Perfectly healthy people are crowding into TCM hospitals to prevent or reduce the severity of winter ailments. "Treating winter diseases in summer" is an ancient tradition, reports Zhang Qian.
An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, and in this spirit, it's time for another annual ritual of traditional Chinese medicine - getting herbal packs, decoctions and acupuncture in summer to stay healthy in winter.
It is called dong bing xia zhi, or treating winter illness in summer.
The idea is build up the yang (hot energy) at this time of year when yang is at its peak in the universe and in the human body; this is believed to prevent or reduce winter ailments caused by the invasion of yin (cold energy) when yang is at a low level.
This takes place during san fu, the 30 hottest days of summer, commonly called the dog says, from mid-July to mid-August in the Chinese Lunar Calendar. This year san fu runs from July 18 to August 16.
Since it's hot and the pores are open, herbal medicine is more readily absorbed into the system in summer. Treatment for three consecutive summers is required for the maximum benefits. Most of TCM hospitals have opened special clinics, including Yueyang, Longhua and Shuguang hospitals. A complete course of treatment is around six sessions over the 30 days each summer.
The list of ailments is long, including respiratory problems (colds, asthma, bronchitis, sore throat, coughing), arthritis and rheumatism, skin problems (chilblains, hand fungus), stomach problems caused by too much coldness (yin).
Even diabetic foot, which is not directly related to yin, tends to get worse in winter and summer treatment can also help.
The 2,000-year-old "Medical Classic of the Yellow Emperor" states that "a wise man needs to adjust his living style according to seasonal weather changes" to maintain health.
According to the TCM theory about the correspondence between humans and the universe, it is believed that overwhelming yang energy in the universe at this time can help adjust imbalance within the body. The yang energy is believed so powerful that it actually "buries" yin in the ground.
The most popular treatments in summer are for chronic respiratory ailments, such as bronchial asthma, chronic cough and sore throat, according to Dr Zhang Huiyong, director of Respiratory Department of Longhua Hospital attached to Shanghai University of TCM.
Herbal decoction, herbal ointment and acupuncture injection are commonly used. Sometimes herbal "cakes" are placed over acupuncture points on the back and a positive electric current is passed through them.
Herbal ointment is applied to acupuncture points such as tian tu (the sunken point on sternum) and da zhui (the sunken point beneath the 7th cervical vertebra).
Commonly used herbs are fu zi (radix aconiti carmichaeli) and ma huang (herba ephedrae) which help warm energy channels and dispel toxic, excessive yin energy.
Many patients are bothered by winter ailments linked to deficiency in the lungs, spleen and kidney, so warming herbs to reinforce energy in those organs are used, such as xian ling pi (herba epimedii).
Ounce of prevention in summer worth pound of cure
Herbal injection on zu san li (three inches beneath the sunken place in knee) made from xian ling pi and ba ji tian (morinda officinalis) also reinforces organs.
Different herbs and acupuncture points are used in different TCM hospitals.
More than 80-90 percent of relapsing winter ailments can be treated effectively at this time, according to Dr Zhang.
Chilblains and hand fungus (tinea manuum) can occur and worsen in winter but summer treatment can help. It can be done at home by soaking of hands and feet in an herbal decoction to activate blood circulation, according to Dr Li Bin, head of the Dermatology Department of Yueyang Hospital.
The primary herb used is tou gu cao (tuberculate speranskia herb), which also dispels "pathogenic" or toxic damp and wind and relieves pain. Patients can get a prescription and mix it with vinegar and hot water for soaking. Dr Li recommends soaking for a total of 24 hours over two weeks, around two hours a day. Improvement can be seen in the coming winter and even greater improvement after two or three years, he says.
Diabetic foot is a complication of serious diabetes. Though there is no direct relation between diabetes and pathogenic cold (yin), TCM doctors say diabetic foot usually worsens in winter due to less efficient circulation.
A herbal decoction to be taken orally is usually prescribed in summer to adjust the energy imbalance, too much yin and too little qi or life energy, says diabetes patients, says Dr Zheng Min, chief of the Endocrinology Department of Yueyang Hospital. Meanwhile, regular external soaking in an herbal decoction in summer helps ensure necessary yang energy and blood circulation in winter.
Herbs to warm and unblock energy channels are often prescribed for external application since some may be easily absorbed through the digestive system. These include mugwort, du zhong (bark of eucommia) and niu xi (the root of bidentate achyranthes). TCM preparations such as powdered centipede and powdered leech are sometimes added to treat pain and numbness in the foot, related to a deficiency in kidney energy.
Prescribed herbal decoctions should be mixed with hot water (around 37 degrees Celsius). Feet should be soaked for 15-20 minutes before sleep. The soak should cover the ankle and more of the leg if there is discomfort.
If the skin is broken or ulcerated, do not soak. See a doctor.