Treating Colds, Flus and Coughs with TCM: A ridiculously well-kept secret
As the temperatures continue to change suddenly, one of winter’s challenges is fending off the colds and flus that makes their rounds in our communities. Most people don’t realize how effective Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is for preventing and treating these ailments, so keep reading for info, tips and nutritional advice. Years ago, I had a severe cold almost monthly, followed by coughs that would persist for weeks. Now, thanks largely to TCM, I only get a mild almost-cold once or twice a year, and am usually able to ward it off very early. Less sick days = more productive and fun days!
We take colds, flus and coughs seriously!
Out of all the audacious claims any medicine can make, I feel it’s safe to say that TCM understands colds, flus, and coughs well. One of the earliest medical texts in China (and the world) analyzed colds and flus, it’s causes, stages, levels in the body, and consequences if left untreated. The text has 397 sections and 112 herbal prescriptions – just to give you an idea of the level of detail! Modern research continues to update this knowledge and has also examined the anti-viral and anti-biotic properties of specific herbs, some of which are incredibly effective.
While many people consider colds to be temporary annoyances, TCM has also analyzed what happens when the original pathogen (i.e. the virus or bacteria) manages to lodge deeper into the body. This can lead to well-known complications such as bronchitis and pneumonia, but also to lesser-known, chronic struggles with allergies, ear infections, insomnia, chronic fatigue and fibromyalgia, chronic coughs and sinusitis, anxiety or depression, lympatic congestion, digestive difficulties, autoimmune disorders, arthritis, cancer, MS, diabetes, and much more. Indeed, some biomedical research has also begun to find evidence that some of the many illnesses classified as idiopathic (without known cause) may actually be traceable to an initial infection.
This is not to alarm you, but to explain why even the common cold is taken seriously in TCM! Today we have acupuncture, herbal and even tuina (therapeutic massage) prescriptions for the many different types and stages of colds/flus/coughs, and always take into account the individual’s pre-existing state of health. These approaches go beyond simple symptomatic treatment, address the ‘whole picture’, and bring your body back into overall balance without side effects such as impaired digestion (a frequent result of antibiotic use).
Prevention: Protect your Qi!
As usual in this medicine, one size doesn’t fit all: frequency, type and severity of your cold/flu will depend not only on the ‘bug’ you’ve caught, but also largely on your pre-existing balance and state of immunity. Catching a cold or flu is seen as a situation where outside pathogens (we call them “Wind”, “Cold”, “Heat”, “Dampness”, etc.) manage to overcome the body’s “defensive Qi” (similar to the concept of “immune system”) and end up battling the body’s own “righteous Qi”.
Because the pre-existing condition of your body’s own Qi is so important in this analysis, you can help prevent colds and flus by:
Protect your body’s Qi – dress warmly! Many people in our car-oriented culture don’t wear many layers in the winter. This horrifies some of my colleagues from China, where apparently they layer much more. In my practice, I’ve noticed many clients’ symptoms worsen in the winter, partly because Cold reduces circulation (increases stagnation/pain, etc.) and requires more Qi to warm the body and maintain functioning (so problems due to weak Qi get aggravated).
- Breathe through your nose. Not only does this help warm and ‘filter’ the air, but breathing through your mouth is said to gradually exhaust your digestive (i.e. Qi-producing) organs in TCM
As winter is the season of the Kidneys, it’s especially useful to wear warmer layers on the legs and lower back.
Cover your skin to protect yourself from wind exposure, especially your neck and upper back.
Get lots of rest and sleep, and get it earlier if possible (if you can be in bed by 10 pm, that is excellent for the body, especially in the winter). Slow down – are you so busy that you’re always using more Qi than you replenish (through sleep, good whole foods, etc.), and relying on coffee to keep going?
Emotions are a major factor in the state of your Qi. Minimize any Qi-draining relationships, social obligations, etc. Let go of emotional stressors as much as possible, or find tools and resources for coping with them (see my Resources page for Counselling and Meditation resource lists).
Minimize spread of pathogens by washing your hands regularly, and being mindful not to rub your eyes or handle food without cleaning them
Exercise moderately and regularly to keep the Qi and Yang flowing, and to keep your pores opening and closing properly.
Using moxibustion on yourself, taking an appropriate Chinese herbal formula, or going for acupuncture sessions regularly can also make a big difference in supporting your Qi
Eat with the season. As the weather gets colder, eat more warm, cooked foods, and cook them for longer periods of time (e.g. roasting, baking, slow-cooker). Raw salads, cold sandwiches, and cold cereals in the morning can all impair your body’s ability to produce strong Qi.
Minimize mucus-producing foods such as dairy; alcohol; sugar; wheat; refined breads, pastas and rices; fried foods; cold temperature and raw foods, etc. Pre-existing mucus in your system is a major factor in developing stuffy noses, phlegmy coughs, etc.
I have other general lifestyle tips, and a qi gong exercise, for Winter Yin/Yang balance in my handout on “Winter Wisdom from TCM”
Coming Down with Something? The Early Stage
Sore or scratchy throat? Fatigue, headache? Feeling under the weather and wanting to avoid windy areas? Maybe a mild fever or chills? It feels a bit different for everyone, but when you start to feel the very beginnings of a cold/flu, the best strategy is to ‘sweat it out‘. Certain foods such as “cong bai“, i.e. scallion / green onion (see picture — the most important part is the white part of the stalk), peppermint or mulberry leaf (good for when you have an early stage sore throat or early cough), ginger (good for when you feel chills, thin phlegm, and have no sore throat), etc. are used at this stage. Make a hot tea out of some of these ingredients, take a warm bath and then get under the covers to sweat sweat sweat! Make sure you replenish your sweat with lots of fluids.
For children, you can make a paste out of cong bai and fresh ginger, and put it in their belly button or rub it onto their chest. To encourage them to eat it, you can combine with brown sugar. These foods also work well in a chicken soup with garlic.
Some people swear by Vitamin C, Vitamin D, etc. but as this is not exactly Chinese medicine, I won’t speak much of these here, other than to say some non-citrus food sources of Vitamin C include sweet bell peppers, tomato juice, sweet peas, berries, potatoes, watercress, brussel sprouts, cabbage and broccoli. Citrus fruits and juices, which many take for the Vitamin C, can contribute toward phlegm.
You can also help ward off the cold, or make it pass faster, by getting daily acupuncture for 3 days in a row, and by getting an herbal formula prescribed to match your symptoms. Many Chinese herbs have much stronger diaphoretic and cold-dispelling properties than the foods listed above, if you’re willing and able to search beyond a regular supermarket!
Too late? The full-blown cold and the cough that never ends
When your cold involves some kind of phlegm or mucus (in your nose, throat or lungs), it’s best to avoid mucus-producing foods, as mentioned above (dairy; alcohol; sugar; wheat; refined breads, pastas and rices; fried foods; etc.).
Rest is most important, as is an adequate fluid intake. Herbs, acupuncture (and other hands-on treatments done by TCM acupuncturists, such as cupping and guasha) can be extremely effective, especially for colds that turn into a continuous cough. (There are days in the winter when I do cupping on several coughing people in a row!) Nutrition can go a long way too, such as a congee or chicken soup that includes certain foods and herbs. Congee is excellent for recovery from many types of imbalances.
Especially if your cold doesn’t go away on its own after a couple days, or even gets worse, go to a TCM practitioner to get an assessment and personalized prescription for exactly your type of cold, flu or cough. Even a few days of herbs can often make all the difference in your pace of recovery.
As I mentioned, Chinese medicine has identified many different types and categories of these illnesses, so giving general advice is difficult for me.
- Cut up 1 pear (ideally a snow pear or Asian pear. If not, a barlett pear should be fine)
- Boil enough water to cover the pear
- Simmer the pear pieces about 15 minutes
- If you have a lot of clear to light white phlegm, add ginger slices and tangerine or pomelo peel while simmering (fresh). If you have a dry cough or dry throat, skip this step. If you have yellow or green phlegm, go to see your TCM doctors and get other, more specialized herbs.
- Drink the tea. You can eat the pear too if you want!
Self-Acupressure for Cold Symptoms
- Press the sore spots on either sides of your nose to reduce stuffy and runny nose symptoms. Even better if your acupuncturist can insert sticky-tack needles you can keep in (e.g. overnight, to help you breathe better while sleeping). Acupuncture point names: LI-20 and Bitong
- Squeezing the fleshy area between your thumb and index finger can help with many head and face symptoms (stuffy/runny nose, runny or painful eyes, headache, etc.) Acupuncture point name: LI-4
- For sore throat, use your fingernail to press the sore areas right below your thumbnail (when you’re holding your thumb upward as in “thumbs up”). Even better, ask your acupuncturist to prick / bleed this point. Acupuncture point name: LU-11
- For headaches (and may also help with nasal or eye symptoms), press the sore areas on the back of your neck, right below your skullbone/occiput. Acupuncture point name: GB-20
Less time feeling sick means more time having fun
Colds and flus are a reality in our climate, but they can be less of a drag on your and your family’s well-being. Protect your Qi, or even boost it with a incorporating self-care into your lifestyle, getting regular treatments, and eating appropriately for your body’s own balance. Take care of your body, mind, emotions and spirit year-round, and you will find it easier to cope happily and energetically with the change of seasons.
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