Phlegm according to Chinese Medicine

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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 coughing, dizziness and constipation in the pattern “Phlegm Heat in the Lungs”. As you will see below, we have in record four 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 four 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 four "patterns of disharmony" that can cause phlegm

In Chinese Medicine phlegm is a symptom for 4 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 coughing, dizziness and constipation.

Phlegm Heat in the Lungs is often treated with Wen Dan Tang, a herbal formula made of 8 herbs (including Crow-Dipper Rhizomes - Ban Xia - as a key herb). Wen Dan Tang belongs to the category of "formulas that dry dampness and transform phlegm", which might be why it is often recommended for this pattern. Its main action as a formula is: "Clears Hot-Phlegm".

Read more about Phlegm Heat in the Lungs here

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

Heart Vessel obstructed

Pulse type(s): Choppy (Se), Knotted (Jie), Slippery (Hua), Wiry (Xian)

In addition to phlegm, other symptoms associated with Heart Vessel obstructed include palpitations, depression and chest pain.

Heart Vessel obstructed is often treated with Xue Fu Zhu Yu Tang, a herbal formula made of 11 herbs (including Peach Kernels - Tao Ren - as a key herb). Xue Fu Zhu Yu Tang belongs to the category of "formulas that invigorate blood and dispel blood stagnation", which might be why it is often recommended for this pattern. Its main action as a formula is: "Invigorates the Blood".

Read more about Heart Vessel obstructed here

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

Phlegm Fire harassing the Heart

Pulse type(s): Overflowing (Hong), Rapid (Shu), Slippery (Hua), Wiry (Xian), Full (Shi)

In addition to phlegm, other symptoms associated with Phlegm Fire harassing the Heart include palpitations, insomnia and red face.

Phlegm Fire harassing the Heart is often treated with Huang Lian Wen Dan Tang, a herbal formula made of 7 herbs (including Crow-Dipper Rhizomes - Ban Xia - as a key herb). Huang Lian Wen Dan Tang belongs to the category of "formulas that dry dampness and transform phlegm", which might be why it is often recommended for this pattern. Its main action as a formula is: "Clears Hot Phlegm".

Read more about Phlegm Fire harassing the Heart 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

Four herbal formulas that might help with phlegm

Wen Dan Tang

Source date: 1174 AD

Number of ingredients: 8 herbs

Key actions: Clears Hot-Phlegm. Clears Gallbladder heat. Regulates Qi. Harmonizes the Stomach.

Why might Wen Dan 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 coughing, dizziness and constipation.

Read more about Wen Dan 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

Xue Fu Zhu Yu Tang

Source date: 1830 AD

Number of ingredients: 11 herbs

Key actions: Invigorates the Blood. Dispels blood Stagnation. Spreads the Liver Qi. Unblocks the channels.

Why might Xue Fu Zhu Yu Tang help with phlegm?

Because it is a formula often recommended to treat the pattern 'Heart Vessel obstructed' of which phlegm is a symptom.

Other symptoms characteristic of Heart Vessel Obstructed include palpitations, depression and chest pain.

Read more about Xue Fu Zhu Yu Tang here

Huang Lian Wen Dan Tang

Source date: 1852 AD

Number of ingredients: 7 herbs

Key actions: Clears Hot Phlegm. Clears Gallbladder Heat. Regulates Qi. Harmonizes the Stomach.

Why might Huang Lian Wen Dan Tang help with phlegm?

Because it is a formula often recommended to treat the pattern 'Phlegm Fire harassing the Heart' of which phlegm is a symptom.

Other symptoms characteristic of Phlegm Fire Harassing The Heart include palpitations, insomnia and red face.

Read more about Huang Lian Wen Dan Tang 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 Wen Dan 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 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 Er Chen Tang 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

Why might Fresh Ginger (Sheng Jiang) 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 Er Chen Tang for instance).

Fresh Ginger is a Warm herb that tastes Pungent. It targets the Spleen, the Stomach and the Lung.

Its main actions are: Relieves the Exterior and disperses Cold. Warms and circulates Qi in the Middle Burner. Calms a restless fetus and treats morning sickness. Treats seafood poisoning.

Read more about Fresh Ginger 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 Gypsum (Shi Gao) 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 Ma Xing Shi Gan Tang for instance).

Gypsum is a Cold herb that tastes Pungent and Sweet. It targets the Stomach and the Lung.

Its main actions are: Clears Heat and drains Fire. Clears Lung Heat. Relieves thirst and restlessness. Clears Stomach Heat.

Read more about Gypsum here