For over 2,000 years, China has witnessed more than 300 epidemics, averaging one outbreak every seven years. Considering that the Mayan culture was wiped out by epidemics and the European population was reduced by half by the bubonic plague in the Middle Ages, the resilience of the Chinese civilization that has been continuing for 5,000 years, aided no doubt by its unique medical practices and tradition, must count as remarkable.
On 11 March, the World Health Organization declared the current outbreak of COVID-19 as a pandemic. While Western medicine is still universally adopted for the treatment of COVID-19, the theories and practice of Chinese medicine, developed over thousands of years, should not be overlooked. COVID-19 has filled people’s hearts with fear and anxiety. Chinese medicine, which sees the human body as an organic whole, values the integration of nature and humanity, and tries to achieve a balance between the internal organs through the observation of natural laws, can complement Western medicine. In view of this, the CUHK Newsletter has invited Prof. Lin Zhixiu, Associate Director of the School of Chinese Medicine and Director of the Hong Kong Institute of Integrative Medicine, to talk about the use of Chinese medicine for the prevention and treatment of COVID-19 and the significant role of this millennium-old medical tradition in our battle against the pandemic.
How does Chinese medicine explain the outbreak of COVID-19?
From the point of view of Chinese medicine, COVID-19 is an epidemic. It was a result of the transition between winter and spring, when our immune system becomes weaker than usual and susceptible to the epidemic miasma. Unlike the common flu, it spreads far and wide. That it’s highly infectious and indiscriminate in its victims is mentioned in the classic of Chinese medicine, Huangdi Neijing. Neijing also mentions that an epidemic disease is caught (largely) through the nose. Through the nose the miasma enters the lung and affects its normal functions, giving rise to coughs, wheezing and fever.
Are the keys to coping with epidemics mentioned in Huangdi Neijing applicable to COVID-19?
One method put forward in Huangdi Neijing for the prevention of epidemics is to avoid the miasma, which means refraining from visiting crowded places to avoid infecting others or getting infected. The book also mentions the importance of boosting one’s immunity—When there is sufficient healthy qi inside, the miasma has no way to invade the body. The healthy qi in Chinese medicine is another name for what is known today as immunity. Boosting your healthy qi or immunity can help prevent the miasma from making you sick even if you come into contact with it.
As a classic that records Chinese medicinal theories, Huangdi Neijing does not mention at length the ways to identify and treat epidemics. However, traditional Chinese medicine practitioners in the Ming and Qing dynasties who specialized in febrile diseases found many ways to identify epidemics, which are still of great relevance today. For example, a specialist in epidemics in the Ming dynasty named Wu Youke advised people to wear face masks and quarantine patients suffering from febrile diseases.
What are good ways to boost one's healthy qi and prevent COVID-19?
Besides washing your hands frequently, wearing face masks and avoiding crowded places, you may try the following things to boost your immunity. First, get enough sleep. In springtime when the day is shorter than the night, it is advisable to sleep early and rise late, which means going to bed half an hour earlier and getting up half an hour later than usual. Second, you should dine at regular hours and eat healthily. Third, keep your peace of mind so that anxiety and fear will not harm your organs and lower your immunity. Finally, you should exercise daily; those quarantined at home can try Tai Chi or Baduanjin.
Is Chinese medicine as curative as it is preventive when it comes to COVID-19?
In the absence of vaccines and specific medicine, Chinese medicine practitioners have participated in the treatment of COVID-19 since the early days of the outbreak in the mainland. In fact, in some makeshift cabin hospitals in Wuhan, Chinese medicine has played a leading part in treating the patients with Western medicine playing a complementary part. Chinese medicine has proved effective in relieving COVID-19 symptoms such as fever, coughs and fatigue. It has also helped shorten the duration of hospitalization, prevent non-serious cases from developing into serious ones, improve the recovery rate, and reduce the death rate.
So far, more than 60,000 COVID-19 patients in China have been cured and discharged. While most of them received integrated treatment, there are many who have been cured by Chinese medicine only.
What accounts for the effectiveness of Chinese medicine in treating COVID-19?
Chinese medicine practitioners usually prescribe medicine based on the symptoms and the physical conditions of the patients. We use Astragali Radix, Atractylodes Macrocephala, and Poria to enhance the patient’s immunity. Herbal medicines such as Scutellariae Radix and Houttuynia Cordata are used to protect the lung, heart, liver and kidney from being damaged by inflammation caused by the virus. Chinese medicine practitioners are skilled at targetting coughing, sore throat, vomiting and diarrhoea so as to speed up recovery.
When do you think the epidemic in Hong Kong will ease?
This is hard to say. Judging from what happened during the SARS epidemic, though, I think the epidemic will ease sometime around May. This estimate takes into account climatic and human factors. The epidemic broke out between winter and spring. With summer coming and temperatures rising, viruses do not easily multiply. If we strictly abide by the quarantine measures and control the spread of the virus, the epidemic will come to a halt.
Can you recommend some Chinese medicine prescriptions?
In different provinces in China, different Chinese medicine prescriptions for COVID-19 have been adopted. I have collected a number of such prescriptions. Most preventive prescriptions aim at nourishing the lung and strengthening the immune system as well as removing the toxins in our body, such that we are in a better position to combat the virus. I recommend a prescription developed by Prof. Liang Songming of the Hong Kong Institute of Integrative Medicine. It is effective in preventing COVID-19 and is suitable for people with a balanced constitution. Readers are advised to consult Chinese medicine practitioners before taking the medicine: