The new year has begun. We entered into the period of Minor Cold on the 5th of January although for many serious cold has already come. Xiǎohán, or Shōkan in Japanese, Sohan in Korean, or Tiểu hàn in Vietnamese is the 23rd solar term. It begins when the Sun reaches the celestial longitude of 285° and ends when it reaches the longitude of 300°. As this year, it usually begins around 5 January and ends around 20 January. Although called Minor Cold, as the period progresses, however, weather rapidly reaches its coldest. During Minor Cold, most areas in China have entered the bitter cold stage of winter. The ground and rivers are frozen. The cold air from the north moves southward continuously. Although “Minor Cold” means less cold than the following solar term, “Major Cold”, there is an old saying in China that goes, “The days of the Sanjiu period are the coldest days.” “Sanjiu period” refers to the third nine-day period (the 19th-27th days) after the day of the Winter Solstice, which is in Minor Cold. Actually Minor Cold is normally the coldest period of winter.
In view of this perhaps whether we make New Year resolutions or not we should resolve to guard our health. The Chinese believe it is important to keep warm during this period. Avoid drafts, stay out of the cold, bundle up; all those old bits of advice for keeping healthy in winter weather were disparaged for years. Cold doesn’t cause illness, viruses and bacteria do. However, the world is no longer regarded as flat and stones do fall from the sky. They’re called meteorites. Science has finally caught up with grandma. It has been found that viruses thrive at colder temperatures and also, our genes express themselves differently in different seasons, with roughly 25% of our DNA changing. The immune system ramps up the inflammation response in cold weather. Our bodies seem to anticipate increased possibility of illness.
Originally, winter illness was thought to increase as a result of being cooped up in overheated places with contagious co-workers, schoolmates and family members. This is certainly a contributor. It’s known rhinoviruses and influenza are spread by aerosol droplets from coughing and sneezing. The drier air of heated rooms promotes the size of droplets most conducive to remaining airborne and being breathed in to cause disease. Even a sneeze from a seemingly healthy person can be spreading germs.
So what can we do to protect ourselves? Start with your home environment. You don’t generally find people complaining about the cold on a 60F/15.5C fall day. Yet I go into homes in winter heated to 70F/21C and above. Set your thermostat a bit lower. This not only helps your bodily health but your financial health; your heating bill will be lower. Get a humidifier. Small ones can be quite effective. If you are waking up with dryness in your sinuses or eyes, the air is too dry. You will sleep better and maintain that layer of mucous that helps block germs.
In our house we need to keep up the humidity because dry air causes static electricity. This is a problem for the cats. Friendly nose touches discharge static in shocks, which leads to hissing and batting and general upset. Cats also get colds and URIs (upper respiratory infections). While URIs are most common in kittens, senior cats are as vulnerable as senior humans, and I don’t want any of my cats to suffer.
Be sure to keep yourself hydrated as well as your house. Winter is the perfect time to drink herbal teas. They taste good, warm you up and help get liquid into you. In the heat we naturally get thirsty but in the cold the urge is not as strong. You don’t have to spend a lot of money on commercial teas that may have inappropriate ingredients or been sitting on a shelf growing stale. Tea from fresh ginger root or cinnamon sticks is easy to make, scents the house with a lovely smell and very healthy. Gingerol, the active ingredient in ginger has strong antibiotic properties, among other benefits. Cinnamon has antibiotic, antiviral and antifungal properties.
From the perspective of dietary health care, during Minor Cold people should eat hot food to benefit the body and defend against the invasion of cold weather. Chinese consider hot foods like pepper, cinnamon, leeks, fennel and parsley and think this is the best time to have hot pot and braised mutton with soy sauce. But it is sensible to not overdo spicy foods if you are not used to it or have a sensitive stomach. Hot does not just mean spiciness or temperature, in TCM some foods have inherent warming qualities, such as chicken, lamb, venison, trout and mussels and prawns.
There is an old Chinese saying that goes, “Get exercise in the coldest days of winter.” Generally, Minor Cold is the coldest period in China, which is the best time for exercising and improving one’s physique. Many people avoid exercise in the cold unless they are fond of winter sports, but at least try to get in a yoga class or a gym workout. Especially if you have neglected to take care of yourself, or are one of those people for whom the holidays cause problems, these few extra steps can often make the difference in winter health.