Traditional Chinese Medicine for Asthma and COPD

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Based on thousands of years of practice, Traditional Chinese Medicine is the world’s most effective system for preventing and treating respiratory conditions

Just imagine what would happen if the practising physicians, the ones who come into contact directly with suffering humanity, had some acquaintance with Eastern systems of healing!” ~ C.G. Jung

In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), the term ‘respiratory disorder’ encompasses a range of conditions that include asthma, COPD, chronic bronchitis, and emphysema.

Chronic bronchitis can develop into emphysema, but emphysema does not necessarily develop in this way; for some people, it can develop as a result of asthma or pneumonia. Furthermore, COPD is not a single disease, but rather a term that includes all conditions having to do with breathing difficulty and chronic lung problems.

TCM treats each respiratory condition with a unique approach depending on the patient’s constitution, but in all manifestations of this disease the self-care method is the same.


Asthma is a disease affecting approximately 5% of the world’s population and is the most common reason for rushing to the emergency room with shortness of breath. Other symptoms include coughing, wheezing, and tightness in the chest. In TCM textbooks, asthma is divided into two categories – extrinsic or intrinsic. Extrinsic asthma is often found in children, although it may attack all age groups. It can be triggered by the inhalation of pollutants such as dust, animal dander, mould spores, or automobile emissions. Exposure to such triggers, even in trace quantities, may trigger an attack of asthma. Intrinsic asthma commonly occurs in adults over the age of forty and is triggered by infections, swift weather changes, emotional swings, or drug side effects.

Both types of asthma are characterized by the body’s hypersensitivity toward external stimuli, leading to constriction of the airways, along with an excessive excretion of mucus, resulting in impaired breathing.

For people with asthma, strengthening the immune system is a prime strategy in treatment. This involves eliminating allergenic foods, correcting digestive problems, establishing the proper balance of essential fatty acids, and using good oils such as olive, coconut, and sesame.

In addition, nutritionally rich foods like raw nuts, wild fish, and whole grains such as brown rice, buckwheat, quinoa and millet should be included in the diet. Avoid artificial colouring and flavourings, along with caffeine, alcohol, tobacco, sugar, and all preservatives.

It is also important to remove all household chemicals, and to open the windows every day to let fresh air into the house. Use natural detergents for laundry, and white vinegar or baking soda for kitchen cleaning. Natural soaps, organic shampoos, natural toothpastes and skin products are strongly recommended. The good news is that there are lots of organic personal hygiene products available on the market. Take advantage of that, and feel the difference.

Asthma Case History – Mary is a middle-aged high school teacher who had been prescribed Prednisone for a number of years by her GP to help her asthma. She had to carry a puffer with her and use it from time to time. As the condition worsened, she turned to alternative medicine. Aftering exploring and applying a variety of natural methods including herbs, vitamin supplements, and spinal manipulation, the asthma attacks lessened in frequency but still remained a problem.

After her first session of acupuncture at my clinic, she felt her chest open and she could breathe deeply – a long awaited good feeling. After a few more sessions of acupuncture, she was free of chemical drugs. Mary was motivated to make lifestyle changes, which she managed with admirable self-discipline. Her progress was the outcome of team work involving both patient and service provider – a crucial part of Chinese health care practice.

In my view, herbs are often not needed for children with asthma, as long as the child is nourished with organic whole food. Proper nutrition not only helps to build a strong defense against asthma, it is also fundamental to physical and mental development. Fast food, soft drinks, deep fried foods, chips, and ice cream contain chemicals and should be avoided as they compromise the immune system and can trigger asthma attacks. Fresh air and sunlight are essential for a growing body. Daily outdoor activities are highly recommended; many children with asthma can be healed through optimizing diet and proper exercise.

Acupuncture works well for alleviating symptoms in children. Very fine needles are used and a ‘flying needling skill’ employed. This is a rapid ‘inserting and pulling needle’ technique that minimizes discomfort to the point that most children accept this treatment with no problem.


Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), also known as chronic obstructive lung disease (COLD), is a term used to describe chronic lung disease characterized by coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath, and respiratory impairment. There are 35 million people in the U.S. who have one form or another of COPD. It is the fourth leading cause of death worldwide, claiming more than three million lives annually. Conventional western medicine treats COPD with chemical drugs to control symptoms, but this does not slow the progression of the disease.

Based on thousands of years of empirical observation and scientific experimentation, Traditional Chinese Medicine is the world’s most effective system for preventing and treating respiratory conditions. For many patients, respiratory problems that have defied conventional medicine can be effectively treated through TCM methods such as acupuncture, herbs, nutritional therapy, and breathing exercises. TCM approaches can ease symptoms of COPD and heal the underlying causes. Even better, by improving the immunity and the resistance to pathogens – not just the lung functions – Chinese medicine can help sufferers regain their well-being and quality of life for years to come.

Acupuncture and Herbal Formulas

Acupuncture has been an essential part of Traditional Chinese Medicine for more than five thousand years. As science has confirmed its benefits and effectiveness, acupuncture has become more widely recognized and used worldwide. Clinical evidence shows that acupuncture reduces shortness of breath, enhances the ability to exercise, improves the results of pulmonary function testing, and helps bring about a significant increase in overall wellness for people with COPD.

While acupuncture balances the body’s energies through the external application of needles, herbs alter the body’s internal energies and strengthen organs substantially. In both the East and West, herbs were the first medicines available. Records of Chinese herbal medicine date back to the third century BC, and have been updated regularly since then. Chinese herbs are prescribed to ease symptoms, and to treat conditions based on the underlying causes. For people with COPD there is a vital group of herbs known as ‘tonic medicine.’ Tonic herbs and formulas provide a wide range of beneficial effects for the lungs as well as for the whole body. They repair damaged systems, purify and enrich blood, increase blood oxygen concentration, and increase stamina.

Tonic herbs can be taken by healthy people as well. After full recovery from illness, tonic herbs can be taken to maintain health, and to prevent relapse. As the environment becomes increasingly hostile, foods are seriously contaminated by chemicals and pollutants. COPDs are easier to prevent than to treat, and tonic herbs provide a holistic way to safeguard overall well-being after the patient is healed.

Food as Medicine

In Chinese medical tradition, diet and nutrition have always formed the first line of defence against disease, and food has been regarded as a form of medicine. Certain foods promote inflammation and mucus production; avoiding them can help relieve these symptoms and ease the bronchoconstriction suffered by those with COPD. Foods that reduce mucus and inflammation include celery, carrots, spinach, beets, and more. Consumption of these healthy foods can result in increased breathing capacity, and decreased susceptibility to infection and the adverse influence of environmental toxins. A TCM practitioner may provide a personalized nutrition plan for each patient, based upon the patient’s age, constitution, and manifestation and history of ailments.

Constipation, which often occurs among people with COPD, can be treated with fiber-rich foods such as sweet potatoes, raw milled flaxseeds, and some green vegetables. Caution should be taken when using laxatives, whether they are natural or synthetic products. Laxatives hasten and irritate the intestines if used too often, and can actually increase constipation.


Moderate exercise is essential for COPD patients.  Exercise enables the heart to pump blood effectively to the body, and the muscles to extract oxygen from the blood more efficiently.  Exercise can also uplift the spirit and help increase the quality of sleep. It is so beneficial that even a short 10 minute walk can relieve breathing difficulty, when it’s done on a daily basis.

Many COPD patients are elderly, perhaps fragile or debilitated; in these cases excessive exercise should be avoided. At the beginning, take your time, and go step by step. Have patience with, and confidence in, yourself. Yoga, Qigong and Tai Chi are all forms of gentle exercise that yield therapeutic effects, but guidance and proper training are recommended.


Meditation has many medical applications, both curative and preventive. Like walking, meditation is a practice anybody can master and benefit from. It is also a good idea to devote some time each day to sitting still; focus on your breathing in order to acquire balance, harmony, and tranquility. Every time you sit down to meditate, regardless of the style or method, you are coming one step closer to recovering from COPD, one step closer to re-establishing a direct spiritual link to the universe and its healing forces.


To create health, you need a new kind of knowledge, based on a deeper concept of life.” ~ Deepak Chopra, M.D.

Although it will take time and patience to treat COPD and reclaim your health, I am confident that, if you exercise willpower, maintain a positive attitude, and work with a qualified TCM practitioner, you will be able to breathe more easily, your overall health will improve, and you will be well on your way to a better quality of life.

Jenny Shi received her Doctorate in Traditional Chinese Medicine and Acupuncture from the renowned Hubei Traditional Chinese Medical College in China. She certified in Pharmacology at the University of Illinois and has extensive teaching and research credits, including projects sponsored by the UN World Health Organization. She has been in practice for more than thirty years and has run her own clinic in Toronto since 1997. For an appointment, please call (416) 707-7552.

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  1. S
    August 22, 05:51 Sarah

    Hi, I’m wondering if you can help. I was taking 5 drops of Codyceps tincture every morning after breakfast for a month to help with my COPD. I felt better at 1st but then noticed a brown circle on the under side of my arm measuring half an inch in diameter. I stopped using Codyceps and it went. Please could you let me know what you thing the reason was for this and is it safe to take it again? Many thanks

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