The first groups of herbs students learn in Chinese herb classes are the warm and cool herbs to release the exterior. These herbs are active on the surface of the body and useful in externally-contracted conditions, like colds or the flu. Many are diaphoretic and open the pores to promote sweating, vent rashes, treat red, itchy eyes and sore throat in the case of a wind-cold or heat invasion, treat headache of carious causes, or drain dampness by being diuretic.
One thing I love, love, love, love, love about learning Chinese herbs is the emphasis on the energetics of taste/flavor. I already mentioned this in my last post, but I can’t help but (over)state it again, because it has been so helpful in learning the herbs, and providing a bit of theory to base the use of these herbs in.
Overall, the flavor and energy of these herbs goes up and out. Some are aromatic, most are acrid, a few are bitter or sweet. Most but not all of these herbs enter the Bladder and/or the Lungs, since these are the organs most closely related to the exterior (Lungs in the upper body, the Bladder in the lower body). Below I have taken a few herbs from the texts and added a few Western herbs from Micheal Tierra’s The Way of the Herbs, for comparison.
Warm herbs to release the exterior/surface:
Ephedra – Ephedra sinica, Ephedracae family. This herb is classified as warm, acrid, and slightly bitter, and is known as a one of the best diaphoretics when there is no sweating as it opens the pores when it is blocked by wind-cold. It is also used for asthma or cough, as well as edema since it is a diuretic. It is no accident that it is the first herb often taught; it exemplifies the entire category in many ways even though it is somewhat of a controversial herb and not used often in the states.
There are many representatives from the Apiacea or carrot family, but I want to look at an herb from the Chinese materia medica that has a close relative in Western herbalism, angelica. Angelica dahurica or bai zhi is warm, acrid and aromatic, which makes it useful for dispersing, unblocking, warming and drying. These qualities are useful draining skin infections like boils, treating leukorrhea, frontal headaches and toothaches due to an attack of external cold-wind, and nasal congestion.
Every herb has at least on of the twelve channels that it enters into, but a few herbs actually guide into the organ itself. Bai zhi guides into the Yang Ming organs, in particular the Stomach. This makes sense because the paired organs of Spleen and Stomach often accumulate dampness and affect the appitite, assim diegstion, and bai zhi is great at expelling dampness.
Angelica archangelica is also in this category. It is native to Europe has similar energetics to bai zhi, and is known as being carminative, emmenagogue and diaphoretic. Taken during the start of a cold or the flu, it can promote sweating and spread warmth through the body. To me it is especially useful in either damp conditions or damp environments, because it is so aromatic and lifting. I recall a teacher commenting that it is suited to England, where it is cold and damp. I started using it after spending a weekend in southern Minnesota where it was dew-covered and growing abundantly along the steep roadsides during a very hot and very humid June. I was drawn to use it because of its drying and carminative properties, and found it worked incredibly well in this regard.
Many aromatic, warming and spicy mints show up in this category from the Chinese tradition as well as Western. Hyssop, sage, hedge nettle, basil, thyme, oregano, savory, monarda, perilla and fang feng are a few examples. When I thought of the Western herbs in the category, I realized that many herbs in surface-releasing category are anti-microbial. Chinese medicine theory doesn’t include germ theory, but it does consider that exogenous pathogenic factors can invade the body when either it’s defenses are down (a deficiency situation) or the pathogen is very strong (an excess condition).
Mints are among my favorite herbs to take at the start of a cold or flu, or even when in chronic conditions when it has moved into the chest (thyme being my standby here). They have the ability to float and vent a congested head, increase circulation, promote circulation and sweating, and even soothe an upset stomach and promote a good appetite, which is often lacking when you are coming down with a cold or flu. I mentioned this to my herb study group a few weeks ago and they were taken aback by my use of thyme for a cold, saying it was awfully hot and caustic. I countered with explaining that I am used to below zero winters so I needed a lot of warming, but that still didn’t win them over. Finally it came up that they thought I was using the essential oil of thyme which is very hot, concentrated and often caustic. But I am a whole herb for my steam sort of gal.
A few other herbs in this category include sassafrass, fresh ginger, cinnamon cassia and two ligusticums: L. sinense and L. porteri. One of my favorite Chinese herbs in the category is qiang huo, Notopterygium incisum. The root of this aromatic Apiaceae is warm, acrid and bitter so it can disperse and raise to discharge wind, cold and damp pathogens from the exterior. Qiang huo enters the Bladder channel, which combined with its lifting and dispersing flavors, can release sore muscles, chills and headache. In particular, it relieves achy joints and bones along the back, the muscles along the sides of the spine (erector spinae), along the scapula, up the back of the neck into the head and across the forehead to the eyes.
I wish would’ve had some qiang huo on hand when I was a preschool teacher and came down with the achy flu from hell 4 times in 3 months. My bones felt like they were in a vice and I was chilled to the bone. I used a lot of diapohretics and warm herbs, but came to rely on boneset for the pain in my hips and femurs. Boneset is so bitter and cold, which brought it down to the lower burner, but it didn’t totally relieve the aches in my shoulders, arms and back – what qiang huo does so well.