe in one-size-fits-all dietary recommendations, but I will say this: I’m against eating cold, raw food in the winter. When we eat raw veggies, cold food (like ice cream and smoothies), and any food that’s tough to digest, blood and Qi energy moves inward to the gut, warming and/or breaking down the food into 100-degree soup in order for it to be digested. When we fully cook our food, we conserve our Qi and allow it to continue to circulate in the periphery, moving blood and lymph, and working to keep us healthy.
Supplements: Chinese medicine has always taught us that immunity starts in the gut. With that in mind, I take a multivitamin and regularly consume fermented beverages, warm tea, and bitters to keep my digestion regular. I also take tonic herbs, such as Astragalus or Ashwagandha, every day.
The Active Protection Phase
Here’s when you kick into high-alert. Either “something’s going around,” or maybe you recognize that you’ve been burning the candle at both ends. Your body’s healthy, but you need to take more intentional measures to keep it that way.
Disinfect: In addition to cleaning with vinegar, I use disinfecting wipes each night on door knobs, light switches, remotes, phone screens, etc.
Thieves oil! I use this blend of essential oils as much for magical protection as for its physical properties of helping disinfect. I have it in a roller bottle, which I apply around my nose and at the base of my neck. I use it “neat” in our diffuser, and mist it - diluted! - onto fabrics and soft surfaces.
More Supplements: I add a probiotic and extra Vitamin C to my supplement regimen
Herbs: I take Yu Ping Feng San (“Jade Screen Decoction”) - a famous Chinese herbal formula for preventing illness. It is mild enough to take regularly and contains adaptogenic herbs to support the body’s natural immunity.
For kids: Nothing is as important as keeping things relatively low-key and making sure that good sleep is a priority. Multivitamins, probiotics, and whatever warm fluids you can push are also helpful.
Like I said before, you probably already know how to recognize your body’s first signals that you’re getting sick. The trick is to react the instant you suspect you might be getting ill. In my personal experience, I can usually kick an illness if I support my body right away.
Sit or lie down and limit distractions. If you’re a parent, employee, or human person living in our society, this is easier said than done. But if you can, take your sick day when you first suspect you’re getting sick, rather than waiting until you’re absolutely knocked the eff out. You’ll be glad you did.
Get warm. In the early stage of a fever, blood moves inward toward the internal organs as the thyroid - your internal thermostat - turns up the heat. The more your body has to work to do this, the more blood vessels in the periphery constrict, leading to the sensation of feeling cold, shivering, getting chills. That’s why the approach in both Chinese medicine and Western folk medicine is to encourage sweating, to “open the pores” and keep the blood pumping in the periphery to allow immunological factors to circulate. Assisting the body in raising the temperature will allow blood and lymph to continue to circulate, mounting an effective fight against invading pathogens. I like to get a heating pad and pile on as many blankets as I can until I’m borderline uncomfortable. A sauna, bath, or hot tub would also be a great place to run to.
“Feed a cold, starve a fever.” Again, eating a heavy meal will cause your body to expend energy on digestion that could be used for fighting off your illness. My go-to meal if I am hungry is bone broth with rice and chicken, with as much cayenne pepper or sriracha as I can handle.
Take hot, spicy herbs. Fire cider is a popular option, but a tea with ginger, cinnamon, cloves, and other warming spices is more palatable. Raw garlic, wasabi, hot peppers… it’s all good. Elderflower is a great herb to take at the onset of fever, and it’s best when served up in a tea, piping hot. Anything that makes you feel flushed and gets your heart beating is the right choice.
Vitamin C: EmergenC, grapefruit seed extract, elderberries, and other supplements rich in Vitamin C are good for support.
Get to bed!
So at this point, you’re in it. You’ve got the chills, you’ve got the fever, you’ve got that “just got hit by a truck” feeling. The focus now is to do whatever you can to support your body as it actively tries to “boil out” the pathogen with fever.
Whatever you do, don’t immediately reach for the Tylenol (Advil, aspirin, etc.). In an otherwise healthy person, a fever is an essential part of the body’s natural response to what we would refer to, in Chinese Medicine terms, as “external pathogens:” bacteria, viruses, or fungal infections. While the exact purpose of a fever is still a matter of debate, there is a growing body of research to show that allowing a fever to “run its course” leads to better outcomes and faster recovery times from certain infections. This may be due to the fact that pathogens themselves cannot reproduce at these higher temperatures, or that a fevered state allows immunological factors to circulate more effectively. Either way, letting your body do its thing will shorten the duration of your illness, and hopefully destroy the illness before it has a chance to move into the lungs, ears, sinuses, or whatever the case may be.
Deal with symptoms naturally. Boneset is an herbal “specific” for body aches during fever. Baths with magnesium salts are also comforting. Herbs that make you sleepy, like Valerian, hops, catnip - are helpful for soothing the agitation you feel that contributes to discomfort. I firmly believe that television has a natural anodyne affect (that’s why you’ll find a TV in every hospital room!)
Keep an eye on your fever. A fever above 106 can and will cause brain damage. However, fevers like this are super-rare. Humans almost never die directly from fever itself. The concern is that a high (over 103) or long-lasting fever is a sign of something else that could be dangerous. As a general rule, get checked out by a doctor if you or your child has a fever over 103 to rule out dangerous infections. For more info about when you should be concerned about fever, check here.
Hydrate. If there are issues like sweating, vomiting, diarrhea, etc. this is especially important. However, even without these symptoms, drinking a lot of fluids helps your overheated body in many ways.
Take a natural herbal “antibiotic.” Okay, to be fair there aren’t any herbs that we can say work the same as an actual antibiotic, but some herbs are well-known for their ability to help fight infections. Echinacea is probably the best-known in our culture, and is widely available. The Chinese medicine formula for fever is “Yin Qiao San.”
Save the medications for bedtime. In a pros vs. cons scenario, I think there are more pros to taking whatever medication you need to knock yourself out and get some sleep, even if it means reducing your fever temporarily.
The beautiful thing is, these measures still apply whether you have the common cold, flu, or Corona Virus. There are things - simple things - that every one of us can do to support our bodies through illness, and protect ourselves from getting sick in the first place.
Bottom line? Your body is smarter than you think. Provided you are otherwise healthy, supporting your natural immunity will lead to a faster recovery, ready to fight another day.