Winter Flu Season Foods & Tea
According to modern bio-medicine, viruses generally cause cold and flu. While Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) also recognizes the presence of external pathogens, it has a unique way of viewing – as well as treating – these pathogens. TCM also understands the vital role that both the external environment that we live in, as well as our internal emotional environment, can play in our immunity to disease. When the Cold and Flu season strikes, TCM understands the effects that over-exposure to the elements – wind, heat, cold, damp, dryness – can have on the body, and it categorizes the kinds of diseases that may invade our bodies at that time as “Exogenous Pathogens”—e.g. “Wind Heat” or “Wind Cold”—according to the way that they mimic the effects of the climatic conditions as they storm though our bodies.
The times of greatest climatic instability (spring and autumn) are the seasons where colds and flus peak, though they can strike at any time of the year. Energetically, winter is a season of rest: when energy moves inwards. Yin qi is at its maximum and yang qi is subdued. Winter is a time of gentle celebration where nutritious and warming foods and family connection are promoted. It is also a good time for light physical exercise such as walking or biking, but on stormy or windy days, it is important to rug up properly or to stay indoors when possible. The cold that surrounds us at this time of year can easily seep into our bodies and lower our immunity. Cold and wind can combine easily and lead to susceptibility to flu symptoms.
Wind is considered to be the ‘spearhead of disease’, ‘piercing holes’ in the immune system and diverting the body’s resources away from immunity and protection from disease as it struggles to keep warm. Wind can drive external pathogens into the body, but seldom attacks without an accomplice. For example: wind-heat, wind-cold and wind-damp are the most common types of TCM diagnosis for cold and flu.
However, just because it is cold outside does not mean that you will only catch wind-cold in winter. Chinese medicine diagnosis and treatment is based on analyzing the presenting signs and symptoms and categorizing them according to the ‘pattern’ that this fits. An important point highlighted here is how Western medicine differs from TCM, in that bio-medicine generally seeks to treat isolated symptoms (such as drying up a runny nose with pseudoephedrine) regardless of the underlying constitution or condition of the patient. Chinese Medicine on the other hand will categorize and treat the ‘same disease’ (a cold, or a flu) a number of different ways, depending on individual presenting factors. In other words, Western bio-medicine tends to be more ‘disease/symptom-oriented’ while Chinese Medicine is “person/pattern-oriented’.
To give you an example: in Chinese medicine, two patients might both have ‘cold and flu’, but while one has symptoms of higher fever, sore throat, nasal congestion (wind-heat), the other is experiencing strong chills, body/neck ache and clear runny nasal discharge (wind-cold). The TCM treatment required for each of them is very different, and so rather than prescribing them both a generic ‘cold and flu medicine’ that may work for one, but not the other, TCM treatment is tailored according to detailed differential diagnoses to better meet the needs of each of them. While both need to have the ‘wind’ aspect treated, the first person’s treatment might be focused on clearing heat while the second would be concerned with warming and driving out cold. The key in TCM is in understand the presenting symptoms and patterns, and the aim of treatment is to restore harmony and support the body’s internal environment so that the virus can no longer survive.
Based on the type of ‘evil’ causing the cold and flu symptoms, a TCM practitioner can recommend the correct raw or prepared herbs. For example, wind-heat colds and flu can be treated with honeysuckle and forsythia powder (yin qiao san), which is available in tablet and soluble granule form from most pharmacies in China. Tea remedies for wind-heat might include: mint, chrysanthemum or mulberry leaf teas that both encourage diaphoresis (sweating) and cool the body. For wind-cold types, try raw ginger, cinnamon twigs, schizonepeta (jing jie) or magnolia flowers.
The traditional remedy for stopping a cold it in its tracks is to treat it early enough, before it gains enough strength penetrate into the body. So, on the first day use the white part of the three spring onions near the roots, crush the ginger (2 slices) and add both to two cups of boiling water. Bring back to the boil and simmer uncovered until the liquid content has halved. Add mint, re-boil briefly and drink as soon as it is cool enough. Then hop into bed covering yourself warmly to enhance sweating and sweat the cold out. As soon as the sweating stops you should change your bed-wear and bedding so that you don’t get chilled again from being wet and cold. Take it easy for the rest of the day. Be gentle on yourself for the next couple of days, including eating well and getting enough sleep.
Remember timing is critical here, as symptoms change, from sore throat, to lethargy, to cough, for example, and treatment will need to change as the disease and healing process progresses. Early-stage Wind-Cold herbs, for example, should only be used in the early stages, because if they are used in the later stages, if the cold has set in this type of treatment will actually drain the body and is not helpful. If you already have the flu (second day onwards) and you just want to get over it as quickly as possible then the best is to look at raw or prepared medicines from the TCM pharmacy that treat those later-stage issues, like phlegm or cough. The most common and available Chinese medicine formula that I recommend here is ‘gan mao zhi ke’ granules where the number one ingredient is thorowax root (chai hu) that will help transform the cold and speed up the recovery.
Prevention, of course, is the key. Strengthening the body to resist infection in the first place is always preferable to treating disease. Eating warm foods like soups and stews in winter creates warmth, support the Kidney yin and yang and encourages the qi down and in. Try leek or dried ginger soups between colds to strengthen immunity. In winter you can combine these ideas with the time-honored winter favorite to build strength – congee. You can also use herbal tonics like ganoderma mushroom (ling zhi) and astragalus (huang qi) to build immunity. For hot phlegm (yellow or green colour) in the lungs use watercress, radish, daikon radish and seaweed. For cold phlegm (white) use warm damp removers such as fennel, cayenne, garlic, onions, mustard greens, horseradish and ginger. There are foods that can be used to clear all types of phlegm in the Lungs, including potato, pumpkin, linseed, turnip, job’s tears barley, tuna and mushrooms.
In the cold of winter keeping your feet warm with a hot water-bottle or a hot footbath will help the qi flow properly and build resilience. Winter is the time to enjoy an alcoholic beverage in moderation and is the season for medicinal liqueurs. Small amounts of wine or even better, glüg or gluwein – is pungent, bitter, sweet and enlivens the spleen, warms the digestive system, expels wind and cold, promotes circulation of qi and blood, improves appetite and dispels fatigue. Don’t forget immunity relies on the basics of regular lives, good digestion and rest. Regular hours of sleep and three meals a day of mostly cooked grains and vegetables (with small amounts of meat and spices for enjoyment) will do wonders for your immunity and your spirit.