In Chinese Medicine, the immune system is comprised of a protective barrier of Qi called Wei Qi ( pronounced “way chee”), that circulates through the soft tissues while also emanating about an inch around the outside of the body. Like a force field, Wei Qi prevents external pathogens, like viruses and bacteria, from making us sick.
When Wei Qi is robust, we are less likely to catch the seasonal flu that’s going around. Unfortunately, extreme environmental conditions, like the frigid temperatures of winter, can effectively “poke holes” in the structure of the Wei Qi and compromise our immunity.
There are things we can do to fortify our defenses. Most of these are going to sound like common sense. Doctors and old wives have been saying these kinds of things forever, but here’s what we can take away from the Chinese perspective.
- Eat Nutrient-rich Food. In Chinese medicine, we can replenish our Qi in one of two ways: through the air that we breathe and through the food that we eat. Specifically, the Stomach and Spleen extract Grain Qi from the food that we eat. Our limited options for replenishing Qi is why diet is such an integral part of the Chinese approach to health. In the winter, avoid raw and cold foods because they will only contribute to excess cold and weaken your Wei Qi. Check out this great article on eating through the Chinese Medicine lens.
- Enjoy Stimulants in Moderation. Caffeine, sugar, and chocolate are ok in moderation in a healthy body. But be mindful of excessive use because stimulants can deplete your Kidney Qi. When Kidney Qi runs on fumes, your system will tap your storehouse of Jing (vital essence), which you can’t replace. Jing is what keeps us alive, so we want to conserve it.
- Get Lots of Rest. Winter is the season of hibernation, so it’s natural for the body to respond to the extreme conditions with conservation-minded behaviors. Be mindful of how you push yourself and try not to. Prioritize getting a full night’s sleep, and don’t shy away from taking a nap if you need it. The Kidneys are especially affected by cold temperatures, and unfortunately, they are also the storehouses our Qi and Jing. Getting lots of rest ensures that our stores remain robust.
- Exercise Appropriately. Exercise is essential for building Qi and ensuring that it circulates well. However, too much of a good thing can become a bad thing. Follow your natural rhythms, if you are feeling tired, quieter practices like Yin Yoga are more appropriate than forcing yourself to do a vigorous workout at the gym. But if you have the energy, challenging workouts are fine even in winter. Just pay close attention and respond appropriately.
In spite of our best efforts, there are times when we feel run down, and this is a warning sign that our Wei Qi is compromised. When that happens, you have some options:
- Back off and Slow Down. As soon as you notice yourself feeling off, respond by slowing down, going to bed early, and saying no to things when you can. I know this sounds obvious, but how many of us really follow this wisdom?
- Visit An Acupuncturist. There is a lot an acupuncturist can to do to fortify your Wei Qi. Western research on acupuncture and immunity is very compelling.
- Herbal Supplements. You’ll want to talk to a Chinese Medicine Doctor about your specific needs, but a very common immune-boosting herb is Huang Qi (Astragalus). Huang Qi tonifies Wei Qi while also supporting the Lungs’ ability to circulate it through the tissues.
- Physical Exercises. Qigong (energy skill), which is both a part of and the basis of Chinese Medicine, has a long history of using movement, static postures, and breathing exercises to improve Qi flow and organ function.
Try the following Yin Yoga sequence to circulate Qi to the organs most associated with Wei Qi: Stomach and Spleen (for better Grain Qi absorption), Lungs (for better Qi circulation), and Kidneys (to avoid Qi depletion). I intentionally picked low-key postures to help with Kidney Qi conservation.
You can join me online every Monday evening at 6 EST/NYC for Yin Yoga & Mindfulness. It’s by donation, and all are welcome.
Hi! I’m Jennifer O’Sullivan (Sati Yoga). I write about yoga, meditation, stress management, Internal Family Systems, functional anatomy, and a bit of this and that about living a wakeful life. Based in the Washington, DC area, I share gentle yoga, Buddhist mindfulness, and facilitated IFS Parts work in person and online. Find me at www.sati.yoga. I also co-host Skillful Means Podcast, which covers spirituality and yoga.