Chinese Medicine Practitioner Reflects on Covid-19

Reader Contribution by Pamela Sherman
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Permaculture teacher Marco Lam has inspired design students for 20 years. Based in Daoism, he has practiced Chinese acupuncture and herbalism for as long. In Daoist medicine, human healing can only take place in respectful connection with a healthy natural world. Permaculture strategies can help restore the health of the land and in so doing, the health of the human. From this perspective, Marco reflects on the current covid-19 pandemic. 

For starters, what are you doing right now that the clinic is closed? 

An inspired permaculturist asked me and my family to move to and practice permaculture at a 700 acre farm outside of Steamboat at 7,000 ft. (in the Colorado Rockies.) It’s an incredibly wonderful high alpine environment . There’s a lot we can do. I’d like to do regenerative grazing to help build soil health. But first– there’s a permaculture principle which says: do long, protracted observation; observe your land for a year before designing.  Listen, ask questions, be curious. 

Will you grow Chinese medicine herbs?

Likely. There’s a medicine in working with the fresh herbs–from planting to growing to harvesting to processing. And you can do so much more with bulk herbs than with a processed product.  Many in the Chinese medicine field have never seen the living plants that they prescribe on a daily basis.  It changes how you practice medicine once you are more in relationship with the plant medicine itself.

But I subscribe to Lean Farming: let the community pull you into what they want rather than doing what you want and marketing aggressively. I’ll still go back to Boulder to see patients once social distancing is lifted. I plan to bring herbs that I grow back to my patients to support their health at a deep level.  In the Yampa Valley,  the economy is tourist-based and second-home-based, so right now it’s suffering. We are working with the Community Agricultural Alliance to bring food directly from local producers to the community.

Can you say more about protracted observation?

This coincides with what I see going on in the culture right now, with us mostly home-bound. I call it the Time of the Great Pause. Now we can take the time to ask questions that we didn’t ask before as a society or local community. This is our time of protracted observation, listening, asking open-minded questions. Rather than calling it The Great Uncertainty, take a moment and really observe what is happening 

Can you say more about calling this time the ‘Great Pause’ rather than a time of uncertainty?

There ARE things we are certain of. We are certain about what creates more regenerative habitats. We are certain about what brings people together, what brings health. We know that relationships between and among people and between people and the land are crucial for health. We can creatively use and respond to change. Permaculture teaches us to design for change, for the regenerative future we want to live in.  Another Permaculture principle is: the problem is the solution. This is an opportunity to design something better–our food system, our healthcare on a personal, familial, community, watershed, regional, national level. 

Looking to the “top pulpit” is not where it’s at, no matter who’s in charge there. Our future will be solved in community–of people, of mycelia, of watersheds.

For example, right now, Telluride is using this time to ask the big questions about the food system and healthcare and sustainable economics and living in community, such as what scale produces the healthiest food?

A Permaculture principle is Slow the Flow — of water on the land, of dollars out of the local community. Every dollar I spend in the community creates a multiple of about $16 of wealth when I buy from a locally-sourced and owned business.  Each of those dollars gets re-spent in the community multiple times. When we purchase from, say Amazon, the money leaves our community to rarely ever come back.  We can think of this as financial erosion, just as if water is flowing too fast through a landscape. Our job as designers is to slow the flow of useful resources.

Another example: using and reusing water multiple times from off your roof.  If the water off your roof can be used to wash dishes in your sink and then go out to water your fruit trees, that same gallon of water that would have gone to waste is used twice rather than just going into the stormwater drainage. This is a more elegant design.The system used in most cities creates work and waste. Most inelegant designs do that.  Many people have more time now to think about these things.

Another example from the national/international food system — it relies on a lot of cheap labor. The workers are subjected to poor sanitation — they get no breaks, nowhere to wash their hands, live in crowded, dense barracks. They are considered legally “essential” but are not treated as such and some are getting sick. When we talk about sanitation and the health of food, it suddenly makes much more sense to grow it much closer to home.

I made a 4-by-8-foot cold frame out of scrap wood and one piece of lexan plastic; the amount of greens I can grow in that bed is amazing.I can cut a salad out of the cold frame almost every day starting in March and add a level of nutrition that you can’t buy in a store. In the high Rocky Mountains, our growing season for greens with this simple shelter can be extended from March through December. Growing your own food is part of the redesign of society and nurturing to your very being.

And understanding health and wealth holistically — mind, emotions, body, spirit. For instance when you’re working with plants and seeds–running your hands through a bucket of seed you just threshed — the feel of it, the connection to the food, the land…that’s a kind of wealth that is deeply remembered.

Speaking of plants and health, what does Chinese herbal medicine have to say about Covid-19?

In China,  the primary treatment of choice for Covid-19 is herbal medicine. An article in National Geographic says 85 percent of COVID-19 patients receive some form of herbal treatment, according to the Ministry of Science and Technology. In China, the State picks up the tab for healthcare, so they are looking at what’s most economical and Chinese traditional medicine is less expensive than Western medicine. But also traditional Chinese herbal medicine happens to have been around and evolved over thousands of years. It has treated many pandemics and has a repertoire of what has worked to strengthen the immune system in different situations. It’s also about less heroic measures — building immunity with herbs, healthy food, lifestyle choices, etc., rather than trying to save people at the last minute.

There are cases of moderately unhealthy  people with covid-19 who were treated with herbs and got better rapidly. First responders in China were given a certain protective herbal formula (Yu Ping Feng San). Tens of thousands of patients got better with traditional herbal medicine. There is a lot of data in China on this. Please see Published research papers related to the treatment of COVID-19 using traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) on my website.

In China, each regional hospital sent out its own traditional medicinal protocols. This makes sense — the way your symptoms show up will vary per the strength of the patient’s immunity, local climate conditions, altitude, diet, and other aspects of lifestyle and environment. Traditional Chinese Medicine treats the human terrain rather than the symptoms, just as a regenerative farmer treats the soil rather than the plant.

What’s the terrain with covid-19? 

Dampness. It’s called a “damp disease,” marked by a disturbed microbiome that tends to sugars and simple carbohydrates. This gives us an early understanding about which populations will be impacted the worst, dietary precautions to take, and herbs to help repair the damage and boost immunity.

How does this translate into protecting your immunity here in the U.S.?

There’s a lot you can do herbally here–but there are no exact protocols yet. Elderberry is most useful when taken as a preventive. It’s not for taking when you’re already sick. There’s a lot of data from the EU on this. The Chinese formula the first responders have used, Yu Ping Feng San, along with elderberry and vitamin C, is a great combination for immunity.

Spring is a time of change, a crucial time for health. Dandelion is an important medicine at this time. Pick 5 to 6 pinky finger-sized roots from your backyard — not sprayed, not where people have walked. It has to be from a clean yard, a semi-wild yard.

If you pick it before it flowers, dandelion clears out dampness (covid-19 is a damp disease). It’s much less bitter, if at all, before flowering.If you pick it after it flowers, dandelion also clears out excessive heat in the body — that is, negative bacterial influences It’s more bitter after flowering.

Simmer these roots for ½ hour in a quart of water. Add a squirt of lemon and a drip of honey. Take 1 cup twice daily for 1 week. This is deep mineral nourishment.

If you can add the aerial parts of lemon balm–great. That’s anti-viral and helps calm the nervous system. Also the aerial parts of stinging nettles and cleavers are great.

There’s so much medicine all around you–you are surrounded by it. When you realize this, it changes your relationship to the land, and in that way changes who you are. You start “coming home” to the land. This is medicine. Covid-19 is a wake-up call for our time, an opportunity to heal.

Marco Lam is a permaculture teacher and Chinese traditional acupuncturist and herbalist. He can be reached

Pamela Sherman studied permaculture design with Marco Lam in 2008. She grows food with her family on an old pioneer farm high in the Rockies and writes about regenerative food growing. She can be reached at

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