Transforming Self Quarantine to Self Care
What an overwhelming time this appears to be for many people worldwide. The strength of the coronavirus and its rapid spread around the globe are unprecedented. The changes made necessary by this pandemic are enormous: How we socialize has been changed overnight; jobs are disappearing in small business and huge industries are shutting down; the future working of the entire economy, healthcare, and our culture is uncertain but will certainly be different. These are all real and are absolutely concerning. I feel deeply for us all.
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In Chinese medicine change is considered to be wind. Change always creates uncertainty. Big change creates big uncertainty. Change also offers us new opportunities as old ways fall away and we get into the flow of the new. I am amazed and humbled by the adaptability of the human spirit and our strength to navigate adversity. It is comforting to me to consider that I am resilient and have already dealt with the death of family and friends, physical health crises, and being scared, sad, angry and depressed. I know what these things feel like and I’m prepared to feel them again. I’m also confident that life will carry on without me when I’m gone. Considering, accepting, and cultivating your own resilience is one way to strengthen your immune system, to prepare you to defend against whatever may come your way, to stand strong when the winds of life toss you around.
As I have read various recommendations about how to deal with the public health crisis, it is mostly about avoidance of infection by self quarantine, social distancing, and hand washing. While these are steps critically important to limit the spread of the virus, these actions alone can leave us fearful and uncertain. Given that there is no direct treatment for the Corona pathogen, let’s consider other ways to prepare ourselves. It is helpful to reframe our concept of self quarantine to that of self care. We are being encouraged by the virus to be alone and care for ourselves. This is where the ideas of wellness and supporting health should be considered. Through the lens of Chinese medicine there is much we can do to enhance our health, to “strengthen the host” as we say, and thereby maximize our chance to defend against external pathogenic assaults. It is always interesting to consider what makes the difference between the 500 people on the ship that do not get sick and the 300 that do. The status of their wei chi/ (way chi) defensive energy is that difference.
In my years of teaching rock climbing and later teaching my patients about their health, I have found that providing background information to help them understand WHY a suggestion is important is important. The following will explain how wei chi/ our immune system works and why my suggestions affect your defenses. This is guided by Chinese medical theory which offers a level of understanding about your health that is different from a western medicine approach. For a more detailed explanation about this medical theory and acupuncture please read my book Does it Hurt? A Dialogue to Help You Understand and Trust Acupuncture, available from the book page on this site.
Immune System Support
Supporting wei chi/ defensive energy/ immune function, is the main focus of this post. There are two foundational energies that create wei chi;
- kidney yang energy
- stomach fluids.
Let’s examine physical and emotional factors that affect each of these and what we can do to support them.
What is a Virus?
In Chinese medical theory a virus in its initial stage is defined as an external invasion wind-cold. Your body’s initial response when wind-cold invades the surface channels (sinew channels) is to create heat and a micro sweat to push the pathogen back out into the environment. When there is not a strong initial response and wind-cold progresses inward it transforms into heat as wei chi battles it to prevent it reaching an organ. The symptomatic stage of COVID-19 is characterized by fever and it has a strong affinity for the lungs. The ability to effectively generate a strong initial response and expel wind-cold at the surface comes from being rested and hydrated.
As we all know antibiotics do not affect viruses. What most of us do not know is that NSAIDS (Non-steroidal Anti-inflammatory Drugs) modulate our immune function. Inflammation is the natural result of an immune response, not just an undesirable rogue event. Chemicals that put out inflammation must be changing the immune response. There is some initial observation in the Corona crisis that some younger people being affected more severely have a history of substantial NSAID use. Are these over-the counter pharmaceuticals compromising their immunity? Could the current heavy use of these drugs be contributing to the difference between those who do and do not get the virus?
Kidney energy is the foundation of immune function. Kidney Yang describes our biological heat, that 98.5 or so temperature that we all have. This heat fosters all of our chemical/metabolic processes and is the source of an immune response. There are three factors that weaken our kidney yang energy:
- Physical taxation
Steps we can take to reduce this weakening are:
First, not to overtax ourselves with excess physical exercise like workouts when we are already tired, and to rest and sleep more. Walking in fresh air is the perfect form of exercise. Running weakens kidney energy since it induces a fight or flight response which depletes yang. The most important time to be asleep is between 11-12 p.m. since this is the time our organs get refreshed. And yes we really do need 7 to 9 hours of sleep each night.
Second, we need to examine our life and begin to undo our busyness, over- commitment, and constant communication that seem to be the source of stress for many of my patients. Stress makes us tired in and of itself and can exhaust us. Only through conscious recognition can we begin to mitigate the stresses in life.
Third, we must reduce our fear. In Chinese medical theory fear is associated with the kidney organ system, therefore fear can turn down kidney yang energy. We are fearful when we feel out of control of our circumstances and helpless, as is the case with the Coronavirus. It is helpful to come to terms with your feeling of loss of control. Working to cultivate acceptance of your current circumstances through journaling and reflection, meditation, qigong, walks outdoors, and extended breaks from news and communication will help reduce fear levels and their detrimental effect on your immune function. Spending time simply being still and quiet while focusing on relaxed breathing is enormously beneficial for emotional calmness. Massaging the inside of your heels where the kidney channel lies and your ears inside and out (they are part of the kidney) has a supportive effect for kidney energy and is very calming. Try turning off all new sources for 24 hours to stop food fueling your feelings of helplessness, fear, panic, and loss of control.
The second foundation of immunity is stomach fluids. These are the fluids produced by our stomach to contribute to micro sweating. They are derived from our food diet, not just water. Supporting stomach fluids through a shift away from dry and cold foods to wet warm ones is a great support for your immune function. The typical American diet is very high in the former. Snacks from boxes, cereal with cold milk, sugar, bread, coffee and alcohol all draw water from our system to digest them. This makes them dehydrating. On the other hand porridge, stew, steamed and boiled vegetables and meats, and quality fat all contribute more fluid, adding to and not depleting our hydration status. Getting hydrated this way is what I like to call deep hydration. These dietary fluids are the well for the production by the stomach of the fluids that are required to produce the sweat that is part of our initial immune response. Drink room temperature water and hot teas between meals. Completely stop drinking ice-cold fluids since they make your stomach cold, turning down digestive function and lowering your immunity.
When you begin getting more rested and hydrated one easy preventative measure you can take is to activate the mechanism of sweating mentioned above. Taking a very hot bath every couple of days and then climbing under the covers in a sweat suit and hat to sweat profusely is an excellent way to maximize the chance of getting rid of a virus before it becomes active or when the initial signs of a cold arrive such as a sore throat and sneezing. Getting hot in this manner is not recommended after the initial stage as it can worsen a condition that has reached the fever stage.
Fresh Air and Nature
One overlooked health enhancement is the benefit of fresh air. Since most citizens of western culture spend the vast majority of their time indoors they have a deficiency of fresh air. Oxygen oxidizes, meaning it breaks down pollutants and pathogens in the air. Oxygen gives us more energy and invigorates the lungs, the distribution organ of our immune energy. Opening up the doors and windows of your house and airing it out is an old health supporting practice that has all but disappeared in our culture. So add more outdoor time to your day and air out your home several times. It will support immune function.
Finally, nature has a great healing effect. Simply being in nature away from your phone and the news is a great stress and fear modulator. The calming effect of touching the earth and being under trees is well documented. I am already hearing reports of more people taking walks in cities as a way to get out of the house during this time.
Trust yourself, trust life, and move forward with a resilient and determined stride!
You will find more in-depth descriptions of these theories, case studies, and illustrations in my introductory book on acupuncture, Does It Hurt? A Dialog to Help You Understand and Trust Acupuncture. This book demystifies acupuncture for medical professionals and those curious about trying acupuncture, and is a valuable resource for practicing acupuncturists to explain the theories to their patients in layman’s terms.