Seasonal Changes & Our Immune System

Seasonal Changes & Our Immune System

Seasonal changes often offer potent times for immune upgrades.  These last two weeks a number of my patients all experienced similar seasonal symptoms: high fever, sore throat, cough, headaches, body aches, and sweats.  In Chinese medicine these symptoms relate to wind-heat invading the Lungs and can also be categorized as Wind Heat affecting the Wei Level or Qi Level. Whether you're dealing with heat or cold causing an immune response, acupuncture and Chinese medicine can help you recover more quickly and boost your immune system and remain in health.

These two different perspectives, cold as the primary cause and heat as the primary cause, developed in very different areas of China and offer unique theories on herbal approaches as well as disease progression.  The Shang Han Lun, or Treatise on Cold Damage, came out of Northern China where the climate is very cold.  The Wen Bing, or Treatise on Warm Diseases, came out of Southern China where heat and damp are predominant climactic and pathogenic factors. 

Decorah is in an interesting area in that both of these theories are relevant given our very cold winters and very hot and humid summers.  It’s not uncommon during seasonal changes to be affected by the incoming weather.  And this mirrors what I’ve been seeing in the clinic and what many of you have been experiencing.  Bodies responding to the incoming heat.

Let’s break this down a bit.  In Chinese medicine colds and cases of flu are the product of external pathogenic invasions.  External pathogens include:  wind, damp, heat and cold. 

  • Wind is a tricky pathogen.  We’re exposed to it daily when the wind blows and it’s able to enter the body through our weak and injured areas as well as the nape of the neck.  Wind creates tension in the body, moves easily (which is what makes it tricky!) and often carries other pathogens in with it. 


  • Damp is heavy, often settles in the abdomen, lower abdomen and legs, and makes us feel lethargic.  It can also cause muddled thinking, dull, distended headaches, sticky poops as well as many other symptoms and often combines with heat, cold and/or wind. 


  • Heat affects us very fast, moves quickly and creates intense symptoms like fever, sweating, sore throat, cough, and body aches.  Phlegm or mucus caused by heat will be yellow or green. 


  • Cold is the opposite of heat – it constricts and when contracted as a pathogenic factor creates symptoms like chills, neck tension, and headaches.  Phlegm or mucus will be clear and can either be runny or more congealed.  And, interestingly can either promote or inhibit sweating depending on your constitution. 

These are our four pathogenic influences.  Acupuncture and Chinese medicine can be very effective modalities to help boost the immune system, dispel these pathogenic factors and restore healthy function to the body.  What exactly is done in a treatment depends on what symptoms you have but the potential techniques used include acupuncture, gua sha, cupping, bleeding cupping and herbs.

Gua sha is one of my favorite treatment techniques.  It’s a folk technique that involves scraping the surface of the skin with a soup spoon to create therapeutic transitory petechiae.  There are a lot of reasons I use gua sha, but in the case of an externally contracted pathogen it’s used to clear a large amount of heat from your back.  This can usually help bring a fever down and is very effective for muscle tension resulting from being sick as well.  There are so many other things gua sha can do – but we’ll save those for another conversation!!

Cupping is another amazing technique that may be used.  Usually when we’re not feeling well the movement of the lungs is impaired.  This can be because we’re coughing, have a lot of phlegm or even are constipated.  Flash cupping over the lungs helps break up phlegm and restore the healthy up and down of the lungs.  Flash cupping is done with fire to create suction in the glass cup, which is then quickly placed and removed from the chest and upper back.  It doesn’t tend to leave the ‘octopus kiss’ look that stationary cupping does (popularized in the winter Olympics) and most patients describe it as feeling very interesting!!  And, if you’ve never had cupping before, it is!  There aren’t many things we experience where our skin and superficial muscles are sucked up and pulled away from each other in this way.  It feels great, once you get past the newness of it!

There are lots and lots of classical formulas from the Shang Han Lun and Wen Bing, as well as many newer formulas that can be used to shorten the duration of a cold or flu, reduce phlegm and nasal congestion and get you feeling better faster.  I totally recognize that there are times when you and your family need to go see your doctor to help resolve a cold or flu and fully support this, but next time you’re sick consider coming in for an acupuncture treatment.

If you get sick frequently, what do you do to feel better?