Two thousand years ago, in an Eastern village, an epidemic infection wiped out 200 kinsmen. In the aftermath, a village survivor named Zhang Zhong-Jing wrote the Treatise: "On Cold Damage,” which outlines treatments he developed for treating epidemic diseases. Soon elevated to the status of medical sage, Zhong-Jing's work – his herbal remedies – became the basis for every Asian practitioner's treatment of such ailments.
The construct of illness that existed at his time assumed that evil pathogens – wind and chill, damp and warm, or dryness – attacked our person. Survival depended on the strength or weakness of both the patient and the evil.
Fast forward to what Westerners call the “common cold.” It's spread by contagion and has at its core respiratory infection. As simple as the origin of illness and its treatments seem in contemporary medicine, the complexity of diagnosis and therapy of such ailments remains. The Chinese use specific symptom constellations, and add pulse findings, to delineate the patient's pattern of disease, and choose specific herbal treatments accordingly. Whether designed for disease treatment or for caring for the “common cold,” Zhong-Jing's methods are applicable.
How is prescription done? Zhong-Jing's treatise guides the practitioner to take a detailed history of symptoms before evaluating the radial pulse. By integrating this pulse information, the practitioner is able to determine the depth of the evil's invasion and the overall strength of the patient's constitution. A specific pattern becomes apparent, and a practitioner can apply herbal knowledge for specific treatment. Zhong-Jing discusses hundreds of detailed explanations for the bodily patterns – as well as the associated herbal formulas available for treatment. More importantly, though, in choosing the correct formula, symptoms not only resolve, but the pathogen is pushed out of the system to prevent deeper penetration and possibly death.
When a patient arrives with the “common cold,” these techniques are equally applicable. Can a cold become a deeper infection such as pneumonia or a sinus infection? Of course. Applying Zhong-Jing's tenets was a revelation in my own practice, enabling both specific treatment to move the illness out of the body before it manifests itself more fully and also to learn what tactics to take when symptoms changed patterns – whether for better or worse – like a cold moving from the head to the chest.
A shotgun approach can work, too, whether with Western over-the-counter medicines or Chinese cold formulas that cover multiple symptoms to make a patient feel more comfortable until the body improves itself. Though these work at the earliest onset of symptoms, taken for a few doses, these approaches don't treat patterns of illness. If illness remains, it's unlikely that such treatments will cure the underlying problem. Taking OTC medicines long-term won't prevent new colds. Rather, taking such formulas can cause imbalance in the body and are designed for acute cold symptoms.
Sometimes, OTC drugs and herbal remedies can be taken simultaneously to treat surface and underlying problems, but not together. Separate the medicines by 30 to 40 minutes, with the herbs first.
While millennia old in design, herbs have minimal side effects, are low cost for short-term treatment and are still applicable to modern society. In Japan, such treatments are supported and reimbursed by the country's national health insurance, where adopting new strategies for patients is desirable and even cost effective. Formulas can cater to everything from cold and cough to headaches and congestion, body aches and stiffness or phlegm and wheezing – even digestive problems – all diagnosed via patterns derived from symptoms and pulse.