In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) the organ that corresponds to Autumn is the lungs. Traditionally, Autumn is the time to focus on lung health. Common conditions arising at this time of the year are upper and lower respiratory tract infections such as colds, flu and bronchitis. As you will see, there are other health conditions that are also associated with the lungs that you may not expect.
The Lungs in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM)
Qi and the lungs
In Chinese Medicine the lungs are said to govern Qi. Qi is frequently translated as "energy flow", and is often compared to Western idea of élan vital or Vital Force. The literal translation is air or breath. In the body, lung Qi combines with food Qi to form the Zong Qi or the big Qi of the chest! This Qi is then sent all over the body to nourish the tissues, so healthy lungs mean a healthy system. Weak lungs can result in low energy and a weak immune system resulting in recurrent infections. In TCM this is called lung Qi deficiency. Along with the heart, the lungs control the circulation of Qi and blood throughout the body. If the lungs are strong the circulation will be good and the hands and feet will be warm. There are other reasons for poor circulation, however lung Qi deficiency may be one of them.
The lungs and the immune system
As we breathe our lungs are exposed to the outside world and are susceptible to what the Chinese call, external pathogenic invasion. This results in, what we call, the common cold. The lungs hate cold! In TCM, a cold is not called a cold but is actually called a wind! It is either a wind cold as indicated by cough and runny nose with clear mucous, or wind heat as indicated by yellow or green mucous. Although our Granny's were right when they said ‘If you go out like that, you'll catch a chill', maybe it is actually because of the wind and not just the cold. In Chinese medicine the wind is said to be the spearhead of one thousand diseases. Watch out Donegalwegians!
Pathogens enter into the body through the ears, nose and throat and neck, so be sure to wrap up well. Don't go sending the wanes out in the wind without hats and scarves. Pathogens are also said to enter through the pores of the skin. After a shower our pores are more open and can allow pathogens in. This may also explain the "don't go out with wet hair" granny philosophy that doctors nowadays are so adamant to deny. Again, granny knows best.
In TCM, the lungs are said to control the dispersing and descending of Qi in the body. Part of this function includes dispersing what is known as the wei Qi under the surface of the skin. Wei Qi is also called defensive Qi and is closely related to immune function. The defensive Qi protects the body from the external pathogenic invasion that cause colds and flu.
The lungs and the skin
In TCM the lungs and the skin are closely related. As part of their dispersing and descending function, the lungs disperse a fine mist of body fluid to moisten the skin and the hair. Dry skin and hair may mean you have a deficiency of the lung Qi. Just as the wind in Autumn dries the leaves on the trees, so too can the wind dry our skin. In clinical practice, it is common to see flare ups of dry skin conditions such as eczema and psoriasis during autumn. Chinese Medicine can explain and treat these phenomena.
The lungs also regulate the opening and closing of the pores in our skin to control sweating. In TCM the pores are said to be the doors of Qi and Qi is energy. If the lung Qi is weak, the pores will be open and this can allow not only Qi to escape, but also pathogens to get in. Weak lung Qi results in spontaneous sweating and a weak immune system. Lung disease can also result in the absence of sweating.
The lungs on top and the large intestine and kidneys below
In TCM every organ has a pair. The lung's paired organ is the large intestine. The lung and the large intestine together are related to immunity. The lungs are said to be like the lid of the pot. When fluid hits the lid it should descend to the kidneys and the bowel. If the lung Qi does not descend, cough or shortness of breath results. The descending function of the lung Qi also assists the bowel and the kidneys. If the lung Qi does not descend fluid to the bowel and the kidneys, this can result in either dry constipation or retention of urine. This is more often seen in elderly patients. Treatment must be directed at improving the function of the lungs.
The lungs and grief
The lungs are said to be the residence of the corporeal soul, or Po. Po gives us awareness of the physical body. Sometimes translated as the vegetative soul, the Po belongs to the earth. The corporeal soul is the most physical aspect of the soul, which dies with the body at death and returns to the earth. Its' counterpart, the hun, which is housed in the liver, belongs to the world of spirit and consciousness. The hun is said to ascend after death. On an emotional level, the corporeal soul is affected by grief. Grief restricts the lung Qi and leads to conditions such as chronic cough and shortness of breath. Acupuncture treatment of the lungs often releases repressed or suppressed emotions in a patient.
Nourishing the lung
The lungs are nourished by breathing, so remember to breathe! The best way to improve lung Qi is to exercise in fresh air. Get a bicycle; it will change your life! Take up swimming or just walk the kids to school. Get out of the car. You don't need to buy expensive gym memberships. Expand your chest by joining a choir. Sing a song, make it proud, make it strong! A few minutes a day of relaxed breathing, learning to breathe with the diaphragm and relaxing the muscles of the chest, shoulders and abdomen, can be very effective at generating lung Qi.
Because of its' relation to the lungs, skin brushing, improves lung Qi. Dry skin brushing with a natural bristle brush before your daily shower, in circular motions towards the heart, improves lung function. Get naked and let your skin breathe. Moderate sunbathing also nourishes the skin. In your dreams!
Emotionally the lungs are damaged by long-term grief and nourished by respect. So get a little R.E.S.P.E.C.T and laugh a lot :)
Chinese dietary therapy for the lungs
As the lungs govern Qi, a diet to nourish the lungs includes foods known as 'Qi tonics'. Astragalus and ginseng are two well-known Qi tonics that can be taken as supplements. Astragalus and ginseng root, along with Chinese red dates, can be bought from the Asian grocer and added to chicken or pork soups. The orange foods such as pumpkin, butternut squash and sweet potato are also Qi tonics.
As dairy is phlegm forming, too much contributes to "damp" conditions of the lungs such as chesty coughs and asthma. Goat and sheep products are less damp forming. In Chinese dietary therapy, pungent foods are said to open the lungs and improve lung Qi. Pungent foods include ginger, scalllion, garlic, pepper, peppers, cayenne pepper, onion, leek and alcohol in moderation!
Finally white is the colour that corresponds to the lungs. White foods such as radish, white meats and white mushrooms have some benefit. The Chinese eat Daikon radish although our radishes are white on the inside. I certainly don't mean white bread and white rice! In fact, these cause damp.
Please see also Chinese Dietary Therapy Effects of Foods
Old school remedies
Friar's balsam is a good old-fashioned herbal remedy to improve lung function. In herbal medicine it is described as an antiseptic and a stimulating expectorant, which means it helps you cough up phlegm and fights bacteria. It can be used topically for minor cuts and abrasions, chapped skin and lips and cold sores. It can also relieve itching of chilblains and eczema. Friars Balsam can be taken internally or inhaled with steam vapour for coughs, laryngitis, acute and chronic bronchitis, and asthma. Mix one or two droppers of the balsam into a pint of hot, steaming water and then inhale the vapours deeply. The internal dose is 25 to 35 drops in water, two to four times per day. To make soothing syrup for a sore throat, mix the drops in a spoonful of manuka honey.
Olbas oil is another old-school remedy made from essential oils. It is particularly useful as it contains cajaput oil, which is a bronchodilator and can relieve asthma and bronchitis. Olbas Oil can be dropped onto a handkerchief or into warm water for inhalation during the day. At night, drop Olbas oil directly on your pillowcase or on a tissue tucked inside it. Try adding 20 drops of Olbas Oil to a bowl of hot water. Place a towel over the head and breathe vapours in deeply for 5 to 10 minutes. Olbas Oil can also be used as a massage oil to relieve sore muscles and joints.
Carrageen is one of the best remedies for a cough. Carrageen is a natural anti-inflammatory, immune stimulant and expectorant to help you bring up phlegm. Simmer a small handful in a pint of water for 10 minutes. Strain into a mug and add honey and lemon to taste.
Carina is available to lecture for your group or institution on this subject.
Carina Harkin BHSc.Nat.BHSc.Hom.BHSc.Acu. is a practitioner of 11 years, complementary medicine lecturer of 4 years and mother of six in Galway, Ireland who practices what she teaches.
For an appointment call Carina directly on 083 34 66 333.
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