by Meghan Meade, Licensed Acupuncturist
Fall is officially here, and while we might collectively rejoice in its glorious manifestations – pumpkin-flavored everything, football, crisper weather (and its resultant reprieve from continual sweating), Halloween, etc – it’s not all rainbows and sunshine. Or perhaps rather, its not all PSL’s and riding boots…
Fall typically marks the onset of the dreaded, dastardly and indomitable cold and flu season. Colds and flus impact us in a big way: the average adult gets 2-3 colds per year, children get more.1 On average, 200,000 people are hospitalized for flu-related complications annually.1 Before you scramble to the nearest drug store to navigate the dizzying array of over-the-counter cold and flu meds, know that there is a better way. A more natural, non-pharmaceutical, gentle way to prime the immune system for coming insults.
And that way is acupuncture.
Many people think of acupuncture as a treatment for pain and while it can be tremendously effective in alleviating musculoskeletal complaints, the range of its impact extends far beyond that. As it relates to immune health, acupuncture works in this way: tiny, hair-thin needles are inserted into the skin, which the immune system perceives as an invasion and mounts a healing response, summoning its various cytokines and immune mediators to defend against the ‘pathogen.’ The result is a strengthening of the immune system; now, fortified and resilient, it is equipped to send real pathogens packing.2,3
Since the immune system is not binary but rather fluid and adaptive to changing exposures, we are never truly in a state of complete sickness or complete wellness. Sometimes the immune system cannot fully fend for itself and a virus is able to partially wedge its way in, exerting its effects in a mild and insidious way until the immune system becomes sufficiently suppressed for the virus to come charging in, guns blazing – giving rise to coughing, sneezing, runny noses, head and body aches, chills, among other unsavory symptoms.
Have you ever noticed that colds and flus often accompany or follow periods of heightened stress? Stress – whether physical, emotional or both – activates the HPA (hypothalamic pituitary adrenal) axis, triggering a cascade of neuroendocrine activities that can suppress the immune system, rendering it more susceptible to pathogenic influences. Acupuncture has repeatedly demonstrated efficacy in attenuating the stress response through its actions on the HPA axis,4,5 and in that way, can indirectly bolster the body against infection.
Ultimately, acupuncture can help modulate the immune response before, during and after a cold, flu, or other illness, lending it not only prophylactic properties, but also clearing, regulating, and nourishing properties, depending on the state of the pathogen in the body. In an asymptomatic state, acupuncture helps strengthen the immune system against infection, when symptoms appear, acupuncture helps alleviate discomfort and clear pathogens, and in the aftermath of a cold or flu, acupuncture replenishes what has become deficient, and tonifies the body to fight off future insults.
You can help boost your own immune health by taking some simple steps to nourish the wei qi, the form of vital energy that circulates near the surface of the body and provides protection from pathogenic influences. In Chinese Medicine, the Lung is the organ associated with the fall season, and as the Lung governs the wei qi, we want to give it some loving as best we can.
• Breathing exercises – it’s lung season, after all! Full deep inhales and exhales both strengthen the respiratory system and activate the calming parasympathetic nervous system.
• Layering appropriately – this transitional time of year can bring with it erratic weather patterns, making a comfortable temperature rather elusive; keeping the core and extremities warm and the neck covered – think light scarves, no aggressive turtle necks required – makes the body less vulnerable to pathogens
• Eat seasonally – fall is the time of year to root down and prepare for the cold winter ahead; eating grounding foods such as sweet potatoes, squashes, turnips, parsnips, as well as warming foods such as ginger, garlic, eggs, nuts and meats helps signal the body to prepare accordingly (though a favored seasonal indulgence, apple cider donuts sadly do not fall into the category of health-promoting).
And of course, receiving acupuncture treatments will go a long way towards enhancing immune health and keeping yourself in tip top shape heading into this cold and flu season. If you have questions or would like to discuss anything from acupuncture to immunity to delicious pumpkin dishes, I’d be happy to chat, and can be found at Well Within Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Sundays.
1. http://www.cdc.gov2. Kim, Sun Kwang, and Hyunsu Bae. “Acupuncture and Immune Modulation.” Autonomic Neuroscience 157.1-2 (2010): 38-41. Web.3. Yu, Jung-Sheng, Bai-Yun Zeng, and Ching-Liang Hsieh. “Acupuncture Stimulation and Neuroendocrine Regulation.” International Review of Neurobiology Neurobiology of Acupuncture (2013): 125-40. Web.4. Le, Jing-Jing, Tao Yi, Li Qi, Ji Li, Lei Shao, and Jing-Cheng Dong. “Electroacupuncture Regulate Hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal Axis and Enhance Hippocampal Serotonin Systemin a Rat Model of Depression.” Neuroscience Letters 615 (2016): 66-71. Web.5. Eshkevari, Ladan, Susan E. Mulroney, Rupert Egan, and Lixing Lao. “Effects of Acupuncture, RU-486 on the Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal Axis in Chronically Stressed Adult Male Rats.” Endocrinology 156.10 (2015): 3649-660. Web.