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Protect Your Immunity During Cold & Flu Season

By Dr. Megan Wemm, DAOM, L.Ac.

Winter is here and flu season is upon us! How do we fortify our immunity and keep our bodies strong during this time?  Winter is a natural time for the energy of the body to turn inward and for us to slow down, but Traditional Chinese Medicine offers us wonderful tools for boosting immunity. 

From a Western medicine perspective, immunity starts in the gut and digestive system. Without having a well-functioning digestive system, our bodies will not have very strong immunity.  Supplements like probiotics are actually one of the most beneficial for enhancing your immune system. At Acupuncture Denver, we carry Megasporebiotic by Microbiome Labs. These are some of the most effective probiotics on the market and are backed by robust data. 

From a Chinese medicine perspective, the Spleen qi is the root of our immunity.  It is associated with the element of Earth and directly feeds the Lungs, which are associated with the Metal element.  The Spleen is responsible for digestion and the process of extracting the “clear qi”, or the nutrients, from our food to supply our body with energy.  Healthy Spleen qi is reflected in the muscles, changes our sense of taste, and is nourished by a sweet flavor.  In the winter, the Spleen qi can easily become drained, leaving us feeling lethargic and apathetic.  

The easiest way to fortify the Spleen qi is through diet and gentle exercise.  When the Spleen qi is depleted, our focus needs to be on easy-to-digest foods.  Warm, cooked foods that don’t require as much energy to digest are recommended while cold, raw, and greasy foods are not. Sugar, dairy, and alcohol are also detrimental to the Spleen Qi and cause dampness and phlegm in the body. Gentle exercise is the best way to work the muscles without further exhausting the body’s reserves and helps drain dampness and stoke our digestive fire. Foods that nourish the Spleen are yams, winter squashes, rice, quinoa, oatmeal and foods with a bland, sweet flavor.

Pregnancy is defined as a Spleen qi deficient time, particularly during the first trimester.  Since all the nutrients ingested are continually feeding the baby, it’s crucial to keep the body strong and fortified. The immune system is also weakened in pregnancy, so it's crucial to boost immunity with a Spleen-qi fortifying diet, supplements like prenatals and Vitamin D, and proper self-care. There's some interesting research here about Vitamin D in pregnancy how it can stregthen immunity in newborns. 

In the first trimester of pregnancy the Spleen Qi can be very deficient, depending on a person's constitution and lifestyle. This can lead to morning sickness, nausea, fatigue, mental fogginess, and intense food cravings.  Acupuncture and herbal treatments are very effective during this time, especially since most other medical modalities are not advised. For women who have experienced miscarriage, acupuncture and herbs are especially effective in stabilizing threatened miscarriage.

Ginger, especially fresh ginger, called Sheng Jiang, is a Chinese herb, food, and spice that particularly nourishes the Spleen.  It has been used regularly in Chinese culture and medicine for over 4,000 years as a Spleen tonic and an immune booster.  It also helps to reduce motion sickness and nausea.  By strengthening the Spleen’s function, it has been shown to reduce cholesterol.  Including fresh ginger in tea or soup daily can help to support your immune system, your digestive strength and your body’s vitality.  From a Chinese medicine perspective, fresh ginger helps to redirect the stomach qi downwards, hence why it can pinpoint nausea, morning sickness or motion sickness.  During the first trimester, this herb can be very helpful.

Astragalus root, called Huang qi, is another herb used to tonify the Spleen qi.  It has been shown to enhance immune function as well as help with loose stools and diarrhea, exhaustion, mental clarity and even organ prolapse.  The energetic movement of this herb is uplifting. This is an herb that is safe in pregnancy and because of its lifting function, it is used to prevent miscarriage.

Medicinal mushrooms are also helpful immune boosters.  Examples include shiitake, reishi, maitake, tremella, chaga or turkey tail.  Medicinal mushrooms are considered adaptogens.  They have been shown to naturally activate Natural killer cells and T-cells in the body.  Along with enhancing immunity, they strengthen the Spleen, clean the Liver, tonify energy reserves, reduce cholesterol and calm the spirit.  

Western supplements you can use to further support immunity include elderberry, Vitamin D3 (which everyone needs!), Zinc, Vitamin C, garlic, turmeric and oregano oil. Teas of chrysanthemum flower, hibiscus, echinacea or ginger are also excellent options during this time.  Honey is an especially effective antioxidant.  Manuka honey is even stronger in its ability to fortify the body and strengthen its immunity.  

Chinese herbal formulas are regularly used to support the immune system and release the exterior.  These common formulas include Gan Mao Ling, Yin Qiao San, Gui Zhi Tang and Xiao Chai Hu Tang.  It is best to check in with your Chinese Medicine provider as to which one is best for you. We have custom herbal formulas in stock at the clinic and also carry modern Chinese formulas like Anti-Virii and Anti-Biobotanical by Panaxea that are super effective. These are great formulas to have on-hand so you can take them when you start to feel like you’re coming down with something. 

Protecting your digestive system is the key to boosting your immunity. Including simple, easy-to-digest foods every day can enhance your ability to ward off colds or the flu.  By strengthening our Spleen, we can also give ourselves increased physical energy and improved mental clarity. Check out the recipe below to make a delicious immune-boosting winter soup! 

The Ultimate Immune Boosting Soup courtesy of

Makes 6-8 bowls

          • 1 T coconut oil
          • 1 large yellow onion, chopped
          • 6 garlic gloves, minces
          • 2 clergy stalks, sliced
          • 1 lb shiitake mushrooms
          • 1 1/2 tsp sea salt
          • 1/4 tsp black pepper
          • 1 tsp turmeric
          • 12 cups water
          • 4 heads baby bok Chou, bottoms chopped off
          • 1/2 head kale, chopped
          • 1 Tbsp freshly grated ginger
          • Optional: whole chicken
          • Optional: miso

  • Chop off the bottom of the stem from your mushrooms and discard. Separate stems from tops and slice tops and remaining stem if necessary, into large pieces. You will only discard the very bottom of the stems, not the full stems as they contain many nutritional benefits!
  • Heat up coconut oil in a large pot over medium heat.
  • Add onions and sauté for 5 minutes or until translucent.
  • Add in garlic and cook for 1 more minute.
  • Add in celery and mushrooms and sautee for about 10 minutes or until mushrooms have wilted.
  • Add in spices (including ginger) and water and bring to a boil.
  • Then let simmer, covered for 1 hour or as long as you want (the longer you leave, the                better!)
  • Add bok choy and kale in the last 10 minutes of cooking to wilt.
  • If you’d like to have your soup with chicken, boil and cook a whole chicken in 12 cups of water.  Remove chicken from the soup, remove the meat from the carcas.  Shred the meat and add to eat bowl.
  • If you’d like to add miso, add a small spoonful of miso the finished soup.
Serve warm or store for up to 1 week in the refrigerator.