Welcome to Chinese Medicine Bristol's official blog! Here, Acupuncture and TCM pracitioner Sandra Arbelaez will share information about Acupuncture and Chinese Herbal Medicine, how they work, and the latest research and developments related to TCM. You will also find knowledge and ideas on how to enjoy a full, healthy life that she has picked up over the course of 15 years of exploring the world of natural health

Wednesday 18 March 2020

Life in the time of an epidemic

Many of us followed in horror what was happening in China a few weeks ago, when the new Coronavirus came into our lives. So many people in critical condition, so many isolated far from their families not knowing how long it would last, so many deaths in a short space of time! Since then, we have followed its steady approach towards us, leaving behind closed borders, collapsed health systems, and several thousand people dead. We have seen how in countries where the news of the epidemic wasn’t taken seriously the spread has been scarily fast and devastating, yet we have been told to keep cool as cucumbers and only do what feels “right” to us.

Let’s put other people first                   

Since we have no real guidance or have been given a plan, it has so far been left to each of us to think about the best choices to make. When confronted with infectious diseases, like this one, we are very much at the mercy of what happens in the community. This is why actually thinking about others before we think about ourselves, is an important step to reduce risk of infection for all.

You may wonder how this could be so. Well, if you have seen any of the graphs or charts with the numbers of cases and deaths that are occurring worldwide, you may have noticed that the number of deaths and the length of time the upheaval lasts are directly proportional to the number of infected people. This means that the risk to each of us and the disruption caused by what we are living will be cut short if we behave in a manner that minimises the spread of the virus.

Because, as we have seen, the new coronavirus is highly contagious, minimising its spread really means minimising contact with other people.  So, if possible, STAY HOME for the time being. Some people find this a pain, but we must understand that if we don’t do this NOW we will be forced to do it under much more difficult circumstances later.

Other than this, thinking of others also means that those people we know who are by themselves or who are part of the high risk group – the elderly, people of all ages with pre-existing immune or respiratory conditions- should be in our list of people to contact regularly to check for their safety and wellbeing. These are times for us to come out of our own little worlds and see how much we actually need each other.

Another way in which just thinking about ourselves doesn’t work in this situation, is how we buy our goods. As it has been pointed out in recent days, buying all the hand sanitiser from the shelves will not protect us if nobody else is able to wash their own hands!

Obviously, if we are not able to stay home right now, we need to be extremely careful and avoid any unnecessary contact with anyone. Every time you touch any surface outside your home, or money, please wash your hands. And if you have any symptoms please be outward about it, stay home and tell your close ones about it. We very much depend on each other right now.

 Strengthening our immunity

Our immune systems are constantly challenged not only by illnesses but also by stress, pollution, eating unhealthily, difficult relationships, and loss, just to name a few things. Because of this, most of us have immune systems that could do with a boost especially in times like this. These are a few things necessary to enhance your immunity:

Meditation helps our immunity
1. Meditation and relaxation techniques: As we know, stress and anxiety impair our immune system so, counteracting stress with meditation and relaxation techniques will have the positive side-effect of increasing immunity. There are many ways to meditate, since we are dealing with a respiratory epidemic, I would recommend you explore breathing meditations.

Qi gong exercises are also meditative, as well as involving organised movement that helps the body stay supple and increases oxygenation, which makes it a great thing to explore if we are stuck at home.

As for relaxation, my favourite relaxation exercise is the “body scan” which basically consists of lying flat on the floor and visiting each part of the body, breathing "into" it and relaxing it, until we cover the whole body. In yoga, this is Savasana and it’s what we usually do at the end of the practice.

2. Movement: Exercising without pushing ourselves too hard will help us at this time to oxygenate the body and clear out toxicity. Exercising too hard or too long can, on the other hand, be detrimental to our immune systems.  

If we choose to exercise outside, we should obviously avoid contact with others and maintain our distance from all people in case either they or us are carriers of the virus.

3. Nourishment: This is central to the strength of our bodies and of our immunity. It is ideal to eat freshly cooked meals containing plenty of nutrient-rich vegetables, wholemeal grains, and good quality protein. To enhance our immunity we also need to not burden ourselves with chemicals and additives that can be harmful to the body so avoiding processed foods, sugary foods, pre-made meals and fizzy drinks is a very important issue. For more on this you can read my posts on what real food is, and on understanding a healthy diet

4. Hydration: As we know, water makes up a high percentage of the cells in the body and, if we are dehydrated, we may be more susceptible to certain diseases and definitely our immunity won’t be at its best. Hydration doesn’t only means consuming enough fluids but also not consuming things that push water out of the body through the urine. Coffee, tea, colas, alcohol and all caffeinated drinks all have this effect and are best avoided if we want to stay hydrated.

Over-sweating is also a way to lose body fluids that are needed for deep lubrication and to keep the organs functioning optimally

The best way to hydrate is to drink warm water and herbal teas, at least 4-6 cups per day. Home-made soups and broths and plenty of fresh vegetables can also provide us our cells with some fluids.

5. Sleep: Studies have shown that chronic sleep deprivation has a negative impact on the immune system. Consistent late nights and early starts and having sleep difficulties not only leave us depleted, and often too tired to function properly in our daily lives, but can also diminish our ability to fight disease. Because many people experience disturbed sleep because of their stress and anxiety levels, meditation and relaxation practices may help deal with this.

Adopting good nighttime habits, such as having time off screens before going to bed and not going to bed past midnight, will greatly contribute to us having good physical, immune, and mental energy. These habits may be harder to follow if we are working from home, in quarantine or lockdown, but this may be a time when we most need them.

6. Air: Our bodies cannot survive long without oxygen. In Chinese medicine, air is a necessary ingredient for the making of vital energy or Qi. In the cycle of Qi production, the Lungs extract nourishment from the Air and this nourishment gets combined with that extracted from the food and drink by the digestive system. This results in Zong Qi – chest Qi – which fuels the functioning of the Heart and Lungs and which gets further refinement to become the particular type of Qi that will provide strength to all organs and protect us from disease – our immunity.

Deep breathing exercises are important for our general health and particularly relevant now because they can help clear mucus and strengthen Lung function which will be useful against a virus that attacks the respiratory system. For more on this, visit my post on conscious breathing 

Preparing the body for the Coronavirus

As we have been told, this particular virus starts with a fever and a dry cough. It directly goes to the airways and relatively quickly goes into the Lungs. Everything that we can do to strengthen our immunity and Lung energy mentioned above could help us minimise the damage. 

 According to observations made by Chinese medicine doctors working in the front line at Wuhan, and kindly shared with me and other practitioners by my teacher in China, in the average person – excluding those people in the higher risk group-  the infection is more severe in the presence of internal Dampness. This basically means that if we have an internal accumulation of fluid, mucus, and/or phlegm, we could have a more difficult time if we get infected. 

This is useful to know as there are specific foods that increase the mucus and phlegm in our bodies, which we could start avoiding right now in order to prepare our body for battle. The main foods to avoid are the following:

  • Milk and all milk derivatives (plant-based milks are ok)
  • Wheat products- all types of bread, biscuits, pasta
  • Refined sugar
  • Greasy, heavy, and rich food
  • Alcohol
  • All processed foods- pre-prepared meals, reconstituted meats, tinned and instant meals
  • Chilled drinks and foods
  • Excessive amounts of cold/raw foods
Virus or not, avoiding the above foods can make a big difference to our systems, we may feel lighter and our digestion will be able to work more effectively. Eating freshly cooked foods avoiding the above will also help our bodies to function at a more optimum level when we most need it.

There are also certain easily found ingredients with strong immune-enhancing properties that we could add to our cooking (please bear in mind that these foods won’t necessarily help if you are already displaying the symptoms of a viral infection but they will be good preventatives):
  • Limes and lemons- a cup of hot water with the juice of half a lemon or lime will help you kick-start the day and cleanse your system
  • Fresh ginger- Can help us fight infections whether viral, fungal or bacterial. You can add them to your cooking and also make ginger tea by grating a chunk of ginger in a pan and boiling it in water for a few minutes. It’s delicious with lime/lemon juice and honey. It's best not to have a lot of ginger if you have burning urination, very sticky smelly stools or feel hot all the time.
  • Raw garlic- Like ginger, garlic can help us fight all types of infections. We should add garlic to every one of our meals, however, its potency is higher when we consume it raw. Many people find it too strong in taste when raw, plus our bodies can exude garlic smell afterwards, not very pleasant unless the our partners and family are also eating it! One way of enhancing garlic's properties is steeping the peeled cloves in a jar of good quality runny honey for two weeks, opening the lid once a day to release the air. After this time, the garlic should have lost its strong taste, if it hasn't just keep it in the jar for another week. This is also to be avoided if you have burning urination, very smelly stools, or feel hot all the time.
  • Turmeric is a nutrient-rich anti-inflammatory herb
  • Thyme- can enhance immune response, plus it’s a phlegm busting herb and good for coughs. It can be added to food or prepared as tea with a little honey
  • Cinnamon- is used in Chinese medicine to enhance digestion and help the immune system
  • Honey- Good quality honey is rich in antioxidants and soothes the airways when we have a cough (See the garlic and honey recipe above!)
  • Most herbs and spices- Used in moderation will also help our digestion work better, and make our meals more interesting. I would avoid chilies right now since they can add to much heat to a fever and make us sweat and lose precious fluids.
  • To cleanse the air we breathe and help boost respiratory function we can also add eucalyptus, thyme, tea tree essential oils to our bath or an oil diffuser.

Quarantine time

Staying home may be difficult for some of us who feel lonely, whose living conditions are not very comfortable, who feel stressed by their families, who feel they cannot afford to not work. All of these are common and valid sources of apprehension which cannot be dismissed. It may be impossible for us to understand fully other peoples’ living conditions or circumstances so, for a start, we need to be incredibly patient and compassionate towards each other right now.

It is not compulsory at the moment for us to stay at home but it may soon get to that and, when that happens, we will all have to make the best of what there is. There are plenty of online resources for us to explore all those things we have always said we wanted to do but have never had time for: playing an instrument, learning a language, reading about particular subjects, mediation, yoga, Qigong, you name it! Let’s get making a list of these things for when the time comes. 

If we have the resources, we will be able to enjoy things such as cooking proper meals, reading, learning, getting in touch with people we never have time to contact, sorting things out in our homes. However, let’s not forget that there are plenty of people less fortunate than us, there is already a growing number of local groups prepared to look after each other and especially after those at high risk and those who are worse off. This is the main group for Bristol https://www.facebook.com/groups/1032597030460220/?notif_id=1584542889971855&notif_t=group_r2j_approved

Finally, since we may not have any choice, let’s welcome a time of quiet and rest, let’s allow the body and mind to heal and recuperate from our crazy lives, let’s also allow the Earth to rest and cleanse itself, let’s learn how to BE again and, together, let’s remember how to live as communal beings who help and protect each other and who respect and look after our beautiful home and all life on it.

With much love and hope,