Do you feel uncertain, anxious or fearful about whether your immune system is protecting you? Do you feel you have a weak immune system and are at a loss for how to best support it? Do you find the whole concept of immunity baffling and mysterious? If your answer to any of these questions is yes, then the language of Chinese medicine will help you.
The Chinese medical concept for our entire immune and repair system is Wei Chi (protective energy). It both protects us from outside threats and performs internal repair from the wear and tear of metabolic function or trauma. It is present everywhere and responds immediately and instinctively when needed.
To protect us from outside agents like germs and physical and emotional threats, (classified as wind, cold, damp and heat), Wei Chi increases our temperature and activates sneezing, coughing and micro sweating in its first reaction. This is where a challenge can be repelled at the surface. It further stimulates mucus production and animates and activates immune factors in mucous membranes of the sensory orifices, lungs and digestive tract. If a pathogenic factor does penetrate the exterior, it generates a fever, vomiting, urination and/or diarrhea to expel it.
Sometimes these responses are insufficient and pathology can move deeper inward. In this case the body must employ other mechanisms to survive the attack. When a person is tired and dehydrated and cannot muster an effective initial response or when a pathogen is very virulent and overcomes the exterior defense, there are further protective mechanisms that create latency of the pathogen, putting it in jail for a time. Wei Chi acts as a guard in these prison systems. They give the body time to regroup and refresh its resources to then renew its efforts to expel the challenger. As experienced in the flu for instance, joint aches are your body using the divergent channels to hold a virus latent instead of allowing it to get to an organ. This allows time to rest, hydrate and then expel the virus back to the exterior. Our entire defense system is designed to keep pathology away from the organs where it could be deadly. This is why there are so few infectious diseases of the heart as it is most securely protected.
As regards repair, an example we have all experienced, a cut on our finger, is healed by Wei Chi. This energy orchestrates the body’s complex reaction to tissue injury known as the Inflammatory Cascade. It mobilizes a host of molecules, immune factors, blood cells and fluids to heal the cut. All of these physical substances would just sit there if the animating force of Wei Chi was not present. So pain, heat, swelling and loss of function at the injured area, the hallmarks of inflammation, are all the healthy, protective responses of your body to dissuade you from injuring the site further and to heal the cut. These are healthy mechanisms to heal your finger, not a mistake or disease to be turned off with medical intervention like ice and anti-inflammatories.
Wei Chi encompasses all of the material elements of the immune system and much more. It encompasses the myriad observations from modern material science of our immunity and injury-healing processes; the many types of antibodies and cytokines, the protective actions of the skin and mucosal tissues, the recognized mechanisms of the innate and adaptive immune systems, are all Wei Chi. It is the animating force of all of these material cells and tissues, the innate knowledge of the body to respond and adapt to outside forces. In addition it is the heat that creates fevers, it creates dampness (swelling) to encapsulate foreign invaders and contain toxins, it mobilizes thick fluids to cool tissues damaged by pathological heat, and it uses blood and the joints to make pathology latent. Further, our immune system includes our sensory perceptions; vision, hearing, smell, touch and taste. These provide our awareness of the world around us, especially threats and danger. Finally, it moves our muscles and limbs because running away and fighting are an essential part of our defense.
Supporting Wei Chi
I am often asked “what can I do to support my immune system?” This is an excellent and important question and one that has several answers. However the main focus in supporting our Wei Chi iInvolves not doing instead of doing.
The goal in supporting your immune system is to have it as inactive and rested as possible. Since perceiving and responding to the world around us is the job of Wei Chi, the first step is to examine this area of your life. Are you constantly on guard at home or work wondering when the next shoe will drop? Are you always on the run and stressed? Do you expose yourself to the threat of the outside world by watching the news and internet reporting via social media? Is your “feed” feeding you dread and worry? Are you balancing that with calming, meaningful input and practices? Not engaging in defense-stimulating intake takes pressure off of your immune system thus supporting its optimal function. Reflecting on your buried emotions eases the demand on Wei Chi which is otherwise keeping them in your body’s prisons.
Similarly, just like emotions can upset our digestion, substances that we eat can turn on Wei Chi in our digestive tract. The boxed, food-like substances we call processed food are especially good at this. Sugar, wheat and dairy products (except butter) challenge everyone’s immunity. Google the term non-inflammatory diet to find many resources to help you move away from the health problems that arise from inflammation (Wei Chi activity) in your gut. These conditions include anxiety and depression, Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, headaches, belching, acid reflux, GERD, constipation, IBS, diarrhea, and/or ever-increasing sensitivity to a variety of foods. Here again it is not eating things that cause Wei Chi to act as opposed to eating new things or taking supplements to counteract what you are eating. It is impossible to overcome the natural, protective response of Wei Chi with supplements if things that call up that response continue to enter your system. Supplements too can become toxic and trigger an immune response.
Things that you can do to support your immune system include: journal your thoughts and feelings each day to help uncover your sources of stress and overstimulation and to have a calm moment in the day; spend 10 to 20 minutes a day meditating; or do yin or restorative yoga with a group of calm people in a calm environment. Dietarily, since warmth and fluids are the cornerstones of Wei Chi, sleep 8 hours per night to support warmth and eat and drink only warm fluids and food, nothing ice-cold. Eat warm, wet food like porridge for breakfast and soups and stews each day. These support healthy digestive function and maximize hydration and fluid production.
On the contrary, dry food like crackers, chips, and bread all demand water from our systems, a dehydrating effect. Drinking water does not hydrate well but instead has a clearing effect, carrying out waste products as it moves through us. Water enmeshed with food particles on the other hand is slowly absorbed at the rate of digestion. It is time-release water that gets into your blood and tissues to hydrate completely. Saturated fat is another essential hydrating agent as it is the foundation for thick fluids in the body.
Finally, the most powerful thing you can do to support your immune system is to practice doing nothing. Examples of this include turning off the TV and music for an evening and listening to the quietness of your surroundings; Giving yourself an unstructured day with no projects, obligations or entertainment and see what happens; Take an hour of quiet time alone and pray, sit still, or simply listen to your breathing and your thoughts. You might feel guilty, lazy, non-productive, and possibly tired, but you will give your immune system rest and recuperation time.