We’re coming off a viciously hot summer here in Shanghai right now, and the autumn weather is wasting no time unpacking its bags. The unbearable, womblike humidity and open sunlight of the past few months are quickly giving way to a breezy, overcast status quo.
It’s transitional times like these when my immune system seems to get caught off guard. It took about three hours total for my sinuses to go from young, carefree, and whistling with an easygoing wind, to being at 100% max phlegm capacity. I’m talking congestion city. I’m talking Central Park after the appearance of a rare Pokémon in July 2016. Like if I want to say something cool, I’ll have to think of a way to say it without any N’s or M’s (aka D’s and B’s).
Seeing as I’m in the cradle of modern China, and because I’m a rough-around-the-edges reporter type who’ll do anything for the story, I opted to take an unorthodox approach to the problem. I dove into the internet, and reemerged with an ad-hoc list of traditional Chinese methodologies in my hand. Bear in mind, I am a young white dude from America. There are people who devote their lives to the study of the nuanced, multifaceted modes of wellbeing that we lump together as “Traditional Chinese Medicine” (TCM), and this account should be taken with the grainiest grain of salt. That being said, here is a summation of my personal experience, trying to self-diagnose and treat this catastrophically stuffy nose with a cobbled-together understanding of TCM.
If you’ve been poking around the site, you might know that diagnosis in TCM is supremely important, and different from the way standard doctors might diagnose a patient. A highly-trained TCM practitioner is supposed to enact the si zhen (the four examinations – observing, seeing/smelling, asking the patient about pains or medical history, and pulse-taking), after which he or she will be able to offer a thorough and comprehensive diagnosis. Finding myself short on highly-trained TCM practitioners, I used an infographic instead:
Source: The World of Chinese
In TCM theory, there are actually six different kinds of colds. But most colds fall into one of these two: cold-wind colds, which are more common in the winter months, and warm-wind colds, more common in spring/summer. I consulted the handy venn diagram. I consulted my body. I consulted my phlegm coloration (this article is getting more personal than I’d intended). I concluded that, with the weather changing from summer to fall, and with my tongue yellower and my glands more swollen than usual, I’d contracted a warm-wind cold.
2. Acupressure and Breathing
Now that I had some sort of diagnosis on hand, it was time to work from the ground up. I chose my first step based on its universal accessibility: acupressure and breathing exercises.
Acupressure is the massage-based, needle-less sister of acupuncture, based on the same understanding of energy flow within the body. Breathing exercises are exactly what they sound like – but have been held as a key component of wellbeing in China for centuries.
Acupressure is the massage-based, needle-less sister of acupuncture, based on the same understanding of energy flow within the body
I popped my knuckles and geared up for an acupressure jamboree on my congested head. I attacked my unsuspecting acupoints with firm, circular kneading, massaging the cartilage along the bridge of my nose, as well as the undersides of the ear-level grooves on the back of my skull. I ended up trying points from my head and sternum down to the fleshy webbing between my thumb and index finger (in TCM, the points themselves don’t always match where the pain is — problems with headaches or breathing might very well be treated with acupuncture in the hands and feet).
My initial reaction was surprise at how immediate the relief was from some of these points. Take a few deep breaths, move your fingers around some, and airflow is within your reach. I wondered how I could have gone this far in my life without knowing any of these easy moves, which you can literally do any time you have your fingers on hand (!). I found some of these points to be especially effective:
I started to feel my whole head opening up, like all kinds of things that were stuck were starting to move around and circulate all harmoniously. Inspired, I tackled the breathing exercise I’d come across. I sat on the edge of a chair with my feet flat on the floor, and breathed out as much air as I could through my mouth, contracting my abdominals for the final squeeze. Then, I breathed in through my nose to no more than a one-half fullness of lung capacity, before exhaling out again the same as the first time. The goal is to do this routine several times a day, thereby flushing the “stagnant air” from your lungs.
Now, full disclosure, in the past there were times when I would hear TCM terminology like “stagnant air” and become skeptical. But it felt good to push everything out of my lungs like that. It only amplified the non-sick feeling of flow I was beginning to experience, and I suddenly realized that, lying in bed the past few days, I hadn’t really been filling or emptying my lungs completely.
3. Nasal Rinsing
I was starting to get really into this whole “non-stagnant” lifestyle. That which is stagnant shall be un-stagnated, I told myself. So began the most life-changing part of this whole experience: Operation Nasal Rinse.
Aware that I was moving further and further away from the normal response someone should have when they are feeling under the weather, I went to the grocery store and bought spring onion and garlic. These were the principal ingredients in the spring onion and garlic homestyle nasal wash recipes I’d come across online, and I was intent on extracting the burning juices and pouring them into my nose.
How did it go, Adan?
Things got complicated. First of all, the juicing process was not as simple as the online description had led me to believe (“Step 1: Pound the stalks to extract the juice”). I ended up crushing garlic bulbs and stalks of green onion with spoons, cutting boards, bowls, and meat tenderizing hammers before I had what seemed like a reasonable amount of juice. I collected my winnings in a bowl and swirled them around with some water. With my eyes already watering from being in the same room as the vegetables, I sat down and prepared to apply them to my inner nostrils.
Long story short, it felt like I’d dipped rolled up tissue missiles into a serum of crushed onion and garlic and pushed them deep into my sinuses. Reason being, that’s exactly what happened. Immediately, I gave up on not smelling garlic for the rest of the day. There were flakes of wet garlic and spring onion rolling around in the most intimate corners of my nasal cavities.
I sneezed one thousand times. When I needed to tap, I would blow out the tissue wads, along with all kinds of stuff that doesn’t need to be described. Then I would compose myself, roll up two more, and go back in. While I was doing all this, I was taking deep breaths, and pressing all sorts of sinus acupoints in my face and head. I can assure you that I looked like a crazy person, to foreigners and locals alike.
Flakes of wet garlic and spring onion were rolling around in the most intimate corners of my nasal cavities
Later, I continued the rinsing process with a more currently-accepted alternative: saline water. Back home I used to use a neti pot, but this time around I had to go au naturale, settling for a roughly eyeballed mixture of warm water and table salt. Between the spring onion, garlic, and saltwater, I’m not sure if my nose will ever learn to trust me again. Who knows how long I stood there in the shower, removing hulking globs of stagnation, and indulging in the sweet squeaking sound of pressure leaving my skull. Anyway, let’s keep this moving.
At this point, I was tired. I’d prodded and kneaded at acupoints all over my body. I’d forcefully exhaled stagnant air to the point of dizziness. I’d chopped up pungent vegetables and introduced them to the unwilling environment of my inner nostrils. I even tried overhauling my diet (in TCM, diet is one of the most important lines of action one can take against a cold; the reason it did not make it as a standalone section here is because literature on the subject advised me to stop eating flavorful foods and meat, and to replace them instead with bland soup or rice gruel — there’s only so much one man can do at a time). The one thing that people readily think of as “Chinese medicine” turned out to be the easiest: herbs.
I scooted down to my local pharmacy. A lot of pharmacies in China, including this one, are divided right down the center: Western-style modern medicine on one side, and traditional herbal options on the other. For the first time, I went down the side less traveled, and was all the better for it. I asked the doc in broken Chinese what do you have for a cold, and seeing him move towards the Western medicine, added that I’d like to try the Chinese medicine this time. He looked me up and down suspiciously.
Is it a cold-wind cold, or a warm-wind cold?
Warm-wind, I told him confidently. My infographic had prepped me for this exchange.
He gave me a box with some herbal packets in it. He told me to take it three times a day, dissolved in lukewarm water (not hot water, as I had laughably thought). I took it home and started drinking.
One thing people don’t realize about herbal cures is that they are far less potent. That’s not to say they don’t work, just that you might need to take way more of them, with much greater frequency. I was warming up water to drink my herbs over and over throughout the day. I was closing my laptop for intense sessions of acupoint rubbing just as frequently. I kept excusing myself from pleasant company to go drain globs of ungodly green matter from my sinuses with spring onion, garlic, and saltwater. It was not a one-step process.
It all goes back to something I learned about TCM a long time ago: TCM is a way of life, not a solution for an acute problem. If you have a cold, or shortness of breath, or headaches, or indigestion – sure, it can be treated by TCM. But more importantly, someone who regularly incorporates TCM into their lifestyle would be less likely to experience those problems in the first place. As I rubbed, breathed, and hocked stagnation out of the deepest recesses of my body, I wondered if I were someone who did this every day, would I even have experienced the sickness at all?
Three or four days later, I can breathe easy. I hit those pathogens with a no-holds-barred onslaught of traditional Chinese medicine; or at least, the bootleg, do-it-yourself-at-home version. I can’t say if it was the TCM that cured me, and I definitely can’t say that a real TCM practitioner would give me an A+ on my performance (there were times when I had no water, and had to dissolve my herbs in lukewarm coconut juice). But if anything, it helped me understand what TCM is all about: doing natural things to help your body function at its natural best. If there’s a state of imbalance, remove it. Too hot? Add cold. Too stagnant? Move something around. Too dry? Put some dampness in the mix.
So at the end of my four day stint as a sage of TCM and cultural appropriation, I have a new appreciation for a unique system of wellbeing that I’m still far from understanding. Even just rubbing my acupoints and breathing consciously as I sit on the subway, or trying to cover my neck when there’s a breeze in the room, I start to understand the day-to-day process of living in accordance with TCM. For now, I’m happy just to be able to breathe through my nose.