With the fall season's arrival, it is always a good time to begin to discuss strengthening the immune system. This is an especially important topic due to the current concerns with COVID-19 infection and the upcoming cold-flu season.
One of the most important concepts I try to instill in patients is the value of prevention. Three areas I focus on are the use of tonic herbs to boost wei qi and spleen qi; the importance of diet in immunity; and the importance of quality sleep in immunity. In terms of tonic herbs, I focus on astragalus root (Huang Qi), various ginseng species (Ren Shen, Dang Shen, Xi Yang Shen) and medicinal mushrooms. I find these herbal medicinals provide support for patients wishing to deeply strengthen the immune reservoir, as well as improve digestion.
Astragalus / Huang Qi
While TCM practitioners and clinical herbalists are no doubt familiar with astragalus root as an immune tonic, many patients are not. As a result, they may focus on popular over-the-counter herbal remedies advertised in health food stores such as echinacea and elderberry combinations. While these herbal medicinals have their place, I always encourage preventative thinking instead of reactionary thinking in herbal medicine.
Huang Qi is an extremely gentle herb which can be taken long-term prior to the winter months to deeply build the immune reservoir and boost spleen qi, improving both digestion and immunity. Astragalus root is inexpensive and easy to take in capsule, liquid extract or tea form. Patients can be instructed how to take it daily in low-dose form to deeply nourish all aspects of health.
I find this herb particularly helpful in patients who experience chronic fatigue; and for athletes to prevent overtraining syndromes. Astragalus roots can also easily be added to soups, stews and grain dishes.
The use of ginseng species as a long-term tonic is perhaps the most famous example of herbal supplementation in Chinese medicine. I use a variety, but primarily American and Korean ginseng, depending upon the season and the specific constitution of the patient. I find American ginseng to be gentle and fitting for most patients, and often have patients combine this with astragalus root as a wonderful two-herb combination to take long-term to boost the immune system and spleen qi.
You can also use the simple two-herb patent formula Shen Qi Da Bu Wan (codonopsis / Dang Shen and astragalus root / Huang Qi). This is a wonderful formula to be taken long-term in the fall to boost spleen qi and deepen immune reserves. You could also combine this with Yu Ping Feng Wan / Jade Screen Teapills for patients who frequently suffer colds or chronic fatigue. I also often instruct patients to take a liquid extract of American ginseng, add 20-30 drops of Yu Pin Feng Wan and sip throughout the day, as this also assists with proper hydration.
This category has a wide array of options. Reishi, shitake, maitake, lion's mane and cordyceps are the mushrooms I tend to use clinically, but there are many options from which to choose. I tend to recommend capsule form and often use formulas that combine four to five mushrooms together. These mushrooms should be taken 2-3 months prior to the cold-flu season and are particularly effective for patients suffering from chronic fatigue and chronic, recalcitrant health conditions.
It is common to find cordyceps or Dong Chong Xia Cao in both patent and capsule form, and it can easily be combined with Yu Ping Feng Wan or Shen Qi Da Bu Wan. The key is to explain to patients that medicinal mushrooms ideally should taken throughout the fall and winter seasons for best results.
Other Factors to Consider
As I've mentioned before, no herb, patent formula or acupuncture point can replace deep, restorative sleep, clean eating and exercise. All too often, clinicians and patients alike focus solely on herbal and/or nutritional supplements, overlooking the importance of these factors.
We must also always instill faith and hope in patients. Many patients live in fear of "getting sick" and seek out miracle supplements and therapies to prevent any and all maladies. Using tonic herbs to boost the immunity and spleen qi is not simply a strategy to avoid "getting sick." It is a strategy to assist your patients in living a life of vitality, passion and inspiration.
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