Fall is a season when most of us switch gears back to a busier schedule, the weather is getting chillier, and we start spending more time indoors. This is also a time when we need to boost our resilience to stress and ability to fend off cold viruses.

Do you catch colds easily?

Over the years, I’ve worked with many people, young and old, who regularly catch colds several times a year starting in the fall. Some never fully recover until the next summer. That’s not a good thing. Having frequent or even ongoing respiratory infections is a sign of your immune system being under stress. You should not ignore it. A compromised immune system can pull out the rug from underneath you.

Your family physician may not have much good advice to offer you because conventional medicine is focused on treating illness, not preventing it. Pharmaceutical drugs are good at killing some bacteria and suppressing immune responses—think antihistamines or corticosteroids—but can have side-effects that actually undermine your health.

You’re much better off learning to take good care of yourself so that your body has the ability to ward off infections or to bounce back quickly and completely in case they catch up to you. There are several steps you can take that don’t involve doctors or taking drugs (though I’d be happy to talk with you in more detail about these strategies to explain their benefits and help you tailor them to your personal needs): Eating a whole foods diet, exercising regularly, practicing mindfulness, and getting plenty of quality sleep are indispensable pillars of good health.

Important strategies that can help you

Two specific recommendations I can give you right off the cuff: Reduce your sugar consumption (including alcohol) as much as you can; and eat more warming spicy foods such as soups and curries if you feel tired or chilled. Both strategies help support what we refer to as the Spleen in Chinese medicine, the functions in your body that support assimilation of nutrients and their conversion to energy, in other words your metabolism.

Of course, caring for your immune system and boosting resilience can benefit from outside help, too. My favorite is acupuncture because it can help you transition from one season to the next, balance your energy, and regulate your digestion and stress response. What’s not to like! Other types of body therapy that don’t involve needle insertions can also be helpful. I often use tuina, guasha or cupping, as well as aromatherapy and heat therapy, in combination with, or as a substitute for, acupuncture in people reluctant to try.

If you’re someone prone to sinus issues or a stuffy nose, consider adding nasal irrigation to your routine. You may have heard of the neti pot, a practice common in Ayurvedic medicine in India. It involves rinsing your nasal passages with warm salt water to remove mucus and irritants caught in it. You can use a traditional porcelain pot or a modern device such as Yogi’s NoseBuddy. Nasal irrigation is also a useful strategy if you experience seasonal allergies.

Tonics support your immune response

Now let me get to the heart of the matter: Tonics, mostly derived from plant material such as roots or leaves, have been used in many cultures around the world for thousands of years. In these healing traditions, tonics are prized for their ability to promote the body’s natural functioning and resilience to disease and aging while being very safe for long-term ingestion in most people. You may have heard of ginseng, a tonic and adaptogenic medicinal prominent in East Asian medicine. But this is only one well-known example.

For people prone to respiratory infections caused by rhinoviruses or influenza viruses, astragalus is actually the choice adaptogen. It is called Huang Qi in Chinese herbal medicine and its botanical name is Astragalus membranaceus root. Aside from supporting immune resilience against respiratory infections, it has many other benefits for your health, including possible tumor-inhibiting activity and reduction of side-effects from chemotherapy.

How you can use astragalus

You have several options to add astragalus to your regimen. The most basic traditional use is to purchase the sliced dry root in a Chinese pharmacy or grocery store and add a handful to a soup stock. You can also find powdered astragalus in encapsulated form or use tinctures. One popular way you can use it to prime your body for the cold and flu season is to take astragalus in combination with Sopashinikovia divaricata root (Fang Feng) and Atractylodes macrocephala rhizome (Bai Zhu) in the famous ancient prescription Jade Screen (Yu Ping Feng San). Remember, though, that this is a formula to help prevent colds, not to treat them, so you want to start taking it several weeks before the time when you would typically get your first cold. I remind my patients to add it back to their routine by mid-September.

If you do get a cold or the flu, you should quickly switch to an appropriate Chinese herbal formula that can help your body expel the pathogen and prevent severe or prolonged illness. There are several options, and the right choice depends on your circumstances, so consulting with an experienced doctor of Chinese medicine is the best way to ensure you get the most out of it. We can select the right prescription for you and save you from going through the trial and error of choosing botanical therapies on your own.

© 2023 Christiane Siebert