Classical Chinese Medicine in the Treatment of Infectious Disease

July 20, 2021 3 min read

Classical Chinese medicine has been combatting the effects of disease and epidemics and for many millennia.  Throughout that time, it has evolved from a wide range of disparate, local folk remedies, using local indigenous plant medicinals, to a comprehensive structure in which to understand both the pathophysiology of a wide range of what Chinese medicine termed ‘external attacks’, as well as a complex understanding of how the immune system functions.

In ancient times without central heating, glass for windows, proper sanitation, and the inability to refrigerate of food, the primary human struggle with the environment was to try to stay warm, to eat well, and to not become sick.  Even a cold or flu was a serious and potentially life-threatening situation, and so a lot of time, study, effort was made, and great importance was placed on understanding and treating such problems over the many years of the development of Chinese medicine.

The book Shang Han Za Bing Lun, On Cold Damage and Miscellaneous Diseases, was a comprehensive medical manual written by Zhang Ji, an Eastern Han physician (circa 150-219 C.E.). and later recompiled by Wang Shu He (210-285 C.E.).  This was a compilation and formal structural tome of the collected knowledge of the many centuries preceding.

It was the pinnacle of understanding of the origin and development of disease, as well as a sophisticated system used to focus a course of treatment. In early Chinese thinking, externally contracted illness is understood in terms of invasion of the body by climatic pathogenic factors, principally wind and cold, as well as heat, dryness and dampness. These can be both the cause of disease, and the outcomes of the disease process.

Illness is understood as the inability of the body to cope with changing external environment.  For example, chills or fever, dry lips, thirst, dry or productive cough all reflect these illness processes.

Once these pathogens bypass or progress past our most superficial protective mechanism, they may progress through further levels in the body, exerting their influence on the internal organs.  This follows a certain progression through the six levels of the body.

The six levels are a way of understanding disease conditions from both the relative strength of the pathogen, and the body’s resistance to it.  A weak pathogen with strong bodily defences typically manifest with superficial self-limiting disorders, whilst a strong pathogen with weak bodily defences typically produces disorders affecting deeper levels in the body.

The framework of the six levels, or phases, and corresponding treatment is what the Shang Han Lun is concerned with.

It indicates both the pathological process, and the treatment required.  Because the levels can transmute from one to another, and can often overlap, combining more than one level or region of the body is frequently required.

Specific herbs have been tried and tested over several millenia, treating hundreds of infectious disease epidemics over China’s long history.  This was the major cause of death in the Chinese population of the time, before the advent of modern biomedicine.

The herbs used are not chosen specifically for a particular anti-viral or anti-bacterial function, but rather the specific medicinals are chosen based on the identification of a pattern of symptoms, indicating the disease process in one or more of these 6 categories. 

When we aim treatment at the specific level in which disease appears, we are assisting the body’s innate immune system in the precise way in which it needs help, to resolve the illness. In this way, Chinese medicine empowers the body to be more resilient to these attacks.

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