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Staying Healthy During Cold & Flu Season

Amber Kelley, L.Ac., Ms.Om., Dipl.Ac.


The first key is prevention.  We all know hand-washing is important, but when there are so many viruses circulating, it's important to know how to build up your own immune system to create the best possible barrier between you and those persistent bugs. 


In Eastern Medicine, that barrier is called "Wei Qi," or defensive qi. In Eastern philosophy, qi is the life force in the body.  There are many different types and functions of Qi, but for today we are focusing on the immune function.  Wei Qi's purpose is to essentially sit on the surface of your skin, and create a wall of defense against it's enemies - illnesses. 


In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), those illnesses are referred to as "External Pathogen Invasions" (EPIs). Illnesses are viewed as external, negative qi, that has made it's way into the body due to the defenses being down, or distracted. There are many things that can cause the breakdown or distraction of those defenses, including:

  • Improper winter clothing causing overexposure to wind or cold

  • Unhealthy diet

  • Overwork

  • Excessive Exercise

  • Lack of sleep

  • Stress

In TCM, these factors make it more likely to contract an illness. Even though we now know that illnesses are caused by viruses or bacteria, your mother was right when she told you to bundle up or you'd catch a cold! Overexposure to cold weakens your defensive qi, and if you already had been exposed to a virus, your body will not have what it needs to fight it off.  Also, during cold and flu season, it's even more important to get a good night's sleep, and to make sure to take the time to rest.  Our Qi in the body is somewhat limited, and if it is being overused in one capacity, like staying up all night to wrap presents, or working overtime, then your body may not have enough left to ward off the bad stuff. 

However, there are things we can do to improve our Wei Qi.  The following are examples of how we can give it a boost during this time:

  • Healthy, Seasonal Foods

  • Rest

  • Bundling up outside (don't forget your scarf!)

  • Immune Boosting Herbs

  • Acupuncture

Acupuncture helps stimulate your own body's natural Qi production, and helps to strengthen your immune system to help prevent illness.

Foods for prevention

Diet is incredibly important to your immune health.  I'm sure we all know that greasy, sugary, or processed foods aren't good for us.  However, in addition to causing other health issues, those foods can also deplete the qi in the body, making it more likely to catch an illness. It isn't all about "healthy" foods either. Eating for the season is very important. 


Seasonal foods are a big part of Chinese Food Therapy, according to the Five Element Theory.  All foods have different properties, just like herbs. During wintertime, it is best to eat more foods that have "warm" properties, and avoid eating too many foods that have cooler properties. 


For example, the foods that are associated with summer, like watermelon, grapes, and cucumbers, all have cool properties.  They also have a cooling effect on the body.  Hearty foods, that are high in protein, like beef, chicken, lamb, eggs, yams, mushrooms, and dates are all more warming and nourishing foods, that help boost your internal energy during the wintertime. Warming spices like ginger, nutmeg, cinnamon, and cardamom also make excellent additions to any winter diet. (There's a reason "Pumpkin Spice" was invented!)

How you prepare the food is also important.  During wintertime, soup is your friend! Warm, hearty soups and stews are vital to a healthy winter immune system.  Cooked meats, beans, and steamed vegetables are all good options as well. A Chinese rice dish called "Congee," is an excellent choice for wintertime to boost the qi, as well as treat a variety of issues.  Follow this link for a good guide to making Congee for different conditions:

However, what is possibly more essential is avoiding cold or raw foods. Raw foods are difficult to digest, so your body spends a lot of qi focusing on breaking it down.  This distracts it from doing what it needs to be doing - defending the outer gates.  So although raw vegetables, salads, and cold sandwiches can be "healthy," they are not ideal fare for wintertime. 

Herbs For Prevention

Though the best ways to prevent illnesses are diet and lifestyle, there are a few herbs and supplements that can help boost your Qi as well. If you have any health conditions, or are pregnant or breastfeeding, please speak with an herbalist prior to taking.  All of the things listed can typically be easily purchased at your local co-op or health food store.

  1. Elderberry Syrup - This can be taken daily for immune health.  It is very safe, and can be used in children over 6 months.  It is high in Vitamin C, and contains properties that are supportive to optimal immune function.

  2. Vitamin D - Proper Vitamin D intake is important, especially during the long, gloomy Minnesota winters.  Vitamin D is essential to immune function, and the majority of people in the northern climates are deficient, especially those with darker skin tones.  Even if you are taking a multivitamin with Vitamin D, it is still important to take at least 2,000 IU additionally per day.  If you know you are deficient already, consult your provider for dosing information, as you likely will need a higher dose.  Note: It is important to take Vitamin D with a food containing fat, as it needs a fat to bind to in order to absorb. Grass fed butter is the best source, as it also contains Vitamin K2 and Magnesium, which further assist absorption, but any dietary fat will work. Vitamin D supplements with added K2 and Magnesium are also available. 

  3. Vitamin C - Increasing Vitamin C intake during fall and winter months can go a long way with strengthening the immune system. If pregnant, make sure to stay under the recommended daily dosage. Other than in pregnancy, Vitamin C can be taken to bowel tolerance. Make sure to find a Vitamin C supplement that contains "Ascorbic Acid" or "Ascorbate," vs. Citric Acid. Elderberry syrup also contains Vitamin C, and increasing Vitamin C in food intake is a good substitute for supplementation. If you aren't getting enough in your diet, it is a good idea to supplement. 

  4. Colloidal Silver - This noble metal has antiviral and antibacterial properties, and is an excellent preventative.  It is nearly tasteless, and is easy to get children to take as well. It is safe from infants to elderly if proper dosing is used.

  5. Korean Ginseng - Ginseng is an excellent herb to boost the immune system. However, the type is very important, as they all have different properties. Ren Shen, or Korean Panax Ginseng is the form that is best used for this purpose,  "Red Ginseng," or Hong Shen, will work as well. Do not take American Ginseng (Panax quinquefolis).  It is important to only take a low dose, no more than 0.5-1 gram(s) per day.  If you have any health conditions or are pregnant, consult your herbalist before use. It should also be avoided in people with high blood pressure.

  6. Probiotics - One of the best ways to ensure a healthy immune system is to promote healthy flora. A good probiotic goes a long way for immune health. When selecting a probiotic, look first for one that is refrigerated. If it's not, there is no guarantee the cultures are still active. Typically these are only found at health food stores, at co-ops, or online.  A good co-op brand is Garden of Eden - RAW. They have many different varieties, but look for either the Ultimate Care, or for immune health.

  7. Gan Mao Ling - Only take this product if you believe you have been exposed to the flu or a flu-like illness. It can help prevent you from developing symptoms post-exposure.  It contains the herb "Ban Lan Gen" which is uniquely effective at preventing the flu. In fact, it was found to be so effective during the SARS outbreak in China, that the herb sold out in the entire country. This is not recommended for pregnant women, but can be taken by children who are able to swallow pills. It comes in regular and sugar coated tablets, but even adults prefer the sugar coated, as the non-coated tablets have an extremely pungent taste. This Chinese herbal formula is found at most co-ops and health food stores

    1. Adults - Take 4 tablets up to 3 times a day after exposure to influenza or influenza-like illness. Take for 7 days, until the incubation period has completely passed. ​

    2. Children - Take 2 tablets up to 3 times per day for 7 days after exposure to a flu-like illness.

  8. Ginger, garlic, echinacea, acerola cherry, and other aromatic herbs can be helpful with immune system strengthening as well. 


What to do if you are already sick

You did your very best, but lost your car in the parking lot at Costco when it was -5 degrees, and had forgotten your scarf at work - and now you're sick  It happens to the best of us! You're tucked in bed, and wishing that you could just sleep through the rest of it, but your stuffy nose won't let you. There's hope! 

First, it's very important to determine what kind of sick you are. In TCM there are two main types of fall viruses or "EPIs," (external pathogen invasions).  They are referred to as, "Wind Cold," and, "Wind Heat."


With both types, it essentially means that "wind," or a virus, has broken through your defensive barrier (immune system, called "wei qi"), and is now inside of your body. The two types can appear similar, though they have very distinct differences as well. 


Wind Cold is what we would call the "Common Cold," and Wind Heat is more of a flu-like illness, or actual influenza.

Wind Cold Symptoms:

  • Stuffy or Runny Nose

    • clear or white discharge​

  • Stiff Neck

  • Scratchy Throat

  • Cough, dry, or with white or clear mucus

  • Possible headache in the back of your head

  • Some chills

  • No fever or low-grade fever

  • No sweating

  • Mild body aches

  • Fatigue

Wind Heat Symptoms:

  • Moderate to High Fever

  • Severe Body Aches

  • Sore, swollen throat, or dry throat

  • Chills

  • Sweating

  • Cough with thick mucus (may start white but turns yellow/green)

  • Nasal congestion with thick discharge (may turn green/yellow)

  • Severe fatigue

There are some recommendations that fit both presentations, but for the most part, the treatments are very different. It is important that you've identified which one you have prior to taking any herbal remedies, as some of the properties in the remedies will be opposite. 

For both types, the best first step is to take at least the first day off of work, if at all possible.  This is the day where your body will be fighting the hardest, and if you push yourself, the illness may become more severe and may last longer. Also, everyone will appreciate it if you don't share!  

Wind Cold Treatment


The most simple, effective, and safe treatment for the common cold is the following soup recipe. It's essentially a whole food-based, delicious herbal decoction. It is safe and healthy for the whole family, including pregnant women.


It gets bonus points for being gluten free, dairy free, nut free, and it even has a vegan option! Also, it is very easy to make when you are under the weather, and most of the ingredients are fairly easy to keep on-hand.


It is best to make the soup at the onset of a cold, as it will work faster and potentially stop the progression completely.  This can also be used as a preventative, so if one family member is sick, everyone can have it to help prevent the rest of the family from catching it.

Ginger, Garlic, and Scallion Soup


  • 2 Boxes of Organic, Free Range Chicken Broth

    • Bonus Points for Bone Broth!​

    • Can substitute Vegetable Broth for Vegan/Vegetarian soup

  • 15 Quarter-Sized Slices of Fresh Ginger

  • 5+ cloves of garlic - smashed

  • 5 Scallions (Green Onions) - sliced. *Only the white parts*

  • 1/2 tsp of cinnamon

Optional Ingredients:

  • 1 Tbsp of raw, local Honey (or Manuka Honey)

    • Do not add if feeding to children under 1 year​

  • 1/2 Lemon - Juiced​

  • 5 Shiitake Mushrooms - Sliced

  • Salt, pepper, thyme, or oregano all optional, to taste.

  • Also tastes delicious with curry spices!


  • Add stock to a large pot or crock pot

  • Add ginger and garlic, plus all optional ingredients

    • ***Do NOT add scallions yet!***​

  • Simmer on medium heat for 20 minutes (1 hour in a crock pot on high)

  • Reduce to low heat

  • Add scallions to the top and let sit for another 5 minutes

  • Pour into 8 oz servings, and drink as hot as tolerable

  • Do not chew or eat pieces of ginger or garlic

    • Though it is encouraged to eat the scallions, it is optional​

  • It's best to bundle up during this time, as inducing a sweat is helpful

  • Store leftover soup, and drink in 8 oz portions up to 3 times per day until symptoms go away, or change.

Herbs, Foods, and supplements for wind cold

During a Wind Cold illness, you can continue to take the same herbs as in the Prevention section, other than the Gan Mao Ling. However, you can also add these herbs in to "vent" the illness from your body.  In TCM, it will essentially come out of your pores,

  1. Extra Vitamin C - even if you are taking the Elderberry, your body can still use an extra boost.  You can either take a supplement, or eat foods that are high in Vitamin C, like Brussel Sprouts, Kiwi, Kale, and Broccoli. 

  2. Zinc - at the beginning of an illness, zinc can help shorten the duration. Foods that are high in zinc include spinach and pumpkin seed, or you can take an additional supplement. At many co=ops, they make Lozenges with both Vitamin C and Zinc, which can also help soothe a cough or scratchy throat.

  3. Ginger Tea - Ginger tea is easy to find, and can go a long way to helping a cold. You can add honey, lemon, and cinnamon to help boost it's cold fighting properties.

  4. Raw/Local or Manuka Honey = Manuka Honey has amazing antiviral properties, and can also soothe your irritated throat and cough. Take 1/2 Tbsp up to 3 times per day. If using local honey, try to find a product that contains propolis as well, as this will boost the antiviral properties.

  5. Lemon Water - add the fresh juice from 1/2 lemon to 8 oz. of warm water, this will cleanse your body and help make antibodies for your immune system to fight the pathogen.

  6. Pears - pears contain properties that help suppress a cough. The best preparation is to half a pear, and spread a small amount of honey and cinnamon. Bake at 350F for 25=30 mins until tender or starting to brown.

  7. Umcka Cold Care - An effective tincture or syrup found at your local co-op. It is made from a unique native African herb that has been shown in studies to both relieve symptoms and shorten the duration of the common cold. (Pro-tip: the syrup tastes much better!)

  8. Gui Zhi Tang - For this stage of illness, Gui Zhi Tang (Cinnamon Decoction), is one of the best herbal formulas to help fight a cold. It is safe for all age groups, as it contains food-based herbs like ginger and cinnamon. It was originally developed in ancient Chinese Medicine as a safe option to fight wind cold in pregnancy. If your local co-op does not carry this formula, contact your herbal provider.

Final Wind Cold Tips: Stay inside, and  stay warm! Keep a scarf on, even at your home. Try to avoid any and  all outdoor activities. Even if you really need to shovel your driveway, try giving a teenage neighbor $15 to do it. Taking a couple days to rest will pay off in the long run. Also, during a cold, avoid any heavy foods or meals.Avoid sugar. Try to focus on light, broth based soups until you start to feel better. 

Wind Heat Treatment

Even though a couple of the symptoms are similar, the properties of Wind Heat are essentially the opposite from Wind Cold. Although you can still make the soup, you want to leave out or modify many of the ingredients to adjust for the differences in the features of the illness.  Here is an adjusted recipe for an example:

  • 2 Boxes of Organic, Free Range Chicken Broth

    • Bonus Points for Bone Broth!​

    • Can substitute Vegetable Broth

  • 7 Quarter-Sized Slices of Fresh Ginger

  • 8+ cloves of garlic - smashed

  • 8 Scallions - sliced. *Only the white parts

Optional Ingredients:

  • 1 Tbsp of raw, local Honey (or Manuka Honey)

    • Do not add  if feeding to children under 1 year​

  • 1/2 Lemon - Juiced​

  • 1 Stalk of Celery - Finely Sliced

  • 5 Shiitake Mushrooms - Sliced

  • Salt, thyme, or oregano all optional, to taste.

  • Do NOT use curry spices for Wind Heat


  • Add stock to a large pot or crock pot

  • Add ginger and garlic, plus all optional ingredients

    • ***Do NOT add scallions yet!***​

  • Simmer on medium heat for 20 minutes (1 hour in a crock pot on high)

  • Reduce to low heat

  • Add scallions to the top and let sit for another 5 minutes

  • Pour into 8 oz servings, and drink as hot as tolerable

  • It's best to bundle up during this time, as inducing a sweat is helpful

  • Store leftover soup, and drink in 8 oz portions up to 3 times per day until symptoms go away, or change.

Herbs, supplements and foods for wind Heat

During a Wind Heat illness, it's important that the pathogen can escape the body as quickly as possible to avoid complications, especially with a true Seasonal Influenza. Unlike with a cold, many of the original supplements wouldn't be appropriate. It's important to make sure that the illness isn't driven in further, as that is when you see issues arise, such as sinus infection or pneumonia (Lung Heat). The following supplements from the Prevention section are safe to take if you have Wind Heat:

  • Colloidal Silver

  • Probiotics

  • Gan Mao Ling

    • This can also be taken as a treatment for Wind Heat, and is effective at influenza treatment, though it is better if taken in conjunction with Yin Qiao Wan (listed below).​

Some may say that Elderberry syrup can be taken during a flu, but Elderberries have nourishing properties, and should be reserved for either the prevention period or at the end of the illness when the fever and chills are no longer present.

Herbs for Wind Heat

  • Yin Chiao Cheih Tu Pian (or Yin Qiao Wan) - This is by far one of the best herbal supplements on the market for Flu treatment. It is sold at most co-ops and health food stores. Though it can also be taken for prevention, it is more used for an early-stage, active Wind-Heat illness. It comes in pill form, and is safe for children as soon as they are able to swallow pills. Some stores have a sugar coated option available, which despite the sugar content, I would still recommend, as it makes it easier to swallow them, especially with a sore throat. 

    • Adults - take 4-6 pills 3 times per day until the symtpoms go away or worsen/change (i.e. Profuse green mucus from lungs or sinuses, returning fever after it had gone away, ear pain, etc..essentially any signs of infection). If symptoms change or worsen, consult your herbalist or provider.

    • Children - Take 2 pills up to 3 times per day. Same guidelines for change as adults. 

    • There are also powdered or liquid versions, but these would have to be ordered by an herbalist.

  • Gan Mao Ling - Gan Mao Ling is also effective at treating Wind Heat, but works better when combined with Yin Qiao Wan, as the YQW has more EPI expelling properties than can enhance the effects of Gan Mao Ling. 

  • Raw Garlic - Peel and cut 1 clove of garlic into quarters or eighths, and swallow like pills. The garlic is a potent anti-viral, and will help your body kill the virus. Though you may smell like garlic! 

  • Loquat Syrup - In Chinese medicine, Loquat helps to supress coughs, thin mucus, and reduce heat in the lungs. It is very effective at reducing the severity of a Wind Heat Cough. Planetary Herbals makes a version of this syrup that is sold at most co-ops. It is also available online. 

  • Manuka Honey - Manuka Honey's anti-viral and cough suppressant properties are also helpful for Wind Heat. Take 1/2 Tbsp 3 times per day, with the last dose before bed.

  • Lemon Water - As with Wind Cold, Lemon water is also helpful to cleanse the body and assist it in purging the illness. Squeeze the juice of 1/2 lemon into 8 oz of warm water. 

  • Peppermint Tea - Peppermint can be soothing to the throat, and also has cooling properties. If you are going to drink a tea while ill with Wind Heat, peppermint is a good option.

  • Extra Vitamin C, D, and Zinc are helpful with Wind Heat as well

Important: It is important during a Wind Heat illness to avoid many warming herbs, like you would take during Wind Cold. Avoid ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg excess curry spices, black pepper, and overly spicy foods. 

Food Guidelines for Wind Heat

As with Wind Cold, you want to avoid heavy meals and greasy foods.  Broth-based soups are helpful during this time. Celery, and greens are good additives. Pork is a better meat to have during a Wind Heat EPI, but it's better not to eat excess meat during this time. Although you don't want to eat foods with hot properties, it's still important not to eat physically cold or raw foods with Wind Heat.  It will still take away from your Qi's ability to fight the illness.

Contact your herbalist or provider for individual recommendations if your symptoms change or worsen


After the acute illness has passed



You're "better," but you are still having some post-nasal drip causing an annoying morning hacking session. You are still feeling congested, or your voice is still a bit hoarse. You still haven't fully gotten your appetite back. Or, even when you do eat, everything still tastes a little like cardboard, and you're secretly wishing you lived in France so you would get a mid-day nap. We've all been there!

This is the part that is often dismissed by modern medicine.  Your illness has improved, so there's nothing to treat, but you still don't feel "normal." This is where Eastern Medicine comes in. For us, the recovery portion is almost as important as the illness itself.


The reason you're so tired is your Qi took a huge hit fighting the illness and it's very important that it gets replenished. Without help, most healthy people will recover their Qi naturally, eventually. However, if anything else comes to attack during the refractory period, your defenses will be down and another bad virus can walk right in the front door. Also, for the people who started this process already depleted or immunocompromised, the risk is even greater.

To replenish Qi, you basically go back to the beginning. Start back on your herbs and supplements from before you were ill. Ginseng is especially useful for restoring depleted Qi after an illness. Also, go back to eating healthy, balanced, hearty, warm meals. Continue to rest, and avoid spending time out in the cold, but always wear a scarf and bundle up.

Acupuncture treatment is also very effective at restoring depleted qi. It works with your body to tell it to clear out what is left of the illness, and stimulates your Qi production.

If after a week, you don't begin to feel more like yourself, then it's possible you may need a more specific constitutional formula. Contact your herbalist and they can determine what you need to get back to feeling normal.

We hope these tips help you stay happy and healthy during this long, freezing winter! Please don't hesitate to contact us with any questions, or for more information.


The End!

This article is not a substitute for medical advice, nor is it comprehensive, and is for educational purposes only. If you are experiencing an emergency,call 911 or go to an emergency room.

if your symptoms worsen, or you are dealing with these symptoms in an infant under 6-months-old, or in someone with a compromised immune system, please consult a medical professional or your alternative provider for individual advice.

Note - As herbalists, we want to find the most effective treatments for illnesses. One of the most popular remedies marketed for influenza prevention and treatment is a homeopathic remedy called Oscillococcinum.


Many report that it helps reduce their symptoms. However, Oscillococcinum is a homeopathic nosode of Duck Liver. The French herbalist who developed this product was looking for an effective treatment for the Spanish Flu epidemic. He believed he had found the cause of the illness in observing the blood of the recently deceased. He found what he thought was an "Oscillating bacterium," (hence the name Oscillococcinum) that was causing the illness. He set out into nature to find the same oscillating bacterium, and found a similar phenomenon in duck liver. 

We know now that influenza is not caused by a bacteria, nor does it oscillate. Also, in studying similar samples, it is believed that what he was observing was air bubbles through a low-powered microscope.

We support the use of indicated homeopathy in general, so this is not a reflection on homeopathic medicine as a whole. However, we believe that if the theory behind the development of an herbal remedy isn't accurate, then it cannot effectively treat the targeted pathogen. 

Many people who take Oscillococcinum are also taking other steps to boost their immune systems, and often have what is called "healthy user bias." If a person already has a stronger immune system, a healthy diet, and is taking other products that can help fight the illness, that could account for the reduced illness that is sometimes reported with Oscillococcinum.

If you believe you have been helped by Oscillococcinum, it will not hurt you to take it, even with other herbal remedies. Even though we do not believe it has the right properties to fight a strong virus like influenza, we believe in the product's safety. 

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