How To Treat Colds and Flu with Herbal Medicine
Colds and flu have mostly symptomatic treatment in Western medicine. Not so with botanical medicine. There are many antiviral and antibacterial herbs, plus herbal strategies to make your immune system function more effectively.

January 24th 2006 - Copyright by Karen S. Vaughan, L.Ac, MSTOM

What can I do about respiratory diseases? Can anything be done for a common cold?

Well to treat respiratory illnesses effectively with herbs you need to know more than whether you have a cold or flu, a virus or bacterial infection.

Chinese medicine divides respiratory illnesses into Wind heat and Wind cold and discusses degree of penetration. If you are more feverish than chilled, if your tongue is redder or your tongue fur is yellow, then you have Wind heat. If your chills are more pronounced than feverishness, your tongue coat is white and thin and your tongue is a mild red, then chances are you have Wind cold.

Initial levels of both Wind heat and Wind cold are treated by inducing sweating. You would take a warm bath, cover yourself with quilts and go to bed drinking the teas. If the disease is not treated at this level or is treated inappropriately then it will penetrate to more internal levels and you will need strong antimicrobial herbs that drain the pathogens through the bowels and the urine.

For instance, before your symptoms are pronounced, then you can take a neutral soup of miso with fresh scallions. The miso is cooling and the scallions are warming, but both tend to stimulate sweating which is desirable in throwing off the early stages of a wind attack. I find that lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) is also good at this stage and usually throw a cup of densely packed leaves into a blender with enough honey to make a paste for children over 2. Melissa is a good antiviral, mild enough to give to children, tasty, but strong enough to give relief for chicken pox or shingles. The Chinese medicine Gan Mao Ling is also good at this stage.

If you have an early stage of Wind heat, before your phlegm turns thick yellow-green, then you can use peppermint tea. Make it strong, let it steep 15-20 minutes and drink as much as you can. Peppermint is both cooling and diaphoretic (makes you sweat). If the peppermint doesn't work then you can look at echinacea root or Oregon grape, preferably in tincture form, but don't take them first. Tinctures, infusions or decoctions (boiled teas) work best on respiratory illnesses because taste cues your body that the medicine is coming and stimulates the lymphatic system from the mouth. If you take capsules, you will need to take a lot more herb to be effective. A half tincture bottle should be poured into a water bottle and sipped all day to be most effective.

If the illness has progressed deeply and your phlegm is green, and your tongue is quite red, and you are measurably feverish, then you do not look at a sweating strategy. Your acupuncturist will note that your pulse is no longer floating but is surging. In this case you want cold herbs and some stimulation of the bowels to drain heat through the intestines. Do not take goldenseal before this point or you can bring the disease in deeper and if it reaches this point stop the peppermint. But cold herbs like goldenseal, coptis, scutellaria or the Chinese formula Yin Qiao San can help if the disease has penetrated internally. Planetary Formulas makes a Yin Qiao San with echinacea that would be suitable.

If this deep heat disease has the familiar signs of a flu, then you may want to add Indigo or forsythia buds. Your acupuncturist has several formulas, and is well suited to choose them based upon your pulse and tongue, but Gan Mao Qing is one over the counter formula that can help.

Now if you were feeling more chilled than feverish, your tongue fur is white and your tongue body is mild red, then you do not want to use any of the herbs mentioned. You have Wind cold and you need warming diaphoretic herbs. This would include garlic, ginger, onion or galangal. In the early stages fresh ginger tea or eating sushi ginger in quantity can be helpful. If you are colder, then dry ginger tea, cinnamon chai (without milk or soy), garlic or a strong onion soup.

Note that garlic tablets are useless for respiratory illness (although they are good for the heart.) Garlic has highly volatile oils that affect the respiratory system and should be consumed fresh. The way to do this is to mince a clove, holding it in place, and to coat it with honey on both sides. Put it on the end of a spoon, turn the spoon upside down in your mouth and swallow. Follow with a chaser of water or juice if needed. If you worry about bad breath, take some parsley to counter it. It isn't as bad as you think- my children who were not in love with herbal medicine used to request garlic. Kyolic, a fermented garlic juice is supposed to be effective, and less strong tasting but I don't find it as powerful.

The traditional Chinese medicines for wind cold are Ma Huang Tang, if you aren't sweating, or Gui Zhi Tang if you are. You cannot buy Ma Huang Tang except through a licensed acupuncturist because it contains ephedra. (ma huang). Sudafed has a little of this effect (and thus should not be taken for Wind heat). Gui Zhi Tang, or cinnamon twig decoction is difficult to find except through an acupuncturist. Many of the traditional Chinese remedies for Wind cold and its deeper manifestations require ephedra or tangerine peel and hence must be purchase through a licensed acupuncturist. Unfortunately the misuse of the herb by the weight loss industry has removed one of the most effective respiratory remedies for Wind cold from common use..

The entire spectrum of respiratory illnesses is quite complex and is the subject of two encyclopedic Chinese classics, the Shang Han Lun (On Cold Damage) and the Wen Bing (Warm disease). They depend on constellations of symptoms that I have only glossed over, with many pulse types and symptoms such as types of headaches, water retention or manifestations of bowel movements. If the initial suggestions I have here do not work, I suggest that you make an appointment for acupuncture and herbs.

One thing you will have noticed is that Chinese medicine does not make distinctions between viruses or bacteria. Most anti-microbial herbs will treat both bacteria and viruses, unlike antibiotics which are derived from molds and only work on bacteria. Western medicine has very few antivirals, Amantadine, Rimantadine and Tamiflu being the primary medicines that affect only certain flu viruses. Botanical medicine works on both killing the microbes and by reinforcing functions of the immune system.

But botanicals are not used indiscriminately- a recent Chinese medical journal tells of an elderly man with bacterial pneumonia in an unheated northern Chinese hospital in the winter, His young doctor gave him indigo, a very cold medicinal herb which is antibacterial and effective against his streptococcus pneumonia bacteria. But he got worse until an older doctor corrected the formula and gave him a warming formula. Although both had antimicrobial herbs, his immune system needed warming to function effectively.

Contact Member:
Acupuncture and Herbs by Karen Vaughan, L.Ac in Park Slope and Manhattan.
118 East 37th Street, New York, NY 10016
Brooklyn, NY 11215