Strategies for Respiratory Health During Cold and Flu Season


Laurel Redmon, M.S., L.Ac. Dipl. Ac.,C.H


Flu shots may afford many a sense of security this time of year.  Those with a mind toward holistic and preventive health, however, can easily see that many more genuine and effective measures can be taken to protect ourselves, families and loved ones.


Frankly, herbal remedies are superior to vaccinations and remedial antibiotic or steroidal medications.  Not only are they less likely to be vulnerable to widespread resistance that these drugs have managed to foster in the last half century or so, herbs afford much greater symptomatic relief once an illness takes hold.  Please note that not just Oriental medical pharmacopeias can boast this: most acute upper respiratory illness can be effectively managed with plant agents and dietary therapy found within close proximity to the homes of most Americans. In addition to our local herbal traditions, application of and reliance on medicinal plants by millions of Chinese people can reassure us in a culture dominated by a fear of lost productivity and secondary infections.


As always, education is vital in the process of empowerment.  There are individuals such as the elderly, immuno-compromised and chronically or acutely ill that can benefit from the diagnostics and heroic measures of Western drug therapy.  We all suffer, though, from a public health standpoint when these standards of care are applied to people across the board, whether to children or healthy adults.  Abuse of drugs applied to children is by far the more serious of these threats, one which I feel is already playing out as a public health disaster.

Chronic respiratory diseases like asthma and emphysema are at an all time high, not to mention the rise of antibiotic resistant bacteria strains.  No public dialogue exists regarding immune system enhancement and preventive measures to keep lung health strong.  Action exists only after the fact.


As promoters of wellness and prevention of disease, we know that patterns of defensive (wei qi) or lung qi deficiency can be detected far before clinically relevant findings can be made by mainstream medicine. It is time is to educate ourselves and others about protecting the wei qi: we need this shoring-up now more than ever, as it can protect us from countless dread diseases, not just a “little cold”.


Let us discuss bolstering of lung vital energy and prevention of disease before remedial treatment.  The heritage of Oriental medicine teaches the cruciality of tonification and prevention as the superior path in medicine. Several steps precede herbal treatment in this capacity.


Righteous diet and lifestyle are primary.  Ample sleep and exercise are prime examples of golden, yet free therapies.  I think that at least seven uninterrupted hours of sleep in a peaceful and harmonious (including feng shui, family harmony, cleanliness et al.) space is imperative.  This also includes being in sync with the earth’s yin-yang rhythms: as diurnal animals, “shift work” can be very injurious to the qi. Exercise is a broad term, and should be tailored to an individual’s constitution.  Getting the qiand blood to circulate in a healthy way is key.  The goal should be to growqi and blood rather than to exhaust it in weekend-warrior or iron-man fashion.


Fall is a fabulous time for food.  The glorious harvest happens to yield many foods that nourish the lung and defensive qi. Most important among these are winter squashes, root vegetables, rich-colored cruciferous vegetables, apples and pears.  Alliums, including onions, leeks and garlic round this picture out.  These foods actually strengthen the lung and spleen qi, enhance immunity, reduce major disease risk, and decongest the system to prevent or alleviate phlegm conditions.  Phlegm blocks the circulation of qi in the respiratory tract and can harbor pathogens that can increase the chance of infection and stall the healing process.


Happily, the cooking methods we crave this time of year potentiates the effectiveness of these foods.  Soups, stews, baking and roasting increase the purifying and nutrifying impact of these foods respectively. Common herbal libations like peppermint, nettle, linden, elder and plantain provide important minerals and lung-nourishing functions.

Soups and grains prepared with the addition of astragalus, seaweeds or dried shiitake are deeply nourishing.  Don’t fret about exact amounts and dosing—just get started and throw some in to taste.


 Hydration is fundamental whether or not we are sick, and replacing a couple glasses of water or juice with simple herbal infusions is a great idea.  Bear in mind that it is not necessary to drown oneself with water: Oriental tradition dictates the more rational approach of sipping warm liquids throughout the day rather than gulping down concentrated drinks with meals. Drowning ourselves with a set number of ounces a day regardless of constitution, especially with our commonly damp conditions, is a dogmatic Western mistake.


Despite our best intentions, lung disharmonies do arise: the lungs are conceptualized as the leaves of a tree, and the “delicate organ”. They are the yin organ most intimate with the outside world and thus most vulnerable to the six evils: heat, cold, wind, dampness, dryness and fire.  Most every respiratory malady can be attributed to one or more of these factors.


Several other pathologies besides the six evils are clinically common: the two I see most often are lung qi damaged by sadness, particularly grief. This pattern can manifest differently for different people, but it is helpful to consider if a lung malady occurs in association with bereavement, as healing from this involves proper emotional or psychological support. Another problem is an improper diet that is too cold, wet and congesting (read ice cream float) that can also precipitate lung disharmonies over time.


 Wei qi or lung qi deficiency is the backdrop to many of the pre-and proceeding mentioned conditions, so seasonal support with lung tonics like astragalus (huang qi), ginseng (ren shen or xi yang shen), cordyceps (dong xiao chong cha), and the formula Jade Windscreen (Yu ping feng san) is particularly important. In fact, it can prevent many of the subsequently discussed problems.


We will cover some sample formulas that address several common lung pathologies. I urge you to visit a licensed herbalist (Dipl. C.H.) to experience the power of a formula customized to your exact diagnosis and constitution, especially if rapid relief is not experienced with an off-the-shelf patent medicine.  You can also talk to a licensed herbalist about a therapeutic dosage for patent medicines, which are frequently underdosed.



This is a common cold or flu. Traditionally wind-cold preceeds this, but is less common clinically.  This situation is a window of opportunity: with the proper herbs and behavior including rest and guarding exposure to the wind, people can evade sickness. Herbs employed here open up the surface of the body (releasing the exterior) in order to expel wind and heat evils. Formulas like Yin qiao san do this, but also contain herbs to treat sore throat, headache, chest congestion and to prevent secondary infections.  A timeless, elegant mixture!


Phlegm-heat in the lungs

Here is a situation that has penetrated the exterior protective layer or wei qiand taken hold as an interior condition. This is usually diagnosed in Western medicine as influenza, pneumonia or acute bronchitis.  Heat and phlegm can morph together as dual evils and create a challenging opponent for herbs. An entire category of the pharmacopeia is devoted to alleviatinghot phlegm. The signature formula here is Qing qi hua tan tang, which means clear the qi level (an acute stage of Classical Wen bing, or heat disease) and transform phlegm decoction.  These herbs enter the lungs, clear and expectorate phlegm, reduce fevers and subdue rebellious lung qi, which is akin to stopping cough and wheezing.


Lung Yin deficiency

This condition can be caused by several things: most common is a sequelae of a wind-heat type of infection that has damaged lung qi and yinresulting in a nagging dry cough and throat, often with sticky and difficult to expectorate phlegm.  It can also be equated with more chronic problems like a smoker’s cough, tuberculosis and even, I imagine, some forms of lung cancer. The formula Qing zao jiu fei tang contains a special group of herbs that lubricate, cool and transform phlegm.  The idea here is to replace old, dry, sticky phlegm with soothing and beneficial moisture to relieve coughing.


Damp-phlegm in the lungs      

A wet, chronic bronchitis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or some types of congestive heart failure are the Western interpretations of this syndrome.  Of all the colorful Chinese descriptions of symptoms we learned in school, this is a favorite: “Chicken singing in the throat”. Presumably, windy, cold, damp phlegm can accumulate in one’s throat and create a chicken-like wheezy, choking sound. I think that pretty much sums it up.  Herbs used here not only expel wind and dampness, but often have warming qualities which assist in drying and transforming cold phlegm Er chen tang with modifications is the simple and trusty solution with its four-ingredient elegance.  Aged tangerine peel warms and emulsifies phlegm with the rest of the ingredients, and treats spleen energy to prevent more phlegm from being created.


Getting acquainted with the energetics of  food, essential oils, acupoints and common herbal beverage teas can be a great way to assist these formulas. These measures can help in giving ease once you have an idea of the nature of your lung ailment.  Do some research on the eight parameters: try to ask questions like, do you have a hot or cold condition? Does your situation need to be lubricated, or dried out?  What agents such as food or spices can you use to counter this evil?  Of course, a qualified practitioner can take the guesswork out of this equation and make many helpful suggestions.  Try to learn more gradually from these encounters, and you may gain confidence to help yourself through the challenges of this season, leaving more time to enjoy the beautiful and constantly changing cycles of nature.





Chen, John K. & Tina T.  Chinese Medical Herbology and Pharmacology. Art of Medicine Press.  City of Industry:  2004.


Lu, Henry C.  Chinese System of Natural Cures.  Sterling Publishing Company.  New York:  1994.


Maciocia, Giovanni. The Practice of Chinese Medicine. Churchill Livingstone. Edinburgh: 1994.


Pitchford, Paul.  Healing With Whole Foods:  Oriental Traditional and Modern Nutrition.  North Atlantic Books.  Berkeley:  1993.



Laurel studied Chinese Medicine, including Acupuncture and Herbology at The American College of Traditional Chinese Medicine in San Francisco. Her study of Herbalism was conducted over a period of sixteen years, four of which she spent living in Hong Kong, participating in the founding of Cheryl’s Herbs. She has studied with international leaders in Chinese and Western Herbalism, as well as aromatherapy and mycology. She has taught classes on subjects from cooking to pulse diagnosis, and written for and edited herb and aromatherapy books. She lives and works on an herb farm in the Baraboo Hills, and maintains a practice and herb shop in Madison. Her Red Sage Classical Chinese Herb Formulas are available exclusively through Cheryl's Herbs.

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