Case Studies: Eastern Versus Western Medicine

Banish a nasty cold with herbal tea.


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It wasn't difficult to determine why Kevin had come into the clinic on this windy day. As he sat in the waiting room, he sneezed loudly and reached for a tissue to dab at his runny nose. As he got up and I ushered him in, I saw that the wastebasket was brimming with discarded tissues.

With a decided nasal twang, Kevin ran through his list of woes—a runny nose, scratchy throat, headaches, achy muscles, and a feeling of coldness that pervaded his entire body. He proudly produced a large bottle containing echinacea and goldenseal tablets. “I bought a bottle of these yesterday,” he said, “and I’ve been popping them like popcorn.”

Fighting Colds: East and West

I checked Kevin’s pulse, which was clearly on the surface of the wrist. Chinese pulse diagnosis tells us this means an external pathogen, or disease-causing factor, was attacking him—what in Western medicine would be called a rhinovirus or similar viral.

According to Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), the most likely pathogens are cold and damp, which are carried into the body by the wind. The first signs of cold and damp are a stiff neck, achy muscles, scratchy throat, clear mucus discharge, and stuffy nose. The aches and stiffness come from reduced circulation of vital energy and blood in the muscles.

Kevin’s tongue had a normal healthy pink color and thin white coating. This told me that the pathogens had not yet penetrated very far. If they had, his body would react more strongly, with symptoms such as a thin yellow tongue coating and most likely a fever, the body’s way of trying to eliminate heat or an infection.

A Warming Treatment

Given that Kevin was only in the initial stages of a cold, I gave him a warming herbal tea to assist circulation, along with echinacea (Echinacea angustifolia, E. pallida, E. purpurea) to stimulate his immune system and “push out” the cold and damp influence. According to TCM, echinacea also helps relieve pain by circulating blood and vital energy. I told Kevin to go home, keep warm, rest, and drink at least three cups of the strong tea (see directions below) a day—even if it made him sweat.

The remedies I gave Kevin employ either cut or sifted dried herbs, one part of each unless otherwise indicated. I recommend approximately one tablespoon of the mix for each cup of tea.

• Make a strong, warming tea of ginger, cinnamon, and cardamom by lightly simmering the herbs for five minutes in a covered saucepan and letting them steep for another fifteen minutes. You may substitute other spicy herbs such as cayenne (Capsicum annuum), yerba santa (Eriodictyon californicum), osha root (Lomatium dissectum), and angelica root (Angelica archangelica), choosing three to four, depending on availability and individual taste.

• Echinacea root, leaf, or tincture can be added to the above tea. Capsules or tablets can also be used, but I don’t consider them as effective. Most research has been performed on liquid products.

• For a scratchy, sore throat, make an infusion (steep the herbs in boiled water for fifteen to twenty minutes in a covered pan) of sage leaf (Salvia officinalis), lemon or orange peel, and one-quarter part licorice. Add the juice of one-half lemon and a teaspoon of honey before drinking.

• If a cough develops, add one-half part of horehound (Marrubium vulgare) or wild cherry bark (Prunus serotina) to the throat infusion.

I also told Kevin that it was counterproductive to use goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis) during this phase of a cold; according to TCM it is a very cold, bitter herb that can shut down digestion and interfere with immune activity. Echinacea and goldenseal combination products are best taken, in my opinion, for flu, bronchitis, pneumonia, sinusitis—all upper respira­tory tract infections characterized by significant pathogenic heat, fever, and a thin yellow tongue coating.

A Healthy Cleansing?

Kevin wanted to return to work that afternoon. I challenged him to think of his cold as a blessing in disguise. During a cold, the body tells us to rest while mucus discharge eliminates toxins and the immune system is activated, which may help prepare it to stave off other infections.

“Think of your cold as a cleansing vacation,” I told Kevin. Although he got the point, I could tell he wasn’t convinced. “Thanks,” he replied, “I’d rather go to Mexico.”

Christopher Hobbs’ case studies are gleaned from his nearly thirty years of studying and practicing herbalism. Hobbs, a fourth-generation botanist and herbalist, is an Herbs for Health Editorial Advisory Board member and licensed acupuncturist. He is the author of St. John’s wort: The Mood Enhancing Herb (Botanica, 1997), Stress and Natural Healing (Botanica, 1997), and many other books.

“Case studies” are not intended to replace the advice of your health-care provider.