Autumn is Lung Season: Breathe Easier with Chinese MedicineAdina Stanescu, R.TCMP October 1, 2016
Editor’s note: this article originally appeared in October 2008 issue and has been updated.
As the humid days of summer give way to the brittle, dry air of fall, Traditional Chinese Medicine practitioners begin to turn their attention to the lungs and their associated functions. Fall is the season of the lungs, presenting both a vulnerability (i.e. the onset of respiratory infections), as well as an opportunity to strengthen and nourish these vital organs. The lungs are very receptive to herbal tonics at this time, and many conditions such as asthma, smoking damage, chronic cough and susceptibility to bronchitis or sinusitis can be very well treated.
It is said in Chinese medicine that the lungs hate dryness. Dry fall air, pollution, chemicals and smoke are all ways in which dryness can invade and harm them. The proper moisture level of the lungs can be likened to a moist sponge after it has been rung out. The consistency of the lung fluids should be a little thicker than water and a little thinner than egg whites, and clear. Anything less (or more, as in the case of excessive phlegm) begins to impair their optimum function.
For those without significant lung symptoms, a course of self-administered kitchen treatment is sufficient to revitalize the lungs at this time of year. When there are complex problems, as in the case of asthma, chronic coughs, immune deficiency or sinus infections, consulting a qualified herbalist is recommended.
These are simple remedies with few ingredients which can be obtained from any Chinatown herbal pharmacy and/or Asian supermarket.
Fritillary, Pear and Rock Sugar Drink
As one of the tastiest and most famous fall tonics, this recipe is appropriate for lungs that tend to be hot and dry, such as smokers, chronic sore throat sufferers, those that become easily hoarse, or have dry lips and frequent thirst. It can also be taken in the absence of the above symptoms if dry indoor air feels uncomfortable.
- 30 grams finely ground Fritillary bulb (Chuang Bei Mu)
- 2 Asian or regular pears, peeled and quartered
- 2 Tbsp rock sugar, or 1 Tbsp of organic raw cane sugar
Bring all ingredients to a boil in 4 cups of water, then reduce heat to minimum and simmer, covered, for 30 minutes. Strain and drink cool, 1 or 2 cups per day. Store excess in the fridge for no more than 3 days. Eat pear pieces if desired. Can be taken regularly through the fall.
Whole flax Tea with Honey
This tea moisturizes the lungs, expels phlegm and calms cough. Flax seeds appear in old Western herbal manuals as a remedy for lung consumption, and “spitting blood.” The slightly lubricating consistency of this tea will attest to their action upon the lung. Honey is a well known expectorant and cough remedy.
- 1 Tbsp whole flax
- 1 tsp honey
Pour 1 cup boiling water over flax seeds and allow to steep 10 minutes. Strain and add honey.
Lingzhi Mushroom and Red Date Soup
This is an excellent tonic for asthma sufferers, especially if the asthma is not particularly severe. It is perfect for those that get occasional, mild attacks, or those in remission. It should be taken preventively between asthma episodes, and not as a treatment. If the asthma is poorly controlled and the person is on daily puffers, a much more complex treatment is needed and a TCM herbalist should be consulted.
- 30 grams sliced red lingzhi mushroom
- 40 grams dried red dates
- 10 grams rock sugar or raw cane sugar
Boil in 5 cups of water for 1 hour. Strain and take 1-2 cups per day, warm. Store excess in the fridge for no more than three days.
* A word on sugar, which appears in these and many other TCM kitchen remedies. Raw or crystallized “rock” sugar is considered a very useful tonic, because it simultaneously strengthens and cools – perfect attributes for autumn lung treatment. In contrast, white sugar, while also cooling, is quite damp and phlegm producing, and brown sugars are warming to the digestive organs and the uterus.
Other foods or herbs which moisten the lungs are sunflower seeds, almonds, lily bulbs, soft-boiled eggs and pork. A pear, almond and pork soup is sometimes served in Chinese restaurants in the fall and is a pleasant, comforting soup. If making it at home, be sure to use very lean pork and pork bones, and simmer for a long time.
If you suffer from asthma, chronic cough or bronchitis, immune deficiency or sinus infections, fall is a good time to consult a TCM herbalist for individualized treatment.
Asthma: Case History – A 58-year-old man was presented with a medical diagnosis of asthma. He wheezed upon climbing stairs and was taking corticosteroid and bronchodilator inhalers. The inhalers were not particularly effective, and he was subsequently told he may have emphysema and COPD from smoking since childhood. His job had also exposed him to very drying solvents and dust over many years. My questioning revealed that he only brought up very small, dry and hard clumps of brownish phlegm, resembling gravel. He had warm palms and occasional night sweating, and constant thirst for small sips of water. His tongue was entirely peeled of coating in the front lung section. (The tongue coating is a marker of body fluids.) He had a thin build, and was unable to put on weight. All of this clearly pointed to deficiency of lung fluids, also known as Lung Yin deficiency in Chinese medicine.
Herbs such as Fritillary, Scrophularia root, Trichosanthis fruit and Apricot seed were used to moisten the lung, expel phlegm and reduce cough and wheeze. The patient’s response to the first week of herbal treatment was dramatic: night sweating had stopped, the phlegm had liquefied and was easier to bring up, and the wheezing and pressure in the chest markedly decreased.
Within a few weeks he was off all inhalers and able to climb huge staircases in industrial buildings, which his job required. Follow-ups with a pulmonologist revealed no asthma, emphysema or COPD. After several months of continued treatment, he gained 12 pounds. This is a certain reflection of the fact that beneficial fluids were building not only in the lungs, but the whole body. A deep re-hydration was taking place. Treatment will continue this fall in order to take advantage of this season’s opportunity to restore the lung tissues and prevent any recurrence. We may use powerful tonics such as American ginseng, lily bulb, polygonatum root and fritillary bulb to lubricate the lungs with that all-important moisture.
Bronchitis / Chronic Cough: Acute bronchitis is an infection of the large bronchi (airway tubes) in the upper lungs. It is caused by viral or bacterial agents, and may progress to pneumonia or asthma if untreated. For this reason, and especially in those who know that they are prone to bronchitis, it is advisable to initiate timely treatment. Chinese herbs can treat acute bronchitis very well indeed, often eliminating the need for antibiotics. The famous formula Qing Qi Hua Tan Wan (Clear the Qi and Transform Phlegm Formula) is one possible prescription, taken in tea form until the infection clears. If asthma exists concurrently, the formula is modified with additional bronchodilating herbs to prevent complications. It is important to note that herbal pills are generally not sufficient to deal with an acute infection, unless prescribed at a very high dosage.
Chronic, persistent cough usually develops after a lung infection such as bronchitis (even if it was treated with antibiotics), after a bad cold, or as a consequence of smoking. It may last for weeks or months and usually presents with a dry throat and sticky, difficult to expectorate yellowish mucus. If a second course of antibiotics is prescribed, it typically doesn’t work.
TCM treats this type of dry, chronic cough with moistening herbs, as above, as well as herbs that specifically relieve coughing. Aster root or Cynanchium root are good examples, and when prepared with honey, their cough relieving and lung moistening ability is increased. As well, modern research has shown them to have a strong expectorant and bronchodilating action, and as such they can also be used for phlegmy or asthmatic coughs.
Sinuses: It is said in Chinese medicine that the lungs “open into the nose.” It is through the nose that viral or bacterial pathogens may penetrate, and as such healthy nasal mucosa is very important for immunity against colds, flus and sinus infections.
As with the lungs, we don’t want these tissues to be too wet nor too dry. If there are year-round allergies, it is likely there is excessive phlegm in the nasal cavity, as well as chronic inflammation. The patient blows out thick mucus and may be prone to sinus headaches and secondary bacterial infections following the common cold. In such cases, we use herbs such as Scutellaria root, Dahurican angelica and Houttynia cordata to remove heat and phlegm from the nose, kill bacteria and restore the mucous lining. It is absolutely possible to treat sinus infections quickly and effectively with herbs and avoid the need for antibiotics. This is particularly indicated for those who get several infections a year and who are likely to have become resistant to conventional medication. If the course of treatment is followed to the end, the sinus infections will not recur.
Immune Deficiency: It seems that some people have no defence against the contagious “bugs” of winter. As soon as the season changes, they have their first cold, only to be followed by several more. In TCM, we say their Wei Qi (the defensive Qi/Energy) is low. It is the lungs that are in charge of diffusing this energy to the surface of the body, to function as an armour against the elements. And it is the elements that are thought to carry the pathogens to us, as indeed we need not worry much about colds and flus in summer. For this reason, bundling up against the cold and wind is the first step in protecting ourselves from respiratory infections. I have had many patients trace a chronic lung problem to an extreme exposure to the cold or rain, confirming TCM’s description of the lungs as delicate organs.
Fortunately, there are very many herbal formulas that strengthen the lungs and their defensive function. They vary according to the condition and age of the patient, but may include Astragalus root, North American ginseng, Codonopsis root, Schisandra berries or the famous Goji berry. It is important not to try and self-treat. Occasionally the lungs will have excessive phlegm, and in such cases this must be cleared before strong tonics can be prescribed. It is also not appropriate to take tonic formulas during a bout of influenza, but only between infections.
Immune formulas can be taken in pill, powder, tea or syrup form. Syrups are especially good for children, as they are quite pleasant and easy to administer, while packing a strong immune punch.
Lastly, at the beginning of the season, consider visiting your herbalist to get a supply of medicines to have on hand, should an infection strike. Treatment of colds and flus with TCM is much like surfing: timing is everything. By the time you get an appointment and the infection has already been around for two or three days, results are not the best. But if treated right away, they are often quite spectacular.