Phlegm according to Chinese Medicine

Phlegm 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 phlegm 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 phlegm is often associated with constipation, chest pain and bitter taste in the mouth in the pattern “Phlegm Heat in the Lungs”. As you will see below, we have in record two patterns that can cause phlegm.

Once identified, patterns are treated using medicinal herbs, acupuncture, and other therapies. In the case of phlegm we’ve identified two 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 phlegm.

The two "patterns of disharmony" that can cause phlegm

In Chinese Medicine phlegm is a symptom for 2 patterns that we have on record. Below is a small explanation for each of them with links for more details.

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

Phlegm Heat in the Lungs

Pulse type(s): Rapid (Shu), Slippery (Hua)

Tongue coating: Sticky coating, Yellow coating

Tongue shape: Swollen

In addition to phlegm, other symptoms associated with Phlegm Heat in the Lungs include constipation, chest pain and bitter taste in the mouth.

Phlegm Heat in the Lungs is often treated with Xiao Xian Xiong Tang, a herbal formula made of 3 herbs (including Snake Gourds - Gua Lou - as a key herb). Xiao Xian Xiong Tang belongs to the category of "formulas that clear heat and transform phlegm", which might be why it is often recommended for this pattern. Its main action as a formula is: "Clears Heat".

Read more about Phlegm Heat in the Lungs here

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

Exterior Dry Cold invading the Lungs

Pulse type(s): Wiry (Xian)

Tongue coating: Thin white coating

In addition to phlegm, other symptoms associated with Exterior Dry Cold invading the Lungs include dry throat, dry cough and headaches.

Exterior Dry Cold invading the Lungs is often treated with Xing Su San, a herbal formula made of 11 herbs (including Apricot Seeds - Xing Ren - as a key herb). Xing Su San belongs to the category of "formulas that disperse dryness and moisten", which might be why it is often recommended for this pattern. Its main action as a formula is: "Clears Dry-Cold".

Read more about Exterior Dry Cold invading the Lungs here

Two herbal formulas that might help with phlegm

Xiao Xian Xiong Tang

Source date: 220 AD

Number of ingredients: 3 herbs

Key actions: Clears Heat. Transforms Phlegm. Expands the chest. Dissipates clumps.

Why might Xiao Xian Xiong Tang help with phlegm?

Because it is a formula often recommended to treat the pattern 'Phlegm Heat in the Lungs' of which phlegm is a symptom.

Other symptoms characteristic of Phlegm Heat In The Lungs include constipation, chest pain and bitter taste in the mouth.

Read more about Xiao Xian Xiong Tang here

Xing Su San

Source date: 1798 AD

Number of ingredients: 11 herbs

Key actions: Clears Dry-Cold. Disseminates the Lung Qi and relieves cough. Transforms thin mucus.

Why might Xing Su San help with phlegm?

Because it is a formula often recommended to treat the pattern 'Exterior Dry Cold invading the Lungs' of which phlegm is a symptom.

Other symptoms characteristic of Exterior Dry Cold Invading The Lungs include dry throat, dry cough and headaches.

Read more about Xing Su San here

The five Chinese Medicinal herbs most likely to help treat phlegm

Why might Crow-Dipper Rhizome (Ban Xia) help with phlegm?

Because it is both specifically indicated to treat phlegm and also because it is an ingredient in herbal formulas known to treat phlegm as a symptom (such as Xiao Xian Xiong Tang for instance).

Crow-Dipper Rhizomes is a Warm herb that tastes Pungent. It targets the Spleen, the Stomach and the Lung.

Its main actions are: Drains Dampness and reduces Phlegm. Reverses the flow of Rebellious Qi. Reduces hardenings and relieves distention.

Read more about Crow-Dipper Rhizomes here

Why might Bitter Orange (Zhi Ke) help with phlegm?

Because it is both specifically indicated to treat phlegm and also because it is an ingredient in herbal formulas known to treat phlegm as a symptom (such as Xing Su San for instance).

Bitter Oranges is a Warm herb that tastes Bitter, Pungent and Sour. It targets the Spleen and the Stomach.

Its main actions are: To regulate the flow of Qi, remove its stagnation, and alleviate distension.

Read more about Bitter Oranges here

Why might Snake Gourd (Gua Lou) help with phlegm?

Because it is both specifically indicated to treat phlegm and also because it is an ingredient in herbal formulas known to treat phlegm as a symptom (such as Xiao Xian Xiong Tang for instance).

Snake Gourds is a Cold herb that tastes Sweet. It targets the Stomach, the Large intestine and the Lung.

Its main actions are: Clears Phlegm-Heat conditions with thick difficult to expectorate sputum. Regulates the Qi of the chest and relieves constriction and swellings of the chest and Lungs. Lubricates the Intestines.

Read more about Snake Gourds here

Why might Hogfennel Root (Qian Hu) help with phlegm?

Because it is both specifically indicated to treat phlegm and also because it is an ingredient in herbal formulas known to treat phlegm as a symptom (such as Xing Su San for instance).

Hogfennel Roots is a Cool herb that tastes Bitter and Pungent. It targets the Spleen and the Lung.

Its main actions are: Directs the ascending flow of Lung Qi downward to stop cough. Expels Phlegm. Expels Wind and relieves the Exterior for Wind-Heat.

Read more about Hogfennel Roots here

Why might Tangerine Peel (Chen Pi) help with phlegm?

Because it is both specifically indicated to treat phlegm and also because it is an ingredient in herbal formulas known to treat phlegm as a symptom (such as Xing Su San for instance).

Tangerine Peel is a Warm herb that tastes Bitter and Pungent. It targets the Spleen and the Lung.

Its main actions are: Warms the Spleen and regulates the Middle Burner Qi. Dries Dampness and disperses Phlegm from the Lungs and Middle Burner. Reduces the potential for Stagnation caused by tonifying herbs.

Read more about Tangerine Peel here