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Some herbal assistance to help fend off winter's cold and illnesses
By Fei Lai

AS winter approaches, it is time to consider herbal medicine as a way of staying health and fit during colder days.

One of the most popular traditional remedies in China is gaofang, or traditional Chinese medicine herbal paste.

Zhen Er, a 35-year-old media worker in Minhang District, said she bought a jar of the paste in a hospital and hoped it would help cure her anemia. She used it for a month.

"It has made me feel more energetic," Zhen said. "But I want to see my doctor and get a personalized recipe."

Wise precaution. Care needs to be taken when using gaofang.

For example, people with weak stomachs and spleens need to take a kailufang, a TCM recipe to clean the stomach for a week or two before using gaofang.

Exercise and controlling the intake of fats can improve the effectiveness of the paste.

Attitude is also important. Feeling blue can adversely affect the liver and gall bladder and impair absorption in digestion.

It's best to see a doctor's advice on the most suitable paste recipe tailored to your individual need.

Some people are under the misapprehension that good gaofang must contain rare herbs. That is not always the case, and in some instances, rare herbs can be harmful to a body.

Gaofang is usually taken twice a day. Those with strong stomachs and spleens can take it before eating breakfast and supper, while those with weaker constitutions are advised to take it after meals.

The usual dosage is half a spoon to a full spoon.

Gaofang doesn't go well with raw, cold, greasy, spicy or other heavy foods. Sometimes specific foods should be avoided if certain herbs are used in the paste.

For example, if your personal recipe contains ginseng, astragalus and other herbs to nourish vitality, turnips are not a wise table companion.

It's also not advisable to drink heavy tea if mastic herbs are in the paste because tea can weaken their effect.

A 47-year-old bank employee surnamed Zheng, who admits he has never tried gaofang, nonetheless believes it can be a good thing.

He said he has a friend, now 46, who was suffering serious problems after having three-quarters of his stomach removed in surgery when he was 30.

The friend, Zheng said, used gaofang specifically made for him for 10 years, while exercising and paying attention to his diet.

"Now he is very healthy," Zheng said. "And his stomach problems have never recurred."

Not everyone is such a firm believer.

Qiu Guoliang, who is in his 50s, said he has always feared adverse effects from gaofang.

"I believe more in diet and good nutrition," Qiu said.

"It's equally tonic to eat beef and mutton in winter. What's more, gaofang costs at least 2,000 yuan (US$320) today. That's too expensive."

A 57-year-old Minhang resident surnamed Li also said she heard from a neighbor about the magical qualities of gaofang. So she tried it last winter, to no effect.

"Maybe it works differently on different people," she said. "It didn't work for me, and this year I am taking none."

Five steps to make your own gaofang:

Ingredients: 250-500 grams each of ejiao (donkey-hide glue), rice wine (10 years or older is best), black sesame seed (mashed), walnut kernels (mashed), longan pulp, crystal sugar (substitute xylitol for diabetics)

Tools: a large porcelain jar with a tight cap. Don't use a metal container.

Step 1: Immerse ejiao with the rice wine in the porcelain jar and stir daily. After a week or more, melt the ejiao in the wine; then immense the other herbs with water in a dish for about four hours to get them fully dilated.

Step 2: Boil the dilated herbs, then turn down to a simmer for about an hour. Filter the juice. Boil the medicine with water in the same manner. Then boil the medicine for a third time and discard the residue. Mix the three bowls of medicine juices.

Step 3: Thicken the medicine juice in a dish, using a high heat for evaporation. Skim off the floating foam, then simmer until the liquid reduces further. Stir constantly to avoid scorching. The mixture will become thick enough to spread.

Step 4: Heat the ejiao over simmering water, then mix it with other ingredients in the primary cream, melting the mixture under a low heat and stirring constantly until it will stick to a chopstick.

Step 5: Put the cream in a clean porcelain container to cool. Cover the mouth with clean muslin. Set aside overnight. Store in a cool place with a tight cap.

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