Articles > Treating Colds with Chinese Medicine

1 Dec 2006

The Wall Street Journal reported in its November 15th issue that Swiss drug giant Novartis AG will invest about 100 million in its own pharmaceutical research-and-development center in Shanghai, China, in the hope “that traditional Chinese medicines will hold the secrets for a new generation of blockbusters to fight diseases such as Alzheimer’s.” This is not the first investment of this type for Novartis, which has developed Coartem, a malaria drug out of a Chinese herb Artemisia annua L. (Qing Hao). Besides Novartis, a French drug company is also looking into Chinese traditional medicine for answers to modern problems. 
Both of these companies are trying to find specific chemicals in the Chinese herbs for the cure of certain diseases.  They might be able to cash in on some miracle cures from the sea of knowledge accumulated by Chinese herbal medicine over thousands of years. The problem is that this approach is still far from the essence of Chinese Medicine. In most cases, one chemical alone is not enough to cure a disease. Chinese medicine has dealt with this issue as far back as seventeen hundred years ago, and has since evolved way beyond that oversimplified approach. We can see this transformation by comparing Chinese medical texts in different eras. Initially, most remedies consisted of one single herb, later two herbs, and eventually evolved into sophisticated, well balanced formulas.  Instead of just focusing on the disease, Chinese medicine started to look beyond and deal with the disease in a more holistic way, as it also pays attention to the weakness of the body and tries to facilitate the healing power within the body to conquer the disease. Just like it takes time for a river to carve a magnificent canyon, time is also necessary for medicines to improve.
Take the common cold or flu for example, instead of trying to deal with each specific virus as in modern medicine Chinese medicine pays a lot of attention on how the body individually responds to the invasion. It also tries to equip the body to fight back according to the severity and the course (six stages) of the influence. Some examples of these treatments are as follows:
a)      Prevention: eat and sleep well. Chinese medicine believes that the best cure is within our body. If we eat and sleep well the body will maintain its best condition. If you find yourself surrounded by people with colds, Ban Lan Gen (Isatis root) is the choice to arm yourself. This herb is probably the most popular and best known one. During the possible 2005 outbreak of bird flu, the price of this herb soared because of an increase in demand. Other herbs include Rhizoma, Guanzhong, Herba Seu Flower Schizonepetae Tenuifoliae (Jing Jie), Folium Perillae Frutescentis (Zi Su Ye), etc.
b)      Early stage of cold: if you feel you are coming down with something, before the fever develops, green onion soup (preferably with the root) is a good choice. You can also add one egg to make egg drop soup. If you don’t show symptom of a sore throat, you may also put in a couple of slices of ginger.
c)      “Wind Cold” type of cold: “Wind Cold” is the term used in Chinese medicine to differentiate from “Wind Heat,” another type of cold. People with this type of cold have strong aversion to cold and wind and fever is not as severe as the “Wind Heat” type. There is no sweat at this stage yet, the sufferer often has headaches, body aches, runny nose with clear phlegm, not much thirst, maybe liking a warm drink. Jin Fang Bai Du San is the formula for this type of cold. The herbs in this formula have a more warming effect, due to the cold nature of this type of cold.
d)     “Wind Heat” type of cold: people with this type of cold, have less aversion to cold, but the fever is more severe than in the “Wind Cold” type. The sufferer may already have sweats and more distended headache, congested sinus with yellowish phlegm, lots of thirst accompanied with sore throat. Yin Qiao San is the common formula for this type of cold. The herbs in this formula have a more cooling effect due to this cold’s heat nature. As we can see, it is important to differentiate between these two types of cold because the needed strategy is completely different.
e)      Six stages of cold: the presentation and treatment of these six stages of cold were first explained in the old text “Shang Han Lun” (Treatise on Febrile Diseases) in 3rd AD by Zhang Zhong-Jin. He goes into detail how a cold can go into different stages, if left untreated, and how to treat them. Within each stage, there are sub-patterns and transmuted patterns. He provides more than one hundred formulas to take care of these various patterns. This book set a milestone in the evolution of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM); it first introduced the principle of “treatment according to the differentiation of syndromes.”
f)       Lingering of the cold and individual difference: in people with low immunity due to constitutional weakness or other illness, the cold tends to linger or relapse after recovery. In this case, Chinese medicine also assigns some force to help with individual Deficiencies in the design of the formulas. It basically categorizes the deficiency into four different types, Yin, Yang, Qi, and Blood Deficiency. And each category calls for a specific formula for these less fortunate individuals.
Over the years, the principle of treatment according to differentiation of the syndromes in Chinese medicine has been applied to other conditions in clinical medicine as well. The knowledge accumulated over this long span of recording history is mind boggling. Having studied TCM for the last twelve years has enabled me to better appreciate the wealth of it. As we can see from the above examples, TCM believes that there are lots of things we can do to help the body get well more quickly, instead of waiting for the cold to go away. We can then reasonably state that TCM is an important modality in our modern health care system, because it provides a quite different perspective in the management of our dynamic health – a Second Opinion, if you may!

Paul (Chyi-Shyang) Lin, Doctor of Oriental Medicine