Monday, February 13, 2012

Food Therapy for Colds & Flus

RICE PORRIDGE (a.k.a. congee, or zhou in Mandarin Chinese, or jook in Cantonese) is a popular -- and DELICIOUS -- breakfast food in China.

It is also a great food to eat when you have a cold or flu.

When you're sick, your body's energy is compromised. It's working hard to fight off an infection.

The key to eating when you're sick is to support your body's innate mechanism for healing. Eat warm, cooked, easy-to-digest foods so your digestive system does not have to do extra work. Rice porridge (jook) is the perfect food to eat when you're sick because it's warm, easy to digest and gently tonifies your body's Qi and nourishes body fluids without producing phlegm. When prepared with mildly pungent herbs, jook produces a slight sweat, helping the body to rid itself of invading cold or flu pathogens.

When you're just coming down with a new cold or flu, I recommend the following home-treatment protocol:

1. Take a dose of herbal medicine (see my article on Chinese patent herbal cold remedies).

2. Eat a cupful of hot rice porridge (see recipes below).

3. Go to bed. Cover yourself with a warm blanket. Rest. Allow yourself to sweat slightly.


Chicken soup (and other animal protein, for that matter) is very tonifying. It is excellent for rebuilding strength and stamina in cases of long-term, chronic illness and debility or in the recovery stages of a cold or flu.

In the early stages of a cold/flu, however, I would recommend eating plain rice porridge--without meat. Why? Because meat is tonifying and because it requires energy to digest. In the early stage of cold or flu, we want to be cautious not to add fuel to the cold and flu pathogens, and not to overtax the body's innate energy with difficult-to-digest foods.

Within in 2-3 days of fighting a cold, or as the cold begins to clear, your body will need to rebuild it energy. At this time, it's a great idea to begin incorporating bone broth, meat, eggs and other protein sources into your jooks. You can even poach meats or eggs in the jook in the late stages of cooking if your porridge is thin & liquid enough. This is a common practice in China.


  • cold foods (ice cream, yogurt, sodas, etc.)

  • difficult to digest foods (again, cold foods, meats, greasy foods, anything with complex flavor or texture, even wheat or other complex grains that are harder to digest)

  • sour foods (The sour flavor is an astringent and acts to hold things in the body, including cold or flu pathogens.)

  • sweet foods (The sweet flavor is a tonic and will increase the vigor of invading pathogens. Sweet foods also increase phlegm, damp and heat in the body providing a habitat conducive to the proliferation of virus, as well as bacteria, fungal overgrowth, etc.)

So, contrary to the popular American notion, orange juice is NOT a good choice when you have a cold. It's sour, sweet and phlegm-producing. It may contain a nominal amount of Vitamin C, but it will also entrap and strengthen viruses and other pathogens in your body.

Here are FOUR Rice Porridge Recipes Useful in Home-Treatment of Colds, Flus and Other Acute Bugs:


1 cup of white rice

8-15 cups water (more water for thinner consistency)

Bring water & rice to boil in a pot. Then reduce to low heat and simmer, covered, for 1 ½-2 hours. Stir occasionally. The result will be a dilute rice soup. Mix it with a wire whisk to enhance the smooth, creamy quality. Season with a small amount of salt or soy sauce & pepper.

(For quicker preparation, use leftover cooked rice. In a pot, add 6 cups of water to 1 cup of cooked rice. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, simmer for 1/2 hour.)

FRESH GINGER & SCALLION JOOK -- for new onset of cold or flu:

Prepare basic jook. Then add the following fresh herbs in the last five minutes of cooking:

freshly grated ginger

finely chopped scallions (especially the little white root hairs)

Don't overcook the herbs. Their fresh, pungent quality will help your body push out cold/flu pathogens through sweat. They also ease nasal congestion and stomach/abdominal pain.

If you don't have scallions & ginger on hand, you can achieve a similar effect simply by adding 1-2cups of peppermint or chamomile tea to the your porridge toward the end of cooking. Peppermint & chamomile are cooling, but their spicy quality will help release pathogens from the body.

FERMENTED SOYBEAN & SCALLION JOOK -- early-stage cold/flu with mild fever, nasal congestion, irritability, insomnia, or digestive upset:
This is another famous recipe for treating early-stage cold or flu. Fermented soybeans (dan dou chi is the Chinese herbal name) help the body expel cold and flu pathogens. They also soothe dryness, irritability, restlessness and insomnia that sometimes result from fever. Together, fermented soybeans & fresh scallions treat colds & flu with fever, stuffy nose and upset stomach.

Note: Fermented soybeans inhibit lactation and should not be used by nursing moms.

2-3 scallions coarsely chopped

2 Tbsp. fermented soybeans (available in Chinese herb shop, or ask your acupuncturist)

2-3 cups of water

Simmer herbs in water 1/2 hour. Then, remove herb parts and stir the remaining liquid into your congee toward the end of cooking.

HONEYSUCKLE JOOK -- for cold or flu with secondary infections: bronchitis, pneumonia, dyssentary, acute sore throat, eye inflammation:

This famous jook recipe clears heat and toxins, attacks germs and disperses inflammation. It is useful for conditions secondary to cold and flu viruses like pneumonia or bronchitis. It also treats acute bacterial dysentery. Honeysuckle flowers (Flos Lonicerae or jin yin hua) clear infections characterized by heat and inflammation, including acute swollen sore throat, absesses and acute eye inflammation.

1/2 cup of dried honeysuckle flowers (available in Chinese herb shop, or ask your acupuncturist)

2-3 cups of water

Simmer herbs in water 1/2 hour. Then, remove herb parts and stir the remaining liquid into your congee toward the end of cooking.

UME & GINGER JOOK -- for recovery from "stomach flu:"

This recipe is not exactly for cold or flu therapy. It is helpful in recovery from those 24-hour "stomach flu" episodes. It stops dysentery and diarrhea, epigastric and intestinal cramping, and colitis, while helping the body rebuild its fluids and alleviate dry mouth. Umeboshi are preserved pickled plums, popular in Japanese cooking. They can be found in health food stores. In Chinese medicine, umeboshi plums (known as wu mei) are famous for their ability to expel worm and parasite infestations, as well as to rebuild the body post-illness.

1 cup rice

8 cups water

4-5 umeboshi plums (available at health food stores)

5 slices fresh ginger

Bring to boil in a pot. Then reduce to low heat and simmer, covered, for 1 ½-2 hours, stirring frequently. In cases of severe "stomach flu" with vomiting, diarrhea or dysentery, eat this food exclusively until urine runs clear and symptoms abate.

HISTORICAL BACKGROUND: Rice Porridge and Cold/Flu Treatment in Early Chinese Medical Literature

The Discussion of Cold-Induced Diseases (or Shang Han Lun), written by the physician Zhang Zhong Jing around 220CE, is one of the oldest clinical medicine textbooks in the world. In this work, we find one of the early systematic discussions of externally-contracted infectious disease in Chinese medicine.

In the Shang Han Lun, Dr. Zhang gives instructions for administering a simple herbal formula for an early stage cold or flu (which in his framework is tai yang syndrome or invasion of wind-cold into the outermost surface of the body, causing chills, slight fever, mild sweating and nasal congestion.) Dr. Zhang's formula for this syndrome is cinnamon twigs, peony root, licorice root, fresh ginger and jujube dates.

The second part of Dr. Zhang's instructions, however, relate speficially to food intake. Dr. Zhang writes, shortly after taking the first dose of herbal decoction, the patient should take a small amount of “hot thin [rice] gruel to reinforce the strength of the medicinals.” Next, the patient should warm his/her body by covering with a blanket to induce a mild sweat, in order to eliminate the disease.

Finally, this set of instructions ends with a list of the foods which the patient should NOT eat while treating an early stage cold or flu. He writes, “Foods contraindicated include raw and cold foods, sticky and slimy foods, meats and noodles, the five acrids, liquor, mild products, and foods with a peculiar or spoiled flavor or odor.

These are very old instructions. But they are still applicable to home treatment of early-stage colds & flus or, for that matter, with a little modification, any acute or chronic illness. (For more historical perspective on Chinese medical theory of colds & flus, see my previous article.)


An important theme in Chinese medicine is that efficient digestion is the root of good health, and that warmth is required for good digestion. According to Chinese medicine theory, the digestive process begins with the Stomach turning ingested food into a warm mash or soup. The warmth for this process is provided by the Yang Qi of the Spleen. Until food is turned into a warm mash, no further digestion can take place. As the process of digestion continues, food is turned by the body into the precious substances of Qi and Blood which drive all physiological function.

The take-home messages here are that digestion requires energy from the body's organs and warmth. So, the simpler a food is and the closer it is to a 100-degree-Fahrenheit soup, the more easily digestible it is, and the more easily it is transformed into Qi and Blood to build the body and fuel its activities, including recovery from illness.

On the other hand, cold and uncooked foods place a tremendous burden on the body and particularly on the Spleen. Since the health of the Spleen Qi is critical to the health of the Lungs and the immune system, one can see that eating raw, cold foods would be a bad choice when you're fighting a cold or flu.

Jook or congee actually refers to porridge made from a single grain or combination of grains, beans, vegetables, animal proteins or herbs. But, most of the time, jook is made from rice. Rice, itself has a variety of medicinal benefits. In particular, it tonifies the Spleen, Stomach and Intestines, supporting the digestive process. The liquid quality of rice porridge helps moisten the fluids of the stomach and intestines which tend to become depleted in old age and due to chronic illness. Rice porridge is beneficial to anyone with weak digestion, including small children and elderly people.

To read more about the benefits of rice porridge, check out Bob Flaws' book The Book of Jook. Along with some interesting theory, it contains of jook recipes for all sorts of medical conditions. Many of these are rooted in hundreds of years of history and come from the writings and clinics of famous Chinese doctors. The book is a pretty easy read, and quite accessible as a cookbook!


Food is the basis of good health. I love talking about food and cooking, and am happy to consult with patients about food, nutrition and cooking techniques to support your path toward greater wellness. I'm also happy to provide herbs and advice for medicinal cooking with Chinese herbs.


Coursework with Briahn Kelly-Brennan, City College of San Francisco, 2002.

Dr. Robert Zeiger, OMD, L.Ac., Pharm D., Berkeley, CA.

Flaws, Bob. The Book of Jook. Boulder: Blue Poppy Press, Inc., 1995.

Bensky & Gamble. Chinese Herbal Medicine: Materia Medica, Revised Ed. Seattle: Eastland Press, Inc., 1986.

Mitchell, Ye & Wiseman. Shang Han Lun: On Cold Damage, Translation & Commentaries. Brookline, Mass: Paradigm Publications, 1999.