“Ping bu” (plain reinforcement) featuring a mild adjustment and reinforcing foods is a principle for health maintenance in the season. Foods and herbs that nourish organs, especially lungs, are highly recommended. These include white fungus, pear, apple, olive, turnip, yam, lotus roots, lily’s root, honey, jujube and sesame.
To protect the vulnerable digestive system in the cold season, TCM practitioners advise warming foods, including fruits, before eating. And it is better to make these foods into soup or congee that can be easily digested and absorbed.
Soaking feet before going to bed will also be a good choice to boost the immunity in the season, Jiang suggests. The warm water will help dilate the vessels and accelerate blood circulation, which not only helps prevent catching cold, but also relieves sore muscles and helps people relax.
As winter approaches, many people also start to prepare more effective reinforcingtherapy. According to TCM theory about the relationship between human beings and the universe, the body shifts into a relatively stable condition and is ready to store energy for the entire winter. “Therefore, tonics can best be absorbed, stored and take effect gradually within the human body in this season,” says Dr Zhou Duan of Longhua Hospital attached to Shanghai University of TCM.
A Chinese saying goes that “if you take good reinforcing therapies in winter, you will be able to kill a tiger in the coming spring.”
Gaofang, or herbal paste, is one of the most popular reinforcing therapies in winter. It’s a jelly-like medicine made from condensed liquid herbal medicine and other ingredients, including honey andbrown sugar.
Traditionally, it is kept in an earthen jar in a cool place (a refrigerator today); a spoonful is mixed with hot water in the morning. Because of honey or brown sugar, it's not as bitter as herbal medicine alone.
TCM doctors prescribe it based on an exam, and hospital pharmacies can fill the prescription as can some TCM pharmacies. Some gaofang is prepared beforehand, although an individual prescription is usually best.
Traditionally, the reinforcing period starts from Dong Zhi (Winter Solstice) on December 22 to Chun Fen (Spring Equinox) on March 23. But most TCM hospitals today start their gaofang clinics as early as in November to feed the abundant needs in winter.
Gaofang is not a cure, but it can strengthen the immune system and help those with chronic conditions, such as high blood pressure. It can make regularly prescribed medicine work more effectivelybut it is not a substitute. Before prescribing a paste, a TCM doctor needs to know the patient’s condition in detail. He or she will ask how the patient is feeling, read examination reports and apply TCM diagnostics including tongue inspection and pulse-taking.
“One man’s meat is another one’s poison. It is also true in TCM,” says Dr Zhou of Longhua Hospital.
If reinforcement therapy is not appropriate because of the patient’s health condition — acute illness, acute period of chronic disease or weak digestion — the doctor may at first prescribe a one-week kailu fang, or “groundbreaking prescription.” This adjusts and balances the patient’s system so that it is receptive to reinforcement.