How to Stay Healthy This Winter, According to Traditional Chinese Medicine
Nina Zorfass, IIN Content Editor
What is Traditional Chinese Medicine?
Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) focuses on creating whole-body health using an integrated approach and remedying imbalanced Qi, the vital life force of the body, flowing through 12 meridians, or channels, in the body. Each channel corresponds to a different organ, and TCM healing modalities can address Qi imbalances that cause disease and illness.
The practice of TCM is rooted in the concept that our bodies are capable of self-healing, like how nature is regenerative, and we are intimately connected to nature and its elements. All the healing modalities of Chinese Medicine tie back to the framework of the Five Element Theory, which “organizes all natural phenomena into five master groups or patterns in nature.” The five groups – wood, fire, earth, metal, and water – include seasons, directions, climates, stages of growth and development, internal organs, body tissues, emotions, aspects of the soul, tastes, colors, sounds, etc.
The Five Element Theory emphasizes the dynamic relationship we have with our environment as well as the relationship between all our internal organ systems. In order to balance our Qi, we must address any potential imbalances between our internal organs and the external elements of wood, fire, earth, metal, and water.
How does Traditional Chinese Medicine promote health and well-being?
TCM practices can be used to decrease pain, relieve stress, improve digestion, clear skin, and help find which diet and foods will optimize our health.
Chinese Medicine modalities include:
- Herbal remedies
- Movement and concentration exercises, such as tai chi
Acupuncture is the use of needles to relieve Qi energy blockages along any of the meridians in your body. These needles are placed strategically on points along the meridian, or “acupoints,” that can impact biochemical and physiological conditions, including stimulating sensory receptors to alleviate pain. Research has demonstrated that acupuncture can be used to help manage chronic pain, such as back and neck pain, shoulder pain, headaches, and osteoarthritis, as well as relieve stress and anxiety.
Cupping is the method of either heating or suctioning glass cups onto the skin. When the cup is placed on your skin by either heat or air pump, your skin and muscle draw into the cup, causing you to feel intense pressure and sensation in that area. Cupping is particularly effective for easing muscle soreness, aches, and pain, and this practice was made famous by Michael Phelps during the 2016 Olympics. As this article explains, “Physiologically, cupping is thought to draw blood to the affected area, reducing soreness and speeding healing of overworked muscles. Athletes who use it swear by it, saying it keeps them injury free and speeds recovery.”
Moxibustion is the burning of moxa, a cone or stick made of ground mugwort leaves, on or near your body’s acupuncture points. Direct moxibustion is when the cone or stick is applied directly to the skin and removed when the skin turns red; indirect moxibustion is when the cone or stick is held a short distance away from the skin. Moxibustion is typically used for people with digestive issues, as it is thought to promote detoxification, increase blood flow, and expel cold energy.
Four ways to stay healthy this winter, according to Traditional Chinese Medicine
As mentioned earlier, each meridian in the body corresponds to an organ, and these organs correspond to different times and seasons of the year. The winter is known as the season of the kidneys, and those with kidney imbalances may be more prone to getting sick or may feel more lethargic than usual. This is because the kidneys are considered the “powerhouses” of Qi, providing Qi to the rest of the body when other areas are depleted. If your kidneys are depleted, you’re more prone to catching that cold or flu going around your office.
If you want to prevent getting sick, and you have access to acupuncture, cupping, moxibustion, or another Chinese Medicine healing remedy performed by a qualified practitioner, that’s amazing. But if not, there are other ways to bring traditional healing practices into your daily life. According to board-certified and licensed acupuncturist Paige Bourassa, MSTOM LAc, RHN, CAS, these are the best, surefire ways to prevent getting sick this winter:
- Avoid cold, raw, and “damp” foods. Cold and raw foods may be self-explanatory – smoothies, juices, and salads – but what are “damp” foods? Damp refers to the reaction these foods have in the body, such as causing phlegm or stagnation in your digestive system. If your digestive system is stagnated, slow or groggy, it can cause bloating, unwanted weight gain, loose stool, and low energy. Examples of damp foods include dairy products, processed foods, anything with refined sugar, and wheat products.
The best way to remove damp foods from your diet according to Paige? “Stop slurping down that iced coffee and that smoothie. Picture your organs being dunked in an ice bath! When you constantly stress your body with cold, raw, and damp foods, your organs and digestive system continue to slow down, preventing the proper flow of Qi through the body.” Diet is the main culprit for damp qualities, but factors such as the climate you live in and not being physically active can also contribute.
- Consume these foods more often. Ideally, you’ll find a balance between the damp and dry ends of the spectrum. Dry foods include whole grains, beans and lentils, quality animal meat, roasted vegetables, nuts and seeds, and fermented foods. In the winter especially, you should aim to consume more garlic, ginger, goji berries, mushrooms, sweet potatoes, and bone broths (if you eat meat). The bottom line? You’re already “crowding out” all the sugary, damp foods, meaning if you’re eating a whole, balanced diet, you won’t have room for the other stuff. Need some inspiration on how to incorporate more of these foods into your day? Start with a bowl of creamy turmeric, ginger, and coconut oats and then whip up red lentil veggie pasta for dinner.
- Cover your neck. In TCM, there are six external forces that impact the Qi inside your body: wind, cold, damp, heat, summer heat, and dryness. These external forces correspond with your environment, which is typically cold and windy in the winter. Ever notice that at the beginning of a cold, your neck feels stiff? Your neck and upper body in general are susceptible to the wind force, especially if you leave your skin exposed, which can then cause colds, headaches, chills, fever, fatigue, and sore throat. In fact, many of the acupuncture points on the neck and shoulders have “wind” in their names, such as Feng Chi (“Wind Pathogen”), Feng Shi (“Wind Market”), and Feng Men (“Wind Gate”). Paige says, “cover your neck with a cozy scarf and make sure your jacket is buttoned up tight to cover this crucial area.”
- Drink tons of water. And then drink some more. Staying hydrated isn’t season specific, and drinking enough water is a powerful tool for maintaining your overall health. Water helps boost your body’s natural toxin-flushing system, as well as keeps your skin looking healthy. Water also helps balance the vitamins, minerals, and electrolytes in your system so that every cell in your body can carry out their necessary functions, from temperature regulation to digestion and beyond. Oh, and one more thing: Make sure the water is not cold! Room temperature or even hot water is key to keeping your Qi flowing.
Exploring different health modalities to find what works best for you
Chances are you’re new to Traditional Chinese Medicine. Slowly but surely, Western medicine is starting to incorporate more holistic Eastern medicine concepts and modalities into its practices. The great thing about this emerging acceptance is that modalities such as acupuncture and cupping are now becoming more mainstream, and you can likely find a qualified practitioner in your area, maybe even covered by insurance!
But what we at IIN find most exciting is that now there’s the availability to try out these modalities to see what makes your unique body feel amazing. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to wellness – what we call bio-individuality. Yes, we can encourage you to incorporate certain foods into your diet to help boost immunity, but if your body doesn’t tolerate garlic, for example, that’s okay! You can try out cupping or moxibustion, but if you can’t tolerate the pain that may come along with them, that’s okay, too. There’s no right or wrong when it comes to doing what you know is best for your own health.
To that end, we’d love for you to explore all the unique concepts that IIN teaches to guide you to become your happiest, healthiest self. Click here to check out our Curriculum Guide, a comprehensive look at our innovative curriculum and why the IIN education is so valuable.