Treating Colds and Flu Naturally with Everyday Foods: The Complete Guide According to Chinese Medicine

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We’ve all been there. You wake up one morning and feel “ugh.” The nose starts to drip, your eyes are itching, you’re sneezing, your head is starting to pound, and oh, you’re coughing. You’re thinking, “Oh, no, this can’t be happening. Not now, I have so much work to do. Or, my trip is coming up—I can’t get sick!” And what do you do? Roll back over and cover yourself with a blanket? If you’re lucky. But the reality is you have a job and maybe kids, and you don’t get to take a sick day. So you push yourself to keep going, and on your way to or from work you stop at the corner drugstore and load up on cough drops, cough syrup, Vitamin C packets, maybe grab a couple of cans of chicken soup, and if you’re feeling really desperate you throw in the heavy hitters like Mucinex, Sudafed, or DayQuil/NyQuil. Or maybe, like me, you want to go the more natural route. You’ve already used your Neti-Pot a couple of times, you’re drinking warm lemon tea with honey, and searching Pinterest for “natural remedies to cure a cold.”

Does this sound familiar?

Or how about this? You’ve got the body aches like someone beat you up with a baseball bat and left you there. You’re freezing one minute while hunkered under a mountain of blankets, and the next you’re flailing them off of you because you’re burning up. Almost immediately you forget what it feels like to be well, and you dramatically think you’re going to feel this terrible forever. Oh wait, is that just me?

What if I told you not all colds are the same? And taking a generic “cold & flu” medicine doesn’t work for every person or every situation? According to Chinese Medicine, there are at least 3 types of colds, and the types of symptoms you are experiencing are the key to understanding what type of cold you may have.

Would you rather be proactive in overcoming your flu symptoms instead of having to “wait it out”?

Are you interested in natural or alternative medicine, but when it comes down to it you don’t know what to do, so you turn to the typical over-the-counter options at the drugstore?

Have you been frustrated by Western medicine and the fact that medication is typically prescribed to treat the symptoms but not the root cause?

Then welcome to Treating Colds and Flu Naturally with Everyday Foods: The Complete Guide According to Chinese Medicine.

I wrote this guide with you in mind. To give you the knowledge you need to know AND the steps you need to take in order to help yourself or your family during a cold or flu.



About Anne

Hi, I’m Anne. I’m not a doctor, or a dietician, a naturopath, or someone who has a medical license or certificate.

I'm you.

I’m a person who is fed up with big pharmaceutical companies and doctors who default to a prescription for every minor (and sometimes major) thing. I’m someone who believes in alternative, natural medicine and who wishes it was more accessible, appreciated, and talked about here in the United States. I’m the type of person who reads alternative health books for FUN in my spare time. I’ve spent the last two years of my life researching, reading, and trying to understand what was once a foreign way of thinking to me—Traditional Chinese Medicine—all in the hopes of helping my sick husband

Spoiler alert! It worked.

Now let me backup and tell you the story.

Two and a half years ago my husband, Steve, noticed his lymph nodes on the right side of his neck were swollen. Like most of us, we thought “oh, you’re probably fighting something, they will go down.” After months of feeling them and realizing they were not improving, we asked our chiropractor and holistic doctor her opinion. She felt around and shockingly said they were about 6x the normal size! She drew blood and checked for any abnormalities. Those test results came back clear but inconclusive, and she suggested we see our general practitioner. He wasn’t sure what the issue was and ordered an ultrasound. 

As Steve laid on the hospital bed during his ultrasound, I stood plastered against the back wall and prayed a thousand times that I wasn’t part of some Grey’s Anatomy episode where the technicians can’t say anything until the doctor confirms that it’s cancer, but all the nurses know anyways and walk away shaking their heads in sympathy. Thankfully the ultrasound results came back “normal,” but it also left us with no answers. The doctor didn’t know how to define the problem or how to treat it; he wanted to send Steve for a biopsy but had no clear reason for why that would be necessary, other than the fact he didn’t know how to explain or treat the inflamed lymph node chain. That’s when we turned towards alternative methods.

Steve and I in Seattle

Steve and I in Seattle

Steve started researching essential oils, superfoods, lymphatic massage—Yes! That’s a thing. We had so much hope with each new method we tried, and nothing made a lick of difference. After months of spending money and driving ourselves mad with research, Steve had a serious interest in trying a Chinese herbalist. We trekked down to Chicago’s Chinatown and stepped foot into the very unfamiliar world of Chinese medicine. The herbalist checked his pulse, analyzed his tongue, asked a few questions, and felt his swollen neck. In a matter of minutes, she prescribed a special tea concoction (still have no idea what it was!) and a list of foods under the “warming” category that he shouldn’t be eating. It was like a foreign language. Why couldn’t he eat strawberries, nuts, peppers, or beef? The list went on.

We struggled to make sense of it all because at that moment in time, we didn’t understand any of it and the herbalist didn’t explain anything. Just, “eat this; don’t eat that.” I’m not one who can operate on directions without an explanation. If I can understand the why part, then I can reign in my self-control and do things I may not like to do in order to heal. But just telling me that we shouldn’t eat some of the main staples in our diet like garlic, peppers, and onions was way too much for me to handle.

As the main cook in our house, I was frustrated because I didn’t know how to cook for Steve or what would benefit him. I was overwhelmed by the seemingly long list of foods he “couldn’t” eat (during the healing period) and the fact that there was no path to follow as to what he “should” eat or for how long. So I rented some library books and dove in. I learned thermal temperature of foods and how it affects our bodies. I learned in-depth which foods were best to clear Steve’s “damp heat”, and how to cook for him. And after two years of making BIG changes to our diet, his lymph nodes have gone, from 6x the size they should be, back to normal!

Credit: Anda Marie Photography

Credit: Anda Marie Photography

As I began reading and learning about this ancient system of Chinese medicine my mind was blown—suddenly dots were connecting and I was able to understand so many things about my body that I once thought were independent and had no correlation. I have since learned that is all wrong. I immediately began wishing that everyone knew this information. I was learning so much but growing increasingly frustrated, because I wasn’t able to easily share my knowledge with others, since the information was so extensive, and they were not familiar with basic Chinese medicine concepts.

Thus, the idea for this guide was born. There probably isn’t a single man or woman who hasn’t been plagued with a cold or the flu. On average, Americans contract two to three colds per year. I decided this was the perfect way for me to share the knowledge I had obtained and apply it directly to a specific problem. Chinese medicine can help a myriad of health problems, but instead of learning everything and being overwhelmed, why not just learn what you need to know for that problem specifically?

I want to show you what I’ve learned and to teach you how you can do it too. I’m not claiming to be an expert. I’m not even going to pretend I understand it all. But I do know enough to have seen a difference and to know that you can do it too.

In this guide you will learn how Eastern medicine and Western medicine approaches food and ailments–specifically the common cold and flu–differently, and also find recipes that will help you incorporate the healing properties of foods into your diet quickly and easily.

In Section 1 you will get a quick jump start if you are sick and don’t have the time or energy right now to read this guide in its entirety. This section overviews the different types of colds and flu and gives you some immediate tips on how to overcome your current symptoms using food.

In Section 2 you will learn how Western medicine views the common cold and flu and how it differs from Eastern medicine. You will also learn the 3 different types of colds based on Traditional Chinese Medicine and how to distinguish the symptoms of each.

In Section 3 you will learn the basics of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), the foundation of this guide, in order to make sense of why food and cooking methods are such powerful healing tools.

In Section 4 you will learn nutrition from an Eastern medicine perspective and why it’s important to understand how the properties and flavors of food, as well as different cooking methods, can influence our body’s internal balance.

In Section 5 you will learn how to take the knowledge from Sections 3 and 4 and apply it through some of the most effective nutritional cold and flu remedies—ones that you can prepare in your own kitchen. You will also gain access to targeted, easy-to-follow recipes that can help alleviate symptoms and get you back on your feet quickly.

In Section 6 you will learn some tips on how to build immunity and help prevent or reduce the likelihood of future colds and flu.

Needless to say, this guide does NOT provide sure “cures” for any illness. It does, however, provide you with a unique opportunity to improve your health by learning an alternative approach rooted in time-honored traditions that have been around for thousands of years.

And now I have to say a fun disclaimer. I encourage you to consult with a doctor before making any health changes, especially any changes related to a specific diagnosis or condition. No information in this guide should be relied upon to make a medical diagnosis or determine treatment for a medical condition. The information in this guide is not intended to replace a one-on-one relationship with a qualified healthcare professional and is not intended as medical advice. Please click here to familiarize yourself with the full disclaimer.

Now that that’s out of the way...

Are you ready? I’m so glad you’re here. Now let’s get started!

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First off, are you sick with a cold or flu right now? If so, read below in Section 1 for some quick and easy wins that may help you get a handle on it and feel better.

Not sick currently but want to learn more so you’re ready the next time you, a friend, or a family member are coming down with a cold or flu? Feel free to skip ahead to Section 2.


Right off the bat, you need to understand that in Eastern medicine, not all colds and flu are alike—there are 3 main types of cold and flu, primarily deciphered by your symptoms. So the first step is figuring out what kind you have. I will dive into this and explain everything in greater detail later, but right now we need to set you on a path to healing so that you can feel better! Let’s get started.

1. DECIPHER THE SYMPTOMS

(Pick 2-3 major symptoms and align with best category)

WIND-COLD

WIND-HEAT

SUMMER HEAT + DAMPNESS

  • Chills
  • Shivering
  • Aches and pains (Neck and shoulder especially)
  • Stiffness
  • Low grade or no fever
  • Itchy throat
  • Sneezing
  • Coughing (Harsh, coarse, and loud sound)
  • An occipital headache (Pain in the upper neck, back of the head, and behind the eyes.)
  • Runny nose with thin clear discharge
  • Cough with white and thin phlegm
  • No sweating
  • No thirst
  • Aversion to cold
  • Thin White tongue coating, (The normal tongue coating is thin and white with clear grains, evenly scattered and rooted to the tongue. It cannot be wiped off, and is neither wet or dry, sticky or greasy.)
  • Moderate fever
  • Shivering
  • Sneezing
  • Cough (Hacking, choking cough with coarse sound)
  • Stuffy or runny nose with thick yellow mucus
  • Swollen tonsils
  • Sore throat
  • Thirst
  • Little or no sweating
  • Aversion to cold
  • Headache
  • Body aches
  • Red tongue w/ thin and slightly yellow coating, (The normal tongue coating is thin and white with clear grains, evenly scattered and rooted to the tongue. It cannot be wiped off, and is neither wet or dry, sticky or greasy.)
  • Fever
  • Irritability
  • Stuffy chest
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Puffy, swollen eyes and face
  • Aversion to wind
  • Cough with watery mucus
  • Sweating
  • Thirst without desire to drink
  • Itchy skin and rashes which move from place to place
  • Painfully swollen joints and aching muscles
  • Symptoms are worse in humidity
  • General feeling of heaviness
  • Red tongue w/ thick yellow and possibly greasy or sticky coating, (The normal tongue coating is thin and white with clear grains, evenly scattered and rooted to the tongue. It cannot be wiped off, and is neither wet or dry, sticky or greasy.)

2. FOODS TO AVOID WHILE SICK

  • Avoid congesting foods that may cause Dampness in the body such as: dairy, rich meat (e.g. beef, lamb, sausage, etc.), eggs, bread, fried or greasy foods, saturated fat and sugar, concentrated juices (especially orange & tomato), tofu and other soy products, chocolate, and alcohol
  • Avoid eating lots of cold foods like salads, cold sandwiches, chilled drinks, ice pops, and ice cream.
  • Avoid raw foods which also contribute to Cold and Dampness. Salads, fruits and fruit juices should be eaten in moderation.

3. FOODS TO EAT WHILE SICK

Almonds, Anise, Basil, Cinnamon, Chestnut, Cumin, Dill, Fennel, Garlic, Ginger, Green Onion, Kale, Leek, Mustard Greens, Oat, Onion, Parsnip, Pine nut, Quinoa, Rosemary, Spearmint, Turnip, Walnuts, Winter squash Amaranth, Banana, Barley, Broccoli, Cauliflower, Celery, Chrysanthemum, Daikon Radish, Fig, Green Tea, Kudzu root, Lemon/Lime, Mulberry, Mung Bean, Napa cabbage, Peach, Pear, Peony root, Peppermint, Pomegranate, Radish, Seaweed (Kelp), Spinach, Strawberry, Watercress Aduki beans, Alfalfa, Anise, Barley, Bitter Melon, Bok Choy, Cabbage, Celery, Cucumber, Daikon radish, Grapefruit, Green Tea, Job’s tears (Coix), Kiwi, Lemon, Mung bean, Oregano, Papaya, Parsley, Rye, Seaweed (Kelp), Summer squash, Watermelon, Watercress, Winter Melon (Wax Gourd), Zucchini

4. RECIPES

Ginger & Green Onion Tea

The ginger and green onions in this tea will raise your internal body temperature to promote perspiration and counteract the Cold symptoms.

Serves: 1

Ingredients:

  • 1 -inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and sliced thinly
  • 3 green onions sliced into small pieces
  • 2 1/2 cups of water
  • Honey, to taste (optional)

Directions:

  1. In a small saucepan, combine the ginger, green onion, and water and bring to a boil.
  2. Reduce the heat and simmer, covered with the lid slightly ajar, for 10 minutes.
  3. 3. Strain the ginger and green onions.
  4. Add honey (if using) to taste.

Pear Tea

Asian pears are cooling and help clear Heat, specifically benefitting the lungs. They help dissolve phlegm, stop coughing, moisten lungs, and increase fluids which decreases thirst and soothes a sore throat.

Serves: 1

Ingredients:

  • 1 Asian Pear (Snow Pear) Ideally use an Asian pear; if you can’t get one, Bartlett pear can be substituted.
  • Water

Directions:

  1. Chop the pear, discarding the core.
  2. In a small saucepan, cover the pear with water and bring to a boil.
  3. Once boiling, reduce heat and simmer the pear pieces for 15 minutes.
  4. Strain the liquid to remove the pear, then drink the tea. You can eat the cooked pear as well.

Grapefruit Seed Extract (or Citrus Seed Extract)

Citrus seed extract is a natural antibiotic derived primarily from the seeds of grapefruit. Slightly warming in thermal nature and exceptionally bitter, citrus seed extract is very effective for drying Damp conditions (like phlegm and mucus) in the body.

Serves: 1

Ingredients:

  • 10 drops of citrus seed extract (also known as grapefruit seed extract)
  • 5 oz water

Directions:

  1. Drop citrus seed extract into water and drink.
  2. Repeat 3 times per day until symptoms improve. Gradually reduce dosage until symptoms are clear.

If you’re looking for more recipes, be sure to download the FREE companion recipe PDF that goes along with this guide. It includes 43 recipes to kill the cold and flu organized by Wind-Cold, Wind-Heat, Summer Heat & Dampness.


I’m guessing all of this might seem pretty foreign to you right now. I’m using terminology that may as well be a different language, and you’re probably wondering why or how any of this could actually work. I urge you to keep reading. If you’re sick and can’t read everything right now, download this free guide and come back to it. If you’re not currently sick, now is the perfect time to read and digest this information so you can be prepared for the next time. (Hey, you’re also going to be learning some tips for staying healthy and not getting sick as frequently in the future!)

Now, let’s dive in deeper and learn more about how Western and Eastern medicine views colds and flu differently.


Growing up in a Western culture I was taught that the common cold—also known as an upper respiratory infection—is caused by a virus which can live in the air for more than three hours and can easily spread from one person to another through casual contact. You can pick up a virus from an infected person’s hands or from contaminated objects like toys, books, telephones, toilet handles, and tables. Once transmitted to the nose or eyes, the virus finds its way into the throat and windpipe, causing these tissues to become inflamed and filled with mucus. Because scientists have yet to find a way to kill viruses, there isn’t a cure for this temporarily debilitating illness. We have to wait it out. Most doctors recommend getting lots of rest, increasing vitamin C intake, drinking lots of clear fluids to help flush out the cold virus more quickly, and taking aspirin to alleviate fever and aches and pains. If symptoms persist, doctors frequently suggest common over-the-counter medications used to reduce symptoms like Mucinex, cough syrups, Sudafed, DayQuil/NyQuil, etc. Although a cold is usually more of an annoyance than a serious medical condition, in the elderly or chronically ill it poses an added danger because it can lead to other infections like pneumonia and bronchitis.

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Similar in nature, but even worse, is the flu. I’m not talking about the puking-your-guts-out stomach flu; I’m talking about the knock-you-on-your-ass, put-you-out-of-commission-for-two- weeks influenza virus. You know these symptoms from a mile away—chills, fever, aches and pains, nausea, cough, and congestion—plainly, you feel like shit. Influenza is a contagious disease caused by one of two types of viruses: influenza A or influenza B. Each type encompasses several different strains. The influenza virus is tricky; once a strain spreads through a population, it changes in structure and can result in a new form of flu. Then, about every 10 years, an entirely new strain of flu emerges. Since it’s easiest for the flu to spread from person to person when temperatures and humidity are low (and we are most likely to be in crowded indoor spaces), most cases occur in the fall and winter months.

Like the common cold, the influenza virus cannot be cured, and only the symptoms can be treated. Doctors recommend bed rest, aspirin to reduce fever and muscle aches, and vaporizers or nasal sprays to relieve congestion. In general, the same nutritional advice is given to “treat” the flu as the common cold–increase your intake of fluids and eat a wide variety of whole foods. If symptoms progress doctors will prescribe medications like Tamiflu, Relenza, or Rapivab—antiviral drugs that may help prevent flu complications or shorten the severity and duration of flu once you have it. Although a bout with the flu is (let’s be honest) extremely unpleasant, it usually is not serious to otherwise healthy people. The elderly, chronically ill, babies, and the immune-deficient, however, run higher risks from infection with a flu virus.

All in all, a Western perspective views the common cold and flu as relatively the same for every person—same virus, same remedy, and treatment approach.

Remember as a kid when your mom would say, “You need to bundle up, you’re going to catch a cold!” I remember as I got older that myth got debunked—saying you aren’t catching a cold from being cold, but more so you’re getting sick because the coldness is weakening your immune system. Well, turns out Mom wasn’t so off.

In Eastern medicine the common cold and flu are described as the external environment (Wind) entering the body from the exterior body surfaces it comes into contact with. This is why it was important for you to wear a hat, bundle in a scarf, and zip up that jacket!  This does not mean climate is the only factor. The common cold is spawned by contact with a virus, and if your immunity is weakened by many possible causes, including overexposure to wind, the virus grows and causes symptoms like the common cold and flu.

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In contrast to the Western perspective, Eastern medicine believes the common cold comes in at least 3 different varieties, each calling for a different kind of remedy. Specifically, the varieties are Wind-Cold, Wind-Heat, and Summer Heat & Dampness. Hold tight, I will explain what those mean shortly.

From this same Eastern perspective, there are two basic types of flu: flu in which fever and other heat signs predominate (Wind-Heat) and flu in which chills predominate (Wind-Cold). Traditional Chinese medicine differentiates very little between colds and flu and considers both to be Exterior conditions. From here on out in this guide, I will not be differentiating between the common cold and flu, but will instead focus on the symptoms and how they fall into the different Wind-Cold, Wind-Heat, or Summer Heat & Dampness categories.

You may be wondering, what the hell is an “Exterior” condition?

Signs of an Exterior Condition

  • Sudden onset
  • Recent condition; short duration (perhaps 1-2 weeks)
  • Simultaneous fevers and chills
  • Stuffy head, runny nose, sneezing, thin coating on tongue
  • Achiness, stiff neck, recent headache
  • Intolerance to wind or cold/reluctance to go outside

An Exterior condition means that the illness first affects the body surfaces that are exposed directly to the environment—in the case of colds and flu, this means the mucous membranes of the nose, throat, and lungs. (Contagious diseases that affect the sinuses, bronchioles, and throat often have Exterior signs in their initial stages, but if not treated soon enough become more progressed and serious, resulting in an Interior condition. These types of conditions will not be discussed in this guide. If you have been sick for an extended period of time, please see a doctor.) The sooner you notice these Exterior conditions and take action, the better, as it is usually easier to cure Exterior conditions when they are still on the surface of the body—when they still have the above Exterior symptoms. These Exterior symptoms can then be categorized as a Wind-Cold, Wind-Heat, or Summer Heat & Dampness conditions.

WIND-COLD

In an attack of Wind-Cold, you feel chilly with low grade or no fever and experience body aches, headache, cough, and stuffy nose with watery nasal discharge.

Invasion of Wind-Cold Symptoms

  • Chills
  • Shivering
  • Aches and pains (neck and shoulder especially)
  • Stiffness
  • Low grade or no fever
  • Itchy throat
  • Sneezing
  • Coughing (harsh, coarse, and loud sound)
  • An occipital headache (pain in the upper neck, back of the head, and behind the eyes)
  • Runny nose with clear discharge
  • No sweating
  • No thirst
  • Aversion to cold
  • Thin White tongue coating (The normal tongue coating is thin and white with clear grains, evenly scattered and rooted to the tongue. It cannot be wiped off, and is neither wet or dry, sticky or greasy.)
Wind-Cold Tongue

WIND-HEAT

In an attack of Wind-Heat, you have a fever or feel like you do, possibly with chills, and also may experience a sore throat, thirst, yellow urine, and a stuffy nose with a thick yellow discharge.

Invasion of Wind-Heat Symptoms

  • Moderate fever
  • Shivering
  • Sneezing
  • Cough (hacking, choking cough with coarse sound)
  • Stuffy or runny nose with yellow mucus
  • Swollen tonsils
  • Sore throat
  • Thirst
  • Little or no sweating
  • Aversion to cold
  • Headache
  • Body aches
  • Red tongue w/ thin and slightly yellow coating (The normal tongue coating is thin and white with clear grains, evenly scattered and rooted to the tongue. It cannot be wiped off, and is neither wet or dry, sticky or greasy.)
Wind-Heat Tongue

SUMMER HEAT WITH DAMPNESS

Unlike Wind-Cold or Wind-Heat which typically occur during colder weather and low humidity, Summer Heat with Dampness occurs in late summer/early fall when temperatures and humidity have been high. In an attack of Summer Heat with Dampness, you may have a slight fever, heaviness in the head, aching in the arms and legs, thirst without a desire to drink, yellow urine, and loss of appetite or nausea.

Invasion of Summer Heat with Dampness Symptoms

  • Fever
  • Irritability
  • Stuffy chest
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Puffy, swollen eyes and face
  • Aversion to wind
  • Cough with watery mucus
  • Sweating
  • Thirst without desire to drink
  • Itchy skin and rashes which move from place to place
  • Painfully swollen joints and aching muscles
  • Symptoms are worse in humidity
  • General feeling of heaviness
  • Red tongue w/ thick yellow and possibly greasy or sticky coating (The normal tongue coating is thin and white with clear grains, evenly scattered and rooted to the tongue. It cannot be wiped off, and is neither wet or dry, sticky or greasy.)
Summer Heat+Dampness Tongue

Let's talk about symptoms for a minute.

In Chinese medicine, the key is understanding a person’s symptoms and using specific foods as a treatment to restore balance to the body’s internal environment so the virus can no longer survive.

Symptoms may vary through the course of any illness. Have you ever experienced a cold where at first you have a lot of thin clear mucus running all the time? (These are signs of Cold in your body.) And then, what seems like out of nowhere, you have really thick yellow mucus that is hard to get rid of. (Heat signs) This is completely normal, but how often do you keep treating it with the same “cold” remedies?

According to the perspective of Eastern medicine, the foods and herbs used for treatment need to change when the symptoms change.

So in the example above, at the beginning of not feeling well and having Cold signs, you would begin treatment using Warming herbs and foods, and once the symptoms switch to signs of Heat you would use Cooling herbs and foods instead. (I will discuss what it means for foods to be Warming or Cooling in Section 4.)

If you think you may fall into a particular category, you may not be experiencing all of those symptoms. OR...you may be experiencing a couple of different symptoms across different categories. This is completely normal. It is best to focus on your MAIN symptoms. Choose maybe 2-3 of the big symptoms (ones that just appeared with your cold or flu) and see which category they fall in line with. Use the recommended foods and herbs for treatment and see if you begin to feel better. If you don’t see any improvement within a couple of days, you can try to align your symptoms with another category and diet suggestions. Eastern medicine has a lot of variables, so be aware that not every time will it be a black and white distinction. Your symptoms may be a combination of the cold or flu with other longer lasting, deep-rooted issues.

If this is all Greek to you and your head is starting to spin, stick with me! This is a complex way of thinking, but I’m going to explain it to you bit by bit.

Some helpful things to note:

Are you experiencing colds, flu, or Exterior symptoms on a frequent basis? You may be consuming too many sweets, salty foods, and/or an excess of dairy, eggs, or other mucus and acid-forming foods. Traditional Chinese Medicine is all about balance. While you may need to eliminate some foods for a period of time to allow your body to come into a more balanced state, TCM does not usually promote the idea of never eating certain types of food. Moderation is key.

Do you have a sinus infection, bronchitis or pneumonia? In some cases, colds with Exterior symptoms are not easily cured and a sinus infection or longer-term lung condition develops into bronchitis or pneumonia. These conditions are marked by strong Heat signs, copious mucus, or other attributes. Heat congesting the lungs will usually have Exterior symptoms such as fevers accompanied by chills, and a red tongue with a dry, yellow coating. In addition, there is a dry cough, shortness of breath, and a painful sore throat; there may also be thick, yellow-green sputum with pus, or even rank, bloody pus; and yellow nasal discharge. This is an example of an Exterior condition that was not treated soon enough and has progressed into something more serious, resulting in an Interior condition. These types of conditions will not be discussed in this guide. If you are interested in treating this with Eastern medicine, please consult a local herbalist or TCM practitioner. Otherwise, consult your doctor.

As you may have started to see, Western medicine and Eastern medicine have different approaches when thinking about and healing the body. Harriet Beinfield and Efrem Korngold, in their book Between Heaven and Earth: A Guide to Chinese Medicine, compare thinking of the body as a machine versus a garden.

They explain how Western medicine thinks of the body as a machine—the body is reduced to a combination of parts that are fixed or replaced only when the machine is broken or not working properly. A diseased entity is either removed or treated in isolation from other organs and tissue parts. It is easier and more efficient to fix a machine when its parts are standardized, uniform, and interchangeable.

Eastwise-Machine.jpg

What does this mean in terms of your health and diagnosis in times of sickness?

This way of thinking focuses on all the ways people are alike—a group of people receives the same diagnosis and (often times) receives the same treatment plan. This does not take into consideration all the ways people are unique and dissimilar—from the environments they live in, the type/quality of food they eat, their lifestyles, genetics, histories of health, etc.

Chinese medicine is based on the philosophy that all life occurs within the circle of nature. Elements of nature must be in balance for life to flourish; when the balance is upset, disease or sometimes even death looms. Say it with me now, “B-A-L-A-N-C-E.” That is the main goal in Chinese medicine; a body in perfect balance. Now, to be honest, perfect balance is unattainable. There are always conditions that will cause us to be out of balance, but knowing this, and knowing ways to counter those conditions, is what Chinese medicine is all about.

In contrast to Western medicine, Eastern medicine compares the body to a garden, which, if you think about it, makes a lot of sense since our bodies are comprised of mostly organic matter. A garden is continuously cultivated. Plants are tended to regularly to promote the best growth possible and to be hardy enough to withstand environmental conditions like harsh winds, drought, flooding, heat, or cold. Too much sun burns the plants, too much wind dries them out, too much water rots their roots. Yet without light, water, and air, the plants cannot grow.

Eastwise-Garden.jpg

This way of thinking introduces the concept of ‘Excess’ or ‘Deficiency’ that creates imbalance, instead of the common concept of ‘good’ vs. ‘bad’. Like a gardener, the doctor of Eastern medicine observes the patient and perceives signs and symptoms to determine the nature of the problem at hand. Both doctors and gardeners are concerned with the balance of heat and cold, moisture and dryness, and the issue of too much or too little of these conditions. Like a garden, a person is subject to too much external and internal Heat, Cold, Wind, Dampness, and Dryness, as well as to not enough Blood, Moisture, and Qi.

If you are not familiar with these concepts and are scratching your head saying, “what is Qi?,” be sure to read the following section,  An Introduction to Traditional Chinese Medicine and the Basic Principles. It will be very important to understand the basic fundamentals of this intricate system of beliefs in order to better understand the common cold and flu from the Eastern perspective. If you do have a general understanding of TCM concepts, please feel free to jump to Section 4: How Eastern Medicine Thinks About Nutrition Differently Than Western Medicine.


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This is where things start to get a little more complicated, and if you are reading this with a Western mindset, you need to open your mind to new concepts. It’s okay if not everything makes sense right away—it can take awhile for the ideas to click—but these principles are so important and connected with one another, that we must discuss them in order for you to understand how food can help your symptoms.

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The concepts of Yin and Yang (pronounced: y-ON-g) are central to Chinese philosophy and fundamental to an understanding of Chinese medicine. Yin and Yang can be difficult concepts for Westerners to grasp. Yin and Yang are closely intertwined, and all things in the world, like our bodies, contain aspects of each.

The ideas behind Yin and Yang developed from observing the physical world. It was perceived that nature appears to group things into pairs that cannot be separated; each item in the pair gives meaning to the other. For example, the concept of “night” has no meaning without the concept of “day,” the concept of “up” has no meaning without a concept of “down,” and “watery” has no meaning without understanding “dryness.”  Similarly, Yin and Yang cannot be separated.

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The Chinese character for Yin translates as the “dark side of the mountain” and represents such qualities as cold, stillness, passiveness, darkness, and interior. The character for Yang translates as the “bright side of the mountain” and represents such qualities as warmth, activity, light, outside, and expression. It’s important to understand that the Yin-Yang relationship in the world, and within our bodies, is in constant flux. It’s never static. Everything is in motion—just like you are moving, then sitting, then moving again. Another example is the sun; in the morning there is a cool, shady side of the mountain (yin) and a warm, sunny side (yang). However, because the sun rises and moves across the sky, the warmth and light of the morning shifts to the other side of the slope in the afternoon—the sunny and shady sides merge and then alternate. Yang becomes Yin, and Yin becomes Yang.

YIN

Down (Descending), Dark, Night, Cold, Watery, Heavy, Hidden, Interior, Resting, Slow

YANG

Up (Ascending), Light, Day, Hot, Dry, Light, Revealed, Exterior, Active, Fast

Yin-Yang and the Human Body

Yin-Yang also describes the human body. The internal organs of the body, hidden and protected from external influence, are Yin in relation to the exposed skin and muscle, which are Yang. The lower part of the body is considered Yin because it is closer and touching the ground. The upper body, however, is considered Yang because it is able to move more freely. The front of the body (Yin) is protected by folding the arms and legs to enclose the chest and abdomen. The back of the body is relatively exposed, so it is considered Yang.

Relationships & Restraint

In a healthy body, the relationship between Yin and Yang is constantly changing. For example, when we exercise, our bodies become more Yang because of all the activity; when we are done exercising and are resting, our bodies become more Yin. These two energy forces adapt and blend to our changing needs in what the Chinese refer to as “mutual restraint”—each controlling and depending on the other.

So why do you need to care about this? In a word, immunity.

Immunity functions as the first line of defense: Yang guards the external surface and protects against internal (Yin) harm. Between Heaven and Earth: A Guide to Chinese Medicine uses an example of a battle to best describe this concept. In a battle, the army out on the front line wards off attacks on the fort. If they get cut off from the fort, the troops will run out of ammunition and food. If Yang is weak, the body is unable to ward off an attack and enemy forces (pathogens) penetrate the protective walls. If the Yin forces of the fort are not strong, supplies and food are insufficient to meet the fighters’ need to refuel the energy they have used up. The Yin fort provides the goods that sustain the Yang fighters on the front line. Without the goods, the activity on the front line is weakened; without activity, the fort is vulnerable and unprotected. They mutually support each other as an interdependent system.

In disease and illness, this mutual restraint collapses, and Yin or Yang get out of hand. Chinese medicine classifies four precise categories of Yin-Yang imbalance:

A primary goal of treatment for any condition is to restore the body’s balance of Yin and Yang.

In order for Yin-Yang balance to exist in your body, there must be enough energy (Qi) flowing without obstructions throughout the entire system.

Are you still with me?! It’s like learning a new language, I know, but everything works together and it gets easier to understand the more you deal with these words. What is Qi, you ask? Great question! Let’s move on to more keywords.

“Just as the earth is comprised of land, ocean, and atmosphere, so the body is made up of Blood, Moisture, and Qi.”
— Between Heaven and Earth: A Guide to Chinese Medicine

In Chinese Medicine, these are considered the Basic Substances. It is important to note that none of them can be considered as separate from each other and that in Chinese philosophy, there is a continuous dynamic interaction between them.

Here’s a basic overview of each of these substances. To be honest, it goes a lot deeper than this, but for the purpose of this guide and to not confuse you more than necessary, I’ll leave it at this.

Blood is the familiar red liquid circulating in our blood vessels that transports nourishment to the material form of the body—organs, skin, muscles, tendons, and bones. The Chinese concept of Blood goes a little further and is also the process of generating, distributing, and storing nutrients in order to support memory and mental activities.

Moisture (Body Fluids) manages the internal environment, the body’s inner ocean. Moisture is not a clearly defined shape or formed substance; it is also defined as the process of generating, distributing, and storing body fluid.

Qi is an invisible substance that manages the shape and activity of the body and its process of forming and organizing itself.

Alright, I lied. We are going to discuss Qi (pronounced: “Chee”) in more detail because there is nothing more fundamental to Chinese medicine than understanding the concept of Qi.

Qi, while difficult to translate, is often understood in the West as our inner energy level; it is the energy essential for life. Its main characteristic is motion: the activity of life. All functions of the body and mind are manifestations of Qi. Basically, Qi is a mixture of energies derived from the food we eat and the air we breathe, plus an element inherited from our parents with which we are born. All of these “ingredients” combine and transform in a variety of ways to make Qi that circulates in the body.

This is important! Your health depends on a sufficient, balanced, and uninterrupted flow of QiQi circulates through the body along a continuous circuit of pathways known as meridians. These meridians flow along the surface of the body (protecting you from the external factors that might result in illness) and through the internal organs (which is essential in the process of nourishing all the tissues of the body).

When you are healthy, you have an abundance of Qi flowing smoothly through the meridians and into and out of the organs, allowing your body to function in harmony and balance.

There are FIVE main functions of Qi in the body:

5 Main Functions of Qi

1

Source of body activity and movement

The flow of Qi is the source of every aspect of body activity and movement, both voluntary and involuntary. Qi is constantly ascending, descending, entering, and leaving the body; health and well-being are dependent on this continuous, dynamic activity.

2

Warming the body

The maintenance of normal body temperature is a function of the warming action of Qi.

3

Source of protection for the body

Defensive Qi is responsible for protecting the body from invasion by external factors such as Cold, Heat, Dampness, and other microorganisms or viruses that may cause illness.

4

Source of transformation in the body

The action of Qi in the body is crucial in transforming food and air into the Basic Substances, such as Blood, Moisture, and even more Qi.

5

Governing retention and containment

Healthy and strong Qi is vital in holding the various organs, vessels, and tissues of the body in their correct place, hence facilitating their correct functioning. Here’s an analogy to help you understand: the correct pressure is needed in a tire to bind it to the rim and to help the vehicle move easily.

Qi is what allows Yin-Yang balance to be maintained in the body. According to Chinese medicine, illnesses take hold when the flow of Qi is disturbed, unbalanced, or blocked.

Disharmonies of Qi

Deficient Qi

When there isn’t enough Qi to carry out various bodily functions. Deficient Qi is common in older people as a result from aging. This leads to a physically weak person that is withdrawn and passive, has low energy, a weak pulse, and aversion to cold temperatures, because the Qi is not performing its warming function adequately.

Sinking Qi

If the Qi is very deficient then it may no longer adequately perform its holding function and it may sink. Organ prolapse is a great example of this.

Stagnant Qi

If normal Qi flow is impaired for any reason, this can lead to sluggish flow or blockages. A single bump on the arm will cause localized swelling and pain because of the stagnation of Qi in the meridians. Stagnation can also affect internal organs, leading to more serious disharmonies.

Rebellious Qi

In this instance, the Qi flows in the wrong direction. For example, Stomach Qi is characteristically considered to flow downward, carrying food to the intestines. If the Stomach Qi “rebels,” it will move upward, leading to problems such as hiccups, nausea, and in extreme cases, vomiting.

To restore health, Chinese medical practitioners seek to free and realign the flow of Qi through acupuncture, herbs, food, or all three combined.

Disease in Chinese medicine is considered to be a state of imbalance in the body. In order for the larger system to be in balance as a whole, each smaller system within it must also be in balance. There are external, internal, and neutral causes of imbalance.

Since the common cold and flu is a result of external conditions invading the body and causing imbalance, for the purpose of this guide, we will solely focus on the six external forces.

Chinese medicine recognizes six different environmental conditions called The Six Evils: Wind, Cold, Heat, Dampness, Dryness, and Summer Heat. When these conditions invade the body, they may cause Disease. Each of the Six Evils influences the development of Disease in a different way. Let’s take them one by one:

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Wind

Analogous to wind in nature, the concept of Wind in Chinese medicine embodies movement and change. Wind’s nature is movement that rises and falls unpredictably. Wind is a very influential external factor and has the effect of penetrating the exterior of the body. It is the one evil that rarely appears by itself and makes it easier for other diseases to take hold. Wind usually combines with other external factors like Cold and Heat to invade the body, because if you are already feeling a little sick and your immune system is low, you are more likely to be vulnerable to other problems.

Wind invasion is characterized by its sudden onset. You guessed it! A very common Wind condition is the cold or flu. (The whole reason for this guide!!) If Qi is weak, then Wind and Cold can readily penetrate the surface of the body and invade the lungs. This leads to the classic symptoms of sneezing, shivering, and free-flowing clear mucus. Like the wind in nature, it is invisible but its effect can be felt.

Wind is prominent in the spring but can appear in any season.

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Cold

Like cold in nature, Cold in Chinese medicine is associated with contraction, obstruction, slower movement, and underactivity. Think about how easily you start to shiver and tighten up when you feel cold.

An invasion by Cold often appears in the winter but is not limited to this season. It will come on suddenly and will leave the individual with chills, shivering, or cold limbs—typically seeking warmth with sweaters or blankets—with a possible headache, painful cramps, or spasms and with an aversion to cold. The body may ache generally, and it’s common not to sweat. To an observer, this person’s body may appear pale and feel cold to the touch.

Cold can affect the Lungs, as described in Wind, but also the Stomach and Spleen, which can lead to vomiting and diarrhea. Internal Cold, a condition brought about when there is too much Yin and not enough Yang, can cause chronic cold hands/feet and diarrhea, among other problems.

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Dampness

Dampness creates problems that are wet, heavy, and slow to clear up.

When Dampness invades the body it obstructs our body’s function; a person will experience symptoms of sluggishness, lethargy, and feeling heavy.

Dampness comes from the failure to burn off, properly transform Moisture into a usable substance, or eliminate it from the body. This creates a stagnation or disturbance of fluids in the body which can lodge in a specific part of the body, making us swell up, or affect us more generally like symptoms previously mentioned.

Dampness is associated with sticky secretions like phlegm, or mucus, which often lodges in particular organs and combines easily with Heat or Cold.

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Heat (or Fire)

Heat injures your body fluids, disturbs your mind and can damage your Yin.

Common excess Heat symptoms are high fever, a red face, red eyes, thirst, sweating, dark urine, inflammation, itching, and reddish eruptions of the skin.

Heat has a very drying effect on Body Fluids (Moisture), with dry skin, constipation, and scanty yellow urine as common examples.

There are several ways that we can become hot. We may suddenly contract an acute feverish illness indicating that a “hot” pathogen has penetrated our defenses. This initial stage of invasion is called Wind-Heat in Chinese medicine (just like we have been talking about). If we do not get rid of this invasion the Heat may lodge deeper in our body causing inflammation and irritation.

Heat may also arise from prolonged over-consumption of Warming foods or substances (which we will discuss in Section 4), from over-activity or prolonged body strain, from prolonged exposure to a hot environment, or on an emotional level where it can arise from feelings that cannot be resolved or expressed.

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Dryness

Problems with Dryness have many similarities to Heat. The only distinction here is that Dryness symptoms tend to be less severe than those of Heat, but with a focus on the drying up of Body Fluids. It is associated with dehydration and can lead to constipation, dry cracked skin, dry lips and nostrils, and a dry cough with little or no phlegm. The lungs can be particularly susceptible, especially if Heat is accompanied by a drying wind.

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Summer Heat

Summer Heat is associated with the height of summer and is a continuation of Heat. Unlike Heat, however, it is only caused by external conditions like being exposed to extreme and/or prolonged heat. It is often associated with very hot and humid climates, thus adding an element of Dampness. It easily and quickly depletes Qi and Body Fluids; its symptoms may include sudden high fever, nausea, heavy sweating, exhaustion, dizziness, shortness of breath, dry mouth, thirst, and dehydration. Summer heat stroke is a good example.

These six different environmental conditions are a result of the climate and conditions we live in, which have a direct influence on our health that is simply a part of life. As much as we may want to, we cannot avoid exposure to these influences, but our day-to-day actions, as well as our overall health and immunity (the strength of our Qi), are big factors in determining how these external factors affect us. Most of that Qi strength comes from how balanced our internal body is, which is a direct correlation to the foods we choose to eat and how we prepare them. Therefore, diet is an extremely important factor and taken very seriously in Chinese medicine.


In Western culture, food tends to get categorized in two different ways: 1) by the way it impacts our weight (think: its calorie count and fat content) or 2) for its nutritional value, such as vitamins, minerals, protein, fiber, etc. From a Western perspective, a “healthy diet” usually means one rich in proper nutrients, vitamins and minerals, not too much animal fat or sugar, and plenty of fiber in order to eliminate waste regularly. Most Westerners don’t consider the idea that the food you are eating should reflect your inner energy demands, or must balance the effect the changing seasons has on your body. More importantly, it’s not something many Westerners, I would say, even know about. So, with that in mind, let’s consider nutrition from an Eastern perspective.

As with all things, Chinese medicine sees food in terms of Yin and Yang balance. Food is described as possessing certain qualities, such as a Warming or Cooling nature, which act on our bodies in a particular way.  Some foods are Yin, having or promoting Cold and Dampness properties, while others are more YangHot and Dry.

This is called the Energetic Temperature of Food.

Here’s an example to help you wrap your head around this way of thinking.

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There’s a big trend lately to have a (cold) smoothie drink or bowl for breakfast. Let’s say this smoothie is made up of spinach, blueberries, a banana, and some wheatgrass powder. That’s considered nutritionally “healthy”, right?  In Western medicine, this smoothie has the same nutritional value no matter who eats it. However, according to TCM all of these smoothie ingredients have a Cooling nature, so although this smoothie could be seen as beneficial for those with excessive Heat or Dryness symptoms, it could be detrimental to those with too much Cold or Dampness.

What does this mean for you?

In this context, depending on our body’s constitution and current state, food either assists or hinders our daily efforts to maintain health (balance) or recover from illness. I think Debra Betts describes it perfectly, “It is not just a matter of eating nourishing healthy food, but rather, it is about eating nourishing healthy food that is right for your individual body type.”

This is important!

THE MAIN EMPHASIS OF CHINESE FOOD THERAPY IS EASE OF DIGESTION VERSUS NUTRITIONAL VALUE.

Fascinating, right?

In Eastern medicine, the energetic temperature of a food is the single most important category in creating internal balance to promote easy digestion for healing and prolonged health.

According to TCM, a food may be either Hot, Warm, Neutral, Cool or Cold. Some examples: oat, beef, and garlic are warming; while barley, pear and celery are cooling. This is not a measure of how hot or cold a food is to the taste. The energetic temperature of a food is a measure of its effect on the body after digestion. Simply, does it warm us up or cool us down?

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Confused? Think about this. You bite into a hot chili pepper. What happens, other than your mouth is burning so badly you go running for liquid? You start to sweat! Very hot foods, like chili peppers, temporarily heat us up from the inside, causing us to sweat. Sweating, in turn, cools us down. That said, most Warming foods, such as dried ginger root, onions, and squash provide more enduring warmth. Their thermal warmth does not act as quickly or as obviously as a hot chili pepper, but their Warming property is a slow build that has longer lasting effects over time.

Here’s another example. On a hot summer’s day think about taking a bite of a juicy watermelon. Many people mistake watermelon as not having much “nutritional” value, but in reality, because of all that water content, it’s a great food to cool us down internally.

Cooling foods tend to direct energy inwards and downwards, cooling the upper and outer parts of the body first.

Warming foods move energy and blood upwards and outwards from the core, warming us from the inside out— like in the chili pepper example, where it causes you to sweat.

It’s no mistake that traditional dishes across many cultures have things that just ‘go’ together. I know you’ve seen this before; a warming curry is balanced by cooling cucumber and yogurt or hot lamb is balanced by a cooling mint sauce. A knowledge of the temperatures of foods is deeply rooted in all traditional cooking. Our bodies often instinctively know the thermal nature of a food and crave it when you need it most—root vegetable soups warm us in the winter, while salads cool us in the summer.

There are no absolute rules that dictate whether a food will be Warming or Cooling; however, there are some general guidelines that may help you to assess different foods.

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  • Plants that take longer to grow (like root vegetables, ginger, and cauliflower) tend to be Warming, while fast-growing foods like lettuce, summer squash, or radishes tend to be Cooling.
  • Foods with high water content tend to be more Cooling (e.g. melon, cucumber, zucchini)
  • Dried foods tend to be more Warming than their fresh counterparts (because the water content, which is cooling, has been greatly reduced)
  • Foods with blue, green or purple colors are usually more Cooling than similar foods that are red, orange, or yellow (e.g. a green apple is more Cooling than a red one.)
  • Raw food is more Cooling than cooked food—this is a very important note, so much so, we’re going to discuss it in further detail next.

In TCM the Stomach is thought of as a pot that needs to “cook” food in order to extract nutrients so our bodies can convert those nutrients into usable substances. The ability to transform food into usable nutrients is dependent on the “digestive fire’s” ability to “cook” the foods properly.

Wait, what? Let’s use this cooking analogy from Alex Tan of Straight Bamboo to help you better understand.

Imagine cooking a pot of oatmeal on a gas stove. (The pot represents your Stomach and the flame under the pot represents your “digestive fire”.) If your “digestive fire” is weak and the flame isn’t hot enough, the oats will remain watery and uncooked. This means that your Stomach isn’t able to fully “cook” the oatmeal and extract all of the proper nutrients, leaving behind an unusable, watery consistency—this is called Dampness in Chinese medicine. However, if your “digestive fire” is too hot (perhaps you drink a lot of coffee or eat a lot of spicy foods) and boils all the water away, this leads to dry, thick, or burnt oatmeal—similar to Heat and Dryness in Chinese medicine. The idea is to get the balance of water and fire just right, allowing your digestive processes to work at the highest level of efficiency—resulting in perfectly cooked oatmeal.

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In Chinese medicine, all methods of cooking are considered to be part of a pre-digestion process, which makes food absorption easier. (Optimal digestion occurs at a slightly higher temperature than body temperature.) For this reason, it is usually recommended that most people eat cooked foods rather than raw. If excessive amounts of cold or raw food are eaten, your body has to waste valuable energy raising the food’s temperature in order for digestion to begin. Often times, your body cannot properly extract all the usable nutrients from cold or raw food during digestion, and the unused nutrients end up being expelled through waste. As a result, prolonged or excessive consumption of chilled or raw food weakens your “digestive fire”.

When I first learned this concept, it blew my mind! I had no idea raw food had such an effect on our body’s digestion and its ability to utilize nutrients from food. Later on I found these examples I love from Organic Olivia,:

If you ingest raw eggs and they come back up, they would look exactly the same as if they’d been cooked on a griddle. The white would be opaque, and the yolk would be solid. Spinach would come up wilted with a rich green hue as if it was sautéed.

Why? Because the proteins in food react to the heat in a hot pan or the acid in our stomachs as one in the same: they unfold. In this unfolded state, nutrients can be extracted far more easily in the small intestine. Cooked food saves us the entire burst of energy required to unfold those proteins ourselves, which would have otherwise been expended by the stomach.]

Think about broccoli in its uncooked state. It’s green of course, but the color is somewhat muted.

Raw Broccoli

Raw Broccoli

Cooked Broccoli

Cooked Broccoli

Now think about the transformation that happens when it’s cooked. You can see the full potential of its deep green pigment, and the cellulose fibers within the stalk become much easier to tear and chew.

Not only is it far easier for the mouth and stomach to chew and break down, it’s also much more attractive to the eye. It’s human instinct to seek out bright, colorful foods. It’s nature’s way of drawing us to the most nutritious, antioxidant-rich resources on earth. Color is just one of the ways nature has wired us to recognize what’s best for us to eat. When broccoli turns bright green from the right amount of heat, it’s a signal that it’s ready! Think about broccoli that is overcooked, too. It’s not so pretty anymore and becomes a brownish-green. The same way we shouldn’t be eating too much raw food, we also shouldn’t be eating lots of food that is overcooked, fried, etc. Light, quick cooking, like steaming, is best since it preserves the enzymes and you get the best of both worlds!

Alright, now we understand why it’s typically important to cook our food rather than eat it raw. But it’s also important to understand that different cooking methods add different amounts of Heat to our food, and the warmth added during cooking is then transferred to our bodies upon eating.

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Cooking does NOT, however, change a Cooling food to a Warming one. For example, broccoli is a Cooling food. If eaten raw, the broccoli would offer the most Cooling effects. If you were to steam the broccoli, it will begin to have some Warming effects (due to some Heat being added during the steaming process), but upon digestion, the broccoli will have Cooling effects. And if you were to roast the broccoli, you would be adding even more Heat, which would transfer to your body upon eating. That said, you would also get some Cooling effects from the broccoli upon digestion.

Longer and slower cooking methods will also produce more Warming effects than quicker methods. For example, let’s compare BBQ and Grilling. BBQ is a slow cooking method using indirect heat with the lid closed so the heat doesn’t escape. The heat from cooking is absorbed by the food, and when you eat, that additional Heat is transferring to your body. Grilling takes place over direct heat on the bottom, rather than all around the source, with the lid up—which allows most of the Heat to escape. Grilled food is generally cooked pretty quickly, much quicker than barbecuing, resulting in grilled food having less added Heat than barbecued food.

Are you seeing the connection and the importance of understanding this when you are suffering from a cold or flu? Knowing the temperature of food helps us balance the overall meal to suit our body’s needs. If you’re suffering from Cold conditions, eating more Warming foods and using more Warming cooking methods will help bring balance. If Heat conditions persist, consider eating more Cooling foods and using less Warming types of cooking methods.

Another important feature of food and herbs is taste. Chinese medicine considers flavor very important because it helps send nutrition via meridians to the corresponding organs. If we eat a balanced meal with many tastes, we feel satisfied and don't binge. The five flavors of food include pungent (acrid), sweet, sour, bitter, and salty. Each taste has a specific effect on our organs, and each food—depending on its flavor—is linked to a general type of therapeutic effect. In Chinese medicine, foods and herbs are selected and prepared appropriately to strengthen, cleanse, and regulate the body. Understanding how a food or herb works by interpreting its taste is a powerful way to know how to use it therapeutically. Mixing different tastes at a meal is important for maintaining overall balance between the organs.

Although some flavors attributed to foods seem obvious—e.g. lemon is sour—others correspond less clearly to what you may think. Beef, for instance, is considered a sweet food, and asparagus a pungent one.

This is where things really start to get interesting. By learning the different tastes you can start to incorporate foods therapeutically to help balance symptoms. This is the entire foundation of this guide! By learning how to support your body through food, you will know how to select foods of the proper temperature and flavor to counteract your specific cold and flu symptoms.

IMPORTANT side note from Organic Olivia before we go any further.

In TCM, organs do not have the same names as Western Medicine. Western Medicine refers to the “kidney” as a single organ that filters urine and waste. In TCM the “kidney” refers to an entire organ system or meridian (energy pathway). It does NOT mean the actual kidney – it actually includes the entire reproductive system! The word “spleen” is different in TCM as well. It does not refer to the actual lymphatic organ that we’re used to. In Chinese medicine, the spleen plays one of the biggest roles in health and vitality of the body. It is an “organ system” responsible for the assimilation of nutrients and maintenance of physical strength. It turns digested food from the stomach into usable nutrients in energy.

Are you ready? Let’s break these down one-by-one.

Pungent

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  • Pungent is associated with the Lung, and is defined as “dispersing and flowing.” These foods help remove toxins from the system and tend to disperse and circulate Qi and invigorate Blood. Pungent foods help induce perspiration, disperse mucus, and promote energy circulation. Some Pungent foods and herbs are used to treat a type of common cold. They enter the lungs to clear them of mucus, improve digestive activity, and stimulate blood circulation. Too many Pungent foods, however, can cause skin problems, restlessness, and sleep disorders. The Pungent flavor is related to the spring season.
  • Warming Pungent foods: spearmint, rosemary, scallion, garlic and all onion family members, cinnamon bark and branch, cloves, fresh and dried ginger root, black pepper, all hot peppers, cayenne, fennel, anise, dill, mustard greens, horseradish, basil, and nutmeg
  • Cooling Pungent foods: peppermint, marjoram, elderflowers, radish and its leaves, and white pepper.
  • Neutral Pungent foods: taro, turnip, and kohlrabi.
  • The pungency of some foods is diminished by cooking. The loss of pungency in moderate simmering is easily noticeable in many common vegetables including turnip, cabbage, the onion family, and horseradish. With mild steaming, some pungency is preserved, but for full effect, eat the heat-sensitive Pungent foods raw or pickled. Pungent leafy herbs such as the mints should be steeped, while most barks and roots, such as ginger and cinnamon, need to be simmered.

Sweet

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  • Sweet, which is associated with the Spleen, strengthens, improves, moistens, and harmonizes many systems of the body. Quality Sweet flavor in the form of unrefined complex carbohydrates forms a thin, healthy lubricant on the mucous membranes. Some Sweet foods address conditions involving weakness, dry cough, and thirst. They work best during the late summer (August & September in the West), which is the juncture between summer and fall. The Sweet taste moistens dry conditions of the Lungs and helps calm emotional distress, slowing an overactive heart and mind. However, too many Sweet foods or those of poor quality can cause conditions such as fatigue, recurrent bronchitis, and obesity; while also promoting unhealthy mucus and moist conditions—resulting in the formation of yeast and fungi overgrowth (e.g. Candida albicans) and swelling.
  • Sweet foods include sweet potato, eggplant, carrots, sweet rice, walnuts, honey, watermelon, chestnuts, bananas, beef, dates, shiitake mushroom, pumpkin, carrot, peas, soybean, rice, wheat, corn, peanut, and milk.

Sour

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  • Sour, which is associated with the Liver and counteracts the effects of rich, greasy food, tends to constrict, consolidate, and obstruct bodily functions.
  • Sour foods and herbs are described as absorbent, and they “tighten” tissues–an effect similar to using aftershave or a toner on the skin. For this reason, they can be helpful in alleviating diarrhea and excessive sweating.
  • Too many Sour foods should be avoided in cases where there is already too much contraction, such as when there is cold weather or a person is suffering from arthritis.
  • Sour foods are related to the fall season.
  • Some examples are lemon, plum, pear, mango, tomatoes, pineapple, apple, strawberry, papaya, oranges, tangerines, peaches, olives, pomegranate, grapes.

Bitter

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  • Bitter, which is associated with the Heart, has a Cooling effect on the body and tends to improve appetite, move Qi downward, and dry Dampness.
  • Bitter tastes are described as “drying and purging,” and will stimulate digestive function. They are helpful in reducing inflammation and alleviating infections.
  • Bitter foods are used to treat fever, constipation, and coughs with phlegm or mucus, as well as lower blood pressure, and address conditions such as arthritis.
  • Too many Bitter foods, however, are thought to cause diarrhea and damage fluids.
  • Bitter foods are most effective in the fall and winter months.
  • Some examples are lettuce, alfalfa, romaine lettuce, scallion, vinegar, bitter melon, wine, tea, turnips, asparagus, and coffee.

Salty

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  • Salty flavors are associated with the Kidneys, have a Cooling effect on the body, and are defined as “softening and descending” because they tend to soften and disperse firm masses.
  • Salty foods work to moisten dry conditions, improve digestion, detoxify the body, and can purge the bowels and promote urination. Some Salty foods are used to address cysts, inflammatory masses, or connective tissue accumulation.
  • Too many Salty foods, however, damage fluids, muscles, and the vascular system, as well as slow the flow of blood, resulting in poor circulation.
  • The Cooling nature of Salty food directs the energy of a person inward and lower, the appropriate direction for colder seasons and climates. This theory concentrates warmth in the interior, lower body areas. (Similar to a tree sending sap down towards its roots in cold weather.) This initial Cooling effect actually ends up Warming the interior and lower body, meaning Salty foods should be used more prevalently in the fall and winter than at other times of the year.
  • Salty foods include millet, barley, seaweed, kelp, spirulina, nettle, wheatgrass, soy sauce, clam, shrimp, oyster, crab, sea cucumber, pork, and duck.

Most importantly, never forget the mantra of B.A.L.A.N.C.E. An excess of any of the flavors will likely lead to imbalance and poor health.

Wow! That’s a hell of a lot of information, right? And you may even be wondering, what am I supposed to do now?

Or, how do I apply this information to help myself or my family deal with a cold or the flu?


If you are sick currently, you should now know what type of cold or flu you have based on the exercise in Section 1 or the more detailed breakdown in Section 2. Now let’s dive in deeper and discover all the tools you need to get rid of that cold or flu once and for all!

All invasions of Wind (Wind-Cold or Wind-Heat) are best treated by simplifying the diet.

While sick, it is best to:

That's a whole lotta no!

That's a whole lotta no!

  • Eat light, easy-to-digest foods like soups, steamed veggies, rice and rice noodles.
  • Avoid congesting foods that may cause Dampness in the body. Dampness contributes to mucus and phlegm production. Foods such as:
    • Dairy
    • Rich meats (e.g. beef, lamb, sausage, etc.)
    • Eggs
    • Bread
    • Fried or greasy foods
    • Saturated fat and sugar
    • Concentrated juices (especially orange & tomato)
    • Tofu and other soy products
    • Chocolate
    • Alcohol
  • Avoid eating lots of cold foods like cold sandwiches, chilled drinks, ice pops, and ice cream.
  • Avoid raw foods which also contribute to Cold and Dampness. Fruits, fruit juices, and salads should be eaten in moderation.
  • Avoid eating meat raised with conventional practices. If possible, it is best to eat organic chicken and other meat because they are not fed antibiotics. The more antibiotics we consume, the faster our bodies becomes immune to those antibiotics. Antibiotics also cause Dampness and Cold in the body, and when overused can cause Qi imbalances, manifesting as fatigue, susceptibility to more bacterial infections, yeast infections, etc.

Knowing what not to eat is all fine and dandy, but knowing what TO eat is even more important. And here is where we combine everything that we have learned thus far.

“If there’s too much heat, cool it. If there’s too much cold, heat it. If there’s too much fullness, empty it. If there’s too much emptiness, fill it.”
— The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine

The traditional remedy for stopping a cold in its tracks is to treat it before it gains enough strength to penetrate the body.

On the first day you start to get the “I’m coming down with a cold” feeling, try this tea from Straight Bamboo:

Ginger & Green Onion Tea

The ginger and green onions in this tea will raise your internal body temperature to promote perspiration and counteract the Cold symptoms.

INGREDIENTS

STEP BY STEP

SERVES 1

  • 1-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and sliced thinly
  • 3 green onions sliced into small pieces
  • 2 1/2 cups of water
  • Honey, to taste (optional)
  1. In a small saucepan, combine the ginger, green onion, and water and bring to a boil.
  2. Reduce the heat and simmer, covered with the lid slightly ajar, for 10 minutes.
  3. Strain the ginger and green onions.
  4. Add honey (if using) to taste.
If possible, hop into bed and cover yourself warmly to enhance sweating and sweat out the cold. As soon as the sweating stops you should change your bed-wear and bedding so you don’t get chilled again. Take it easy for the rest of the day. Be gentle with yourself for the next couple days, including eating well and getting enough sleep.

Remember timing is critical here; it’s common for a cold or flu to start off as Wind-Cold. If not caught soon enough, or treated properly, the symptoms can begin to change into Wind-Heat. As symptoms change—for example, from sneezing and a runny nose with clear thin mucus to a cough with thick yellow phlegm—the treatment will need to change as the disease and healing process progresses.

Wind-Cold

If you are experiencing an attack of Wind-Cold, Warming foods can help counteract this type of condition. Some examples are:

  • Almonds
  • Anise
  • Basil
  • Cinnamon
  • Chestnut
  • Cumin
  • Dill
  • Fennel
  • Garlic
  • Ginger
  • Green Onion
  • Kale
  • Leek
  • Mustard Greens
  • Oat
  • Onion
  • Parsnip
  • Pine nut
  • Quinoa
  • Rosemary
  • Spearmint
  • Turnip
  • Walnuts
  • Winter squash (acorn, butternut, pumpkin, etc.)
Eastwise-Garlic.jpg
 

Wind-Heat

If you are experiencing an attack of Wind-Heat these Cooling foods may prove helpful:

  • Amaranth
  • Banana
  • Barley
  • Broccoli
  • Cauliflower
  • Celery
  • Chrysanthemum
  • Daikon Radish
  • Fig
  • Green Tea
  • Kudzu root
  • Lemon/Lime
  • Mulberry
  • Mung Bean
  • Napa cabbage
  • Peach
  • Pear
  • Peony root
  • Peppermint
  • Pomegranate
  • Radish
  • Seaweed (Kelp)
  • Spinach
  • Strawberry
  • Watercress
Eastwise-Spinach.jpg

Summer Heat & Dampness

If you are experiencing an attack of Summer Heat and Dampness, these foods that are Cooling or known to relieve Dampness (which are often bitter and/or aromatic foods) can help counteract this type of condition. Examples:

  • Aduki beans
  • Alfalfa
  • Anise
  • Barley
  • Bitter Melon
  • Bok Choy
  • Cabbage
  • Celery
  • Cucumber
  • Daikon radish
  • Grapefruit
  • Green Tea
  • Job’s tears (Coix)
  • Kiwi
  • Lemon
  • Mung bean
  • Oregano
  • Papaya
  • Parsley
  • Rye
  • Seaweed
  • Summer squash
  • Watermelon
  • Watercress
  • Winter Melon (Wax Gourd)
  • Zucchini
Eastwise-Mung-Bean.jpg

Now that you are armed with a list of foods to combat your symptoms, I bet you have some questions. I sure did! Here are a few common questions. There are no exact answers, but the most helpful tips I have found are from Daverick Leggett’s Helping Ourselves: A Guide to Traditional Chinese Food Energetics.

  1. How much of these foods should I eat?
    • Generally, it is best for everyone to eat a varied diet that includes all temperatures and all flavors of food. (Refer to Section 4 if you need a refresh on what this means.) Knowing our individual needs helps us “tilt” our diet slightly in one direction. For example, a Cold person will tilt their diet slightly to the Warming side of neutral, and a Hot person will tilt their diet slightly to the Cooling side. Colds and flu are short-term acute conditions—they have a severe and sudden onset and do not last long if treated properly and early enough. For this reason, we can use food therapy more intensely than a chronic long-developing condition. Only in short-term acute conditions should we use strong dietary tilts. This means that we can exclude foods for a short time that may be causing symptoms (like mucus and phlegm) and add in plenty of specific foods to help counteract the illness we are experiencing.
  2. How often should I be eating these foods?
    • Typically small quantities consumed on a regular basis are more effective than large irregular doses. While treating a cold or flu, it is recommended to avoid congesting foods that may cause Dampness in the body, and limit raw or cold food. With every meal, while you are not feeling well, try to eat one or more of the suggested foods from the category under which your symptoms fall, and avoid the foods (or cut back significantly) on the opposing lists. For example: if you have Wind-Cold symptoms try to avoid foods on the Wind-Heat list.
  3. How do I know when I can go back to eating the “other stuff”?
    • When you begin to feel better and your symptoms resolve. Then it is recommended to eat a varied diet including all temperatures and all flavors in order to maintain balance.

If you’re like me, you may be thinking “this list is great and all, but what the hell am I supposed to do with these foods? Are there specific recipes I can use to make this easier?”

My answer, Yes! I’ve scoured the internet and Chinese medicine books to collect recipes tailored to helping overcome the cold and flu.  Be sure to download the FREE companion recipe PDF. It includes 43 recipes to kill the cold and flu organized by Wind-Cold, Wind-Heat, Summer Heat & Dampness. I highly suggest you check it out! I’ve used these recipes for myself and my husband, and I can say that our colds cleared up quickly when we started following the steps in this guide—at the first sign of not feeling well—and ate the proper foods.

If you’re looking for more recipes, be sure to download the FREE companion recipe PDF that goes along with this guide. It includes 43 recipes to kill the cold and flu organized by Wind-Cold, Wind-Heat, Summer Heat & Dampness.



Now that you have a better understanding of how to care for yourself or a loved one during a cold or flu, let’s discuss prevention. Not getting sick in the first place is always preferable, and strengthening the body to resist infection is key.

Here are some strategies to keep your body warm and nourished so you can enjoy an active and healthy winter.

Eastwise-Keep-Warm.jpg
  1. Eat plenty of warm foods like soups, stews, and strength-building congee. These warm foods are especially important in the winter because they support the Kidney Yin and Yang, and encourage proper flow of Qi—down and in. Soups require less work from your digestive system, and nutrients are more easily absorbed from a warm soup. By eating foods that are water-saturated, you strengthen the fluids in your body. Try an immunity-boosting soup with leek, ginger, garlic and astragalus root between colds. (Pssst, you’ll find a recipe in the downloadable PDF under the bonus section!)  
  2. Keep your feet warm. In Chinese medicine, you aim to keep your feet warm and your head cooler for balanced Qi flow and building resilience. Warm your feet using a heating pad, hot water bottle, or a hot foot bath. Try adding a few drops of essential oils to your foot bath (like ginger, eucalyptus, rosemary, or black pepper) in order to stimulate circulation. It is more nourishing to soak your feet than to take a very hot shower—a hot shower opens your pores, increasing your chances for an invasion of Wind and Cold.
  3. Bundle up and keep away from drafts. The cold that surrounds you in the fall, winter, or early spring can easily seep into your body and lower your immunity. Wind is considered the leading force in sickness—it pierces holes in your immune system and diverts your body’s defenses while you struggle to keep warm. Try to keep away from open windows, drafts, fans, or being outside in the blustery wind. If you need to be outside (and obviously you will be), be sure to bundle up with a scarf and hat! As mentioned in #1, it’s important to keep your Kidneys warm. In traditional Chinese medicine, the ears are considered to be the openings of the Kidneys on the body’s surface, and Cold and Wind can enter easily through the ears.
  4. Keep the blood moving. Stay active with walking, cycling, jogging, or your favorite activity. Yes, it’s tempting to snuggle up on the couch and binge watch TV when the weather is cooler, but your body needs the activity to stimulate Qi and maintain healthy blood circulation. Do something daily to get the heart rate up and endorphins flowing. Be careful not to sweat too much while the weather is cold; this may deplete Yin and make you more susceptible to a cold or flu.
  5. Rest. Don’t forget immunity relies on the basics—good digestion and rest. In the colder weather, you require more sleep, especially as the days are shorter and nights are longer. Do your best to go to bed earlier and wake up later in winter.

So there you have it! Now you have all the knowledge you need to treat a cold and flu naturally with everyday foods.

Are you curious how all of this really works?

Let me tell you a story:

Steve recently got sick with a cold, and not so secretly I was a little excited. It meant he got to be my guinea pig. (Don’t feel too sorry for him, he got a lot of care and attention.) I was in the middle of writing this guide, and I wanted to test it out for myself. I had used these concepts for plenty of other things, but not specifically for a cold yet. And this was my chance!

Steve was sneezing and coughing up yellow phlegm, his nose was congested, and he was experiencing body aches. Using the chart in Section 1 Steve determined he had Wind-Heat.

Let me stop right here and tell you we didn’t abide by the rules. (Facepalm.) At the very first moment Steve wasn’t feeling well, we did not consult this very guide. Why? Because brunch plans got in the way. He ate eggs with cheese and toast, and drank a latté. And he enjoyed every minute. By the time we got to Monday morning, he was in full-blown Wind-Heat mode.

“Alright!”, I thought. “Here we go.” I immediately had Steve cut out dairy, coffee, bread, and eggs—all of which contribute to phlegm—and then I started consulting my recipe PDF. I chose a handful of recipes to try—“Cooling” Chicken Soup, Celery Juice, Got-To-Have-It-Green Tea, Amaranth Flakes Cereal, Pear Tea, Peppermint Tea, and Seaweed Bath—then went to the store to load up on the ingredients.

Throughout the first day of actually following the proper protocol, Steve slept as much as he could, rotated through drinking peppermint tea, green tea, and celery juice, soaked in the seaweed bath, and ate amaranth cereal for lunch and chicken soup for dinner. In the evening a headache and fever set in. NOT great timing. We had a client meeting the following day we couldn’t miss. He soaked in another seaweed bath and drank more celery juice, tea, and went to bed early.

By the morning of Day Two, Steve’s fever had broke, and he had plenty of energy to make it to our meeting! Honestly, I was shocked. Typically when he gets a fever, he is out for several days. This time, it broke during the first night and never returned!

On Day Three Steve was feeling a lot better, but now he had a dry throat. He also had some deep phlegm in his lungs, causing him to cough, and he couldn’t get it out. This is when I had him drink the pear tea. The tea broke up the phlegm and allowed him to cough up the phlegm.

By Day Four Steve was nearly 100% better. He drank one more round of pear tea to clear up the remaining phlegm. All this time he was eating soup, drinking the teas and celery juice, and avoiding the foods that cause Dampness.

By Day Five Steve was able to slowly add in the foods he cut out, and stop drinking the juice and teas. No over-the-counter medicine needed!

“Tell me, and I will forget. Show me, and I may remember. Involve me, and I will understand.”
— Confucius 450 B.C.

It was a pleasure creating this guide for you. I geek out about health stuff like this, and I couldn’t wait to share it with you! Whoever you are, I admire you for having followed through reading this entire mega guide. It means you have an open mind, and it means you are passionate about your health. I hope you find it as useful in your own life as I have in mine.

Be wise,

Anne

Finished reading?

Take this guide with you anywhere by downloading your FREE PDF. As a bonus, you will also receive 43 targeted recipes to kill the cold and flu.



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