For years I was ashamed to call myself a healthcare practitioner. Frankly, my immunity was the pits. One year, I hacked phlegmy fluids from the deep, ravenous echos of my poor lungs from mid-January through late-April. Since childhood, I’ve learned to live with, power through, and sometimes ignore my everyday allergy symptoms. These symptoms, never content with being avoided, would periodically emerge as a full-blown sinus circus approximately once a month with a predictable pattern of inflammation that migrated from my throat to my nose and finally to my lungs.
I felt like a fraud throughout my five-year training program in Chinese medicine, showing up to class with tissues stuffed up my nose and a diverse supply of over-the-counter anti-histamines and nasal decongestants disguised as Altoids in my purse. How could I expect to help others heal when I couldn’t get a handle on my own health issues? I had the knowledge. I had the tools. I wasn’t making use of these things. It just wasn’t happening.
One tidbit of knowledge that I’ve gleaned over the years and throughout my training is that our health is the accumulation of a lifetime of habits and environmental influences, not to mention what we’ve inherited. To expect oneself to change that in one fell swoop is virtually impossible.
There are many steps to be taken and stumbles to be had along the winding, branching road to health, which is why this is a journey and not a leisurely stroll.
These days, I feel more healthy and balanced than I have in my entire life, although I still have a ways to go, no doubt. When I reflect back on my state of health 10 years ago, I can see the progress that I’ve made, not all at once, but in small increments. I am proud to say that it’s been at least six months (as opposed to six minutes) since I’ve nursed a sinus infection. I now feel compelled to share a few things that I’ve learned about immunity in general, not just sinus infections. These tips, which I’ve incorporated into my life along the way, were neither discovered all at once nor implemented with consistency. Your path to healing will not look exactly the same as mine as there are a multitude of factors that influence the strength or weakness of your unique immunity. Nevertheless, and with no further ado….
1) Cover your neck. In Chinese medicine, every organ is associated with a season, and during that particular season, the corresponding organ is susceptible to falling off of the wagon. Fall is the season of the lungs, and the lungs control the skin, including the opening and closing of the pores. From a western medicine perspective, bacteria and viruses can enter our system through the nose and mouth. In Chinese medicine this holds true, but we also recognize that they can enter through the skin. A particularly vulnerable area is the skin on the back of the neck and the vehicle for entry is wind. Something you can do to protect yourself from invasion of external pathogens is to wear a scarf or a turtleneck during the colder months, especially on windy days.
2) Slow cooked. Seventy percent of the cells that make up our immune system are found in the walls of our intestines. Not surprisingly, our gastrointestinal health is directly linked to our immunity, and subsequently, so are our food choices. In Chinese medicine, the spleen is at the helm of the digestive system: it helps break down and assimilate the food we eat. The spleen can become weakened over time as a result of numerous factors, including having to work hard to break down raw foods or warm up cold foods. It craves warm, cooked foods that are both nourishing and easily digestible. Got a slow cooker? Throw your hastily and haphazardly chopped veggies/beans/meat into the pot before leaving for work, turn it to low, and then return in the afternoon to a house that smells like your personal chef has been slaving away for hours. Here’s what our “personal chef” is cooking for us right this very moment as Jorge and I are working. When we get home, our sous chef (aka the rice cooker) will prepare some rice, and we’ll top the whole thing off with a fried egg and some avocado slices. Done and done.
3) Supplements. I’m not a vitamin girl. It’s nothing personal, I just prefer to get my daily dose of essential vitamins and nutrients by eating a variety of whole foods with an emphasis on fruits, veggies and dark leafy greens (again, this way of eating was an evolution and most certainly did not happen overnight…and yes, I stole plentifully and frequently from my daughter’s stash of Halloween candy this year). Having said all of that, I am a staunch advocate of fish oils and probiotics.
A few months ago, I attempted to effectively describe the benefits of fish oils, but here’s the gist. Fish oils contain high concentrations of omega-3 fatty acids, which plenty of research has shown can improve immune function and reduce inflammation in the body among many other things. Now keep in mind that this is not an opportunity to bargain shop. Oils in general are easily subject to rancidity, and rancid fish oils can cause damage to your body at the cellular level, increasing your risk for such conditions as heart disease and blod clots. For this reason, it’s important to bite the bullet and spring for a high-quality fish oil: we highly recommend (and carry in-office) Nordic Naturals.
And probiotics…not to freak you out or anything, but your gut is alive! Alive with billions upon billions of microorganisms that aide in digestion and help protect you from harmful bacteria. These little critters can start to disappear slowly after years of poor food choices or chronic gastrointestinal issues, or they can be wiped out quickly with a course of antibiotics, which kill all the bad (yay!!) as well as the good (booo!) bacteria in your gut. Your gut needs to be well-populated with this “good” bacteria in order to protect your overall immunity. The brand we recommend and carry in-office is called OrthoBiotic from OrthoMolecular. If you’re looking for a high-quality brand in your local health food or supplement store, go for something in the refrigerated section.
4) Practice Gratitude. Well isn’t it convenient that Thanksgiving is smack dab in the middle of the cold/flu season? I recently read that giving thanks on a regular basis can boost the immune system, so I did my due diligence and sought out research to support this claim before trying to convince you of what I know in my heart to be true. Here’s how it works: the regular practice of gratitude promotes a general sense of optimism, and research now supports a correlation between high levels of optimism and increased numbers of blood cells that protect the immune system.
Ok, I’ll start.
I’m so GRATEFUL that you are reading this post right now. Why? Because I feel that my calling in life is to promote the concept of natural and holistic healing through an expanded and interconnected idea of the human body and human experience. I am working on developing my own voice with which to do this and you are holding that space for me, so THANK YOU!
If you have three minutes and a desire to get started on this, check out this powerful guided gratitude meditation.
5) Get acupuncture. My current state of health has been 17 years in the making: pretty much half of my life. The process has certainly not been linear, and I can’t attribute my improved immunity to any one thing, but Chinese medicine has certainly been huge. My first experience with acupuncture and herbal medicine was the springboard for this journey, and it carried me quite a bit of the way. It also exposed me to avenues of nutrition, spirituality and movement in ways that were certainly new and absolutely integral in this process.
Chinese medicine is fundamentally a preventative medicine. It excels at maintaining health and balance, and this can be a difficult concept for us as Westerners to wrap our heads around. It is in our nature to wait until a symptom is so aggravating or debilitating that we are rendered incapacitated. Not surprisingly, people often come to us as a “last resort” after having exhausted their western medicine options as well as their patience with their current state of health. And yes, acupuncture and Chinese herbs are wonderfully effective in these situations to help alleviate symptoms, and restore balance in the body. However, the medicine is incredibly effective at PREVENTION, including boosting immunity to ward off disease.
There are numerous studies demonstrating the effect that acupuncture has on immunity, including in those who are battling cancer. From a western perspective, acupuncture does this by increasing the body’s white blood count among other things. From a Chinese medicine perspective, we’re looking at the physical and energetic function of the spleen, kidney and lungs. If you come to us with a full-blown upper respiratory infection, we’re certainly going to address the acute symptoms to provide you with immediate relief, but we will also be addressing the underlying imbalances that may be increasing your susceptibility to upper respiratory issues, allergies or other autoimmune conditions.
Whether you’re dealing with issues surrounding immunity, pain, fertility, digestion, emotions, or even a wacky menstrual cycle, you’ve probably attempted to change your life in some way in order to experience a better state of health. Maybe you’ve succeeded in this vein, and maybe you’ve “failed.” I put “failed” in quotes because I no longer believe such a concept exists in the road to health and recovery.
Have you tried something that didn’t work out? Fine. Explore that. Embrace what you have learned. Forgive yourself. Continue onward. One step at a time.