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.
It’s not that gimmick diets don’t work. There couldn’t not be science behind them, just as there is in anything intentional in food or nature, anything we put into our bodies. The issue instead, why they get labeled as “gimmick,” is the allopathic, one-size-fits-all paradigm from which they are often recommended.
I’m confident any diet of complete abstinence, whether gluten and dairy free, veganism, paleo, keto, or intermittent fasting, can benefit certain people for certain amounts of time; but just as is the case with herbal or western medicine, the only way for them to be truly effective, intelligently prescribed, is by knowing not only their benefits, but their flaws.
For example, when we nourish blood with herbal medicine, we should beware of creating internal dampness and modify accordingly. When we drain dampness we should beware of drying healthy body fluids and modify accordingly. Western medicine does not have this luxury. They cannot modify pharmaceuticals beyond dosage, and even if they could, subjective systemic climate is not a part of their pathology diagnoses.
May people benefit from the vegan diet. By eliminating meat for certain periods of time one will surely clear damp heat from the stomach and intestines, as meat is a heavy substance that is more difficult to break down than most carbs or vegetables. On the other hand, over time the vegan diet will likely not provide enough “qi and blood,” as there is no greater source of these than animal protein. If veganism was an herbal prescription we might liken it to a bitter cold medicinal, such as coptis root (which is why coptis root is almost never given to vegans).
At the opposite pole is the ketogenic diet, where one is not permitted any carbs whatsoever, and instead eats a great deal of animal protein. Originally designed for epilepsy patients in the 1920s—now used more for weight loss in the 2020’s—it is supposedly great for reducing neurological inflammation, which is logical as this is especially spiked by simple sugars. By eliminating sugar, a great deal of dampness will be drained from the stomach and pancreas, however over time the excess animal protein will create systemic heat, which eventually creates inflammation, synonymous with more dampness. This might explain why many people on the keto diet supplement with magnesium to avoid constipation. Magnesium is a “cold mineral” that if taken over time will have such side effects on the stomach. My understanding is to do the ketogenic diet intelligently, one obviously cannot avoid animal protein, but should be most forward with fish, eggs, and nut butters to avoid creating excess heat.
More people these days are practicing intermittent fasting than ever before, and most are experiencing some superficial benefit, albeit with underlying side effects. The Chinese said the stomach qi is strongest between 7-9am. Western medicine says this is the time we are most sensitive to the insulin hormone, whose job it is to break down glucose. These mean the same thing, which is that science agrees with the maxim of other cultures and generations past: Breakfast is the most important meal of the day. By skipping breakfast we might drain dampness from the body, but we do so at the expense of the healthy stomach fluids. People might lose weight or feel great in the short-term, but over time they experience other digestive issues and can’t figure out why, because they are “doing everything right.” A more intelligent way to do this would be to skip dinner, however this does not align with our lifestyles and cultural norms. Instead, it is most advisable when practical, to eat all of our food between 7-7, the latter of which being when insulin resistance dramatically spikes.
Finally, I cannot see any drawback of going gluten, sugar, and/or dairy free. It does wonders for autoimmune, thyroid, and neurological patients, otherwise to prevent such conditions. Gluten and dairy are not toxic the way that sugar is, but they are damp-causing foods with little to no redemptive qualities. Dairy would be far down the list of healthy sources of calcium or protein, and almost everyone with stomach, lung, or skin issues greatly benefits from 3-6 months of abstinence. Instead, I am always a proponent of Eastern nutrition, which recommends all cooked foods, mostly vegetables, with small but daily portions of carbs and animal protein.
I hope this was insightful or helpful, and as always all questions and comments are welcome!
If I had to choose my two personal, favorite vices they would easily be caffeine and alcohol, the latter of which I take mostly in great moderation of course, out of respect for how poisonous it can be to the body. My teacher, Suzanne, often stresses to us that it is important to give the body some time to recover after drinking, inadvertently refuting the notion that 1-2 glasses every day is unacceptable.
As for caffeine, I used to be a “one a day” guy, that is until my baby was born, having since graduated to two a day. I drink an organic half-caf from Purity Coffee shortly after waking, followed by some kind of tea shortly after breakfast.
Functional neurology recommends waiting at least 60 minutes after waking to have your first cup of caffeine, as up until that time the cortisol hormone is still rising and should not be over-stimulated, lest we are more likely to “crash” later on. Chinese Medicine goes a step further (doesn’t it always?) and recommends waiting at least until 7am, as the hours between 5-7am correspond to the “qi” of the large intestine, which is obviously vulnerable to coffee. I say take this information and do your best as it relates to your present lifestyle and struggles.
On days where I have red meat, pork, and/or alcohol the night before I drink green tea, as the green tea leaf has a more cooling effect on the microbiome, regardless of whether taken cold or hot (in fact cold green tea, from a Chinese Medical perspective is highly inadvisable, as few stomachs would benefit from pouring “cold cold” all over it). Other days, which make up the majority, I have black tea, preferably Pu-Erh for its naturally fermented pro-biotics and subsequent healthy warming effect on the gut. Other black teas are fine too, but as with anything consumable in America, it is highly recommended to find a good quality product.
Supermarket tea brands are comprised mostly of dust swept from tea manufacturing plant floors—not real tea leaves—thus will not yield much health benefits at all. It makes me sad and frustrated when I see so many people trying to do the right thing, buying green or black teas or vegetables at the supermarket, knowing they are not being rewarded for their efforts, frankly as a result of capitalism.
If you insist on consuming cold foods for breakfast, such as fruit and or yogurt, it is especially important to have it with black tea and minimize green tea and coffee, the latter of which also ultimately has a “cooling effect” on the stomach, evidenced in how it purges and softens stool.
As sleep is a huge priority for me, I stop drinking all caffeine by 11am. I know conventional medicine recommends 12pm, though I’ve never understood the science behind this beyond its relatively arbitrary marking as the start of “afternoon.” 11am, on the other hand, corresponds with the heart channel in Chinese Medicine’s circadian rhythm, which corresponds with our psycho-emotional health and central nervous system. This makes 11am-1pm an ideal time to reduce hyperactivity in the upper portion of our bodies through things like exercise, as opposed to pouring more stimulation into it with caffeine. Stopping caffeine by 11am also allots us the recommended 12 hours to flush it out of our systems by 11pm, which is the latest advisable bedtime, as per the same circadian rhythm and the body’s natural melatonin secretion.
If you are overly sensitive to caffeine, we generally see it as symptomatic of fluid deficiency in the upper portion of the body, namely the central nervous system, that generally requires herbal medicine and red meat to replenish. If you are overly insensitive to caffeine—people who can drink it right before bed and still get a good night’s sleep—we see it as an excess of pathogenic fluids in the upper portion of the body. This generally requires herbal medicine and avoidance of “damp-causing foods,” such as sugars, gluten, and dairy.
If food is medicine then creating each meal should be a bit like writing your own herbal formula. Whenever possible, it should be as agreeable as possible with our unique physiology, though this is admittedly challenging when cooking for a family where everyone has different body types. Nevertheless, one part of each meal should complement the other parts, either through synergistic benefit or offsetting its potentially detrimental qualities.
As a longstanding, traditional example, any time we get Thai or Mexican food, it is served with cucumber or radishes, respectively, which are there to mitigate the side effects of the spice.
Most foods are good, but almost all of them have “side effects.” Red meat nourishes the body’s blood, yin, and qi, but if it were an herb it would be a bit warm and damp. Too much red meat and/or red meat that is not harmonized by the remainder of the meal can create damp heat, or inflammation in the stomach and intestines. Then again too little red meat can cause a deficiency of blood, yin, and qi. Ideally red meat (and pork) would be consumed alongside steamed vegetables, then followed by hot green tea, either after the meal or the following morning (green tea at other times and/or for vegetarians is thought to have a bit too cooling, or vasoconstrictive effect on the microbiome—for them black teas are preferable).
Carbohydrates are settling for both the stomach and the mind—probably why they give us such immediately pleasure—but they are obviously stickier foods, “damper” foods, which are more difficult to digest. For this reason whenever possible, it is best to eat them warm and cooked, and alongside more acrid spices in the meal, such as basil, rosemary, ginger, garlic, or onion. While I am Jewish and from New York, and love a great tuna on a bagel, there is a remarkable difference in the physiological response to cold tuna on bread versus cooked pasta with garlic and oil, maybe vegetables and cannelini beans. Yum!
Salads. Oh boy, do westerners love salad. Frankly, if you tend to any digestive problems whatsoever, raw foods should be avoided as much as possible, but if you must:
Consume salad more in summer—less in winter—and always alongside some cooked protein and/or ginger tea. The acridity of the ginger should help to warm the stomach to digest the raw foods. The protein should provide warmth, plus some much needed calories, or “qi and yin.”
Cooked vegetables, allergies notwithstanding, are probably the only perfect food that wholly lack side effects, which is probably why they are also the one food that nearly every paradigm of medicine agrees upon. If you don’t consume cooked vegetables daily you are on a dangerous path, in my opinion. They are nearly always harmless and beneficial… yet still ultimately inadequate, as we can only imagine the metabolic fatigue and inevitable illnesses to come were someone to consume exclusively vegetables.
Food is a gentle medicinal. It will neither heal nor destroy us quickly on its own, however it will always do one or the other over time. I’ve seen firsthand, in myself, loved ones, and patients eradicate chronic symptoms by pursuing a more Eastern diet, though it took many months—in my case years! People should not get discouraged by eating well for a particular interim and not feeling dramatically better. Instead, pay attention to whether you feel worse (always a possibility), meanwhile recognizing that without internal medicine, diet alone may take a long time to cure disease. It is up to us to continue to better understand the nature of each food, so that we can wisely design the perfect “herbal formula” three times a day until the end of time.
Pictured above is an imperfect, but still great meal: Breaded chicken cutlet, sauteed spinach, and roasted acorn squash with roasted apples, cinnamon, and maple syrup. What is “imperfect” about it? First, fruit should be consumed at least 15 minutes apart from other foods so as to avoid creating its notoriously mucus-like congestion in the microbiome. Also, “natural” or not, let’s be honest: maple syrup is sugar; and chicken is healthier without breadcrumbs. On the other hand, breadcrumbs make up a very small amount of the meal, the apples are at least cooked, hence easier to digest, and the leafy greens with garlic should help to optimally process the meat and sugars.
Patients often ask me what they should eat for breakfast. Most Americans are conditioned to either skip breakfast, have something simple and unhealthy like a bagel or toast, or something “healthy” like yogurt or smoothies. While the latter might check off as such within the context of a scientific laboratory, obviously Eastern Medicines hold that uncooked foods are more difficult to digest, thereby ultimately providing us with less nutrients, in spite of having maybe started with more on the grocery shelf.
While going through Chinese Medical school my own microbiome was a minor disaster, and one of my teachers who was treating me at the time requested I eat sweet potatoes (with my eggs) for breakfast.
“You want me to eat Thanksgiving for breakfast?” I asked. He laughed and asked if I’d ever had eggs with hash browns or french fries. Of course I had, countless times.
He rhetorically asked me what the difference was —if I chopped sweet potatoes in the same way as hash browns, even adding onions to my liking. For years to follow sweet potatoes became my daily breakfast. And many of my health issues gradually improved during that time.
I became perpetually more educated in health and self-care, also about food itself. I learned that sweet potatoes are not in season for the majority of the year, which means during those periods they are, a) not as much what my body needs, and b) likely lacking in their maximum nutrients. From yams it was an easy transition to exploring other vegetables as side dishes with breakfast, which I realized was a good way to get in some daily recommended portions of greens from the start.
For many years now my breakfast has been eggs with a cooked, in-season vegetable, and would struggle to imagine starting the day any other way. In the Winter we eat a variety of root vegetables—whether roasted potatoes, carrots, radishes, or turnips—in Summer it’s more leafy greens. As for the ongoing, raging egg debate, now reignited by many functional medicine docs, all I can say is I’ve eaten eggs every single day for decades. I don’t doubt some peoples’ allergies to them, in which case they should surely avoid until that allergy is rectified. For the rest of us eggs provide invaluable nutrients in a very light, easily metabolized way. In Chinese Medicine they are said to nourish the blood, so much so that the yolk is even an ingredient in the herbal formula, “Huang Lian E Jiao Tang,” which is used to clear inflammatory heat that exists as a result of healthy systemic fluid deficiency. This “blood” benefit is probably why eggs are so highly recommended by many holistic fertility doctors.
EGGS AND “ZUCCH” (as my daughter calls it)
- Pre-heat oven to 375
- Slice squash however you like it, leave all of the slices on the cutting board, and lightly sprinkle them with salt. Let them rest for about 10 minutes (or longer) so that their excess water gets sweated out, then pat them dry.
- Add to pan with olive oil, sprinkle with salt, pepper, and whatever seasonings you like.
- Cook for 15-20 minutes, turning them over once in the middle to roast both sides
- Once almost finished cook your eggs to your liking.
- Drizzle a nice olive oil on top of them once plated