Traveling last winter when she started "coming down with something," Connie Crow resigned herself to being "miserable" for at least a week.
Crow anticipated all the classic cold and flu symptoms — cough, fever, body aches and sinus and chest congestion — before visiting licensed acupuncturist Nancy Burton, who prescribed Chinese herbs for the illness. Crow, 60, says she had never taken Chinese herbs or undergone acupuncture but soon was "sold" on the remedy.
"I was up and around in three days, and I was absolutely well in five," says Crow, an Ashland resident. "The Western medicine response is you just either live through it or you go on Sudafed."
Too often, doctors prescribe antibiotics for cold and flu symptoms, says Burton. Whereas antibiotic drugs work only against bacteria, many Chinese herbal remedies attack viruses, say local, licensed practitioners of Oriental medicine. And although many Americans have never heard of the ancient formulas, the more common ones are available in capsule form at local health-food and supplements stores, even well-stocked grocery stores.
"If people initially know what to do, they don't have to suffer with colds and flus," says Burton, whose practice, Reclaiming Our Health, is housed at Morningstar Healing Arts in Ashland.
"The Eastern concept of health is more preventative," she says. "You don't want the body too hot or too cold or too dry — too much energy or not enough energy."
For millennia, the Chinese have practiced a traditional form of medicine based on the body's energy — including yin-yang and the meridian network — the five elements and six "excesses" that influence the body, as well as the condition of the organs and blood and a person's overall constitution. In this system, symptoms of illness are treated with herbs, acupuncture, diet and other methods, regardless of the infectious agent to blame.
"Colds and flus in traditional Chinese medicine are the same thing," says Burton. "They've been treating (them) very effectively for centuries."
Unlike mainstream single-herb supplements, Chinese formulas on average contain five to 13 herbs that all work together, say practitioners. They consist of the primary herb — also known as the "emperor" — assisting, or "minister," herbs and herbs that "guide" and "harmonize," says Burton. Just as symptoms of illness can present a complex picture, Chinese herbal formulas are likewise multifaceted and concocted in myriad variations, say practitioners. One person's symptoms can have numerous remedies.
"There is hundreds of combinations and permutations," says Teresa Bresnan, a Medford-based practitioner of Oriental medicine. "We use a team of herbs."
Cinnamon and ginger are common components of some formulas prescribed for colds and flus. Both warm the body when "cold" symptoms, such as chills and body aches, are present. To alleviate fever, "cooling" formulas containing mint and honeysuckle may be prescribed, says Bresnan. If illnesses progress, numerous herbs can target buildup in the mucus membranes.
"There's formulas that specifically moisten the lungs and help get that up and out," says Burton, explaining that traditional Chinese medicine assigns much more importance to the body's production of mucus and phlegm than Western medicine.
"Dampness and phlegm is at the basis of so many health problems."
Also a chief culprit is poor diet, say Burton and Bresnan. Both practitioners prescribe "healing" foods along with herbs. Burton advocates vegetables while Bresnan favors broths made from organic bones and juices from greens. Both advise against consuming dairy — a major contributor to excess mucus — and sugar.
Because processed foods are difficult to digest, they lure white blood cells from their main task of guarding against pathogens, says Burton. It's no coincidence, she adds, that the rush on treatment for colds and flus coincides with holiday excesses.
"People start eating more comfort foods, more sweets ... which impair the immune system. Every day has become a feast day."
Impaired gastrointestinal function also severely compromises the immune system because about 80 percent of the body's lymph nodes are in the gut, says Bresnan. She touts unpasteurized sauerkraut and the fermented tea kombucha for replacing beneficial bacteria.
Burton notes that, contrary to the effect of antibiotic drugs, Chinese herbal remedies don't disrupt the body's healthy balance of bacteria. However, a medical professional should always be consulted, she says, for persistent symptoms of bacterial infection, such as dark-colored mucus and phlegm.
Both practitioners recommend the herbal formula "jade screen" to support the immune system and prevent illness all year, particularly in winter. Bresnan combines it and other remedies with echinacea, known to increase production of white blood cells, she says, and clinically effective despite recent studies suggesting otherwise.
"I just keep so many people healthy on echinacea."
Because not all herbs are high-quality, including some used in studies, she counsels clients to obtain formulas from a licensed practitioner rather than over the counter. A typical prescription costs about $40, she says.
"You go to Chinatown, you don't know what you're getting," she says. "We're making sure that they are very clean and pure."