Be Well: Can Chinese Herbs Stave Off Your Cold and Flu?

Alisa Blackwood for MSP Mag | February 12, 2018

MSP Mag speaks to NWHSU's herbal dispensary on how to combat cold and flu with Chinese medicine.

Can Chinese Herbs Stave Off Your Cold and Flu?
The manager of Northwestern Health Sciences University’s herbal dispensary—one of the largest in the region—thinks so.

With a severe cold and flu season ravaging the country, we’ll try nearly anything to stay (or get) healthy.

Enter Chinese herbal therapy. Even if not on your radar, this natural wellness system—one facet of Traditional Chinese Medicine—is rooted in thousands of years of use and success in China.

“It’s holistic and the herbs are natural,” says Sheryl Cota, a licensed acupuncturist and the herbal dispensary manager at Northwestern Health Sciences University (NWHSU) in Bloomington. “They’re going to have similar properties to Western medicine, but they’re more gentle.”

Northwestern Health Sciences University Herbal Dispensary
In short, Chinese herbs deserve a spot in your winter wellness regimen, especially when thinking prevention. We’re not talking your average over-the-counter echinacea. Think herbs like astragalus, called Huang Qi in Chinese herbalism, which can be used on its own or within a formula like Yu Ping Feng San to support the immune system, Cota says. She explains, however, that Chinese herbalism isn’t a one-size-fits-all-approach—and quality matters.

“The herbal formula we might give someone when they first start having mild symptoms would be different than when those symptoms are at their peak,” Cota says. “There are variances: how much phlegm is there? How severe is your sore throat? Is it dry or tickly?”

Your best healing potential comes from working with a trained practitioner who personalizes your wellness plan, including how herbs could interact with any other medicines or vitamins you’re taking. First, find a licensed acupuncturist who specializes in Chinese herbology, a practitioner of Oriental Medicine (OM), or try the Northwestern Health Sciences Bloomington Clinic. A student’s education at NWHSU includes how to assess the wellness and needs of the entire person—body and mind—including any current sneezes and sniffles. “We feel that education is one of the biggest things to ensure safety in using herbs,” Cota says.

She emphasizes that NWHSU believes all people should have access to such care. In addition to the Bloomington clinic, NWHSU runs the Pillsbury House Integrative Health Clinic in Minneapolis’ Powderhorn Park neighborhood, where trained students provide a variety of free services to the public.

Whether seeing your long-time favorite herbal therapist or seeing someone for the first time, Chinese herbal prescriptions often come as blends for use in pills or hot tea—perfect for warming that scratchy throat. They’re filled on-site at NWHSU’s Edith Davis Herbal Dispensary, which carries over 800 different herbal products in raw, granular, and pill form and is one of largest in the Upper Midwest. They’ll even drop-ship to other states with a valid prescription.

Northwestern Health Sciences University Herbal Dispensary
As the dispensary manager, Cota stocks only the highest quality Chinese and Taiwanese herb to ensure herbs aren’t laden with heavy metals or other pollutants. She checks each product’s certificate of analysis, and sources herbs from companies that use third-party safety testing. “With the herbs we use, we know they’re really good products,” she says.

Aside from not knowing how herbs might interact with other medicines you’re taking, those potential pollutants are another reason to avoid over-the-counter herbs. Plus, properly prescribed Chinese herbs complement any Western medical approach you might also choose. “In China, it’s fascinating because in a hospital they’ll do Western medicine and traditional Chinese medicine together. There’s more integration,” Cota says.

While Chinese herbs treat colds, flus, sinus conditions, and even seasonal affective disorder, Cota emphasizes that so much more can be treated, too. “Digestive conditions, gynecological issues like PMS symptoms, menopausal symptoms, and emotional things — we do not separate emotional challenges from physical challenges,” she says. “We treat the whole person.”

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