Cure for the Common Cold

Colleagues and I often joke about our many occupational pet peeves, not the least of which is patients canceling appointments last minute because they woke up sick. We think: "You do realize, for all intents and purposes, that this is the doctor's office, right?"

On one hand, we understand. If you're seeing us for treatment of a long-term chronic condition and have limited resources you might not want to also come in for a sudden cold. Additionally if you are highly contagious then staying home might be most beneficial to all parties. On the other hand, improper treatment of the common cold - i.e. with over the counter western medications - is considered a disease mechanism in holistic medicine and can potentially cause long-term harm. If patients prefer to not pay for a full treatment there is always the option for an herbal consultation and prescription.

It is the very first chapter of most Traditional Chinese Medicine texts that pertains to treatment of the common cold; and the first chapter of every herbal medical text is on herbs that "release the exterior."

What does that mean, "release the exterior?" Well, first it means the platitude: "There’s no cure for the common cold" is false. Whenever any doctor says "there is no cure" for something it actually translates as: "My medical paradigm has not yet discovered a cure." It doesn't mean a particular doctor is dishonest or inadequate - just that many treatment strategies are beyond the awareness of us all. There is a very simple cure for the common cold: Traditional Chinese Medicine, when practiced well.

The best way I can define "releasing the exterior" is a strategy of venting a pathogen that exists acutely and/or on the proverbial surface of the body, such as most colds, flus, viruses, etc. The intention is to sweat, cool or expel phlegm, or any combination of these. To illustrate by contrast this treatment strategy is usually contraindicated in chronic or deep seeded conditions. In the office we use methods like acupuncture, most often on the neck, upper back and selected “global points” around the body, as well as cupping or gua sha, also most often near the neck and upper back.

Why the neck and upper back? Colds reside mostly in the lungs, which reside just below and in front of the upper back. From a Chinese Medical perspective colds are said to enter through the back of the neck, which is where all of the body’s “yang organ” meridians (urinary bladder, small intestine gallbladder, stomach, large intestine and the “triple burner” pathway of interstitial fluid circulation) intersect. Our yang energy is our outward energy, that which opens into the outside world and connects us with it, but also makes us vulnerable to it.

This is why we recommend always covering up. Neither one’s neck, nor head, should ever feel cold drafts. I can understand wanting to keep one’s hair in beautiful appearance en route to a first date or work in the morning, but in all other cases both your hood and scarf should be on. I attribute the great strength of my own immune system to always following this maxim in the winter, as well as eating a diet of 90-95% warm and cooked foods. I’m sorry, but nothing makes me cringe more than when I see people consuming salads, smoothies and yogurt in January (then heading outside with any exposed skin!). Such foods reduce the temperature of the stomach, constrict its blood vessels, which impedes circulation and creates a “glomus” of dampness that we experience as bloating or false fullness. This dampness gets sent upward to the lungs, creates phlegm, obstructs the lung’s circulation and makes them weaker, thereby inviting in the common cold. Please, eat soups and stews, cooked vegetables, and more animal protein than you would in summer. Lamb, beef and chicken have an especially warming effect on the body, while duck and pork are more cooling and better for the transition into spring.

Some of the Chinese herbs used for the common cold are as familiar as medical grade cinnamon, ginger and licorice. Such medicinals, when accurately prescribed, offer the opposite effect of products like Nyquil, which suppresses the pathogen more deeply into the body, ultimately weakens the immune system and invites in more frequent colds.

We generally do not recommend the common shopping list that New Age media, Dr. Google, and/or self-alleged "holistic" practitioners do for colds.

  1. Lemon (water) has an astringent (sour) quality, which while great when we aren’t sick, can have an effect of restraining or holding the cold in the body. This is a good example of the opposite of venting and releasing.

  2. Honey in small doses can be good for a cold with a dry, sore throat, which we characterize as the “Wind Heat” variety. However if this symptom is absent the cold is more likely of the “Damp Cold” variety. Honey is sweet with a cloying nature, hence damp, hence can exacerbate this pattern.

  3. Ginger can be great if the cold is of the “damp cold” type, but can be harmful for “wind heat” and/or symptoms of dryness, which is logical when you consider the acrid nature of ginger.

  4. Echinacea is said to be good for the “wind heat” type, but may exacerbate other types of cold. Also, it should be noted that while wannabe holistic practitioners often recommend single herbs, such as turmeric (or curcumen) for inflammation, this is very unusual for real (Chinese) herbalists. Herbs most often work synergistically, within the context of formulas, and are considered relatively ineffective otherwise.

  5. Vitamin C is cold by nature and can make colds worse. Personally, I am not an expert on vitamins and cannot say whether or not to take them to boost immune function while not sick, but the Chinese Medical perspective is while we are sick the immune system has already failed us. We are not going to make our bodies fundamentally much stronger in the 48 hours that most colds last. In most cases it is better to rest, vent the cold and rediscover systemic strength afterwards.

I hope everyone cares more about their health than their hair and stays warm; and if you don’t then to please trust your acupuncturist or herbalist more than Dr. Google to help with the cold. In modern society we do not hibernate, however this is the time of year for earlier bed times and more rest whenever possible. It is always a challenge to prioritize our bodies over our career, though one we ultimately must meet, lest inevitably pay the consequences.

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