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Treating winter ailmentsin summer

THESE are the days when many Chinese people line up at hospitals for the traditional Chinese medicine summer treatment - herbal back plasters - to ease winter ailments, Zhang Qian reports.

Traditional Chinese medicine holds that the hottest, dog days of summer are the best time to treat chronic winter ailments and people are lining up at hospitals for herbal plasters on their back.

It's all about rebalancing energy.

Treatment for three consecutive summers is recommended to effectively rebalance energy, strengthen the constitution and prevent or weaken relapses. It is said to make a dramatic improvement in overall health.

Treatment is recommended for respiratory conditions, including asthma, arthritis, rheumatism, ringworm (a persistent fungus), chilblains and other ailments.

These days are known as sanfu (three consecutive summers), the 30 hottest days on the Chinese lunar calendar, usually mid-July to mid-August, when the prevailing yang (hot) energy in the universe and in human body reach their peak. This makes it a good time to treat winter ailments.

It is an especially good time because the pores are open in warm weather and can more easily absorb herbal treatment placed on or above (as in moxibustion) the energy channels.

This traditional therapy is called dong bing xia zhi, or treating winter ailments in summer.

This year, the dog days run from July 19 to August 17.

Winter ailments are caused by invasion of "pathogenic cold" (yin energy) and a patient's lack of yang energy. The idea is to take "cold expelling" therapy during this period to accumulate yang energy in advance of winter.

Therapies typically include futie (herbal plaster), moxibustion, acupuncture, and soaking hands and feet in herbal baths.

Respiratory ailments

Futie (herbal plaster) is the most widely used. Practitioners place tiny medicine cakes on the six acupuncture points on the patient's bare back. The ingredients are usually xixin (asarum), baijiezi (white mustard seed), gansui root and yanhusuo (fumitory).

The medicine cakes are covered by a plaster with a positive electric current running through it; another plaster with negative electric current is placed on the patient's left hand.

"The electric current will help the medicine pass through energy channels more quickly. Patients will feel like ants marching through the channels and the skin will be red after 20 minutes," said Dr Zhang Zhongyi, deputy director of the Acupuncture Department of Yueyang Hospital attached to Shanghai University of TCM.

Taking treatment five times over the 30 dog days and doing this for three years running can help prevent chronic respiratory ailments like asthma and bronchitis, according to Dr Zhang.

Patients should also avoid "cold" (yin) energy and cold temperatures in summer. That means avoiding iced foods such as ice cream and cold sodas and also "cold" energy foods such as seafood, bitter cucumber and watermelon. They should also avoid cold rooms.

Rheumatism and arthritis

Energy stagnation caused by pathogenic cold, wind and damp is the major cause of rheumatism and arthritis, according to Dr Su Li, chief physician of Longhua Hospital attached to Shanghai University of TCM.

Traditional moxibustion (burning herbs above an acupuncture point) and acupuncture on certain acupuncture points can help dispel pathogenic energy and promote blood circulation, especially in the hot days.

"Moxa is good at helping dispel various pathogenic energies and promoting blood and energy circulation," said Dr Su. But different kinds of moxibustion and herbs are required for different problems.

Herbal steam therapy is also popular for treating rheumatism and arthritis. An herbal soup is made from "cold-expelling" herbs such as wutou (aconite), xixin (asarum), ruxiang (frankincense) and moyao (myrrh), as well as some pain-relieving herbs such as yanhusuo (fumitory) and qingfengteng (sabia japonica). An herbal steaming machine turns the soup into steam that is sprayed on the painful area for 20-30 minutes. Temperature of 30-40 degrees Centigrade is recommended. Generally, the hotter the better, but patients with heart conditions should avoid this therapy.

Dr Su suggests moxibustion or acupuncture every other day for at least two weeks during the hot days. He recommends herbal steam therapy twice a week for a month.

Chilblains and ringworm

Soaking hands and feet in herbal soup on hot summer days can help prevent chilblains (caused by poor circulation) and ringworm fungus in winter, according to Dr Li Yongmei, chief physician of Longhua Hospital attached to Shanghai University of TCM.

A lack of yang energy contributes to poor circulation and chilblains, so soups made of hot energy herbs such as saffron, danshen (salvia miltiorrhiza), angelica and peony are recommended.

Those who want to DIY, should prepare a warm to very-warm soup with water and soak hands or feet for around 30 minutes a day during the dog days.

Dog days are also good time for herbal soup treatments of other skin problems not caused by pathogenic cold, such as ringworm.

"As pores open in the hot environment, it is easier for medicine to enter the affected area and take effect," said Dr Li.

The herbal soup for hand ringworm usually includes dandelion, shechuangzi (frutus cnidii) and tujinpi (cortex pseudolaricis), which can help kill fungus and relieve itchiness.

Herbs should be soaked in vinegar for around eight hours before use. The first soak should be warm, and subsequent soaks can be at room temperature. It's advised to soak for half an hour twice a day for seven consecutive days. Then stop for seven to 10 days and resume for another seven days.

Patients can do the soaking at home as long as they have a professional prescription, according to Dr Li.


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