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May 18, 2011

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Home » Feature » Health and Environment

Beat the heat with herbal products

BEFORE air conditioning, sunglasses and sun-block cream, bamboo fans and the "big five" were favored across Shanghai to combat the summer heat. Even today wan jing you (cooling essential balm), feng you jing (medicated cooling oil), ren dan (panacea pills), fei zi fen (prickly heat powder) and hua lu shui (floral water) are still popular summer health care products among Chinese people.

Summer is rarely comfortable in Shanghai. It's hot, humid and there are many annoying pests. People are often bothered with problems like heat rash, pest bites and sunstroke, according to Professor Qian Hai of Shanghai University of TCM. Medicated herbs are what people turn to first to ward off these common summer complaints.

Wan jing you, literally million golden balm, is usually composed of menthol, mint oil, camphor oil, eucalyptus oil and Chinese cinnamon. It has functions such as dispelling pathogenic heat, refreshing the mind, repelling pests and relieving itchiness. It can also help relieve headaches, sunstroke and car sickness when applied to certain acupuncture points. And it can be used for various problems such as relieving light scald, tonsillitis and helosis, improving partial blood circulation as well as removing paint from skin.

The essential balm was first invented by Hu Wenhu in Fujian Province. Running a pharmacy with his father in Burma urged him to search for herbal products to help protect local people from all the annoying pests and uncomfortable weather. Tiger-branded wan jing you was invented with a combination of Chinese herbs with herbal prescriptions in Southeast Asia.

The balm is often applied on the forehead to refresh the mind or relieve headache and dizziness. Doctors suggest caution when applying it near the eyes, mouth and nose as it can damage mucous membranes. Do not put it on wounds.

Feng you jing is a similar product and shares some ingredients like menthol, camphor oil and eucalyptus oil. But it is a green liquid with more volatile ingredients. It is often more stimulating than cooling balm.

Taking about 10-20 tiny pills can effectively relieve vomiting and dizziness caused by heatstroke, sunstroke, car sickness or sea sickness.

Ren dan, literally human pills, was said to be invented by Shanghai businessman Huang Chujiu in the early 20th century based on an ancient TCM prescription for troop marching and his own ancestral TCM prescriptions. They are tiny little pills composed of menthol, cinnamon, liquorice, catechu, borneol, platycodon root, camphor, fennel, katsumadai seed and basil oil.

The products quickly took the local market by storm and threatened a popular Japanese pill named rend an (kind pill). Facing the charge of "imitation brand" by the Japanese company, Chinese ren dan was finally ruled an independent product in 1927. The pills still have a good reputation today.

"The ingredients like borneol, menthol and cinnamon are all effective herbs to clear pathogenic heat and open orifices," says Qian. "It helps accelerate the repelling of pathogenic dampness and heat out of the body, and thus relieve the discomfort related."

The pills have to be kept in non-transparent bottles as light may cause chemical reactions and decrease effectiveness. Take pills with warm water or just let them melt in the mouth. Some say letting them melt in the mouth is more effective.

Prickly heat powder is similar to talcum powder, but contains menthol and calamine to make it effective in helping relieve inflammation and itchiness.

"Most of the ingredients of prickly heat powder are minerals that help keep skin dry, which robs the growth environment for many germs and fungi and thus helps prevent related skin problems," says Dr Song Yu, associate physician of Longhua Hospital attached to Shanghai University of TCM.

Prickly heat powder is more suitable for application on armpits and regions that frequently sweat. However, it should not be applied on skin with erosions or open wounds. It may also aggravate overly dry skin.

Some parents are worried that lead in talcum powder may be poisonous to children. Song suggests it won't be a problem.

"Metal used in TCM has aroused many safety debates over the years," says Song.

"Our clinical experience shows that heavy metals like mercury, arsenic and lead for limited external use won't lead to an obvious increase of metal density in blood even if there is a wound, let alone the ordinary use of a limited amount of lead in prickly heat powder."

Yet for those with wounds, Song recommends pine pollen as it is less stimulating and natural.

In the 1930s, floral water was a substitute for more expensive perfumes. Older Chinese people often associate it with Shanghai.

First originated in Hong Kong in 1905, floral water soon became popular in Shanghai with the local production under the brand name of "Superstar" in 1908. In those days, when smelling a women wearing floral water, people would jump to the conclusion that she was from Shanghai.

Perfume eventually replace floral water with China's opening-up and reform policy in the 1980s, but producers successfully turned it into a necessity for summer, shifting its function from providing fragrance to preventing heat rash, relieving itchiness and sterilization.

According to Qian, Shanghai Jahwa started adding ingredients from the famous Chinese patent drug liu shen wan (Miraculous Pills of Six Ingredients) to floral water in the 1990s.

Liu shen wan is a patent drug composed of bezoar, pearl, musk, senso, borneol and red orpiment. The drug can help dispel pathogenic heat, relieve inflammation and relieve pain. Some even say it is effective in refreshing the mind.

"It was just a start, and many other manufacturers keep perfecting the ingredients for different functions," says Qian.

Herbs like honeysuckle and mint are widely used, according to him, and pyrethrum is popular these days as studies found its essence kills pests with a low body temperature yet is harmless to humans.

"The effective ingredients in floral water like honeysuckle, mint and borneol can help improve blood circulation and relieve inflammation either due to pest bites or heat rashes," says Dr Song. "To some extent, it can also help open the pores and prevent heat rashes."

Though effective, floral water is not suitable for everybody.

"Spreading floral water on the skin can be quite refreshing in most cases, but very stimulating if there are wounds," says Dr Song. "It may aggravate the situation if there are skin inflammation problems."

Generally, it is recommended for heat rashes or pest bites. For babies, who have sensitive skin, it's best to add a few drops in the bath water.

Some easy practices in summer

Hua lu shui:

Add 5-6 drops of floral water in bath water can help cool skin, sterilize, relieve itchiness and prevent heat rashes.

Take a small bottle of floral water and drop a few drops in hands when outing can help clean away germs in hands.

Add some floral water in the water for cleaning summer sleeping mat can help sterilize it while making it cool to sleep on.

Floral water can also be used to clean telephone and cell phones.

Wan jing you / feng you jing:

Put some balm or oil on forehead, tai yang or ren zhong points can help refresh mind and relieve heat-stroke related discomfort.

Put some balm or oil on the skin with paint, leave it for 2-3 minutes before cleaning can help make it a much easier job.

Spread heavy balm or oil on skin immediately when it is burnt by hot oil or water. It can help prevent blister occurrence. It usually needs to be kept for ten minutes to half an hour. But it won't be that effective for severe cases.


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