Treat the Cold & Flu with Traditional Chinese Medicine

Friday May 9 | BY |
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““I’ve found that it pays to learn a little Chinese wisdom to better handle respiratory viruses and boost your immunity.”

Medical doctors tell us that there are two ways to treat a seasonal cold or flu. The first is to rest and you’ll feel better in 7 to10 days. The second is to treat it with pain relievers and fever-reducing drugs, and you’ll get well in 7 to 10 days.

Conventional medical wisdom once promoted management of fever with antipyretic drugs like acetaminophen, but new research indicates that artificially lowering fever reduces the natural immune response and prolongs illness. Aspirin use may even make viral infections more severe and contribute to secondary bacterial infections.

Children are especially susceptible to immune disruption by drugs. If you follow the outdated thinking for cold and flu management that Tylenol (acetaminophen) can help manage high fever and aspirin can reduce the inflammation associated with joint pain—though both have their place in your home remedy kit for adults—you might do more harm than good for your kids. Overuse of NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) in young children can aggravate symptoms of H1N1 influenza, and increase the death rate.

There is another way is to treat cold and flu. Research shows that natural remedies like zinc, vitamin C, and Echinacea don’t make much difference in the overall duration of how long you’re sick. You can gain an edge, however, by managing symptoms without drugs, and might even shorten the number of days you’re acutely sick, as well as hasten recovery.

The viruses that cause colds and flu have their own life cycle, so the purpose of treatment is to manage symptoms during the process, not to “kill” viruses. In fact, viruses are resistant to even the most powerful drugs, so helping your body’s immune response is the better choice.

Spring Flu Can On Come Strong

Just when you thought flu season was over, a nasty strain of influenza attacks. Remember the 2009 pandemic of Mexican H1N1 swine flu? It started in late March, picked up strength in April, and roared across Mexico City in May. One of the world’s largest cities came to a screeching halt. Doctors and nurses where sick, shops and businesses closed. It was like a ghost city.

Even when there are no pandemic concerns, occasionally a really powerful Asian influenza strains comes barreling down on us. Westerners haven’t developed immunity against many of these new viruses, which is why we can get very sick for two to three weeks.

Since most pandemics originate in China and Southeast Asia, which also have many other highly virulent non-pandemic viruses, the Chinese have a long history of effectively treating influenza with natural medicine.

I’ve found that it pays to learn a little Chinese wisdom to better handle respiratory viruses and boost your immunity.

Traditional Chinese Medicine Methods To Help You Through Flu Season

Let’s start in the kitchen. At the first sign of headache and congestion look what you have in your vegetable crisper. Do you have fresh green onions or ginger? If you feel chilled, make ginger tea. If you feel warm with a low-grade fever, make a tea from chopped green onions.

Researchers found that kimchi, the Korean national dish of pickle cabbage dosed with red chili pepper (a version is also found in Sichuan Province in China), helps prevent and treat common respiratory viruses that cause colds and flu.

5 Vegetables That Help Beat The Flu

  1. Green onion
  2. Ginger
  3. Garlic
  4. Red chili pepper
  5. Chinese cabbage

The Chinese have their version of “Jewish penicillin:” grandma Chen’s special chicken soup. For winter colds and flu, it includes ginseng. For warmer spring weather, add honeysuckle flowers. Modern research suggests that chicken soup helps clear congested sinuses, settles indigestion, and helps immune-fighting white blood cells to target germs.

Traditional Chinese Chicken & Rice Soup

  • 1 – 3 lb chicken, clean and remove the skin
  • 6 – fresh garlic cloves
  • 1 – medium fresh ginger
  • 1 cup – sweet white or brown rice
  • 8 pieces – sliced red ginseng root

Place the chicken in a crock pot or deep baking pan. Add water to cover the chicken. Add chopped garlic and ginger. Cook or bake slowly for one hour. Add rice and several pieces of sliced ginseng.

How To Tell The Differenc Between a Cold and the Flu

It’s inconvenient to catch cold, but influenza can kill. Because symptoms can be similar, it’s wise to learn the difference between the two.

Influenza comes in many forms, some so mild you don’t even know you’re sick, and others that are deadly. If you have a high fever with severe aches and joint pain, you likely are suffering from the flu. In that case, you’ll need stronger medicines, which is where Chinese medicine can come in handy.

Cold Versus Flu

Table 1

Chinese Herbal Antiviral Medicines

Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) and its modern adaptations cover all aspects of immune enhancement, influenza protection, and treatment for ganmao (Chinese term for seasonal flu), and wanbing (epidemic influenza).

According to TCM, there are two equally important aspects to preventing and treating the flu. These two methods complement each other for overcoming illness and benefiting health.

  1. Fu zheng refers to the method of supporting vitality and immunity. It involves fortifying the body by strengthening the constitution and enhancing immunity for bulletproof prevention.
  2. Qu xie implies clearing pathogenic influences from the body. This method involves taking anti-viral, anti-inflammatory, and anti-febrile herbal medicines. The difference between NSAIDs and natural forms of anti-inflammatory medicines is that herbs also have other disease-fighting properties. The body has an amazing affinity for this kind of holistic treatment that is programmed into our immune genetics.

There is good evidence that Chinese herbal medicine may protect against viral infection by enhancing immunity. In some cases, it may be as useful as Western drugs. When used concurrently with drugs in the treatment of all but the most severe acute stages of the flu, Chinese medicine can also play a role in recovery and during convalescence by nourishing the body so it heals faster.

Many Chinese herbs, such as ginseng and astragalus, have powerful immune-modulating effects. They stimulate the production of interferons, inhibit viruses, have anti-inflammatory effects, as well as virus-fighting properties. Others like andrographis and isatis are effective in the treatment of colds and flu.

Anti-Viral Chinese Herbs To Beat the Flu
  • Andrographis (Andrographis paniculata): Chuan xin lian/herba andrographis contains a group of compounds (andrographolides) useful for the treatment of common viral and bacterial infections. It’s a safe herb, though traditional Chinese herbalists don’t recommend taking it for longer than one to two weeks at a time. It’s commercially available in health food stores. Take one tablet of the standardized extract 300 mg containing 4% andrographolides, four times daily. For severe infections, increase the dosage to two tablets four times daily.
  • Astraglus

  • Astagalus (Astragalus membranaceus): Huang qi/radix astragali is an adaptogenic tonic that helps restore the body’s energy. Though it doesn’t have direct antiviral activity, it has powerful immune-stimulating properties that raise interferon levels—one of the most important immune chemicals in the body to fight against viral invasion. Since it’s a very safe herb, it can be taken over a long period of time. Astragalus can be made into a tea and used as a daily beverage for all ages. Simmer 9-30 g of the dried sliced root per two cups of water for twenty minutes. Let the decoction sit for another ten minutes and then drink warm. The dosage for encapsulated forms is two 500 mg capsules twice daily.
  • ginseng

  • Ginseng (Panax ginseng): Ren shen/radix ginseng is the king of Chinese herbal tonics. In addition to its adaptogenic properties, recent research has shown it to contain polysaccarides, which have anti-inflammatory and antiviral properties. There are many forms of ginseng, but the best one to encourage the prevention of and recovery from the flu is North American ginseng (Panax quinquefolium). The standardized extract containing 80 percent polyfuranosyl-pyranosyl-saccarides is the preferred form. For prevention, take one 200 mg capsules twice daily during the flu season. Korean or Chinese red ginseng can be use to strengthen the body and as a preventative during flu season, especially for the weak and elderly, but it should not be taken during high fever or used by children.
  • Isatis (Isatis tinctoria): Ban lan gen/radix isatidis treats viral and bacterial infections and reduces inflammation. It can be combined with andrographis and antiviral foods and herbs to make a potent antiviral herbal cocktail. Though considered a safe herb, it has been associated with allergic reactions. The average dosage for tea is 10-15 g of the dried root decocted for thirty minutes. Drink one cup three times daily. It also comes in tablets. Look for a 15:1 concentrated extract of the root and take 200 mg three times daily.
Chinese Antiviral Patent Medicines Help Fight the Flu

For centuries, Chinese herbal pharmacies have been preparing patented preparations as pills and liquid extracts. In modern times, classical formulas for the treatment of respiratory tract infections are also made in fast-dissolving extracts packaged in individual foil packets.

    Gan Mao Ling

  • Gan Mao Ling: This modern anti-influenza combination contains isatis and Chinese honeysuckle flowers (flos lonicera). It comes in pills and instant granules for making tea. The dosage of the pill form is five tablets three times daily. If using the granule form, gan mao tui re chun ji, dissolve one packet in a cup of hot water and drink three times daily.
  • Ge Xian Weng: This preparation contains extracts of isatis leaf and root, dandelion flower and leaf, and zi hua di ding/herba violae (Viola yedoensis), another infection-fighting plant from the Chinese anti-viral arsenal. For the treatment of the flu, dissolve one packet into one cup of hot water. The dosage is one cup three times daily.
  • Yin Qiao San: This remedy is widely used in China for the treatment of fever. It’s best used in the early stages of the flu when there is high fever. The principle herbs are jin yin hua/flos lonicerae (Lonicera japonica) and lian qiao/fructus forsythiae (Forsythia suspense). Used together, they have synergistic activity against influenza. The dosage is two to three tablets, three times a day or more frequently for acute symptoms.
  • Zhong Gan Ling: Known as “serious effective cold and flu tablets,” this formula is best used when a sore, swollen throat is the main symptom. The recommended dosage is five tablets three times daily.

Most large cities have herbalist and clinics where you can receive treatment with traditional Chinese herbs. Patent medicines are found in Oriental markets and Chinese herb shops, and can be obtained from your local acupuncturist.

Learn More

Viral Immunity

Beating the Flu

Dr. J. E. Williams


Dr. Williams is a pioneer in integrative and functional medicine, the author of six books, and a practicing clinician with over 100,000 patient visits. His areas of interest include longevity and viral immunity. Formerly from San Diego, he now resides in Sarasota, Florida and practices at the Florida Integrative Medical Center. He teaches at NOVA Southeastern University and Emperor’s College of Oriental Medicine.

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  1. Satori says:

    Growing up in Japan, when ever I got cold, my mother or grandma made this nasty drink. That drink is made out of green tea, honey, and lots of grated ginger. Extremely spicy for a little kid. They also made me eat honey pickled turnips which is also naturally slightly spicy. This one they said was for sore throat.

    BTW, I really want to know what to do when we have fever. I always thought keeping myself warm was a good idea except for the times I have a high fever, but some of my friends believe that we should always keep our bodies cold as possible. Which one is better…?

  2. Kym says:

    So interesting, as always. I just wanted to add that while Echinacea seems to have fallen out of favor, personally, I find it to be very effective if I take it soon after I notice symptoms. It seems to work particularly well for congestion, etc.

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