Can a Chinese Herbal Paste Help COPD?

by Carole Jackson, Bottom Line Health

Eastern and Western medicine often seem to take very different approaches to the concept of wellness — a perfect example is an herbal paste that has been used by the Chinese for thousands of years for treating asthma, emphysema and other kinds of breathing disorders. Is this a treatment that is applied in the way we Westerners would expect? No, not at all. In fact, it turns out that the healing paste is typically applied as a preventive during the summer season to relieve symptoms that appear in the winter! (For patients with acute problems, however, the paste can be used at any time of the year.) Another surprise, it’s applied to various points on the patient’s back — in order to bring relief to the chest! Like I said, East and West do seem to work in different directions. And yet just as often, they complement each other very effectively. I spoke with Hong Jin, DAOM, LAc, chair of Oriental medicine at the Oregon College of Oriental Medicine in Portland, for more information.

She explained that it is tradition for Chinese people with respiratory difficulties to turn to the herbal paste known as xiao chuan (XCP) to help them breathe easier. While anecdotal evidence and tradition are one thing, hard science is quite another. Dr. Jin told me that researchers have recently put XCP through the rigors of controlled studies, applauding it as it came through with flying colors.

Breathing Easier

In the first randomized, controlled study of XCP, medical investigators in Beijing assigned 142 people with chronic pulmonary obstructive disease (COPD) to receive treatment with either XCP or a placebo paste. XCP contains Chinese botanicals including ephedra. Because ephedra is banned here in the US, Dr. Jin explained, doctors substitute other herbs (Fang Feng and Gui Zhi) when XCP is used here. For the purposes of the study, practitioners applied the paste to specific acupuncture points on participants’ backs a total of four times during the eight-week period of July and August, leaving it on for four to six hours each time, as has been the practice with XCP for many generations.

The scientists then monitored the patients from November through February and discovered that those treated with XCP fared significantly better than those treated with the placebo. The XCP group…

  • Experienced fewer winter “exacerbations” of their COPD, such as shortness of breath, wheezing and/or chest tightness, that required steroid or antibiotic prescriptions… and they needed fewer hospitalizations for respiratory problems.
  • Reduced their reliance on steroid medications (which have side effects such as fluid retention, weight gain, increased blood pressure and mood swings) compared with the placebo group.

Not surprisingly, given these changes for better health, people who received XCP also reported an improved quality of life. Researchers shared these results at the American Thoracic Society’s 2011 International Conference in Denver.

Not a One-Size-Fits-All Remedy

According to Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), when doctors apply XCP paste to acupuncture points for lung disorders, it passes directly to the organs, said Dr. Jin. She finds the paste to be safe and effective, she told me, adding that it is also inexpensive.

On the other hand, Dr. Jin cautions that XCP is not a one-size-fits-all remedy, especially given that asthma and COPD are serious and potentially life-threatening illnesses. It’s best to consult a practitioner who is formally trained and licensed in the practice of TCM. To find a practitioner in your area, visit the Web site of the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine at To make sure you receive safe and coordinated care, be sure to tell all your health-care providers about all types of treatment you undergo for lung disease.


Hong Jin, DAOM, MD (PRC), LAc, chair of Oriental Medicine, Oregon College of Oriental Medicine (OCOM), Portland, Oregon. Dr. Jin teaches in both the master and doctoral programs at OCOM as well as in the doctoral program at the American College of Traditional Chinese Medicine in San Francisco.