how to support your immune system: A Chinese Medicine Approach
” The best and Most efficient pharmacy is in your own system.”
– Dr Robert C Peale
How the Immune System works
The immune system is a truly amazing system within the body, an orchestrated dance of players that continually explore, survey and identify what is us and what is not us and help to keep the sacred vessel of our body free of disease. In this article, I will be offering you a Chinese Medicine perspective on how the immune system works, why we get sick and how we can prevent this and support our immune systems if we do. To achieve this I will be pulling from Chinese Medicine with dapples of Western thought to keep it in line with what most of our Western trained minds can understand. If you need a refresher on the basic understanding of the immune system from a Western Persepctive I highly suggest checking out one or all of these links; Cartoon, podcast, written.
Wei Qi aka your immune system
In Chinese Medicine, your immune system is called Wei Qi and is governed by the lungs. It circulates in a special layer between your skin and muscle called the Cou Li and is always on alert for what is beneficial to you and what is not. Wei Qi is created in the body from the processing of air, water and food and mixed with our Jing Qi (Ancestral or pre-natal Qi, what you get from your parents). In order to make the strongest Wei Qi it is most important to consume clean air and water and nutrient dense foods, along with hopefully having inherited good jing qi from your parents. Wei Qi is a yang qi, which means it circulates strongest during the day and weaker at night, this is why when we are sick we often feel our best mid day but as evening comes or when we awake in the morning we feel more unwell. Yang qi is hot, fast, and vigorous hence the heat, swelling and pain associated with an infection. The stronger your wei qi is the higher your fever will be and the more intense the aches and pains in your body will be. You will also clear the infection faster so long as the infection is not stronger than your wei qi.
Autumn is the season of the lungs which govern and regulate our wei qi. It is at this time why it is so fundamental to support your immune system through strengthening your lungs and their ability to circulate your wei qi through opening and closing the pores, sweating and breathing. The lungs are known as a delicate organ and like the canopy of trees, their inhale and exhale orchestrates the rhythms of our bodies and the circulation of our wei qi, which acts as not only a physical boundary to foreign objects but also an interface between us and the world.
Why we get sick
In Chinese Medicine there are several reasons why we get sick, some come from the outside, some inside and some are neither internal or external. Ultimately each of these factors can either bring “disease” into our bodies or can cause damage to our internal systems that allows for already present issues in our body to become illness inducing.
External factors come from the six external pathogens: wind, heat, cold, camp, dry, fire, damp. These factors can come from our environment such as seasonal weather changes, the conditions in our home and work space and from the food, drink and other things we consume that may contain harmful viruses, bacteria, fungi, parasites, etc.
The internal factors causing us to become sick are the emotions; joy, fear, grief, anger, and worry. Each of these is connected to an organ and when they are out of balance they cause our qi to move in the wrong way. This creates an imbalance in the system and leads to disease states.
The factors that are neither internal or external are mostly life style factors that again cause an imbalance to our qi, yin and yang and create disharmony in our systems. They are
- irregular diet (eating too little or too much, at the wrong time or when stressed, eating the wrong foods),
- overwork and overstrain; one of the most dire situations in our culture and one of the big lessons asociated with covid
- sitting or standing for too long; “Extended lying down damages the qi, extended sitting damages the flesh, extended standing damages the bones” – Sun Simiao 7th century
- insufficient rest; we have a tendency to not take the proper time to rest and heal ourselves, leading to secondary infections and lingerig pathogenic factors.
- night work
- Lack of exercise; though too much exercise can damage the body, not moving the body can damage the qi
- Traumatic injury
- excessive sex
- parasites and poisons
- wrong medical treatment
- ignorance; not having been taught preventative health measures or how to utilize common sense judgement when making choices
Ways to support your immune system
Listening to the Seasons
Part of supporting our lungs and strengthen our immune system/Wei qi is living in harmony with the seasons. In recent research it was actually found that approximately a quarter of our DNA changes with the seasons, with inflammatory gene expression increasing in the winter time when we have more colds and flus in the Northern hempisphere (1). Preparing for and living in harmony with the seasons allows our bodies to adapt and find balance. These are simple practices like making sure you dress properly for the seaons, eating seasonal foods that balance the nature of the climate, honouring the tides of yin and yang and choosing our activities based on their ebb and flow.
In Fall this means;
- covering out necks
- eating warm foods that nourish the lung (cauliflower, almonds, daikon radish, potatoes, turnip, parsnip, rutabaga, apple, pear, rice, oats, sesame seeds, onion, garlic, and white peppercorns)
- allowing our bodies to adjust to the coming chill by not over heating out homes or vehicles
- slowing down our activities and contemplating what we need to let go of
- working through our grief and sadness
In Winter this means:
- covering our low back and kidney area
- eating warm foods that nourish the kidneys (eggplant, black sesame seeds, black beans, kidney beans, wood ear mushrooms, plums, figs, dates, seaweed, miso, seafood, bone broths and bone marrow)
- going to bed early and rising late
- spending time in the quiet stillness
- working with our fears
In Spring this means:
- not undressing to quickly and keeping our bodies warm
- eating seasonal fresh foods that nourish the liver (leafy greens, cruciferous vegetables, beets, carrots, chives
blueberries, goji berries, grapefruit, strawberries, eggs, liver, pork, venison, crab, crayfish, lobster, mussels, oysters, shrimp, squid, trout, whitefish, flax, pine nuts, sesame, cayenne, garlic, onion, vinegar, turmeric, olive oil)
- getting outside and moving our bodies more
- rising earlier
- working with our anger and being creative
In Summer this means:
- avoiding too much heat and direct sun
- protecting the skin while staying cool
- eating fresh foods that nourish the heart (celery, cucumber, lettuce, mushrooms, lemons, mulberries, schisandra berries, chia seeds, jujube seeds, brown rice, oats, whole wheat, cow and goat milk, ghee, basil, chamomile, dill)
- rising early and staying up later
- being active and spending time in community
- expressing our joy
In Late Summer this means:
- dressing for the weather in layers
- eating more warming foods that nourish the spleen (cooked and fermented vegetables, brothy soups, cabbage, carrots, corn, onions, peas, string beans, sweet potato, yams, apricots, apples, cantaloupe, dates, figs, grapes, papaya, beef, chicken, duck, eggs, fish (bass, carp, herring, mackerel, sardine), goat, goose, lamb, spleen, veal, venison, amaranth, brown rice, sweet rice
coriander, cumin, garlic, ginger, vinegar)
- finding and expressing our gratitude
Supporting your Wei Qi
There are several things along with living in harmony with the seasons and following a lifestyle of moderation and emotional regulation that specifically support our wei qi, these include herbs and supplements, qi gong, acupressure and acupuncture and calming our shen (spirit/nervous system). Below I will offer you some of my favourite ways to support you immune system and prevent yourself from getting sick.
- Qi gong is a form of meditative movement that helps us to connect with our bodies and move our qi. It is a simple and powerful and encourages movement in the body without overdoing it. You can even learn to bring qi in from your environment to supplement qi lost. I especially like to do my qi gong in the morning outside but any time that you can make your own is perfect. There are three specific practices that help support the immune system and build your wei qi. You will find them here in these videos: qi gong for the metal element, qigong for autumn, qigong to strengthen the lung.
- Acupressure to support wei qi: acupressure is a simple technique that involves pressing and massaging specific acupuncture points to bring balance to the meridians and organ. As the wei qi is dispersed by the lungs, but built from our digestive and air qi along with our jing qi from our kidneys we will work with lung, stomach and kidney points. I recommend taking some quiet time and if you like light a candle and set an intention to balance your body and build your wei qi and then go through teach pair of points rubbing them at the pressure that feels best for as long as you feel neccesary. If you are unsure 1 minute is always a good bet.
- Lu9-Taiyuan- Supremem Abyss- source point of th lung channel, tonifies the lung and the wei qi
- Ki7- Fu liu- returning current- metal point on the kidney channel, replenishes energy esp kidney yang that helps produce wei qi
- Rn12- Zhongwan- supreme granary- command pt for the stomach- gathers energy of all the yang channels and harmonizes the centre, promoting digestion and ying qi that helps build wei qi
- Lu9-Taiyuan- Supremem Abyss- source point of th lung channel, tonifies the lung and the wei qi
- Moxabustion- moxa is dried mugwort that gets burned over points in order to increase heat and tonify qi. When placed over specific points it can strengthen different kinds of qi including wei qi. You will need a moxa stick (which you can get this from me or your local acupuncturist) and you will light it until it glows and then hold it over the point below until it gets hot, switching to the other side continuing for about 10- 20 mins.
- Herbs – In Chinese medicine there are many herbs and formulas that work with the lung qi, wei qi and supporting us in creating harmony in the system based on your individual pattern, so here i will offer you two herbs that have been studied quite extensively and are often used to support the immune system. It is always advised to see a practitioner when you are unsure of what herbs you can and should take.
- Astragalus- Huang Qi- is adaptogenic, antioxidant and anti-inflammatory. It has been used in Chinese Medicine for thousands of years and is well tolerated by most but those who are pregnant, breastfeeding, on immunosuppressant drugs or have an auto-immune disorder shoulde consult their practitioner. It has been shown to increase white blood cell production(2) and help fight bacterial and viral infections (3, 4)
- Cordyceps- Dong chong Xia cao- a caterpillar and fungus used for thousands of years in Chinese Medicine has been shown to increase natural killer T cells (5) and increase macrophage phagocytosis, along with may other immune factors (6)
- Supplements- A healthy and balanced diet and good digestive system to breakdown and absorb these nutrients is always the best way to get key immune building vitamins and minerals such as vitamin A, B6, D, E, zinc, selenium. Here is an helpful list of what these nutrients so and where you can get them in your food and a podcast talking about common immune supplements.
- Probiotics- There is amazing new research coming out on the microbiome and how crucial it is to the functining of all of our systems but especially the immune system. I highly recommend checking out this podcast, this article, and this book for more of the incredible way that microorganisms support our health.
- Staying as relaxed and stress free as you can. Many of the above measures can help with this especially the qi gong and acupressure. Other things you can do are: spend time in nature, with those you love or doing something you love, getting lots of rest and moving your body.
- And of course getting acupuncture will help support your wei qi, balance your emotions, reduce stress, anxiety and fears.