Cold limbs according to Chinese Medicine

Cold limbs can be the consequence of several so-called “patterns of disharmony” in Chinese Medicine.

Chinese Medicine sees the body as a system, not a sum of isolated parts. A "pattern" is when the system's harmony is disrupted, leading to symptoms or signs that something is wrong (like cold limbs here). It is similar to the concept of disease in Western Medicine but not quite: a Western disease can often be explained by several Chinese patterns and vice-versa.

A pattern often manifests itself in a combination of symptoms that, at first glance, do not seem necessarily related to each others. For instance here cold limbs is often associated with feeling of cold, loose stools and frequent urination in the pattern “Yang Deficiency or Empty Yang”. As you will see below, we have in record five patterns that can cause cold limbs.

Once identified, patterns are treated using medicinal herbs, acupuncture, and other therapies. In the case of cold limbs we’ve identified five herbal formulas that may help treat patterns behind the symptom.

We’ve also selected below the five medicinal herbs that we think are most likely to help treat cold limbs.

The five "patterns of disharmony" that can cause cold limbs

In Chinese Medicine cold limbs is a symptom for 5 patterns that we have on record. Below is a small explanation for each of them with links for more details.

Yang Deficiency or Empty Yang

Pulse type(s): Deep (Chen), Empty (Xu), Slow (Chi), Weak (Ruo)

Tongue color: Pale

Yang Deficiency is an Empty-Cold condition characterized by Coldness and Deficiency. It can cause a general hypoactivity of Organ functions and Oedema. Qi and Blood is more likely to stagnate. Yang Deficiency is mostly related to Spleen Yang, Kidney Yang, Heart Yang or Lung Qi. It is a result of lack of activity or exercise, excessive sex, over-exposure to cold environments and bad diet.

In addition to cold limbs, other symptoms associated with Yang Deficiency or Empty Yang include feeling of cold, loose stools and frequent urination.

Yang Deficiency or Empty Yang is often treated with Ba Wei Di Huang Wan, a herbal formula made of 8 herbs (including Prepared Rehmannia - Shu Di huang - as a key herb). Ba Wei Di Huang Wan belongs to the category of "formulas that nourish yin and tonify", which might be why it is often recommended for this pattern. Its main action as a formula is: "Tonifies Yang".

Read more about Yang Deficiency or Empty Yang here

Ginseng (Ren Shen) is the king ingredient for Si Jun Zi Tang, a formula used for Qi Deficiency

Qi Deficiency

Pulse type(s): Empty (Xu), Weak (Ruo)

Tongue color: Pale

Qi Deficiency simply means lack of Qi. It includes the lack of Original Qi, Nutritive Qi, Defensive Qi or the Qi that resides in Organs or Channels. It mainly manifests itself in a weakened function of Organs and a declining ability of the body to resist diseases.

In addition to cold limbs, other symptoms associated with Qi Deficiency include poor appetite, loose stools and dizziness.

From a Western Medicine standpoint Qi Deficiency is associated with health issues such as Abnormal Uterine Bleeding or Heavy Menstruation.

Qi Deficiency is often treated with Si Jun Zi Tang, a herbal formula made of 4 herbs (including Ginseng - Ren Shen - as a key herb). Si Jun Zi Tang belongs to the category of "formulas that tonify qi", which might be why it is often recommended for this pattern. Its main action as a formula is: "Tonifies Qi".

Read more about Qi Deficiency here

The Spleen is a so-called "Zang" Organ. Learn more about the Spleen in Chinese Medicine

Spleen Yang Deficiency

Pulse type(s): Deep (Chen), Slow (Chi), Weak (Ruo)

Tongue color: Pale

Spleen Yang Deficiency often develops from Spleen Qi Deficiency, but it is more extensive and severe with additional Cold symptoms, such as cold feeling and cold limbs. The causes are similar to these of Spleen Qi Deficiency, along with surplus consumption of cold, raw foods and drinks and overexposure to cold damp environments and climates.

In addition to cold limbs, other symptoms associated with Spleen Yang Deficiency include feeling of cold, poor appetite and loose stools.

Spleen Yang Deficiency is often treated with Zhen Wu Tang, a herbal formula made of 5 herbs (including Prepared Aconite - Zhi Fu Zi - as a key herb). Zhen Wu Tang belongs to the category of "formulas that warm and transform water and dampness", which might be why it is often recommended for this pattern. Its main action as a formula is: "Warms and tonifies the Yang and Qi of the Spleen and Kidneys".

Read more about Spleen Yang Deficiency here

The Small Intestine is a so-called "Fu" Organ. Learn more about the Small Intestine in Chinese Medicine

Small Intestine Deficient and Cold

Pulse type(s): Deep (Chen), Slow (Chi), Weak (Ruo)

In addition to cold limbs, other symptoms associated with Small Intestine Deficient and Cold include diarrhea, pale and abudant urination and borborygmi.

Small Intestine Deficient and Cold is often treated with Xiao Jian Zhong Tang, a herbal formula made of 6 herbs (including Maltose - Yi Tang - as a key herb). Xiao Jian Zhong Tang belongs to the category of "formulas that warm the middle and dispel cold", which might be why it is often recommended for this pattern. Its main action as a formula is: "Warms and tonifies the Middle Burner (Spleen and Stomach)".

Read more about Small Intestine Deficient and Cold here

The Stomach is a so-called "Fu" Organ. Learn more about the Stomach in Chinese Medicine

Cold invading the Stomach

Pulse type(s): Deep (Chen), Slow (Chi), Tight (Jin)

The Stomach is one of three Organs which can be directly invaded by Exterior Cold (along with the Large Intestine and Uterus). It is an acute condition caused by exposure to cold from improper dressing and excessive consumption of cold foods and iced drinks.

In addition to cold limbs, other symptoms associated with Cold invading the Stomach include feeling of cold, nausea and preference for warm drinks and foods.

Cold invading the Stomach is often treated with Liang Fu Wan, a herbal formula made of 2 herbs (including Lesser Galangal Rhizomes - Gao Liang jiang - as a key herb). Liang Fu Wan belongs to the category of "formulas that promote qi movement", which might be why it is often recommended for this pattern. Its main action as a formula is: "Warms the Middle Burner".

Read more about Cold invading the Stomach here

Five herbal formulas that might help with cold limbs

You Gui Wan

Source date: 1624 AD

Number of ingredients: 10 herbs

Key actions: Warms and tonifies Kidney Yang. Replenishes the Essence. Tonifies the Blood.

Why might You Gui Wan help with cold limbs?

Because it is a formula often recommended to treat the pattern 'Yang Deficiency or Empty Yang' of which cold limbs is a symptom.

Read more about You Gui Wan here

Si Jun Zi Tang

Source date: 1107 AD

Number of ingredients: 4 herbs

Key actions: Tonifies Qi. Strengthens the Spleen and Stomach.

Why might Si Jun Zi Tang help with cold limbs?

Because it is a formula often recommended to treat the pattern 'Qi Deficiency' of which cold limbs is a symptom.

Read more about Si Jun Zi Tang here

Bu Zhong Yi Qi Tang

Source date: 1247

Number of ingredients: 10 herbs

Key actions: Tonifies Qi of the Spleen and Stomach (Middle Burner). Raises the Yang. Detoxifies. Lifts what has sunken.

Why might Bu Zhong Yi Qi Tang help with cold limbs?

Because it is a formula often recommended to treat the pattern 'Spleen Yang Deficiency' of which cold limbs is a symptom.

Read more about Bu Zhong Yi Qi Tang here

Xiao Jian Zhong Tang

Source date: 220 AD

Number of ingredients: 6 herbs

Key actions: Warms and tonifies the Middle Burner (Spleen and Stomach). Tonifies Qi. Relieves spasmodic pain.

Why might Xiao Jian Zhong Tang help with cold limbs?

Because it is a formula often recommended to treat the pattern 'Small Intestine Deficient and Cold' of which cold limbs is a symptom.

Read more about Xiao Jian Zhong Tang here

Liang Fu Wan

Source date: 1842 AD

Number of ingredients: 2 herbs

Key actions: Warms the Middle Burner. Dispels Cold. Promotes the movement of Qi. Alleviates Pain.

Why might Liang Fu Wan help with cold limbs?

Because it is a formula often recommended to treat the pattern 'Cold invading the Stomach' of which cold limbs is a symptom.

Read more about Liang Fu Wan here

Acupuncture points used for cold limbs

The five Chinese Medicinal herbs most likely to help treat cold limbs

Why might Liquorice (Gan Cao) help with cold limbs?

Because Liquorice is an ingredient in several formulas indicated to treat cold limbs as a symptom, like Gan Cao Gan Jiang Tang or Si Ni Tang for instance.

Liquorice is a Neutral herb that tastes Sweet. It targets the Heart, the Lung, the Spleen and the Stomach.

Its main actions are: Tonifies the Basal Qi and nourishes the Spleen Qi. Clears Heat and dispels toxicity. Moistens the Lungsexpel phlegm and stop coughing. Relieves spasms and alleviates pain. Harmonizes and moderates the effects of other herbs.

Read more about Liquorice here

Why might Poria-Cocos Mushroom (Fu Ling) help with cold limbs?

Because Poria-Cocos Mushroom is an ingredient in several formulas indicated to treat cold limbs as a symptom, like Wu Pi Yin or Ling Gui Zhu Gan Tang for instance.

Poria-Cocos Mushrooms is a Neutral herb that tastes Sweet. It targets the Heart, the Kidney, the Lung and the Spleen.

Its main actions are: Encourages urination and drains Dampness. Tonic to the Spleen/Stomach. Assists the Heart and calms the Spirit.

Read more about Poria-Cocos Mushrooms here

Why might Atractylodes Rhizome (Bai Zhu) help with cold limbs?

Because Atractylodes Rhizome is an ingredient in several formulas indicated to treat cold limbs as a symptom, like Wen Qi Hua Shi Tang or Wan Dai Tang for instance.

Atractylodes Rhizomes is a Warm herb that tastes Bitter and Sweet. It targets the Spleen and the Stomach.

Its main actions are: Tonifies the Spleen Qi. Fortifies the Spleen Yang and dispels Damp through urination. Tonifies Qi and stops sweating. Calms restless fetus when due to Deficiency of Spleen Qi.

Read more about Atractylodes Rhizomes here

Why might Ginseng (Ren Shen) help with cold limbs?

Because Ginseng is an ingredient in several formulas indicated to treat cold limbs as a symptom, like Gui Pi Tang or Shen Ling Bai Zhu San for instance.

Ginseng is a Warm herb that tastes Bitter and Sweet. It targets the Heart, the Lung and the Spleen.

Its main actions are: Very strongly tonifies the Qi. Tonifies the Lungs and Spleen. Assists the body in the secretion of Fluids and stops thirst. Strengthens the Heart and calms the Shen (mind/spirit).

Read more about Ginseng here

Why might Dong Quai (Dang Gui) help with cold limbs?

Because Dong Quai is an ingredient in several formulas indicated to treat cold limbs as a symptom, like Wen Jing Tang or Er Xian Tang for instance.

Dong Quai is a Warm herb that tastes Pungent and Sweet. It targets the Heart, the Liver and the Spleen.

Its main actions are: Tonifies the Blood. Lubricates the Intestines. Relieve constipation. Promotes circulation and dispels Bi Pain. Reduce Dysmenorrhea and help with irregular menstruation.

Read more about Dong Quai here