Chinese Herbs and Public Health
By Lea McLellan
While many people in the United States have heard of using Chinese medicine for issues like chronic muscle pain, migraines and even fertility, less people are aware that Chinese herbs can be an enormous help when it comes to that all-too-common seasonal public health concern — cold and flu viruses. These unpleasant, highly contagious viral respiratory infections can range from mild to severe, sometimes taking weeks to fully recover. Western medicine offers no cure for these highly infectious viruses, and the vaccines available do not prevent all strains of flu. Not only can Chinese herbs be used to strengthen the immune system and prevent cold and flu conditions altogether, but for many patients, a regimen of Chinese herbs can spell the difference between a few days of sniffles and a full week in bed.
Chinese herbal medicine is highly individualized. Therefore, all colds are not treated equally. Depending on the patient’s unique symptoms, as well as the stage of the sickness, a practitioner may prescribe a range of herbs. The most basic way to categorize cold and flu is into wind-cold or wind-heat symptomology. Patients exhibiting “hot” symptoms such as sore throat, congestion and chills and fever with fever predominant, are likely suffering from a wind-heat condition. These patients will want to take “cool” herbs such as peppermint and chrysanthemum. More commonly than using single herbs, a formula such as Yin Qiao San (Free and Easy Wanderer) will be used to treat the condition. Patients exhibiting “cold” symptoms such as thin, watery mucus, and fever and chills with chills predominant are likely suffering from a wind-cold condition and should be treated with warming herbs such as ginger and green onion. Ma huang (ephedra), found in Ma Huang Tang is a classic warming herb that treats cold and flu. Gui Zhi Tang is perhaps a more popular formula in the United States, and relies heavily on the warming and healing properties of Gui Zhi, or cinnamon.
Of course, the beauty of Chinese herbalism is that there is not a one-size-fits-all mentality when it comes to treating colds, or any condition for that matter. Formulas can be tailored to meet the specific needs of the patient. For instance, if a patient is exhibiting significant aching and tightness in the upper neck and back — a common symptom of colds and flu — a practitioner might alter a classic formula to include Qiang Huo, known for its ability to relax the upper back and shoulders. If a patient is suffering from blocked nasal passages, the practitioner may focus more heavily on herbs that clear the sinuses. Just as no one person is the same, no one cold or flu condition is going to be the same.
While the common cold and flu is thought to be largely untreatable in Western medicine, Chinese medicine is able to treat the root cause of this condition with surprising success. If caught in the early stages, a condition may be avoided completely. If caught later on, patients usually become better much quicker, eliminating days of sickness. This means less missed workdays, less time spent recuperating in bed and more enjoyment of the fall and winter seasons. Not to mention, less doctor visits and less reliance on antibiotics for conditions that aren’t likely to respond to antibiotics in the first place.
Regardless of your medical perspective, most can agree that prevention is preferred to having to treat a condition. While flu vaccines attempt to answer this need, there are limits to the flu vaccine’s effectiveness. Luckily, we have Chinese herbs to help build our immune systems and protect us against both wind-cold and wind-heat invasions common during seasonal shifts. Again, Chinese medicine is not a one-size-fits-all approach to wellness. Some herbs and herbal formulas may be better suited to certain people according to their constitution. However, “immune-boosting” herbs — or tonic herbs, as they are called within Chinese medicine — are generally safe for all to take, and can be very effective in maintaining health and wellness. Some of the most common tonic herbs are astragalus (huang qi), ganoderma (ling zhi), and cordyceps (dong chong xia cao). Astragalus, in particular, is said to boost wei qi, which is the level of qi that is most affected by wind invasions, protecting us from cold and flu pathogens.
There is no doubt that Chinese medicine can be utilized to effectively combat our most prevalent public health concerns. A Chinese herbal teacher once wisely observed that American Chinese medicine patients typically visit an herbalist or acupuncturist when all else has failed, and Western medicine doesn’t seem to have the answer. Ideally, that mindset would be flipped, and people would turn to herbs first to treat their conditions the natural way — then move on to more extreme measures, if needed. Certainly in cases of cold and flu, Chinese herbs can be wonderfully effective.