Western medicine has done wonders for disease prevention and treatment. But when it comes to cold and flu season, ancient plant-based remedies retain an honored place in many households. Traditional Chinese medicine (often shortened to TCM) is the most widely practiced among these. With a history spanning over two millennia, what can the ancient medical system tell us about staying healthy during winter?
Holistic, Preventative, Natural
Broadly speaking, Chinese medicine is based on four core principles:
- Our bodies know how to heal themselves. Medicine should serve as a tool to catalyze our systems into self-care, not a replacement for the body’s natural healing functions.
- Our bodies respond to their environment. That doesn't just mean weather and food, but also things that contribute to stress.
- Each part of our body is connected. This includes not only organs, tissues, and the nervous system, but the mind and spirit as well.
- Prevention is the best treatment. In Chinese medical philosophy, if you take enough care to achieve overall health, the need for doctor visits will, for most people, be reduced. The focus is on prevention — through proper diet, exercise, and reading the tell-tale signs your body is giving out — rather than treatment alone.
Keep in mind that, as with any medical tradition, with TCM you can do everything “right” and still end up needing a doctor’s intervention. At the end of the day, no two bodies are alike and you should do what’s right for YOUR body!
Chinese Remedies for the Common Cold
In simplified terms, illness is believed to arise as a result of imbalances of yin (cold) and yang (heat) in the body. This is central to understanding the traditional Chinese approach to cold care. Surprisingly, many of the symptoms we experience this time of year are said to be a result of too much heat in the body rather than too little. The Pacific College of Oriental Medicine explains that more hours spent indoors, as well as a tendency towards a heavier diet and sedentary activities, can build an excess of heat in the body that leads to inflammation. And inflammation is at the source of ailments like congestion, coughing, and fever.
Let’s take a look at some proactive measures recommended by Chinese medicine to balance the elements in your body so you can remain healthy through the winter.
1. Support your immune system. As Western medicine will also tell you, winter health begins with a robust immune system. Try these for an instant boost:
- Radishes. A well-known Chinese proverb says “if you have radishes, you can forget about the pharmacy.” Rich in Vitamins A and C, radishes can aid in immunity-building. Being a “cold” promoting food, they also help with heat imbalances.
- Natural raw honey. The sweet substance doesn’t just contain loads of antibacterial agents — it’s also an immune system booster.
2. Choose foods that balance your internal heat. This is essential. A sore throat and feeling of dryness are signs that you might be suffering from an excess of heat, meaning more cold symptoms could be just around the corner. These foods can help stave off heat imbalance:
- Warm water. Westerners might squirm at the thought of water with no ice, but drinking warm or hot water is advised by many folk traditions. It’s said to promote blood circulation and toxin release, and to fight inflammation.
- Asian pear. The crispy, lightly sweet fruit is thought to support lung health, fight congestion, and balance dryness in the body. It’s one of the “cooling” superheros of Chinese medicine.
- Loquat leaf. The leaf of the loquat fruit reduces heat in the organs, clears phlegm, and relieves coughing. Its most popular form is pei pa koa, a thick, sweet syrup that you can take by the spoonful or stir into a glass of hot water.
- Slippery elm bark. The active ingredient in this remedy is mucilage, which soothes sore throats. When shopping for this herb make sure you buy a powder made of the inner part of the bark, as this is where the cold-fighting compounds are contained. Or try a slippery elm bark tea to save some time.
3. Strive for moderate exercise. Exercise is one of the best ways to purge your body of excess heat. It also helps you build immunity and reduce stress. Can’t bear the cold in your yoga pants? Roll out a mat at home and get moving to some online workouts like Yoga With Adriene!
4. Sweat it out with ginger. Ginger is the wonderkid of the herbal world. A 2013 study showed that ginger reduces inflammation in the body. Additionally, it causes blood vessels to enlarge, promoting better circulation and creating thermal energy that can help you sweat out pathogens. Enjoy a brew made from ginger root at the first sign of a cold.
Warming Winter Health Brew
- Fill a pot with 16 oz of water and bring to boil.
- Add a 2” piece of fresh ginger, roughly chopped.
- If you’re already feeling a cough coming on, add half an Asian pear (chopped) as well.
- Reduce to a simmer and cover; simmer for 20 minutes.
- Add a tablespoon of healing raw honey and a generous squeeze of Vitamin C-rich lemon, for a deliciously warming drink to fend off sickness.