Winter can be tough on your body. If you’ve noticed that you’re a little achy or stiff getting out of bed on cold mornings, you’re not alone. The cold weather can slow you down, sap your energy, and put your immune system to the test. That said, other seasons, and seasonal transitions are also stressful on your body. For example, the transition from the light and warmth of summer into the dark days of fall and winter can be one of the most difficult. We are all affected by the weather and seasonal changes to some degree.
In Chinese medicine, if you have symptoms that fluctuate with the weather, it’s considered to be an external issue, which simply means that what’s bothering you is coming from the outside or is affecting your body at a superficial level. Colds, flu, and allergies are categorized as external conditions, but so is arthritic knee pain or a headache that’s triggered by a change in barometric pressure. In contrast, internal conditions are those issues that are triggered by imbalances deep within your body. Autoimmune illnesses, hormonal issues, and digestive problems tend to be internal issues.
Chinese medicine is beautiful and organic, in that the nature of your symptoms is a little bit like bad weather affecting your body. It gives practitioners key information about how best to help you. For example, if your arthritic knees blow up during the hot and humid weather, it’s likely that your diagnosis is related to heat and dampness. However, if you’re achier when the weather gets cold, your symptoms would be classified as cold (and most likely damp, too). Pathogens that can affect your symptoms include:
Heat. If you feel hot overall, or your symptoms are worse in the heat, or your joints feel warm to the touch, or your headache comes with a fever or a hot head, you’re experiencing heat. It’s common for migraines, arthritis flare-ups, and inflammation to fall into this category.
Cold. If your symptoms, especially painful joints, are worse in the cold weather, or if you have an intolerance to the cold, chances are good that there is an element of cold to your diagnosis. Cold contracts and feels stiff and achy. Muscle spasms and joint pain are often related to the cold.
Dampness. This is your body’s inability to metabolize water well, so it sits around and bogs you down. Dampness can manifest as swelling, heaviness, edema, and fungal infections. A great deal of joint pain is associated with dampness, in which symptoms are worse when the weather is rainy, humid, or damp. In addition, you can mix and match; you can have damp plus cold, in which the cold rainy weather aggravates your symptoms, or damp plus heat, in which the hot and humid weather lights things up.
Wind. External wind is the pathogen behind most colds, flu, and seasonal allergies. It is illness that blows through a community. The nature of wind is that it comes and goes, moves around, and can be itchy. In addition to colds and flu, wind is also responsible for hives and rashes that are itchy. Wind stirs things up.
You can mix and match these pathogens. You can have damp plus cold, in which the cold rainy weather aggravates your symptoms, or damp plus heat, in which the hot and humid weather lights things up. You can also have wind plus heat, which is a cold or flu in which you run a high temperature and have a very sore throat; or wind plus cold with chills, a mild fever, and aches and pains.
Treating weather-related external conditions involves understanding the underlying cause and dealing directly with the pathogens associated with your symptoms—clearing heat, drying dampness, warming cold, or settling wind. This is done through a combination of acupuncture, herbs, diet, and even lifestyle tweaks.
If you struggle with external pathogens, one of the simplest things you can do is to give your pathogen what it wants. If you’re intolerant to cold, warm yourself up with a heating pad and warming foods and drinks (ginger and cinnamon are a good place to start). If heat is the problem, use an ice pack, turn on the A/C, eat cooling foods (melon, yogurt), or drink some cooling mint tea. Dealing with dampness often involves reducing sugar and rich foods in your diet and avoiding damp or humid environments. Wind is a little trickier, but it often involves fortifying your body after you’ve become run down.
While the weather outdoors can affect your body more deeply than you may have realized, the nature of your symptoms also reflects a kind of weather system inside your body. Understanding the relationship between the weather and your health is an important first step in providing effective treatment.
Lynn Jaffee is a licensed acupuncturist and the author of “Simple Steps: The Chinese Way to Better Health.” This article was originally published on AcupunctureTwinCities.com