Shortness of breath according to Chinese Medicine

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Shortness of breath 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 shortness of breath 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 shortness of breath is often associated with dizziness, palpitations and coughing in the pattern “Qi Deficiency”. As you will see below, we have in record five patterns that can cause shortness of breath.

Once identified, patterns are treated using medicinal herbs, acupuncture, and other therapies. In the case of shortness of breath 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 shortness of breath.

The five "patterns of disharmony" that can cause shortness of breath

In Chinese Medicine shortness of breath 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.

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 shortness of breath, other symptoms associated with Qi Deficiency include dizziness, palpitations and coughing.

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

Crow-Dipper Rhizomes (Ban Xia) is the king ingredient for Er Chen Tang, a formula used for Phlegm-Fluids

Phlegm-Fluids

Pulse type(s): Wiry (Xian)

In addition to shortness of breath, other symptoms associated with Phlegm-Fluids include coughing, chest fullness and oedema.

Phlegm-Fluids is often treated with Er Chen Tang, a herbal formula made of 5 herbs (including Crow-Dipper Rhizomes - Ban Xia - as a key herb). Er Chen 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: "Dries Damp and dispels Phlegm".

Read more about Phlegm-Fluids here

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

Lung Qi Deficiency

Pulse type(s): Empty (Xu)

Tongue color: Pale

The Lungs govern Qi and respiration. In case of Lung Qi Deficiency, Qi's protecting, dispersing and descending function can not be performed properly.

In addition to shortness of breath, other symptoms associated with Lung Qi Deficiency include coughing, pale face and weak voice.

Lung 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 Lung Qi Deficiency here

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

Heart Qi Deficiency

Pulse type(s): Empty (Xu)

This pattern includes general Qi Deficiency signs along with Heart symptoms. It is often caused by blood-loss or excessive emotions, particularly sadness.

In addition to shortness of breath, other symptoms associated with Heart Qi Deficiency include palpitations, fatigue and pale face.

Heart Qi Deficiency is often treated with Bao Yuan Tang, a herbal formula made of 4 herbs (including Milkvetch Roots - Huang Qi - as a key herb). Bao Yuan 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 the Qi and warms the Yang".

Read more about Heart Qi Deficiency here

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

Wind-Cold invading the Lungs

Pulse type(s): Tight (Jin), Floating (Fu)

Tongue shape: Partially swollen

In addition to shortness of breath, other symptoms associated with Wind-Cold invading the Lungs include aversion to cold, fever and headaches.

Wind-Cold invading the Lungs is often treated with Ma Huang Tang, a herbal formula made of 4 herbs (including Ephedra - Ma Huang - as a key herb). Ma Huang Tang belongs to the category of "formulas that clear wind-cold", which might be why it is often recommended for this pattern. Its main action as a formula is: "Releases exterior cold".

Read more about Wind-Cold invading the Lungs here

Five herbal formulas that might help with shortness of breath

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 shortness of breath?

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

Read more about Si Jun Zi Tang here

Er Chen Tang

Source date: 1148 AD

Number of ingredients: 5 herbs

Key actions: Dries Damp and dispels Phlegm. Regulates Qi and harmonizes the Middle Burner (Stomach and Spleen).

Why might Er Chen Tang help with shortness of breath?

Because it is a formula often recommended to treat the pattern 'Phlegm-Fluids' of which shortness of breath is a symptom.

Read more about Er Chen Tang here

Ba Zhen Tang

Source date: 1326 AD

Number of ingredients: 10 herbs

Key actions: Tonifies and augments Qi. Tonifies and augments Blood.

Why might Ba Zhen Tang help with shortness of breath?

Because it is a formula often recommended to treat the pattern 'Lung Qi Deficiency' of which shortness of breath is a symptom.

Read more about Ba Zhen Tang here

Bao Yuan Tang

Source date: 1624

Number of ingredients: 4 herbs

Key actions: Tonifies the Qi and warms the Yang.

Why might Bao Yuan Tang help with shortness of breath?

Because it is a formula often recommended to treat the pattern 'Heart Qi Deficiency' of which shortness of breath on exertion is a symptom.

Read more about Bao Yuan Tang here

Ma Huang Tang

Source date: 220 AD

Number of ingredients: 4 herbs

Key actions: Releases exterior cold. Treats wheezing.

Why might Ma Huang Tang help with shortness of breath?

Because it is a formula often recommended to treat the pattern 'Wind-Cold invading the Lungs' of which shortness of breath is a symptom.

Read more about Ma Huang Tang here

Acupuncture points used for shortness of breath

The five Chinese Medicinal herbs most likely to help treat shortness of breath

Why might Liquorice (Gan Cao) help with shortness of breath?

Because Liquorice is an ingredient in several formulas indicated to treat shortness of breath as a symptom, like Gan Cao Gan Jiang Tang or Ju Yuan Jian 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 shortness of breath?

Because Poria-Cocos Mushroom is an ingredient in several formulas indicated to treat shortness of breath as a symptom, like Ling Gui Zhu Gan Tang or Wu Ling San 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 Ginseng (Ren Shen) help with shortness of breath?

Because Ginseng is an ingredient in several formulas indicated to treat shortness of breath as a symptom, like Si Jun Zi Tang or Liu Jun Zi Tang 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 Atractylodes Rhizome (Bai Zhu) help with shortness of breath?

Because Atractylodes Rhizome is an ingredient in several formulas indicated to treat shortness of breath as a symptom, like Si Jun Zi Tang or Liu Jun Zi 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 White Peony Root (Bai Shao) help with shortness of breath?

Because White Peony Root is an ingredient in several formulas indicated to treat shortness of breath as a symptom, like Shen Qi Si Wu Tang or Ren Shen Yang Rong Tang for instance.

White Peony Roots is a Neutral herb that tastes Bitter and Sour. It targets the Liver and the Spleen.

Its main actions are: Tonifies the Blood and preserves the Yin. Nourishes the Liver and assists in the smooth flow of Qi. Regulates the meridians and eases the pain.

Read more about White Peony Roots here