Hard to believe that summer seems like a distant memory, and clod & flu season is in full swing – and here to stay for a while. It’s also the time of year when I get asked a lot, which herb would be good for a certain symptom.
This simple request becomes an explosion of questions for TCM practitioners. The beauty of TCM lies not in its ability to treat symptoms but rather in its strength to identify root causes of an illness and attacking them.
So, when asked, for example, which herb is good for treating a cough, my mind immediately races down the path of syndrome differentiation. I need to know why you are coughing in order to know how to treat that cough.
Basic diagnosing follows the path of the eight principles:
Exterior / Interior Yin / Yang Hot / Cold Excess / Deficiency
In the example of a cough, I will ask a series of questions to determine if your cough is either an exterior or an interior condition. An exterior condition, which is due to a viral, bacterial or fungal infection, is always in an excess state and will be hot or cold in nature. An Interior condition, which usually results from a deficieny or mixed excess/deficiency condition, can be hot or cold in nature.
The herbal treatment used is completely dependent on a correct diagnosis of the root cause. Having the wrong diagnosis will ultimately result in a treatment plan that will either do nothing to help or, more likely, make the condition worse. This highlights the importance of seeing a qualified practitioner when using herbs. If you know someone else who has taken Chinese herbs for their cough, it doesn’t mean that the same formula will work for you!
It’s very rare that a single herb is used to treat an ailment. Typically, more than one symptom is present with an illness. As a result, TCM uses herbal formulas to address the root cause of the illness as well as all of its manifestations.
Herbal formulas are organized using the Jun Chen Zuo Shi system.
Jun = chief herb; the main herb(s) in the formula used to treat the main symptom. It is the essential ingredient in a formula and often has a higher dose.
Chen = deputy herb; has two main functions in the formula. It reinforces the action of the chief herb and/or addresses accompanying symptoms of the illness.
Zuo = assistant herb; has two main functions. It further supports the Jun and Chen herbs, and counteracts toxicity.
Shi = envoy herb; it acts as a guide to bring the formula to specific areas of the body and harmonizes all the herbs in the formula. Envoy herbs are typically used in small doses.
Here are two examples of herbal formulas used to treat an excess cough and a deficiency cough:
Excess: Cough due to a viral infection at the early stage
- Diagnosis: Wind-Heat
- Symptoms: cough, slight chills, low-grade fever
- Formula : Sang Ju Yin
- Jun= Sang Ye – clears Lung Heat, stops cough; Ju Hua – disperses Wind-Heat from upper body
- Chen = Bo He – disperses Wind-Heat from upper body; Jie Geng – transforms phlegm, frees up breathing, benefits throat; Xing Ren – descends Lung Qi to stop cough
- Zuo = Lian Qiao – clears Lung Heat; Lu Gen – clears Lung Heat, generates fluids
- Shi = Gan Cao – stops cough, clears heat, harmonizes other herbs
Deficiency: Cough present with no common cold/flu symptoms, typically chronic
- Diagnosis: Spleen Qi deficiency with Damp
- Symptoms: cough with profuse white sputum that is easy to expectorate, stuffy sensation in the chest, palpitations, nausea or vomiting, dizziness
- Formula: Er Chen Tang
- Jun = Zhi Ban Xia – dries Dampness, expels Phlegm, stops nausea; Ju Hong – transforms Phlegm-Damp, regulates Lung qi
- Chen = Fu Ling – strengthens Spleen, drains Damp
- Shi = Zhi Gan Cao – transforms Phlegm, stops cough, tonifies SP, harmonizes other herbs
Of course cough is not the only symptom that can be treated effectively with Traditional Chinese Medicine. TCM is a complete medical system that can treat anything from basic illnesses to more severe internal conditions. At Lavender House Acupuncture & Wellness Clinic, I have successfully treated high blood pressure that had been non-responsive to western pharmaceuticals, autoimmune disorders, digestive disorders, depression/anxiety, sleep disorders and menstrual disorders.