Cold therapy

 2024 | Practice
Sarah Clark
Member: London
The seasonal transition from autumn to winter encourages us to understand our body's relationship with nature's rhythms and to work with it. In Chinese medicine philosophy, the arrival of cold weather means a shift towards yin energy where we should turn inward, conserve energy and nurture ourselves.

Physically, the cold can impact our qi flow, potentially leading to stiffness, reduced circulation and susceptibility to colds or flu. Psycho-emotionally, it may induce a sense of withdrawal or lethargy. To prepare for winter’s effects, I often advise lifestyle adjustments in alignment with this energetic shift.

Dietary changes are crucial – warming foods such as soups, stews, root vegetables, ginger and cinnamon can counteract the cold’s effects and support digestion and circulation. Appropriate clothing includes layering and covering vulnerable areas such as the neck and chest – lung system – and lower back – kidney system – to help protect against external pathogens from the cold and wind. Maintaining activity through gentle exercises like qigong, tai chi, even long steady walks, ensures smooth qi flow, preventing stagnation caused by the cold.

The yin and yang of cold therapies

Regarding cold therapies like cold showers, ice packs or cold water swimming, moderation is very important. The idea of such temporary retreats into coldness involves intentional exposure to controlled cold. This exposure stimulates the body’s responses, triggering physiological reactions that can offer various benefits.

Cold therapies stimulate circulation – aiding in vasoconstriction and dilation – and can even promote the release of endorphins, enhancing mood and alleviating pain. Cold therapy sessions, when practised judiciously, can train the body to endure stressors more effectively, bolstering the immune system and fostering mental clarity.

However, whilst we know that brief cold exposure can invigorate qi and circulation, excessive use can disrupt the body’s balance in colder months as the system may struggle to re-regulate. I therefore suggest using cold therapies with great caution in colder months: in Chinese medicine, our bodies are like finely tuned instruments and are constantly working to seek balance between yin and yang. Excessive exposure to cold disrupts this delicate equilibrium leading to a cascade of disharmonies.

Moreover, prolonged cold exposure can impact the body’s internal temperature regulation. It weakens the yang energy and the warmth and vitality of ming men fire, causing it to dwindle. This diminished yang can lead to a host of issues, such as fatigue, sluggish digestion, or even a weakened immune response.

Emotional coldness: a deeper chill

When we talk about cold, we shouldn’t ignore emotional coldness which can manifest in various ways, affecting individuals on both physical and emotional levels: a sense of isolation, a distancing from warmth, connection, and belonging. This sensation echoes the principles of Chinese medicine, where emotions intertwine with bodily health.

The stagnation of qi – the vital life force – due to emotional coldness, can lead to disruptions in the body’s balance, affecting the body’s meridians and organs. This stagnation can manifest as physical symptoms like tension headaches, digestive issues, or musculoskeletal discomfort.

Artificial heating does challenge our traditional views on cold diseases

Moreover, the feeling of being left out in the cold, metaphorically speaking, signifies a lack of inclusion or connection. In acupuncture, this disconnection resonates with the concept of the shen – our spirit or consciousness – which seeks harmony and integration. Emotional coldness, thus, extends beyond mere feelings, impacting the subtle energies that govern our wellbeing.

Rethinking cold diseases in a heated world

In our modern world, the prevalence of artificial heating does challenge our traditional views on cold diseases, so perhaps we should reconsider its impact on health. Central heating – a hallmark of modern comfort – presents a bit of a paradox. While it ensures warmth and comfort, the constancy of artificial heat can hinder the body’s natural adaptation to temperature changes.

Over-reliance on central heating may lead to a diminished ability to acclimatise to varying temperatures, potentially weakening the body’s defensive (wei) qi and disturbing the delicate balance of yin and yang. The dryness disrupts this harmony, also, tilting the balance towards excess yang and insufficient yin. This imbalance can lead to various issues like parched skin, throat irritation, or even exacerbate respiratory problems. Our nasal passages can dry up, leaving us more susceptible to infections.

Prolonged exposure to dry environments can also impact the body’s ability to regulate temperature and humidity, further throwing yin and yang out of sync. It is crucial to recognise this dryness factor in our heated environments. While we revel in the warmth, we must also take measures to counteract the dryness it brings.

As acupuncture practitioners, we should highlight the risks of excessive cold exposure

Consider patients who are already yin deficient: hydration becomes essential, both internally – drinking ample water – and externally – using humidifiers or even simple tricks like placing bowls of water around the home or hanging a wet bath towel over a radiator to add moisture to the air. By acknowledging and addressing the impact of dryness caused by central heating, we can strive for a more balanced and harmonious environment for our bodies to thrive.

Advice to patients

As acupuncture practitioners, we should highlight the risks of excessive cold exposure. While brief encounters with cold can be beneficial, prolonged exposure disrupts the body’s delicate balance, hindering its natural flow of energies.

Encouraging patients to embrace warmth, along with moderation in exposure to cold becomes essential in maintaining the body’s equilibrium. We should also acknowledge the need for a balanced lifestyle, including that of the psycho-emotional, appropriate nutrition and stress management – always of course in consideration of the individual patient and their unique constitution, adaptability and resilience.

By adopting an holistic perspective such as this, we can encompass not only the ancient wisdom of Chinese medicine but also adapt it to meet the challenges of our modern lifestyle.

Sarah Clark graduated with a first class honours BSc Traditional Chinese Medicine in 2009 and was awarded the Prize for Excellence in TCM Studies by the Association of Traditional Chinese Medicine and Acupuncture UK (ATCM). She has worked in private practice for the past 14 years and specialises in fertility and gynaecology.

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