Acupuncture, Cold Weather, and Your Health

It’s winter in Minnesota, and let’s face it, the sub-zero temperatures are getting old. We’ve had enough of wearing layers, trying to heal cracked fingertips, wearing earmuffs, and hunkering down.

Don’t get me wrong—I love winter. I can appreciate the beauty of the first snowfall, tramping through the winter woods on snowshoes, and actually needing hot chocolate to warm up. It’s just that it’s so…cold. In the southern climes, you don’t have words in your vocabulary like wind chill, subzero, black ice, and polar vortex, so you can’t quite relate.

In Chinese medicine, cold has an additional meaning, as it’s considered to be a pathogen—a way to describe an illness or a pattern of disharmony. You can be cold, damp, hot, or windy—any of which are a bit like bad weather in your body. However, cold is a pathogen that doesn’t get much airtime.

Cold weather and your healthThere are a number of different ways cold can show up in your body. You can have external cold, which is the stuff of colds and flu. It begins with a light fever (or none at all) and lots of chills, aches and pains, and upper respiratory symptoms. It’s considered to be an external problem, because in most cases your body shrugs it off fairly quickly. Treating external cold in Chinese medicine involves acupuncture and herbs that relieve your symptoms, strengthen your immunity, and help you fight off the virus or bacteria at hand.

Internal cold is a different story. Your body has something akin to an internal pilot light, which we practitioners call Yang. It keeps your body warm, fuels digestive fire, and keeps your metabolism running smoothly. When you have an imbalance described as Yang depletion, you’re likely to feel cold to your core that no amount of warm clothing can change. You may retain water, have problems with your digestion, struggle with an underactive thyroid, and feel sluggish or tired most of the time.

There are a number of reasons why your Yang pilot light can become diminished. Becoming run down, burning the candle at both ends, stress, eating foods that make your body cold, and even stress can play a role in chronic Yang-depleted cold.

Treating a pattern of internal cold is a significant undertaking and takes more time than dealing with an external pattern of the flu or an upper respiratory infection. If your Yang has become depleted, treatment would likely involve a combination of acupuncture, warming herbs, food therapy, and even warming your body from the outside. It takes longer to treat, because in most cases your pattern of internal cold was a long time in the making

A third kind of cold pathogen in Chinese medicine is called a cold strike. This is when cold affects your body directly in the form of muscle pain, muscle cramps, joint pain, or even a hernia. I experienced a cold strike several years ago when I was on a kayaking trip. Sitting in a wet kayak for hours on end caused a muscle in my butt to seize up to the point that I couldn’t walk. It took several weeks of acupuncture and physical therapy to recover.

Cold strike usually comes from being out in the cold, and often manifests as a spastic muscle or a very cold and achy joint. Think about it:  cold causes everything to contract, including your muscles and joints. Treatment for cold strike is pretty straight-forward and involves a combination of acupuncture and heat.

In Chinese medicine, we practitioners are big fans of keeping warm. If you run cold, there are a number of things you can do at home to help stoke your internal pilot light. Among them:

-Warm your core from the outside. You can do this by using a heating pad, hot water bottle, or heated rice bag applied to the small of your back or your abdomen right below your navel. Do this for 15 or 20 minutes several times a day until your body begins to feel warmer.

-Add some warming herbs to your meals. Ginger, garlic, mustard, cayenne, pepper, and cinnamon are easy to add to your diet and are very warming in nature.

-If you have muscle or joint pain that is worse with the cold weather, applying heat can help relieve the pain and loosen it up.

-Dress appropriately when you’re spending time outdoors in the cold (and the wind). Cover your head and ears, and wear a jacket that is long enough to cover your lower back and butt.

-And finally, if you are constantly cold to your core, struggle with pain that’s worse in the cold, or seem to catch every cold or flu that’s going around, enlist the help of a practitioner of Chinese medicine. They have a number of tools that can help warm you up and strengthen your immunity.


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