The three pillars of immune health

Balancing your Immune System with Chinese Medicine

By: Blaise T. Ryan, R.TCMP, R.Ac
Registered Traditional Chinese Medicine Practitioner and Acupuncturist
If you want to improve your immunity to protect yourself from getting sick, here are some tips from Chinese medicine to boost your immune system.
First, you have to understand that according to classical Chinese medicine, your body’s immune system is determined by the health of three main organ systems in the body: the Lungs, the Spleen and the Kidneys.  We could say that these three represent the three burners of your immune system: upper (lungs), middle (spleen) and lower (kidneys).
The Lungs are the upper and most superficial system, as they have direct exposure to pathogenic elements in our environment through breathing the air around us.   This often leads to direct exposure to bacterias, viruses, allergens and toxins in the air. The nose, sinuses and skin are all connected to the lung system as well in Chinese medicine.  This is why it’s common to have sinus and skin symptoms when the body has acute exposure to environmental pathogenic influences.

The ancient battle of two forces – Xie Qi vs. Zheng Qi

The Lungs are our first line of defence against what is called Xie Qi according to the Chinese medicine theory.  Xie Qi translates to “harmful qi,” often referred to as “evil qi”.
Qi is translated as “energy” or “air” or “influence”.
This Xie Qi is a general term used to describe any pathogenic influence that can enter the body and do harm to the health of the living organism.  The stronger the Xie Qi is, the harder it is for the body to defend against it. But luckily our bodies have a hero of their own to protect us against the evil forces that intend to do our health harm.

Our body’s hero is named Zheng Qi

Zheng Qi is often translated as constitutional integrity, which for all intents and practical purposes, we can translate to our entire immune health.  Why these two translations would be synonymous will become clearer as you keep reading.
According to the fundamentals of Chinese medicine, if your Zheng Qi is strong, the Xie Qi cannot invade your body, and you won’t get sick.  Consequently, if your Zheng Qi is weak, then it opens the door for Xie Qi to come inside and do damage to your health.
This explains why some people were unaffected by the great plague of the Middle Ages, or why some people don’t get sick during an epidemic outbreak – because their immune strength was greater than the pathological influence.
This also explains why some people get sick often and easily – because their immune strength is weak and it’s easily overcome by pathological influence.
This understanding is one of the fundamental principles of Chinese medicine because it underlies the assumption that disease and illness can only harm us under two circumstances:  1) when there is an excessively strong Xie Qi (pathological influence) or 2) when your Zheng Qi (immune health) is compromised.
This also paves the way for a clear and effective therapeutic approach to improving immunity and warding off illness and disease, using the simple approach of strengthening Zheng Qi and minimizing exposure to Xie Qi.

The three pillars of immunity

Our Zheng Qi is determined largely by the health of these three spectacular organ systems: the Lungs, Spleen and Kidneys.
As mentioned above, the Lungs are your first line of immune defence.
If your Lungs are strong and healthy, then the mucus membranes in your nose, sinuses and lungs will be functioning properly and will easily defeat any bacteria, allergen or virus that enters it.
Conversely, if the Lungs are weak, the mucus membranes can easily get inflamed and malfunction when invaded by Xie Qi, leading to the creation of excessive phlegm.
The next line of defence is the Spleen, which in Chinese medicine plays the most important role in the digestive system of extracting nutrients from the food and using them to create the Qi and blood for the entire body.
The Spleen and the Lungs have the unique and similar functions of directly drawing Qi from our environment and transforming it into usable Qi for our blood system and body.
The Lungs absorb Qi from the air in the form of oxygen and vital elements and pass it directly into our bloodstream.
The Spleen absorbs the Qi from food and water in the form of vitamins, minerals, nutrients, and molecules and passes it directly into our bloodstream.
It’s understood from Chinese medicine that the Qi absorbed by the Spleen through food is mixed with the Qi that is absorbed by the Lungs from the air, which is then mixed with the Qi from the Kidneys to make the body’s Zheng Qi.
Understanding this gives us a clear roadmap of our health on how to improve our immune health and keep it balanced.
That roadmap is making our Lungs, Spleens and Kidneys as happy as possible.  So let’s look at how to do that. Over the last five millenia, Chinese medicine has clearly mapped out what harms and strengthens these systems.   Let’s take a look at each of their profiles to understand their needs.

The Lungs

Season:  Fall
Element:  Metal
Partner organ: Large intestine
Governs:  Skin, nose, sinuses
Function:  Breathing, oxygen supply, circulation, immune defence
Emotional force:  Bonding, communication, trust
Likes:  Deep breathing/exercise, fresh air, acceptance,
Dislikes:  Phlegm, dryness, shallow breathing, inflammation,
constipation, wind-cold, wind-heat

The Spleen

Season: Long-summer
Element: Earth
Partner organ: Stomach
Governs: Mouth, lips, fat, lymph
Function: Digestion, creation of Blood and Qi, extraction of nutrients
Emotional force:  Awareness, discernment
Likes: Healthy nutrition (fresh, clean, simple, natural, unprocessed), peace of mind
Dislikes: Too much sweet or rich foods, worry, obsession, dampness, sitting or looking excessively

The Kidneys

Season: Winter
Element: Water
Partner organ:  Urinary bladder
Governs:  Bones, marrow, teeth, hair, ears, brain, essence, libido
Function:  Water metabolism, reproduction, hormones, adrenals
Emotional force: Will-power, fear
Likes:  Restful sleep, good work-life balance, proper posture, healthy sex life
Dislikes: Excessive amounts of: work, physical labour, sex, exercise, adrenaline, fear, anxiety

Keeping the above in mind while navigating these colder months will serve your body well and make you less vulnerable to catching colds and other sicknesses.  Align yourself with the intention that you will serve your immune organs well this winter.
So what should you do if you are symptomatic of a weakened immune system or have existing issues with any of the three burner organs?  
Book an appointment or consultation with a registered Traditional Chinese Medicine practitioner, who will be able to isolate where and how your Zheng Qi is being compromised.  Regular acupuncture treatments and Chinese herbal remedies can assist in both preventative and remedial cases.  
You can also consult the organ profiles above to determine individualized areas of need that best fit your life and schedule.  
Perhaps you will commit to more conscious deep breathing or strengthening the communication in your relationship this fall to benefit the lungs, or work on better sleeping strategies during the long hibernating months of winter to benefit the kidneys.  
 Whichever area you choose to focus on, celebrate in the fact that you are becoming more organ-mindful and immune healthy!
For further practical tips to help boost and maintain a strong immune system, you may want to read the following blog posts:

 “Six Natural Ways To Protect Yourself Against Colds, Coughs & the Flu Using Chinese Medicine.”

“Acupuncture for Seasonal Transitions”

“Six Ways to Strengthen your Spleen in the Long Summer”

“Five Healthy Breakfasts to Strengthen your Spleen in the Winter”