Using Chinese Herbal Medicines for Colds and Flu

We've all heard it said that science, despite its obvious accomplishments, has never cured the common cold. You've heard it before, “We can land spaceships on Mars, but can't even cure the common cold.” Along with this phrase comes the sad resignation that this problem may be simply beyond us – a humbling curse that is mankind's burden forever – the curse of the common cold.

People claim you can cure a cold with an amazing variety of stuff. I personally had tried garlic, ginger, elderberries, zinc, vitamin C, echinacea, golden seal, and a few over-the-counter remedies like the ubiquitous Airborne (c). It seemed that maybe some of them helped, but for sure, none of them ever ended the cold. Once that cold started coming on, no matter what I took, I was in for a week of suffering. I really wanted to believe that one of these natural remedies would be a cure, or at least offer substantial relief, but after many disappointments I was more and more skeptical.

It was winter of 1982 when an acquaintance gave me a small vial of Chinese pills and told me to take them if I felt a cold coming on. Since I was prone to catching colds, and it was cold season, and I had two kids, the opportunity didn't take long. A few days later, I awoke with a sore throat. That was always the first sign. Once I felt that raw and scratchy feeling in my throat, the rest was inevitable, seven days of low grade torture. However, before leaving for work that morning, I did remember the pills, and took them.

That evening, over dinner, my wife asked about the pills and if they had helped. As I started to answer, I was literally struck speechless when I realized that I had entirely forgotten about waking ill that morning. Instead of blooming in my head and throat, as it always did, this budding young cold had vanished, gone without a trace. What was that stuff?

The stuff tuned out to be something called Yin Chiao, also known as honeysuckle and forsythia clean toxin pills, Was this a fluke, I thought? How could no one know about this? Why has it been a secret? As it turns out, it was no fluke. Since that day, Yin Chiao and similar Chinese remedies have ended most of my colds as well as those of my family, friends, patients, and acquaintances. Perhaps medical science hasn't cured the common cold, but it appears that Chinese herbalists did it hundreds of years ago.

And this was no secret. These herbal drugs have been in use since long before the 18th century. Billions of people throughout Asia have been using them over many generations. It's hard to understand why, if they worked so well, it would take the West so long to discover them. I still do not know exactly why, but if bad news travels quickly, as the saying goes, good news must travel very very slowly. And if the good news proclaims the accomplishment of what can't be done, who will believe it?

New ideas, no matter how old they are, knock out the foundation of our reality and force us to construct a whole new reality. This is hard work and scary, and it is why new ideas, no matter how important, are first met with resistance. It's why the Chinese resisted Western ways for thousands of years, and why it took us about a thousand years to finally discover Chinese food.

Let's hope it doesn't take another thousand years to discover Chinese herbal medicine. With pharmaceuticals drugs so often proving to be harmful, or ineffectual, or causing intolerable side effects, many people no longer trust them, and by association, the doctors who prescribe them. Over the counter cold medicines are a good example. Marketed as safe and widely prescribed by doctors, we later find out that these safe, non prescription drugs have been raising our blood pressure, interfering with other drugs, and killing our children. After discovering this, the USFDA, recalled most children's cold medicines as unsafe.

It's high time we discovered Chinese herbal cold medicines, not only because they are safe, but because they are simply more effective than anything your doctor can possibly prescribe. When you discover them, you'll never even think about visiting the doctor for a cold.

When everyone discovers them, it will turn our medical establishment upside down. Since about 50% of all MD visits are about colds and similar ailments, widespread use of Chinese cold medicine has the revolutionary potential of cutting physician visits by half, unclogging a system grown fat and congested by millions of needless trips to the physician. This might be bad news for doctors, but it's very good news for just about everyone else. Imagine, with 50% fewer patients, your doctor may actually have some time to spend with you.

Chinese medicine has long understood that cold and flu are caused by foreign pathogens arising outside our bodies and arriving as if by the wind. These wind evils seek to penetrate our defenses and move deeper into our body. They are collectively known as exterior wind diseases and fall into 4 categories, wind cold pattern, wind heat pattern, wind damp pattern, and summer heat pattern. Most illness we recognize as colds belong in the wind cold or wind heat categories.

Our bodies are protected from wind evils by the lungs, known as the umbrella organ. According to TCM, the lungs govern the skin and control the opening and closing of the pores. The skin covering the upper body protects the lungs and is vulnerable to attack, particularly when the pores are open. Exposing your head, neck, chest, or shoulders to a draft, especially while sweating, provides easy entry for any wind evil that may be hanging around.. Better to cover up during cold and flu season.

Wind evils are also resisted by defensive energy, known as wei qi. This energy permeates our lungs and skin, and provides a barrier to entry. With adequate wei qi, you can be exposed to most colds without getting sick. Herbs such as astragalus huang qi can be used to boost the wei qi and thus tighten the surface, protecting us from exterior invaders. These herbs close the pores and reduce sweating. They are taken when you are well and help to block the entry of wind evils. If you become sick, these astringent substances are discontinued, because the pores must be open in order to expel the pathogen through the surface. If wind evils have penetrated, and these herbs are not discontinued, pathogens often cannot be expelled. This is called trapping the thief in the house. When this occurs, a head cold will not go away, or it goes deeper into the body, creating symptoms in the deeper organs such as nausea, diarrhea, etc.

Expelling pathogens requires herbs that release exterior conditions. Most of these herbs promote sweating. Herbs that release exterior conditions can be chosen from two categories. Warm pungent herbs to Release the Exterior are used to expel cold pathogens from the surface of the body. Cool Pungent Herbs to Release the Exterior are used to expel warm pathogens. In most cases, the appropriate category is revealed by symptoms of the cold.

Mild fever, strong chills, headache, body aches, and a lack of thirst indicate wind cold which requires warm pungent herbs. High fever (over 101F), mild chills, sore throat, and more severe symptoms in general suggest a hot invading pathogen requiring cool pungent herbs. Influenza, measles, and mumps are examples of wind heat patterns.

As it turns out, products used to clear Wind Heat work just as well as Wind Cold formulas, so that you need not concern yourself with making any distinction. Most of the Chinese cold medicines you'll find at your health food store or on line are Wind Heat formulas that will work on any kind of cold. However I have found distinctions in which formulas work better for certain kinds of colds, because they contain herbs that work best on different parts of the body.

For example, colds which begin in the throat seem to respond best to Yin Chiao, which I have already mentioned, and which is perhaps the most famous of all Chinese cold formulas.

This formula was first published in 1798 in Dr. Wu Ju Tong’s Wen Bing Tao Bian (Systematic Differentiation of Warm Diseases).

Yin chiao is taken as a tablet or powder rather than as a boiled decoction to preserve the chemical integrity of the principal herbs.

Adults: At the first sign of cold or flu, take three to five grams immediately (usually six to eight pills, depending on the brand of yin chiao used), then take two to three grams every four hours for the rest of the day. For prevention, take two grams (three to four tablets) every four hours when exposed to cold or flu. This formula is considered safe for pregnancy.
Children: Use 700 milligrams (usually one tablet) for each twenty-five pounds of body weight. Crush and mix with food.

Course of Use
The course of treatment is a minimum of one day and a maximum of one week per episode. Bedrest during the hours of administration, when possible, is a plus.

Keep a dozen yin chiao tablets in your car, purse, or pocket during cold and flu season. Take promptly when you feel a cold coming on. Begin taking tablets a half hour before entering airports, airplanes, terminals, or crowded public facilities.

Ingredients and Chinese Medicine Functions
Honeysuckle (jin yin hua, Lonicera flos): clears heat, cleans toxins, and expels externally contracted wind heat.
Forsythia (lian Qiao, Forsythia suspensa fructus): expels contracted wind heat, clears heat, and cleans toxins.
Balloon flower (jie geng, Platycodi grandiflori radix): transforms cold phlegm, circulates lung energy, benefits the throat, and directs the action of other herbs upward.
Peppermint (bo he, Menthe herba): disperses wind heat, clears the head and eyes, and benefits the throat.
Edible burdock (niu bang zi, Arctium lappa): detoxifies fire poison, disperses wind heat, and benefits the throat.
Crested grass (dan zhu ye, Lophatheri gracilis): releases the exterior, disperses wind heat, lessens irritability, and relieves thirst.
Schizonepeta (jing jie, Schizonepeta tenuifolia): releases the exterior, and expels wind cold and wind heat.
Fermented soy bean (dan dou chi, Sojae praeparatum semen): releases the exterior for both cold and hot exterior conditions, and alleviates irritability.
Chinese licorice root (gan cao, Glycyrrhiza uranelsis radix): tonifies the spleen, benefits the Qi, detoxifies fire poisons, and moderates and harmonizes other herbs.

For colds that begin in the nose, I prefer Gan Mao Ling. Use it alone or combine with Yin Chiao at the onset of cold or flu when cough, nasal or sinus congestion is present at the onset.

ADULTS: If taken alone or together with Yin Chiao or Zong Gan Ling, take 2-4 tablets every 3-4 hours.CHILDREN: Crush one tablet for every 25 lbs. of body weight. Mix with food or syrup.

INGREDIENTS and traditional functions Ilex Root Gang Mei Gen
Clears Heat and Resolves Toxins Evodia Leaf San Cha Ku
Clears Heat and Resolves Toxins Chrysanthemum Flower Ju Hua
Disperses Wind-Heat, Clears Liver Heat, Cools Lung Heat Vitex Herb Huang Jing Cao
Disperses Wind-Heat, Cools Lung Heat Isatis Root Ban Lan Gen
Clears Heat, Cleans Toxin Lonicera Flower Jin Yin Hua
Clears Heat Cleans Toxin, Relieves the Surface.

CAUTIONS Because of the short history of use of some of its ingredients (less than 100 years), Gan Mao Ling is Not Recommended For Use During Pregnancy. Prolonged use could cause digestive upset or loose stools.

To relieve colds which are too far developed to stop, or to relieve colds that begin with body aches, fever, and chills, I believe the best remedy is Zong Gan Ling.

ZONG GAN LING Also known as: Efficacious Cold Remedy

Used for symptomatic relief of severe or advanced head cold or flu. With symptoms such as headache, sore throat, nasal congestion, body aches, fever and chills.

Adults: Take three to six pills at a time, every four hours. If symptoms persist, see a licensed health care provider. Do not exceed 12 pills a day

Children: Use one tablet for each 30 lbs. of body weight. Crush and mix with food. Do not exceed 4 pills a day.

Kudzu Root also known as Ge Gen or Radix Puerariae
Clears Heat, Releases the Muscles, Nourishes Fluids,

Major Known ingredients: puerarin, puerarin-xyloside, daidzein, daidzin B-sitosterol, arachidic acid

Hairy Holly Root also known as Mao Tung Ching or Radix Illicis Pubescentis
Clears toxic Heat, Invigorates Blood

Major known ingredients: flavonoid glycosides, triterpenoids, tannin, ursolic acid, oleanolic acid

Vervain also known as Herb of the Cross or Ma Pien Tsao or Herba Verbenae
Clears Heat, Disperses Blood

Major known ingredients: hastatoside, verbanalin, verbenin

Woad Root, known as Indigo, Ban Lan Gen or Radix Isatidis
Quells Heat, Detoxifies Fire Poison, Benefits the Throat

Major known ingredients: indoxyl-B-glucoside, B-sitosterol, isatin, arginine, glutamine, proline, tyrosine

Wormwood Plant known as Qing Hao or Herba Artemisae
Clears Heat, Cools Blood, Clears Deficiency Fever, Clears Summer Heat

Major known ingredients: abrotamine, B-bourbonene, farnesyl acetate, caryophyllene, B-humulene, , artemesia ketone, vitamin A

Gypsum known as Shi Gao or Gypsum Fibrosum
Quells Fire, Clears Heat, Clears Stomach Fire rising to the Head

Major known ingredients: calcium sulfate, calcium oxide

Notopterygi known as Qiang Huo or Radix & Rhizome Notopterygium incisium
Releases the Exterior, Disperses Cold and Dampness, Alleviates Pain, Directs Herbs Upward

Major known ingredients: angelical, osthol, glabra lactone, bergaptin

Unlike Zhong Gan Ling imported from China, Dr. Shen's Zong Gan Ling contains no drugs, dyes, pharmaceuticals, animal products, or unlisted ingredients. Each tablet contains a generous amount (750 mgs.) of premium grade wildcrafted herbs. Each tablet is also coated with natural food glaze and shaped for easy swallowing

Dr. Shen's Zong Gan Ling is a modern (twentieth century) formula which uses a battery of heat clearing herbs, most of which have been shown to inhibit the growth of a wide range of microrganisms.

The course of treatment is a minimum of one dose and a maximum of two weeks per episode. Rest during the hours of administration, if possible, is a plus.

Strong Heat Clearing herbs such as these are not recommended as a daily supplement for continuous use.

Preventing a cold, requires a different formula altogether, one which strengthens the body's defensive energy. The most famous of these formulas is called Jade Windscreen or Jade Shield.

Jade Shield - Astragalus Combination

150 tablets, 650 mgs (a month's supply) $25.95 View Cart
Mail Order Call : Toll Free: 877-922.4372

Also known as Augmented Jade Windscreen, this formula is used to build defensive energy (wei qi) and Consolidate the Surface (protect against cold, flu, and other illness-causing invasions).

Formula Source: Jade Windscreen Powder, Teachings of Zhu Dan Xi
Actions: Augments the Qi, Stabilizes the Exterior
Augmentation: addition of Ligustrum lucidum (privit fruit Nu Zhen Zi and Cinammomi ramulus cinammon twig Gui Zhi Practitioner Note: Adding Ligustrum expands the immune enhancing property of astragalus while reducing the drying properties of both the atractylodes and the ledebouriella. Replacing some siler and bai zhu with cinnamon twig also reduces dryness. These changes makes the formula more potent and suitable for long-term use for those with dry or yin deficient constitutions.

Ingredients, Functions, and Major Chemical Constituents

Astragali Radix
Botanical Name: Astragalus Membricanaceus
English name: Milk-vetch root
Mandarin name: Huang Qi
Japanese name: Ogi
Korean name: Hwanggi
Taste: Sweet Nature: Warming, Extremely safe
Functions: Benefits the Qi, Lifts the Yang, Strengthens the Spleen/ (pancreas), Tonifies the Wei Qi (defensive energy)
Major constituents: 2,4-dihydroxy-5,6-dimethoxyisoflavane, choline, betain, kumkatenine, glucoronic acid, b=sitosterol

Ligustri Lucidi Fructus
Botanical Name: Ligustrum lucidum
English name: Privet fruit
Mandarin name: Nu Zhen Zi

Atractylodis Rhizoma
English name: Atractylodis rhizome
Mandarin name: Bai Zhu

Cinnamomum cassia
English name: Cinnamon twig
Mandarin name: Gui Zhi

Ledebouriellae Sesloidis Radix
Botanical Name: Ledebourilla or Saposhinikovia
English name: Siler
Mandarin name: Fang Feng

Many of these formulas are available in natural food stores, particularly on the West Coast. If you can't find them at your local health food store, you can certainly find them on line. I strongly suggest that you try them. They will open your eyes to the potency and reliability of Chinese herbals. And unlike many of the drugs at your drugstore, all of these are safe for children.

Remember that a mere hundred years ago, no one in the West had even heard of Chinese food. Today there are Chinese restaurants everywhere. I can assure you that Chinese cold medicines work, and will become as valuable to our culture in the 21st century as Chinese food became in the 20th century.

Author's Bio: 

Joel Harvey Schreck, CA, L.Ac.

Joel is Dr. Shen, to the thousand-plus daily visitors to
An acupuncturist and herbologist, he has been dispensing advice on the web since 1998. Schooled in Hong Kong and San Francisco, he's been practicing since 1987. He is co-founder of the Shen Clinic and co-founder of the popular Dr. Shen line of natural medicines, sold nationally in many natural food stores. He is also the creator of the website AcupunctureAmerica. Com. Joel has published numerous articles including articles in the California Journal of Oriental Medicine and on He is adjunct faculty member and lecturer at AIMC, Berkeley's Acupuncture and Integrative Medicine College. His book, A Patient's Guide to Chinese Medicine is published by Bay Tree Publications of Berkeley, California.