Immunity: The View From Chinese Medicine
For most people, even those of us who make an effort to
take care of ourselves, the immune system is something of
a mystery. Though there are plenty of scientific studies (and
medications) geared toward what happens when we're sick, there
is much less information available in the West about learning
to remain well.
In Chinese medicine, however, the emphasis is different.
Building health is the central pillar around which Chinese
medicine is organized, so that when it comes to treating sickness,
less attention is paid to the germs (called pathogenic "wind"
in Chinese medicine) than to the body that must resist them.
According to Chinese medicine, health in the body is a function
of its overall energy, or Qi
“chee". There are many different kinds of Qi
in the body, but they're all interdependent, and rely on each
other for their production and quality.
The qi that most closely correlates
with the Western concept of immunity is called Wei
qi, which means "outside" or "defensive"
qi. This defensive qi resides
in and around the skin and mucus membranes, like a protective
shield. If the shield is weak, then the body is vulnerable
to invading germs, but when it is strong, even communicable
viruses will be unable to enter the body. The focus of immunity,
then, is on keeping the Wei qi
strong. Since Wei qi is a product
of other kinds of qi in the
body, however, this in fact means keeping the whole body strong.
In Chinese medicine this means some very specific things,
including eating healthy foods in appropriate amounts, sleeping
well, working and resting in suitable proportions, and being
responsive to but not overly caught up in our emotions. It
is a firm tenet of Chinese medicine that healthy balance in
these areas of our lives will promote health and increase
However, nobody leads a perfectly balanced life all the
time, and imbalances are bound to occur. The first signs of
an energy imbalance can include tiredness, changes in appetite,
constipation, loose stools, skin problems, or congestion.
These symptoms are part of an early warning system that indicates
deficiencies of the body's qi
– and thus of Wei qi as
well. If you notice any of these signs, pay attention: at
this point rest, herbs, acupuncture, and a careful diet will
probably be enough to bring the body back into balance and
thereby prevent illness. But if you don't notice, or don't
address, these slight imbalances, your Wei
qi may weaken enough to allow pathogenic germs to invade.
When a wind invasion occurs, the body will attempt to expel
it; sneezes, coughs, runny noses, chills, fevers, sore throats,
sweating, and vomiting can all be signs of a body struggling
to expel a pathogenic factor.
Acupuncture and herbal treatment at this point are designed
to help in this expulsion process. Whereas many people think
of strengthening their bodies when they begin to feel ill,
Chinese medicine finds this to be a counterproductive strategy;
hearty meals and strengthening herbs (like ginseng) interfere
with the body's ability to open up and clear itself out. What's
more, they can actually strengthen the pathogens, too, and
thereby prolong illness even further. If clearing treatments
don't occur or aren't successful, then the pathogenic germs
will penetrate deeper into the body. Symptoms vary widely
at this point, but can include muscle aches, and infections
in the lungs, sinuses, ears, or tonsils. Alternatively, symptoms
may slip into a less dramatic but more persistent state of
chronicity, resulting in constant or recurrent bouts of intestinal
trouble, fatigue, sinus pains, asthma, joint pain, etc. Because
chronic ailments tend to become more severe and harder to
treat over time, they are more damaging to long-term health
than acute colds or flu. Prevention and appropriate treatment
at the earliest stages of illness (or, preferably at the pre-illness
stage of qi deficiency), can
thus prevent a lifetime of chronic suffering.