Last week my daughter was sick—it feels almost bi-weekly since starting pre-school, which I understand is relatively par for the course. Sometimes my wife and I both catch it, other times only one of us does, and occasionally we both sort of manage to fight off an apparently diluted version of it for a few days. Fortunately, this time around was the latter.
There is a saying in the west: No cure for the common cold, implying of course that we can take over the counter meds to manage symptoms but there is no actual medication to resolve the virus itself—the best we can do is rest, take care, and let it run its course. This is false. As is the case almost anytime biomedicine claims no cure exists, what it really means is that they have nothing to offer it. Whereas every Chinese Medical text ever written describes countless different viral patterns and presentations and their corresponding prescriptions, complete with the dosage modifications as indicated.
One of the most common herbal formulas given is called Gui Zhi Tang (gway-jer-tong), which contains simply cinnamon branch, paoniae root, ginger, red dates, and licorice. It is often indicated when there is congestion and/or headaches, chills, mild body aches, and mild sweating. If there is no sweating at all and severe body aches, we are more likely to use an ephedra-based formula, as gui zhi tang would be incorrect here.
Cinnamon branch warms the interior of the body and brings healthy fluids and the immunological cellular energy contained within them to the surface of the body. Ginger complements this function, whereas the licorice, dates, and paoniae counterbalance it, regenerating healthy metabolic fluids, preventing the cinnamon and ginger from creating excessive internal dryness and thereby prolonging imperfect health. It’s quite brilliant. Paeoniae has the additional benefit of entering the body’s muscle layer to reduce aches. This is often applicable to chronic pain as well.
Classically it is recommended to drink the formula then immediately eat a bowl of congee rice porridge, get under the covers, and induce a mild sweat to fully and finally resolve the cold. Personally, I have done this in the past with great success. If congee’s not your thing, a bowl of ramen or pho can work just as well—just please no smoothies, yogurt, or salads while sick!
My wife, daughter, and I went to one of the local farms last week, gathering pumpkins and apples for the season, and although refined sugar is a rarity at home, I was compelled to grab some apple cider cinnamon donuts as a seasonal staple. When Peyton came down with her cold I hid some Chinese herbs inside one of the donuts, and almost instinctively she took it over to the couch, sat down, and got under a blanket to indulge.
Surely, the donut did more harm than good, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t do any good at all. In conjunction with the herbs, I spent whatever time I could rubbing and tapping her upper back, over her lungs, a similar premise to using gua sha or cupping techniques at the same location for when people come into the office sick. Some of these techniques might have to be dusted off, as 2023 marks the first in the past few years that people with colds are welcome back, preferably with a mask of course.
As we enter cold and flu season, I hope folks will consider Chinese Medicine, as opposed to taking over the counter symptom suppressants that push the pathogen deeper into the body and potentially create the more notorious pattern, the “unresolved exterior pathogen.” This can be seen in everything from autoimmune to migraines or skin conditions, and often demands the cinnamon branch ingredient as well, though within much more complex formulas, taken over much longer periods of time, and never within a donut.
But isn’t it just like Mercury Retrograde to bring with it a wave of coronavirus to add to its usual technology issues, transportation delays, and miscommunications? I am no astrology expert, though it is a science that I enjoy and observe accuracy in, and question when it is mindlessly dismissed, since the absence of belief obviously requires just as much blind faith as belief.
As we presently reside in what is arguably 2023’s first Covid wave, we’ve concurrently embarked upon the “pre-shadow” of Mercury’s retrograde. This means the planet has just begun to circulate in its reverse direction, which can impact Earth and its inhabitants in the aforementioned ways. This will last until mid-September, and recommendations are as follows:
- Plan for delays, not just logistically, but emotionally. Trains will be even worse and slower than usual, and you will be late for appointments. Life will go on. Try to breathe and/or text-vent to a loved one to keep your cool. It’s not fair, but it always happens—especially on the MTA or New Jersey Transit.
- Plan for technology problems: Lack of service on your phone, web sites not loading, calls dropping, documents getting accidentally erased, etc. This can be infuriating, but is generally not as bad if we expect and accept it as a matter-of-fact byproduct of the temporary cosmic energy we find ourselves in.
- Plan for communication problems. Someone you love will probably say something triggering in the next 6 weeks, and/or you will erroneously hear or misunderstand them. Clarify before you react, try to take a deep breath, remember when we are, and either respond calmly or pick up the dialogue in October (if you can wait that long).
- Be careful. This must be the new dad in me talking, but be sure to look both ways when crossing the street, drive a bit more carefully, and take care around glasses and hot surfaces. Personally, I find myself to be way clumsier during these times, once having knocked down an entire shelf of wine glasses in a restaurant I was working at in Beverly Hills. Not my finest moment.
- Finally, now more than ever, take care of yourself. I also find myself more prone to illness and injury during Mercury retrogrades, and as this one has bestowed upon us what is arguably the year’s first coronavirus, it is that much more important. Eat warm breakfasts, warm everything, steamed vegetables, hydrate, exercise in moderation, and go to sleep between 10-11pm. Stress management indicated as always.
The first stage of Covid is generally treated with an individualized version of the formula: “Huo Xiang Zheng Qi San,” which interestingly targets fluid retention in the gastrointestinal microbiome. This is generally advisable only on the very first day. Once the virus is in the throat or chest we’re almost invariably looking at one of the most famous formulas in all of Chinese Medicine, “Xiao Chai Hu Tang,” still modified to the unique patient, but with the intention of opening the chest and lungs, downbearing qi, and reducing heat and/or fever symptoms. Past this stage things become more interesting. Per usual, there is no one size fits all formula, but instead many ways we can prescribe based on constantly evolving symptoms and tongue appearance. Time is of the essence with this crafty, clever virus, so if you should contract it please contact me as soon as possible for a virtual consultation. Spare no expense. You don’t want long Covid.
I am not an “anti-vaxxer,” but based on my clinical observations in the past few years I can understand why some people would be wary of certain vaccines. I cannot, however, fathom why we cannot as a society adopt masks as a standard practice during waves in crowded spaces. While most people do fine with Covid, it is a gross over-simplification to say: “it’s just like the flu.” The flu almost never had summertime waves (Covid has had one every year), and almost never caused so many long-term neurological and cardiovascular diseases. I agree that we cannot live in fear—nor should we live in denial.
For the next month try to not snap at the pedestrians or cars that cut you off in public. Try and accept that that web site just won’t load when you want it to, that you’re going to be late, and things just will not get done according to schedule. Mercury’s retrograde might be viewed as Buddha’s messenger, to teach us unattachment, acceptance, and patience, in the face of a lifetime of the opposite conditionings. I’m speaking here to myself as much as anyone else.
While the sepia tones and brush aromas from this week’s Canadian wildfires’ spillover to the northeast might have looked great in a photograph, or smelled enticing in 1% of its dosage (if seated by a campfire with marshmallows), on the ground in real life it was daunting, and for many systemically disruptive. Personally, I was outdoors plenty, both on my commute and on my break at Union Square farmer’s market, albeit with a mask on, and thankfully did not experience symptoms.
Chinese Medicine nicknamed the lungs “the delicate organ,” which really they are not—in fact quite the opposite—however what is meant by this is their being most and primarily vulnerable to external pathogens. Toxic fumes are an external pathogen. They dry the sinuses and respiratory microbiome, which can bring with it symptoms such as chest oppression, frontal (or maybe temporal) headaches, and of course, dryness. Or as my wife and I learned, if you are a 2-year-old trapped indoors as a result, rabid, recurring cases of cabin fever.
The formula everyone needed at least one day of at home this week was “Xiao Chai Hu Tang,” or “Minor Buplureum (root) Decoction.” It includes buplureum root to clear heat from the upper body by increasing circulation downwards; pinellia root to dissolve accumulation in the chest and sinuses; scutellaria root to clear heat specifically from the lungs; ginseng to generate healthy fluids in the stomach to protect it from the bitter nature of the other herbs; ginger to warm the stomach for a similar reason; and finally licorice and red dates to generate healthy fluids in the stomach, chest, and central nervous system.
It’s no wonder this is one of the most commonly prescribed herbal formulas in Chinese Medicine. Nevertheless, it should almost always be modified according to the individual; especially those with low energy, low appetites, and/or aversions to cold weather. Typically, these were the body types I saw most impacted by the air pollution this week. Frontal headaches, dryness in the throat, and chest oppression, as a result of the external toxicity exacerbating their pre-existing internal toxicities as a result of metabolic dysharmony. Not to worry, as my father always said. There’s hope.
If any symptoms are lingering and you are not presently coming for acupuncture or taking herbs I would recommend any or all of the following:
- Hot mint tea, maybe with honey, to open the chest, cool, and lubricate the sinuses
- Asian pears, or fresh pear juice, also to lubricate the lungs and sinuses.
- Rice congee with chopped up pears, red dates, some honey and cinnamon—YUM—to generate healthy fluids in the respiratory and gastrointestinal microbiomes.
- Gentle exercise, such as qi gong, yoga, or deep breathing. NOT… outdoor running, for the love of God.
- If nothing else, just stay hydrated, preferably with room temperature or hot water. Cold drinks constrict blood vessels, which obviously then traps local inflammation.
These are great treatments to treat only the branch of the problem, as its root cause is of course Republicans.
Well, if Covid and seasonal allergies had a lovechild its name would apparently be the upper respiratory pathogens of Winter, 2023. I experienced both personally and professionally, not only the severity of these viruses’ symptoms, but maybe even more troubling was how stubborn they were to resolve. Coughs that would linger for weeks on end, allergies turned to sinus infections, and one friend had the shingles virus transform into a vicious cough, which in my humble opinion occurred because he didn’t properly treat the former with Chinese Medicine.
I am grateful we seem to be passing simultaneously, likely not coincidentally, out of this post-pandemic ripple effect along with the cold weather. Besides dilating the blood vessels of our respiratory microbiomes, thereby giving pathogens wider exit pathways, the warm air should eventually aid in transforming latent mucus and boosting our metabolic energies enough to in turn boost our immunological energies, or “wei qi.”
I plead ignorance, in the past few years more than ever, to most current events, trends on social media, philosophical platitudes, and pop culture; and I often question whether that makes me an “ignorant person”—especially since we will all eventually die still relatively ignorant about most things and peoples. Besides my family, I devote most of my time and mental energy to Chinese Medicine. Whatever is left over at the end of each day are mere scraps, an hour or two at most, and I choose to shut my mind off with friends and/or sports. Maybe in another chapter of my life I’ll read more articles and keep up with external themes and events.
Before blowing my own nose about 50 times a day one week back in January, my lungs exacerbated by the need to rid themselves of phlegm, I had never heard of “the man cold.” Apparently, amongst the infinite social media cliches is one that guys are overly dramatic or whiney about their common colds, obviously underscoring “girl power,” which is a great thing, but also the idea that men are weak(er), which might not be great, or accurate.
Recall the first wave of Covid, we were quickly informed that men, along with the elderly and obese, were most susceptible to severe infections. Why? Well, from a Chinese Medical perspective men have more heat and/or yang qi in the body’s upper region. On one hand it is why we are fortunate enough to have generally more energy. It is consistent with our generally superior upper body strength; though it is also why the inflammatory cytokine response is more intense in the context of upper respiratory viruses.
If you require this be translated in conventional medical terms—and most westerners do—as a result of our increased testosterone and androgens, men possess higher numbers of T cells and Natural Killer cells than women, whereas women have greater B cells, neutrophils and phagocytic activity, which makes them more adept at clearing viruses, as well as the toxins from vaccines. Women also have a greater susceptibility to dysregulation of innate lymphoid cells, which makes them generally more prone to autoimmune disease. (source: https://www.nature.com/articles/nri.2016.90.pdf)
Returning to the brilliant simplicity of Chinese Medical jargon: It is the heat from our body’s (masculine) yang qi that provides ample metabolic strength to regulate our lymphoid cells and avoid autoimmune disease. It is that same heat, left uncontrolled, that creates a more inflammatory cytokine storm in the lungs and makes clearing external pathogens more stubborn. It’s not because your husband is being a little bitch.
I can easily recall the entire week three years ago, leading up to the conspicuously dated, Friday, the 13th. What I was doing, what I was thinking, expecting, and not expecting, which of course is precisely what was to follow.
My wife had expressed concern about this new viral plague in China for weeks, but if I’m being honest I wrote it off as just another unfortunate illness of the east, a la the previous SARS virus of 2011, and would not cross the pond enough to impact us. Nevertheless, I wanted to honor her fear, so on eight day’s notice we canceled our honeymoon plans (in Bali), which included a layover in Hong Kong, and instead booked two awesome weeks driving up the coast of California.
The week after we returned I had a weekend Chinese Medicine seminar in Chicago. Signs and whispers of this becoming a part of our lives grew louder and more frequent. Non-Asian people were wearing masks on the plane, and I’ll never forget a friend in our seminar sharing an article with me on one of our breaks, written by an American acupuncturist in China, to paraphrase: Make no mistake about it. You will know someone who dies from this virus.
I remember not knowing what to make of it, nor how to digest such a bold, ominous prediction. My psychological id wished to err on the side of skepticism, to proceed about my educational, sociable day, and imagine that the writer was some overly dramatic kook, otherwise at least just incorrect. But the rest of the article, her writing and cadence, made her rational intellect all too apparent. That coupled with the fact that she was one of us—a western acupuncturist—forced me to at least dignify her proclamation. Fortunately, I did not lose any loved ones, though as of today I have known about five people who died from Covid-19 complications, plus countless more with long Covid conditions.
On the morning of March 12th my wife, brother, and I were to meet at the then relatively new Q train stop on East 86th Street to be with my mother for a procedure she was having done at Weil-Cornell Hospital. The vibe in the city had been growing increasingly more tense with every day in the week. More masks were popping up on the train, a first case had been reported in New Rochelle, and I’ll never forget the look a young girl sitting across from me shot me when an apparently homeless man next to her coughed aloud. What had always been the chipper New York spirit in anticipation of the Spring season and warm weather had been turned on its head as everyone in the most crowded city in the country was suddenly terrified of proximity.
The Q train platform is humongous, but not immune to being crowded at rush hour. As we stood there processing the different adversities we were juggling, from my mother’s immediate health to the long-term prognosis of the planet, live music began in the distance. A black man blowing on a horn of sorts. He was excellent, his tune was loud and ominous, it pervaded the entire platform, track to track, floor to atypically high ceilings, and the sound was bone-chilling.
Whereas the article I’d read in Chicago the week before, citing tangible statistics and frontline observations left me determined to be doubtful, hopeful that one person’s perspective could be taken with a grain of salt, the subway musician’s notes rocked me to my core. Although a global pandemic is hard to imagine unfolding when you’ve never previously experienced one, I suddenly had the crazy but not so crazy thought, that we were all going to die. My mother’s upcoming procedure was only a microscopic foreshadowing, to the soundtrack of these incredible horn sounds, the likes of which I’d never heard before, or at least never been so conscious of. It was the most solemn Manhattan atmosphere I’d ever been bathed in.
Thankfully, Mom was fine. We went out for lunch afterwards. My brother and I hung around and went out to dinner that night and even shared an appetizer with questionably washed hands, still wrought with increasingly more ignorant optimism. It’s gonna be fine.
The next morning I went to work. I remember it was a busy day, I had a packed schedule, and everyone in the office was talking Covid, with the same varying degrees of concern that would continue for years. One of the other acupuncturists I shared the suite with was especially worried, coming to confide in me every time she walked out of the room from treating a patient. One of her friends was feeling very sick and she was with him just a few days ago. Should she be worried, she asked. I told her no, she’d likely be fine, even as I was backing away from her face being too close to my own.
A doctor in our suite shared with everyone that she’d heard one way to self-test for Covid was by seeing if you can hold your breath for at least ten seconds. Like everyone else I immediately “tested,” and confirmed I was okay. A reassuring respite as none of us yet knew a thing.
A few hours later I was just about to enter a treatment room with a patient when I got a text from my brother: “I’m not feeling so good,” and I hate to admit it was the most mentally checked out I’ve ever been during an intake, consumed by terror for the first time in my life, that I could lose my brother. I thought about the article I’d read in Chicago, and in a flash Covid-19 was the only thing that mattered.
I placed an order for herbs from Kamwo Pharmacy and texted my wife that I was canceling my plans for the evening. I’d be home for dinner.
I’d never seen Kamwo’s store look this way before. It was unusually crowded and loud, the workers were moving at a pace relegated mostly to restaurant workers during a dinner rush, and the island table that sits in the middle of the store was EMPTY! I’ve been going to Kamwo since 2005, and every time I’ve been there that table is filled with all kinds of herbs, packs, and supplements. On March 13th, 2020, it was stripped bare, with only traces of herbal dust and particles, as if some gang of neurotic acupuncturists had ransacked the place and we were in the first episode of The Walking Dead.
The next morning I wore two masks and two gloves and took the bus crosstown to drop herbs off for my brother to take. We greeted each other on opposite sides of his glass front door, both smiled masculine facades of sarcasm. I left the herbs on the floor and him at home, praying as I walked briskly back west that he’d be okay. He had to be okay.
That night we learned that my wife’s office was closing, and the NBA shut down its season. I waited only about 24 hours before deciding to shut down my own office, and the race for groceries and supplies began. It was nothing if not surreal, and I hadn’t been so glued to the News since 9/11.
We spent the next 100 days (approximately) as did most Liberal New Yorkers, cautiously holed up and curious, still somehow busy with work, suffering varying degrees of cabin fever depending on your individual constitution and personality type. I drank a bit too much the first couple of weeks, we cheered for the healthcare heroes every night at 7:00, spent more time making more elaborate meals, and took to jogging around the Central Park reservoir daily to get some movement and fresh air, albeit with a mask on, unsure of just how contagious this thing was.
Online people became more divided and opinionated about race and science than ever before. We learned new expressions, like “social distancing,” and determined a great more number of enemies through philosophical disagreements. I lost thousands of dollars in rent for an office I couldn’t use. In anticipation of creating a family, my wife lost her tolerance for our lack of space, and we relocated to Jersey City. I remember talking with a friend who hypothesized this was going to “go on for a year,” and consistent with my previous naivete I thought she was nuts. No way was this going to go on for a year, I thought, which in hindsight I realize was just my proclaiming that no way could I tolerate it for a year.
As it turns out we can tolerate much more than we think. Having a pregnancy through various waves of the virus, namely Delta, then needing to protect our newborn while allowing family members who were “over it” in 2021 to meet her was challenging to say the least. And I have no true conclusions here, except to share my personal experience.
On one hand I am eternally grateful to have not lost anyone close to me. My mom and brother, wife and baby are all okay, and fingers crossed, the last Omicron wave at the end of 2022 seems to have been the last great gasp of the virus, which is now just part of our lives. I’m sorry to those who lost people close to them. I’ll always remember that Friday, the 13th, three years ago, and will continue to study my medicine to be able to best support myself, my family, and others as we navigate illnesses, whether acute or chronic, mild or severe, in hopes of minimizing suffering.