Immunity for Winter
by Robert Sena
As we wake, sleep, interact with loved ones and hastily move from moment to moment, we expend energy. It can be said the immune system and vitality reflect this cellular energy and wellbeing in how well we allocate said energy. Imagine the immune system as cellular energy emanating as a protective and energetic force surrounding the body. The quality and strength of this vibrational protection is known in Chinese Medicine as our wei qi, or defensive immune energy. Without explaining how evolution has acquired an adaptive immune system alongside the innate system, it is easier to view these systems in the fashion of eastern ideology, as the emanation of protective, radiant immune wei qi.
Humans are a natural product of Gaia, or Mother Earth. They are hard-wired to be in tune with the energy of the changing seasons and by working against rather than with this somatic knowledge, they find their wei qi to be deficient, experiencing symptoms such as restlessness, brain fog and various illnesses. As the old Chinese adage goes, “Take a tonic in the winter, fight a tiger in the spring.” Lay low, turn inward and plan accordingly for the approaching spring. Go outside, live expressively and set forth with what has been contemplated during the winter. Do not forget to dance in the garden as the flowers return!
In Traditional Chinese Medicine, winter is the season most closely associated with the bones and kidneys. The kidneys govern the marrow which create red blood cells. This in turn delivers nutrition to feed the wei qi. Therefore, during the winter months, it is most important to nourish the most fundamental and basic fluid: blood. Bone broths, slow cooked root vegetables, stewed meats and herbs rich in minerals will all increase the vitality of the blood as well as the functioning of our adaptive immunity. Incorporate minerals such as magnesium, iron, zinc, selenium and low dose copper to help ground, rejuvenate and recover. During these colder months, it is important to keep the agni, or digestive fire, ablaze by taking bitters to combat the cold, damp wind pathogens that take residence in our alimentary canal. Digestive bitters and other immune boosting bitter tonics such as andrographis, orange peel, shilajit and fenugreek will help keep the agni and immune system strong. Increase circulation and invigorate the blood by taking things like Ceylon cinnamon, capsicum, ginger and prickly ash capsules, to keep the wei-qi energy just below the skins surface, where it is intended to function best.
Calming adaptogens such as ashwagandha, gynostemma and holy basil are great choices as nighttime herbal teas or tincture infused hot water to assist with immune and cortisol regulation. When a person is sick, damp heat clearing herbs that are antibacterial and alkaloidal can be administered to help kill and flush the pathogen. Andrographis is the most effective and fast-acting herb to both boost immune function and kill pathogens.
When a person is sick, try andrographis, boneset (contains pyrrolizidine alkaloids), lomatium, jade windscreen formula, elder flower, yarrow, honeysuckle flower, isatis, Oregon grape root and baikal skullcap.
To warm agni and to increase circulation, absorbtion and boost immunity before illness strikes, try licorice, astragalus, turkey tail and reishi mushrooms, triphala, cats claw, capsicum with ginger and cinnamon capsules, elderberry/flower, echinacea angustifolia, holy basil and processed rehmannia.
Along with herbs, utilize premade Chinese herbal tablets or capsules. Women can take the rehmannia six formula to regulate kidney and liver yin energies throughout the colder months and as a tonic for blood support. Men can take zuo gui wan or you gui wan. As yin and yang tonics, they are used to maintain vitality, boost wei qi and increase circulation during the shortened days and colder months.
Robert Sena is a Master Herbalist, having completed his studies at the Northeast School of Botanical Medicine in Ithaca, New York. He is currently studying at the David Winston School of Herbal Medicine and is a staff herbalist at Valley Integrative Pharmacy.