By: Dr. Colby Helton, DAOM, L.Ac
Last week, Andrea and I got the first dose of the COVID vaccine, which was a painless and efficient process. Thankfully, we sailed through the days after without any major side effects or issues, much like our experience with the flu shot. Andrea felt a little run down for a day or so but I had zero side effects aside from a little soreness on my arm.
As a result, many of our patients (and friends/family) have been curious to learn more about the COVID Vaccine itself and how best to prepare themselves for an immune-stimulating therapy, which is what vaccination is. For the past year, a hot educational topic has been how boost one’s immune system, prevent infection, and fight disease. Consequently, the same principles lined out in “immune boosting” also apply to having a optimal vaccine response.
First, let me clarify something about “boosting” the immune system. It's a term you see in articles and on packaging for foods and supplements, and in the last year I've seen quite a bit written about it; however, most labels and blogs don’t really flesh out the nuances of what “boosting the immune system” even means. So, let’s discuss:
Basically, you don't want to hyper-charge your immune system beyond its normal functionality. An overactive immune system is essentially autoimmune disorder, which causes all kinds of problems in the body. Luckily, eating “immune-boosting” foods isn't going to put you past the red line into autoimmune territory. However, we do tend to have a “stronger is better” mentality, and that's simply not always true. Think of it more as improving the efficiency and focus of the immune system. We want it to be as prepared and equipped as possible to deal any pathogenic invasions, and certainly our attention this last year has been on COVID. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, we use the terms “regulate” and “harmonize” when talking about getting the body into a good place – its best possible place – and that can involve strengthening, dispersing, invigorating, adjusting, or temperature-controlling certain aspects of the body.
So, is it just semantics? I think it's more than that because it's useful to shift our thinking away from bigger-is-better, quick, and automatic fixes. Andrea is a big proponent of approaching patient care and wellness with an active model, rather than a passive model, and she's written and spoken about this at length. Supporting the immune system is much more effective when it's an active engagement on our part with our body instead of passively popping a supplement and waiting for your immune system/energy level/sleep quality/mood to level up. Now, that said, we do take vitamin C and D daily for immune support. I recommend discussing this with your doctor or pharmacist, but I take those as part of a more comprehensive approach to supporting the immune system, which in Traditional Chinese Medicine, boils down to supporting the Spleen.
The Spleen is the organ responsible for creating the immune system according to TCM, so any plan to remain well during flu season, much less during a pandemic, must focus on the health of the Spleen. The Spleen is also the conductor of the entire digestive system, so if your Spleen is deficient and disharmonious, guess what? You will not be able to digest those vitamins and supplements to benefit fully from taking them. That is why it's so important to actively pursue good health. Nearly every acupuncture treatment I perform is either focused on regulating the Spleen or includes acupuncture points to harmonize the Spleen with the other aspects of the treatment. It's that important.
Supporting your Spleen in an active way involves two components – honing your diet and mitigating stress and worry. I'm going to focus on the first one because we tend to have more control over our kitchen than we do our emotional state, especially in a time when there are legitimate historic external stressors. The most straightforward way to keep the Spleen happy is to clean up the diet. This is actually my recommended cleanse or detox, as well. Don't give your body junk that it has to work harder to break down and figure out what to do with. Give it the good stuff that it can allocate to important body systems and functions. This is especially important around vaccination time. Something new is being introduced into your body with the vaccine, and it is normal for your body to have an immune response while it takes that information and unpacks it. You don't want to increase the body's workload by asking it to break down greasy or sugary food at the same time. You wouldn't walk into the cockpit and ask a pilot to help you do a crossword puzzle while she's trying to land the plane.
We know what junk food is – it usually comes in a box or package. My professor at acupuncture school used to say it was pretty much everything in the middle aisles of the grocery store, whereas the real food was along the perimeter – produce, butcher counter, foods from the farm. Vegetables in a variety of colors are the foundation, and the Spleen tends to benefit from things that are orange and yellow in color, so think squashes and sweet potatoes. Meat and fish are good, and this is what I try to prioritize as far as which items to buy organic. Eggs are good, but milk and cheese products are difficult for the Spleen to break down, so limit these. Also, the Spleen prefers to be warm, and cold and raw foods damage the Spleen, especially in winter. Balance your meals with something warm, even if it's just hot tea or warm water. Cook with Spleen-friendly spices like ginger, turmeric, cardamom, nutmeg (these can also go in smoothies to balance out coldness). Antibiotics are very cold, so it's extremely important to focus on supporting the Spleen if you have to take them for an illness.
I fully realize recommending clearer eating isn't rocket science, nor is it groundbreaking. It's also not always easy to put into practice. Think of it this way: if you've ever had a hangover, you know how much that sucks, how crappy you feel. Most people, if not eating in a way that actively supports the Spleen, are constantly in a low-level hangover state without realizing it in terms of the amount of inflammation in the body. Energy, motivation, sleep, mood, fluid metabolism, swelling, and pain issues are all things we deal with so regularly that we normalize feeling not quite 100% well. Again, you don't want to land the plane, lead a meeting, teach your kids, or go into battle with a hangover. And really, staying healthy at the moment is a battle. Getting the vaccine is a moment in that battle. It's always best to be prepared and equipped to meet that challenge.
I hope you found this information helpful, and that you feel prepared to receive your COVID-19 vaccine when you’re ticket is called. Andrea and I are always here to answer specific questions about your health, so just drop us a note if you need some more personalized consultation. Until next time, mask up, wash your hands, make good decisions, and take care of yourselves and each other!
KY VACCINE HOTLINE: (800) 722-5725
If you are on twitter, these are my favorite COVID follows
Dr. Angela Rasmussen: https://twitter.com/angie_rasmussen
Dr. Daskia Popescu: https://twitter.com/SaskiaPopescu
Dr. Ian Mackay: https://twitter.com/MackayIM
Dr. Benhur Lee: https://twitter.com/VirusWhisperer
Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett: https://twitter.com/KizzyPhD
Dr. Rochelle Walensky: https://twitter.com/CDCDirector