How to prevent flu symptoms with Chinese medicine

By: Dr Jason Chong (Traditional East Asian Medicine Physician)

It is that time of year again when talk of the impending flu season surrounds us. We are told to take precautionary measures to protect ourselves and prevent flu symptoms. The media becomes filled with horror stories and fear campaigns, implying that the only way to stay alive and healthy is to be vaccinated against the flu.

The primary reason given is that the flu can be uncomfortable, causing us to take time off work. Serious consequences are rare but can occur for those who are already very weak and unwell.

Preventative health

In Oriental medicine, we agree with the concept of preventative health.  This quote from the Nei Jing Su Wen, one of the oldest pieces of medical literature, sums it up beautifully.

 “When drugs are employed for therapy only after a disease has become fully developed, when (attempts at) restoring order are initiated only after disorder has fully developed, this is as if a well were dug when one is thirsty, and as if weapons were cast when the fight is on. Would this not be too late, too?”

Su Wen Chapter Two (translated Paul Unschuld)

The Western medical approach to preventative measures for the flu is vaccination. The Oriental medicine approach is different from a flu shot. It views the body as having an incredible, inbuilt capacity to self regulate and heal. When the body is functioning optimally, it provides an inhospitable environment for pathogens.

To achieve this there are a few tips to take to strengthen your immunity (referred to as Wei Qi in Chinese medicine) and prevent flu symptoms.

Get plenty of quality rest.

During autumn, 8-9 hours is ideal. The seasonal energy of the environment around us is internalising. The trees are shedding their leaves as the sap retreats inwards for protection. Animals are moving away from the cold and into hibernation mode. We should be adjusting our daily routines to allow for more sleep.

Eat nourishing and easy to digest foods.

The best foods for us to eat are seasonal in nature. Seasonal foods provide the best nourishment for the local climate. In our modern world, we can access to the same foods year-round. Whilst convenient, it is not the best for our health. A focus on local seasonal foods is better for our body (not to mention the environment too).

Our cooking style should also be seasonal, moving into broths and stews. These dishes are easy to digest – meaning that we can absorb the optimal nutrition. These dishes are also moistening, helping counter the dryness of the season. This keeps our passageways moistened to keep disease out.

Stay warm.

It is important to protect our body from atmospheric influences.

In Oriental medicine, it is the body’s inability to adapt to the external environment that causes illness. Wind, cold and heat describe these influence which affects our bodies physiology.

Disruption of healthy physiology is what causes pathology ie the presence of disease.

Keep your back, feet and ankles warm

These areas relate to the Kidneys and deeper reserves of energy.

Of utmost importance is to keep the neck and shoulders covered and shielded from the cold winds. This area is the most susceptible to the external environment.
This will help to stop the pathogenic influences entering your body.

Maintain a moderate exercise routine.It is important, to maintain some movement in your routine. This helps to keep your blood and Wei Qi circulating to warm and protect your body. Sweating too much, however, opens your pores. This leaves you susceptible to external influences.

Keep your hands clean

Whilst this is not necessarily old Chinese wisdom, it is plain old common sense.
Keeping your hands clean helps prevent the transmission of any pathogens

Relax and meditate.

This season of Autumn has a relationship with the breath and inward reflection.
Slowing down for 5 short minutes to focus on your breath and meditate is all it takes.This helps to reduce stress and keep your body in the best state to prevent illness. I find this old Zen saying applicable here.

It’s OK to be sick!

Of course even with the best preventative measures, one may still get sick. Getting sick is a natural part of the human experience, indeed periodic colds and cases of flu help keep our immune system working. Just like training for a sports event, our immune system needs a regular workout to keep it prepared for more intense events.

The effectiveness of a flu vaccination varies year to year. For Australia, in 2018, it was calculated to be at around 68%. This means that even with a flu shot, there is a reasonable chance you will still contract the flu. Also, bear in mind that the most common immediate side effect of the flu shot are flu symptoms. Having the flu shot is no guarantee of avoiding flu symptoms, therefore attending to a healthy body is the smartest approach

A sign of a healthy immune system is that when we do get the flu, we display flu symptoms. Having a fever (as long it is not excessively high), feeling fatigued and needing to rest is normal. They are signs that the natural mechanisms of the body are dealing with the pathogen. It is an indication that your body is undergoing a healing response.

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To never, or only mildly, display flu symptoms, can be a sign of a weaker immune system. This indicates that the body does not have the strength or resources to heal itself. This may result in incomplete recovery. You may continue to feel sub-optimal for an extended period, or fall back into illness again very soon after.

The flu is often inconvenient and uncomfortable but rarely has adverse consequences. As long as your health is not already severely compromised, it is not something to fear as the media may portray.

Prevent flu symptoms from worsening

If one is sick there are a few things you can do to help your path to recovery.

Whats your favourite remedy when you are sick with the flu?x
  • If one does get sick it is important to take enough time off to rest and recover.
    • Not only may this prevent you from spreading any contagious illness, but it also allows your body the time it needs to rest.
    • The modern ethos of ‘soldiering on’ does one’s health no favours, especially in the presence of the flu.
  • Eating simple broths helps the body recover.
    • There is nothing better for feeling sick than a simple chicken noodle soup.
    • Add some spring onion and a little ginger to help release illness from the body. This is all the flavour required for a simple healing broth.
  • A simple tea of ginger, honey and lemon can help soothe the throat.
    • The ginger is also fantastic to help with any nausea or loss of appetite.
  • In Oriental Medicine one of the ways a causative factor may be identified as more hot or cold in nature. Each will have a different manifestation of flu symptoms.
    • Symptoms of cold influences are a runny nose with white mucus, tight neck and upper back, aching body, fever and chills and itchy throat.
      • Incorporate warming spices such as ginger and cinnamon into food and teas.
    • If heat is the external influence, then phlegm and snot may be more yellow, thirst will be higher and fever will predominate over chills.
      • Utilising more cooling spices such as mint and more citrus fruits is more suitable in this case.

Seeking treatment

Oriental medicine has a long history of being utilised to strengthen the body. This is both preemptively and when dealing with an illness such as the flu when it occurs.

Treatments with acupuncture and Chinese herbs provide a natural, non-toxic, drug-free way to stay healthy and return to health. This should only come from a qualified acupuncturist or Chinese herbalist.

In Australia, they are nationally registered with AHPRA. This ensures they have the appropriate skills and knowledge to best use these tools for your health.

If you do fall ill, seek treatment as promptly as possible. This is the best course of action to aid recovery and prevent any further complications. The earlier you seek help, the quicker you can move through the illness towards recovery and back into your daily routine.

What else would you like to know?

Thanks for reading this far. Have I missed your question? Was something unclear? Let me know in the comments below, I read and respond to everyone!

What do you do to prevent the flu? What tips do you have to help counter the onset? Please share your wisdom in the comments below.

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Dr Jason Chong (Traditional East Asian Medicine Physician)

Traditional East Asian Medicine Physician. Educator.

Jason is the owner and principal practitioner at Dantian Health, providing consultations for Classical Chinese Herbal Medicine and Japanese Acupuncture in Melbourne, Australia.

He is a qualified acupuncture physician, Classical Chinese herbal medicine clinician, shiatsu practitioner and tuina therapist, Oriental therapies educator and director at the Australian Shiatsu College.

Jason's qualifications include:

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