Not sick, yet not well: TCM treatments for 'sub-health' state

Q. I am a 53-year-old man. My head feels heavy and I sneeze for a few days after I swim for 30 minutes or do just five minutes of other forms of exercise, such as yoga or treading on stones in the park.

I have seen a general practitioner who advised me to take paracetemol for the headache. I also drink cooling herbal tea as I feel my body is "heaty".

I have consulted traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) practitioners who gave me medicine to cool my body.

But my condition has worsened in the last two years. It comes back after a few days.

My family members have no such problems.

My health check-up - which included a blood test, urine test, stool test and electrocardiogram that checks the heart's electrical activity - did not show anything abnormal.

I have cut down on oily and fried food and sugary drinks. I cannot take tonics or supplements - such as vitamin C tablets, calcium drinks and bird's nest - as they make me feel lousy.

I exercise regularly and sleep up to eight hours nightly.

Please advise me on what to do.

A. You could be suffering from sub-health due to deficiency in the lungs, spleen, liver and kidneys.

In TCM, sub-health is a borderline state between being healthy and sick. In this state, you are not sick, but do not feel well. The immune system is weak and you are susceptible to falling ill.

Good flow of enough qi (energy) and blood is needed for good health.

The lungs control respiration and protect the body against external pathogenic (disease-causing) factors.

When the lungs are weak - due to ageing, a weak constitution or chronic diseases - they will be vulnerable to external pathogens.

These go through the nose to attack the lungs, disturbing the flow of qi and causing abnormal secretions in the respiratory tract, resulting in a runny nose and headache.

When "dampness" attacks the lungs, the person has sticky phlegm too. When "wind" and "cold" do so, he sneezes and has clear mucus and white phlegm. When "wind" and "heat" do so, he coughs and has a sore throat and yellow, sticky mucus.

The spleen transforms nutrients into qi and blood. When it is weak - due to ageing, a weak constitution or a poor diet - it turns nutrients into "dampness" and phlegm, triggering poor appetite, abdominal distension and diarrhoea.

The liver is responsible for smooth flow of qi in the body. Ageing, fatigue and negative emotions - such as fear, depression and stress - can cause qi to stagnate in the liver, creating yang and "fire". A balance of yang (linked to heat and warmth) and yin (linked to coldness and moisture) is needed for good health.

The yang and "fire" dry up yin in the body, triggering a bitter mouth, a dry throat and a bloated stomach.

The kidneys store essence of nutrients, which is the foundation of yin and yang in all the organs.

If a person has insufficient yin in the kidneys - due to ageing, strain and chronic diseases - he has a red tongue, yellow and little urine, and weak and aching back and knees.


Chinese medicine, acupuncture, moxibustion (burning a small herb above acupuncture points to help healing), cupping (placing heated cups on the skin to improve blood and qi flow) and tuina (TCM massage) can boost immunity and balance yin and yang in the body.

Chinese medicine such as mosla herb, heartleaf houttuynia herb, honeysuckle flower, common coltsfoot flower, thunberg fritillary bulb, weeping forsythia capsule, white mulberry root-bark, baical skullcap root and incised notoptergium rhizome dispel "dampness", "wind" and "heat".

Cablin patchouli herb, fortune eupatorium herb, Indian bread, officinal magnolia bark and coix seed strengthen the spleen and dispel "dampness" and phlegm.

Chinese thorowax root, red peony root, nutgrass galingale rhizome, turmeric root-tuber, tree peony bark and orange fruit strengthen the liver, reduce its yang and "fire", and enhance qi circulation.

Yerbadetajo herb, glossy privet fruit, barbary wolfberry fruit, white peony root, processed rehmannia root and common yam rhizome increase yin in the kidneys.

Eat easily digested food, such as soup, porridge and fish, to strengthen your lungs and digestive system. Abstain from oily, fried and sugary food, and cold drinks.

Keep warm during exercise to prevent respiratory infections. Avoid exposure to wind or air-conditioning when you are sweating after exercise or wet after swimming.

Avoid fatigue and negative emotions to enhance qi circulation and reduce yang and fire in the liver.

Try to sleep from 10pm to 6am to increase yin in the body.

Ms Lim Lay Beng
Traditional Chinese medicine practitioner at YS Healthcare TCM Clinic at The Adelphi

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