How to Stay Well through Cold Season
There’s a reason the winter is known as ‘cold season’ — changing seasons and harsh temperatures can make us more vulnerable to catching seasonal colds and flus. Once you’re in the throes of illness, your symptoms generally need to run their course before you’ll feel reprieve. That’s why the best way to stay well throughout the winter is to avoid getting sick in the first place! Traditional wisdom offers no shortage of advice on how to support our body’s optimal state of being, and with a few simple life hacks you can keep your immune system at peak performance.
Winter is the most ‘yin’ or internal time of the year: a time for rest, reflection, and ultimately giving back to ourselves. While summer is marked by its ‘yang’ or expansive, active energy, the opposing season is best for storing what we’ve sowed throughout the year so we can begin a new cycle in the spring with refreshed and rejuvenated spirits. The end of a chapter, the closing of a calendar, winter falls as a natural finale that ushers in cooler days and marks the completion of a season of growth. In this time of absent ‘yang’ to keep us warm, we must find other sources of heat for our bodies and souls.
The following list incorporates all of the practices I’ve worked into my own routine to avoid getting sick all year round, as well as my favorite way to shake off the first signs of a cold before it has you in its throes!
KEEP YOUR BODY WARM
Drink plenty of water — warm water. Traditional Chinese Medicine thinks of our digestive system like a burner: a steaming pot of rice over a fire, to be more precise. When we eat and drink cold foods and beverages, our stomach has to put extra energy into warming these substances before we can break them down. During hotter times of year, cold or raw foods can keep our bodies cool, but when our surrounding temperatures are at their most frigid we want to help our bodies stay warm. Instead of an iced drink, reach for a hot one instead!
Incorporate warming herbs into your diet. Cinnamon, ginger, cardamom, clove, nutmeg, and pepper are all warm or hot-natured herbs, meaning they improve blood flow and increase metabolism. By working these herbs into teas and cooking, you can help avoid sluggishness of energy, digestion and circulation. In this time of absent ‘yang’ to keep us warm, we must find other sources of heat for our bodies and souls. You can also make your own Fire Cider, a warming vinegar infusion, to sip and cook with ~ feel free to work with herbs you already have on hand, but check out these recipes from the Herbal Academy and Mountain Rose Herbs for inspiration!
Soup, soup, soup. Winter is considered the season of the water element, and it’s especially important to nourish the water in your own body. Soups can serve as a panacea in a pot, allowing you flexibility in cooking and exceptional nourishment. Choose soup ingredients that are local and in season, and incorporate Water and Kidney supporting foods like seaweeds and black beans.
Keep a scarf at the ‘Wind Gate’ — around your neck. In Chinese Medicine, ’Wind’ is a common analogy for contagious pathogens, and it is often thought that we are exceptionally vulnerable in the back of the neck: hence this area being known as the Wind Gate. Protect yourself from both physical and metaphorical Wind by keeping your neck warm with a cozy scarf on cold days. You can also use a scarf to cover your nose and mouth in congested areas like airplanes.
SUPPORT YOUR NATURAL LINE OF DEFENSE
Wash your hands frequently — with good soap. Public bathrooms often use intensely fragrant antibacterial soaps... yikes. The last thing your immune system needs is antibiotics when they are not entirely necessary (consistent use of antibacterial products also weaken the effectiveness prescription antibiotics when we need them most). Instead, keep a travel sized bottle of castile soap in your bag to use when you're out of the house. I am personally a fan of citrus or peppermint Dr. Bronner's, thanks to their exceptionally clean ingredients -- wash and repurpose an old Indigo Elixirs bottle, or snag their 2 oz travel size!
Help your nose breathe clean air. Long flights, freezing temps and artificial heating all dry out the nasal passages, which prevent them from optimally filtering out disease-harboring microbes. Soothe dryness simply by applying a thin layer of mild herbal salve with a clean fingertip into each nostril, and reapply as needed. I especially recommend this at the start of and throughout your time up in the air to avoid picking up airplane germs! The Solve All Salve, Savior Salve & Breathe Relief Balm all work wonders for this specific purpose.
Clear the sinuses with an herbal steam. If you've been in a crowded area or are feeling run down, add a few sprigs of fresh or dry aromatic herbs or 3-6 drops of essential oil to a cup of boiling water. Cover your head with a towel and inhale the steam through your nose and mouth for 5-10 minutes. Any combination of Oregano, Mint, Thyme, Basil, Lavender, Rosemary or Tea Tree will help ~ just use whatever you have on hand.
SWEAT OUT THE FIRST SIGNS OF SICKNESS
If you do start to feel slightly under the weather, don’t push through or ignore it! By catching and addressing your symptoms in the earliest stage of illness, you can actually induce a ‘sweat’ and restore yourself to full health before the pathogen takes hold of your body.
The sweat method is actually a part of every healing tradition I’ve studied: Western Herbalism, TCM and Hawaiian healing all incorporate the practice. Even my Armenian grandmother remembers effectively sweating out colds in her youth! Chinese Medicine has an entire category of herbs called ‘Release the Exterior,’ which is dedicated to formulas that help you sweat when you first get sick. This method most likely works by artificially inducing what your body understands as a fever, kicking our immune systems into action and creating an inhospitable environment for viruses. I've personally benefitted from it time and time again, and have successfully curbed a cold every time I've followed all the steps listed below.
The key to the method is employing the following steps at the very first signs of a cold or flu. The slight tickle in your throat, sluggish energy or a runny nose are all signifiers that you’re headed for sick days ahead. But once a virus has you in its throes, it is likely too late — which is why you need to do the following on day one of feeling ill, and not any later.
To start, brew up some tea with whatever warming pungent herbs you have in your kitchen: ginger, garlic, chilis, and onions are all good options, so use whatever you’ve got. Boil some water and pour over a generous serving of herbs, and steep covered for a few minutes while you dress yourself in layers of the warmest clothes in your closet. I’m talking a winter hat, thick socks, sweatpants and a scarf. Then grab your tea and wrap yourself in warm blankets.
Once you’re exceptionally warm and bundled, start slowly sipping on your hot tea. The goal is to get uncomfortably hot, and then to fully break a sweat. Once you have sufficiently perspired (so that your skin is damp to the touch), stay here for a few more minutes and then follow up immediately with a hot shower. The whole sweating process should last about 15 to 25 minutes maximum as you don’t want to over do it. Take it easy for the rest of the day, ideally with a nap and plenty of warm fluids to replenish the ones you lost. Go to bed early, get a good night's sleep and spend the next few days eating simple, warm foods, getting plenty of rest, and following the advice in this journal post until you're back to 100%.