Ah, the common cold. For many this healthy reaction of their body to an outside germ is an uncomfortable nuisance. For others, however, it is a real concern because “it always goes to my lungs” which can lead to life-threatening pneumonia.
Exactly what is this experience that we all have at some time in our life? Is it, as we define it in our culture, just an uncomfortable inconvenience to be gotten rid of as quickly as possible so we don’t have to miss any work? Is it more meaningful than what the western medical lens of disease management has taught us? (See my article Focus on Western Medicine.) Is it always caused by a virus? Why did Bob catch a cold at that party but his wife Judy did not? Let’s look at all of these questions through the lens of Chinese medicine. (See my article Focus on Chinese Medicine.)
Chinese medicine looks at aspects of human health in a more general, broader way. Outside invaders (germs) that enter our body and make us sick are defined as cold, heat and damp. Wind is the force that transports the pathogens in and out of the body. It is only in the last 200 years that modern science has found the physical evidence of these environmental pathogens, naming them virus, bacteria and fungus.
Since humans are warm blooded creatures, the primary pathogen we contend with is cold. There is an entire text of Chinese medicine, the Shang Han Lun (Treatise on Cold Damage Diseases) focused solely on cold and the many ways it can affect our health. Cold taxes our warmth, slows us down, and contracts and tightens our functions and our bodies. When certain internal conditions are in place, it can move to our interior and cause internal disease. An external invasion of wind-cold is what the term “the common cold” describes.
Our primary defense against cold invasion is warmth. When we are tired our warmth is weak. Biological warmth supports immune system warmth called Wei Chi (protective energy). Wei Chi is amplified warmth and is present in our skin to fend off cold. When we are stressed and run down our warmth and Wei Chi are weak and unable to protect us sufficiently. Many of my patients report the experience of getting sick when they are run down.
Wei Chi is a hot vapor. Heat and water are the ingredients in vapor, therefore the second important factor necessary to defend against cold is sufficient hydration. Cold knocks on the door of the body when it penetrates the surface of our skin. This triggers Wei Chi into action. First there is the yang action of sneezing and coughing to expel the cold. Then heat and water bind the cold creating a micro sweat to move it back to the exterior. Wei Chi action in the nose and eyes creates itching. Failure of these responses results in the common cold or other viral illness.
When this initial response is insufficient, cold then progresses inward toward the interior of the body. Next level protective responses then kick in, namely increased heat (fever) and dampness (phlegm). If these resources are insufficient and the cold moves further inward the body employs its mechanisms of latency to lock it away in a safe place until warmth and fluids are restored to move it back outside. Body and joint aches are the signs of latency channels in use.
The overarching goal of our body is to protect the organs at all cost. When cold reaches an organ it can quickly turn deadly. Since our heart is the seat of our soul, it is the most strongly fortified. This is why infectious disease of the heart is extremely rare.
Why did Bob get a cold at the party and his wife Judy does not? Because their interior environments, the milieu interior, are different. Interior environment is the status of our warmth and fluids necessary to generate our protective responses. Did Judy have the day off of work and took the opportunity to sleep in, rest, and eat and drink a hydrating diet, thus having a strong internal environment? Did Bob get up early, go for a run, skip breakfast, have meetings all morning with a cup of coffee to pick him up? Did he work late and get sweaty and hot walking to his car then sit in the air conditioning on the way home? Any or all of these events could weaken Bob’s milieu interior enough to allow a cold invasion.
Is the common cold more than what western medicine has taught us? Every life form on planet Earth has an unrelenting drive to perpetuate its species, its genetic code. In order to do this, adaptation to the ever-changing biome is mandatory. Cold is an agent of change. It requires either an adaptive reaction or leads to death. This means that the common cold is an important transformative event. It is our body and soul undergoing important genetic change to enhance our survival capacity. All illness is our body’s attempt to get our attention, encouraging us to examine our life to determine where we are out of sync with our blueprint and/or the environment. Sickness is an important time of forced rest and reflection that enables us to transform ourselves physically and emotionally. Embrace this time to pay attention to yourself and your life and know that your survival depends on it.
Finally, does a virus always cause the common cold or other illness? Let’s look at a recent case from my clinic. This interaction occurred in mid-August during a very hot weather period. The patient was 30 years old.
Burton: How can I help you today?
Patient: (in a very hoarse, congested voice) Well I’ve got something going on that I don’t know if acupuncture can help with. I got sick two weeks ago and it was so strange, like it came out of nowhere. It’s not Covid, I’m not contagious, I promise, I’ve been tested for that several times. Nobody around me at home or work has been sick. My doctor says he can’t explain what it is.
Burton: Shoot, I’m sorry to hear you’ve been sick. I do think I can help you with this. Anything else?
Patient: Yes, after a couple of days it went straight to my chest. I was having a hard time breathing so they put me on antibiotics and an inhaler which helped immediately. But I still can’t talk and feel like I have a cold.
Burton: I see, I’m glad the medications helped you. So tell me, what was going on just before you got sick, the couple of days before?
Patient: It was pretty normal. I was working, which is really stressful, but then I had a day off. That afternoon I was outside for a while sunbathing. It was that night that I got sick.
Burton: Ah, OK, so it was a hot day as I recall and you got really hot in the sun. Did you then go inside your air conditioned apartment?
Patient: Yes I went back inside and laid down on the couch and took a nap.
Burton: Did you get dressed or take a shower first?
Burton: That’s what I thought, that’s how you got sick.
Patient: What do you mean?
Burton: Well, in Chinese medicine you can have what is known as a wind-cold invasion. Since we are warm-blooded beings, cold is the main pathogen we encounter in life. It was a hot day and you got really hot from the sun, so to cool off your body opened its exterior channels and sweated to vent the heat. Then you went inside to what for your body, in that moment, was winter, instantly 20° cooler with the wind of air conditioning blowing. A cold windy day. Because you were open to cool off you had no defense at your exterior and the wind carried cold into your body. This happens at the back of your neck so what grandmother used to say about wearing a scarf when it is cold is really true.
Patient: Oh my god, that’s amazing! It makes so much sense.
Burton: It really does. The way Chinese medicine describes how we work answers many questions that western medicine simply can’t.
Patient: That’s so cool!
Burton: If you had put on clothes or taken a warm shower then gotten dressed you probably wouldn’t have gotten sick.
Patient: That makes complete sense. So why did it go to my lungs?
Burton: That’s a great question. It takes warmth and fluids to expel cold. You’ve told me before that you have a very stressful job and that you have gone on several trips this summer. Your pulses have always told me that you are constantly tired. Tired means not enough warmth. And then you were sweaty and had probably drunk coffee and ate toast for breakfast and maybe had alcohol the night before?
Patient: Yes my boyfriend and I did party a little that evening because I had the next day off. And while I was sick I still had to go to work because my boss wouldn’t give me any more time off. I’ve already used up my vacation and sick days.
Burton: OK, so all of those things caused a lack of fluids. You didn’t drink much water. Coffee and toast and alcohol are all dehydrating, and you sweated out what was available carrying out the heat of the sun.
Patient: I’ve got it, that makes it really clear.
Burton: In this case you were so depleted of warmth and fluids at the same time that the cold moved deeper into the interior of your body. This happened because you had to work and couldn’t rest and hydrate to restore your immune resources. Your body tried really hard for several days to hold it on the exterior and expel it. You probably had a fever after it moved inward and the antibiotics helped because your body responded to the cold with as much heat as it could possibly muster. Heat is what bacteria represent so that’s why the antibiotics worked, they don’t work on the cold known as viruses.
Patient: Now I understand why my doctor could never find anything.
Burton: That’s right. So let me listen to your pulses now and see what we’re going to do to help you.
The patient’s pulses indicated that she had very weak kidney energy (biological warmth) and that she was still contending with heat and dampness in her lungs. I first warmed the kidney energy with moxibustion on four acupuncture points on her back. Then I used needles on the kidney, spleen, and lung channels to help her body move the heat and dampness out. At the end of the 20 minute treatment she reported feeling much better and we both instantly noticed that the strength and clarity of her voice had already returned to 90% of normal.
Every day I am at work, experiences like this remind me of the effectiveness of acupuncture and our amazing capacity to heal!