Similar to other western conditions, Chinese Medicine does not use western terminology such as a “cold” or the “flu” in formulating proper treatments. Colds and flus are merely western names which describe an array of symptoms with some common underlying factors and symptoms. Chinese Medicine, on the other hand, treats collections of symptoms unique to the individual - what we call “patterns.” While both the cold and the flu (influenza) are understood as viral infections (from a few different viruses), within Chinese Medicine they are viewed as “external invasions of ‘wind’.”
Illness from a Chinese Medicine perspective can arise from either “internal” or “external” causes and colds and flus are derived from external factors. The concept of wind, merely indicates symptoms that generally arise (and often disappear) relatively quickly and move around. Wind may arise externally from the weather (getting sniffly from a cold/damp wind off the ocean in the winter) or internally from imbalances in the body (migraines from a stagnant “liver” may arise from “liver-wind”). Generally speaking the cold or the flu will fall into what we call a “Wind-Heat Invasion” or a “Wind-Cold Invasion” and the treatment will vary between the two to take into account the difference in symptoms.Qi and Defensive Qi (Wei Qi)
Before we discuss these patterns in detail, it is illuminating to first explore, from a Chinese Medicine perspective, why some people get sick and others do not. Many have heard the somewhat nebulous phrase “qi.” Most, however, have very little idea what is meant by the concept other than some sort of energy flowing in the acupuncture channels. Qi, however, is really a broad concept with many different “types” of qi in the body. Ultimately it is simply a way of discussing the energy of and the movement and functions within the body (more details can be found in my “What is Qi?” article). Of particular importance for our discussion here is the concept of “Wei Qi” or “Defensive Qi” which is what keeps us safe from these external influences.
While the Chinese Medical theory is slightly more complicated than this, qi within the body can be thought of as a series of layers. At the deepest level we have “jing” which is a catalyst that keeps us alive - when that is gone we are gone. Then there are muscle and blood layers and so on up to the surface layer or “wei qi.” As we are run down from overwork, excessive physical, mental and/or psychological strain, poor dietary habits, etc. we challenge our “qi.” As we do this, our body may first weaken the outer layers, the “wei qi”, to protect the deeper functions of our body. So, often, when under chronic stress and poor lifestyle habits we will develop weak “wei qi” or “defensive qi” - which means that we are essentially walking around in the cold without a jacket on... The result of this will be a greater susceptibility to illness. The somewhat obvious remedy to this is to live in accordance with the rules of moderation, to respect the seasons, and to keep stress levels low (easy, right?)...Why Can’t I “Just” Get A Cold?!?
Few of us would ever ask for a cold, but there are a number of people that would be happy if that is all they got. Most of us know someone who gets a cold that immediately turns into bronchitis or a sinus infection or something worse. From a Chinese Medicine perspective these people have very limited wei qi, possibly even what we call congenital wei qi deficiency - or simply weak from birth. They are walking around with their windows wide open all the time and these external influences will easily go into the deeper layers of the body without this protection. While not particularly helpful when people are sick there are various herbal formulas which can help to develop a persons “wei qi” to help stop these influences at the surface of the body where they should be. One such formula that aids people in this group is Yu Ping Feng Wan “Jade Windscreen Formula” and there are others that may be better suited to a particular individual and their unique set of circumstances. From an acupressure perspective (best, again, when they are not sick) is acupressure and/or moxabustion (see What Is Moxabustion?) on ST 36 which helps to build the “wei qi” and strength overall. Tai Chi and Qi Gong exercises have also been shown in numerous clinical studies to aid immunity in a systemic fashion.Wind Heat and Wind Cold Patterns
Now that we have an idea of why some people get sick while others do not, even when they are in the same pathogenic circumstances, we can explore the treatment of these patterns (for a technical acupuncture discussion, see “acupuncture for the common cold”. Both patterns, wind-cold and wind-heat, are “external wind invasions” and have similar symptoms - wind-heat having more heat signs (fever, etc.) and wind-cold having more cold signs (chills, etc.).External Wind-Heat Invasion
The patient will be generally warmer than cooler with a fever (slight chills also), the mucus will be yellow (heat) vs. clear/white (cold), sore throat, cough, thirst along with body aches, headache, etc.Dietary Help for Wind-Heat
Generally you want to eat foods which are cooling in nature, these include: mung beans, spinach, apples, and peppermint and/or chrysanthemum tea.Acupressure for Wind-Heat
Many westerners stock their medicine cabinets with tylenol, nyquil, and other associated drugs for colds and flus. Many Chinese and those familiar with Chinese Medicine, however, tend to keep certain very reliable herbal formulas around. The benefit to the herbal formulas is that they work (of course), are generally safer without side effects (such as drowsiness, spaciness, etc.) and as they treat both symptoms and the root cause, they may strengthen you from further influences. The formulas we are going to describe below work best at the initial onset of symptoms, if the cold/flu has progressed further other formulas may be better and you should consult with your practitioner directly.
For Wind-Heat the two formulas we most often recommend are Gan Mao Ling or Yin Qiao Jie Du Wan. There is little clinical difference between the two and we have people use whichever has worked best for them in the past or use what appears to be working best during the current season.External Wind-Cold Invasion
The patient will be generally cooler than warmer with chills/shivering (slight low fever possible), the mucus will be clear/white (cold) vs. yellow (heat), aversion to cold, no or very limited sweating, sneezing, and stiff neck and/or body aches.Dietary Help for Wind-Cold
Generally you want to eat foods which are warming and dispersing in nature, these include: ginger, onions, garlic, hot peppers, soups and ginger tea.Acupressure for Wind-Cold
For Wind-Cold in the inital stages we most often recommend Yin Qiao Jie Du Wan. More commonly known as “yin qiao” (pronounced “chow”) it is the preeminent cold formula and our version is simply a minor modification of an old classic. Gan Mao Ling will also work for wind-cold and some people do better with one or the other - either is fine.How To Avoid Colds and Flus
So now that we know some home remedies for colds and flus we should discuss some basic habits that will help keep us well during cold and flu season. The obvious ones we discussed earlier such as working to keep stress levels low, etc. are all helpful. More Chinese Medicine influenced ideas that are less obvious are to abstain from sex when you are tired, weak, or sick. Don’t get sweaty and then walk around with your neck and/or back uncovered or lightly covered, particularly around the area of GV 14. Eat in season as much as possible and try to rest and enjoy your meals and take it easy for at least 10-15 minutes afterwards. When you are sick embrace that time for resting, reading - relaxing in whatever you find comfortable. Your body will heal given the opportunity, particularly if we listen more closely to what it is telling us.
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