Three Ways Chinese Medicine Prevents Winter Illnesses

An ice crystal over an unfocused background
Aaron Meadows
Aaron Meadows

Graduated with a Master's of Medicine in Acupuncture and Tuina at Shandong University of Traditional Chinese Medicine. Council member of Bianque Medical and Cultural Research Academic Society

The ground freezes. The roads are coated with ice. People shiver as temperatures fall below freezing. The last thing that anyone wants is to get sick. Masking when feeling symptoms or in large crowds, frequently washing hands, and staying hydrated are essential in protecting oneself from disease. Not only to prevent disease, Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) offers eight ways to cultivate holistic wellness during the winter by emphasizing habits that align with seasonal changes.

TCM believes that cultivating health and wellness requires harmonizing oneself with nature, including its climate and seasons throughout the year. So much so that even the method of treating an illness differs according to the characteristics of the environment, including the patient’s habits, condition, etc. A phrase describes this principle: ”天人合一“ (Tiān rén hé yī), which can be translated to mean “Heaven and people united.” The word “heaven” is also often used to refer to the sky, but in this phrase it means from the sky down to people, everything is harmonious, which supports the importance of harmonizing with nature.

Prevention of illness is at the core of TCM as it emphasizes harmony and optimizing one’s vitality. It is an essential part of TCM holism, and it is that which differs it from other holistic practices that don’t believe that a person’s relationship with nature also impacts their health. These suggestions combine knowledge of the body’s reaction to cold climates with methods that help minimize the negative effects of winter.

Table of Contents

Balanced Exposure to the Cold

Prolonged exposure to cold temperatures can increase stress on the cardiovascular system. A person’s hands and feet may get cold as blood flow is reduced to those areas. The walls of blood vessels shrink and blood pressure increases within those walls as the body restricts blood flow away from the body’s core. Physiologists refer to this as “vasoconstriction,” which has been shown to increase adverse cardiovascular outcomes, even if caused by mental stress [1]. The discovery that vasoconstriction can cause heart problems is new to conventional medicine, this relationship has been known and understood in TCM for thousands of years.

TCM understands that circulation is essential for maintaining health. It uses an understanding of nature, like how people may say “a rolling stone gathers no moss.” It can also be noticed in nature that stagnant water tends to be less clean and clear than rushing water. As TCM views the body as a part of nature, it also believes that it has similar characteristics of our environment. So, it believes that maintaining good circulation improves a person’s health and wellness. So, it is suggested that a person bundle-up and avoid prolonged exposure to cold air.

Yet, there is a caveat. Too little exposure may inhibit a person’s physiological adaptation to the weather. Transition from hot to cold temperatures increases stress on the body. Cold water immersion (or bathing) can be used as an example. Immersion in cold water has been shown to increase levels of troponin, which is usually associated with increasing cardiovascular risk factors and exacerbating existing cardiovascular disease [2]. The sudden increase in heart rate, blood pressure, and respiratory rate signifies a sudden change to the body. While placing stress on the body can help it grow and strengthen, too much can overwhelm its natural defenses and ability to recover.

A rolling stone gathers no moss.

Yet, too much protection from the cold can also lower a person’s ability to adapt to the weather. So, when that person walks outside, their reaction to the cold is multiplied. This balance of good and bad can be symbolized by the Yin-Yang symbol, which embodies a core principle in TCM. While cold nor warmth are necessarily good or bad, good is achieved through balance, and bad results from imbalance.

Physiologically, the human body can habituate itself to exposure to cold temperatures. For example, their skinfolds may increase in thickness [3], metabolism quickens [4], etc. So, it is not advised to avoid all outdoor activities or wear too many layers. Instead, it is suggested to maintain a moderate internal temperature. This can be monitored by increase in heart rate, coldness in the feet or hands, shivering, etc. Wearing too many layers or over-protecting oneself from the cold can also be measured by increase in heart rate, hotness in the feet and hands, or sweating.

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  • Circulation is essential for maintaining health.
  • Placing stress on the body can help it grow and strengthen, too much can overwhelm its natural defenses.

Modify Outdoor Activities

TCM supports outdoor activities and exercise. The American Lung Association states that indoor air can be two to five times more polluted than outdoor air due to higher levels of particulate matter like mold, dust, and volatile organic compounds [4]. This can be especially true for houses that use gas heating or wood fireplaces to generate heat. It is just as important to maintain ventilation in a room as it is to maintain circulation in the body. Yet outdoor activities should be avoided for inclement weather, including high-winds or especially low temperatures (out of a normal range) to avoid extra stress placed upon the body.

Hydration is as equally important in winter as summer, so TCM believes. TCM uses a metaphorical elemental system to describe what can be seen as symptoms of dehydration in the body. The organs are respectively separated according to their physiological characteristics to one of the five elements, which are Fire, Earth, Water, Metal, and Wood. In the winter, it is important to cultivate the Kidneys, which belong to the Water element. As one would imagine, the Water element’s opposite is Fire. Simply put, when there is not enough water to balance fire, then the body becomes excessively hot, burning itself dry, which, in turn, impedes circulation and adds stress to the Heart (belongs to the Fire element).

So, it is essential that a person continue to hydrate no differently than they would in the hot months. TCM especially emphasizes this because of people’s habit to drink less water in the winter due to less sweating and an inclination to assume that they require less. Research has shown that dehydration can increase the degree of vasoconstriction [5]. So, not drinking enough fluids can add even more stress to that which is already caused by exposure to cold temperatures.

TCM not only emphasizes the importance of drinking water, but it also suggests foods that have a high-water content to assist in maintaining health in the winter. They are as follows: cabbage (nappa cabbage), daikon, onions, and goji berries (wolfberry). The latter is a herb that is often used to nourish the Liver and Kidneys.

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  • Indoor air can be two to five times more polluted than outdoor air.
  • It is just as important to maintain ventilation in a room as it is to maintain circulation in the body.
  • Outdoor activities should be avoided for inclement weather.
  • Hydration is as equally important in winter as it is during the summer.
  • Eating nappa cabbage, daikon, onions, and goji berries can help to stay hydrated.

TCM illness prevention

A person should seek treatment not only for disease, but they should actively pursue health cultivation as well. Treating the development of a disease is seen as treating a disease at its root. In order to safely enjoy the outdoors and remain active during the winter, here is an article discussing cold-related illness prevention:

Lung-associated illnesses

A research study published by Shanghai University of Traditional Chinese Medicine sought to discover common acupoints used in preventative treatments for lung illnesses. After analyzing 136 articles, they discovered that most acupoints were selected along the taiyang Bladder channel. That is due to a variety of reasons, including its ability to fortify the Kidneys, the back is considered to belong to yang, and preserving yang qi is needed during the winter.

The most common acupoints that were chosen for symptoms like coughing, wheezing, and congestion were: BL-13, GV-14, Dingchuan, BL-23, CV-22, CV-17, BL-20, BL-17, BL-12, BL-15, BL-43, and ST-36; acupoints for the Bladder meridian accounted for almost 50% of all articles’ acupoint selection [6]. The exact acupoints chosen for a particular person depend upon the results of differential diagnosis that can only be delivered by a TCM practitioner.

The acupoint selection suggests that the main theoretical basis behind it is to treat yang deficiency or a combination of Cold and Dampness. As the winter is often Cold and Damp, these acupoints may be selected for warm acupuncture or herbal patches placed on acupoints, which often use pungent herbs like ginger, white mustard seeds, and corydalis. These herbs are packed into small balls and placed onto adhesive pads. The shape of the ball provides acupressure stimulation on the acupoint, and it is believed that the herbs enhance the reaction of the acupoint.

The timing of treatment is also essential. Following the Chinese Lunar Calendar, patients often seek these treatments on Sanfu Tian” days, which occur during the summer. Treatment during these days is seen as most advantageous for nourishing yang in preparation for summer. Often this is seen as an effective way to prevent diseases in the winter according to the ”冬病夏治“ (Dōng bìng xià zhì), meaning “treat winter diseases in the summer.”

Research shows that over time people effectively reduce and prevent diseases and symptoms of lung-associated illnesses, arthritis, and even gynecological diseases with an efficacy rate average of about 80% [7]. This shows the depth at which TCM practices medicine while retaining a harmonious connection with nature in order to offer patients holistic treatments with additional emphasis on prevention.

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  • BL-13, GV-14, Dingchuan, BL-23, CV-22, CV-17, BL-20, BL-17, BL-12, BL-15, BL-43, and ST-36 are useful for symptoms like coughing, wheezing, and congestion.
  • Ginger, white mustard seeds, and corydalis extracts placed on patches over the acupoints are believed to enhance the reactivity of the acupoint.

References

1. Kim, J. H., Almuwaqqat, Z., Hammadah, M., Liu, C., Ko, Y.-A., Lima, B., Sullivan, S., Alkhoder, A., Abdulbaki, R., Ward, L., Bremner, J. D., Sheps, D. S., Raggi, P., Sun, Y. V., Shah, A. J., Vaccarino, V., & Quyyumi, A. A. (2019). Peripheral vasoconstriction during mental stress and adverse cardiovascular outcomes in patients with coronary artery disease. Circulation Research, 125(10), 874–883. https://doi.org/10.1161/circresaha.119.315005

2. Broz P, Rajdl D, Racek J, et al. Relationship between cold water swimming and increased cardiac markers: a pilot study. Klin Biochem Metab. 2017;25:27–31.

3. Janský L, Janáková H, Ulicný B, Srámek P, Hosek V, Heller J, Parízková J. Changes in thermal homeostasis in humans due to repeated cold water immersions. Pflugers Arch. 1996 Jul;432(3):368-72. doi: 10.1007/s004240050146. PMID: 8765994.

4. Association, A. L. (n.d.). Staying safe from indoor air pollution this winter. American Lung Association. https://www.lung.org/blog/indoor-air-quality-winter

5. Institute of Medicine (US) Committee on Military Nutrition Research; Marriott BM, Carlson SJ, editors. Nutritional Needs In Cold And In High-Altitude Environments: Applications for Military Personnel in Field Operations. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 1996. 9, Influence of Cold Stress on Human Fluid Balance.

6. Cai, W., & Shen, W. (2018). Summer plaster therapy treating with lung diseases based on preventive treatment of disease theory. Jilin Journal of Chinese Medicine, 38(10), 1227–1229. https://doi.org/10.13463/j.cnki.jlzyy.2018.10.033

7. Li, T., & Ma, Z. (2022). Exploring the clinical application of Sanfu Tian based on the theory of treating disease before its onset. Guangming Chinese Medicine, 37(9), 1567–1569. https://doi.org/10.3969 /j.issn.1003-8914.2022.09.021

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