We hear the words “immune system” so often but very few non-medical folks understand much about it. The explanations of modern science offer some theoretical ideas that we can grasp remotely. The various antibodies and blood cell types give us words to pin on our immune system but still no idea how it works. When we hear “strengthen your immune system” most of us are at a loss. The only framework we have to work with is the idea of medication, things that go into our mouths, supplements in this case like vitamin C and zinc. We are rarely told that the over-the-counter pharmaceuticals called NSAIDs (non steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) modify our immune response and can weaken our immune defense against external pathogens like flu, cold, and other viruses like COVID-19.
For a general overview of immune function please read my post Inflammation: the Root of All Disease?
Special Announcement: To help as many as possible during this time, I have reduced the price of the Kindle version of my book Does It Hurt? A Dialog to Help You Understand and Trust Acupuncture to $2.99.
The language of Chinese medicine is more natural and easier to understand. It avoids complex names of thousands of different physiological processes and substances and instead speaks in more generalities. In the case of our immune system, all of its functions, cell types, and antibody varieties fit into one term: Wei Chi – defensive energy. Let’s explore how Wei Qi works.
Wei Qi- Defensive Energy- Immune System
Wei Qi has two primary functions, defense and repair. These can be described further with four divisions. Wei Qi is:
- present on the surface of our body and tissues to defend against the climate and its pathogens;
- present in our muscles to facilitate movement away from outside threats;
- present in our sensory orifices—mouth, eyes, nose, and ears—to provide us with an awareness of our surroundings and neutralize an attack like a virus. This function is critical for our self protection;
- and, present in our interior to repair and clean our organs from the ongoing metabolic damage of burning food and oxygen as fuel, and to repair tissue damage from traumatic and other injuries;
It is clear then that Wei Qi is a very important function to have working at optimal levels. Let’s look now at how Wei Qi is produced. This will give you a firm foundation to then see what you can do to support your immune function through much more than dietary supplements.
Production of Wei Qi
Wei Qi has two foundational components:
- Kidney energy
- Stomach fluids
Kidney energy – is the foundation of our physical/emotional house. Kidney energy has many physical parts to it including our bones, the kidney and bladder organs, central nervous system, reproductive apparatus, endocrine system, ears, sense of hearing, and fear. For a more complete overview of all five organ systems please read my book Does It Hurt? A Dialogue to Help You Understand and Trust Acupuncture available here https://www.booneacupuncture.com/does-it-hurt/.
Included in kidney energy is its fire which is the spark plug of our existence. This spark ignites all biological processes in our body. It also acts like a pilot light to warm the stomach so that it can create its own fire called digestive fire. Digestive fire (hydrochloric acid) is necessary to “ripen and rot” our food so it can be broken down by more fire in our small intestine (bile and digestive enzymes). Kidney fire is most closely described as adrenaline in modern science though this in no way captures its full meaning. The fact that our life starts with a spark of fire is a good indicator that warmth is our friend.
Stomach fluids – stomach fluids are derived from our dietary fluids. They include a large number of the substances that our body manufacturers in different places. These include sweat, tears, saliva, and mucous on all mucous membranes including mouth, nose, and the entire digestive tract. They also include all our blood plasma and the fluids that surround our cells, interstitial fluids. These are our defensive fluids! Although they are made by different glands and serve many functions, these fluids have in common that they have antibodies present in them, Wei Qi. The importance of sufficient hydration/dietary fluids for a strong immune function is now self-evident. Water and fat (an equally important hydrator) are the foundation of all of our protective/stomach fluids.
Protecting Kidney Energy and Stomach Fluids
How then do we protect and strengthen our kidney energy and stomach fluids in order to maximize our Wei Qi/immune function? Let’s take a look at the many factors that contribute to each.
Patients often ask me what they can do or eat to strengthen their kidney energy. This is a natural first thought and I will discuss this, but I feel it more valuable to ask the question from the opposite side of the mirror. What can I do or not eat to stop diminishing and weakening my kidney energy? You can do or eat all of the supportive things possible, but if weakening factors are not addressed simultaneously there is little chance of increasing that strength. Breaking even is that all that can be expected.
The number one thing that weakens kidney energy is a fight or flight response. Our adrenal glands (ad-renal= on top of the kidney) are about the size of a thumbnail. (Adrenaline is the best representation of kidney yang energy). They are a storehouse of enormous potential energy. Their purpose is to boost us for short bursts to, for example, run from the tiger who wants to eat us, or lift the car off of a child who is beneath it in an accident. In former times one could expect to encounter the need for this level of alarm only occasionally. In today’s world we encounter many triggers that our primitive brain detects as a threat to life. These include near misses while driving, the sensation of high speed while driving, and the feeling that something is out to get us around every turn such as our employer, the IRS, a criminal or a fraudster, or the aggressive dog down the street. At work we can feel like our job, therefore our life, is threatened if a deadline is not met or performance is not as expected. When we run as exercise we provide our brain with a sensation that something is chasing after us. When we fight with others or against the unknown “system” we stimulate our adrenal glands. One reason running feels so good as a stress reliever is because adrenaline temporarily eliminates fear so that we can think long enough to fight or fly.
On the food front, both physical and emotional foods that are stimulating weaken our kidney energy. A steady diet of the news full of gloom, doom, and anger feel like a threat to our existence. A steady diet of being busy all the time and never feeling like we can get everything done feels like we are being chased by a wild animal. Physical foods like coffee, sugar, alcohol, chocolate, and processed foods all weaken kidney energy.
From the other side of the mirror now, there are things that you can do and food to be eaten that support and nourish kidney energy. Mindfulness practices are almost universally calming. Qigong, tai chi, meditation, yoga, focusing on breath for a time, and others are all calming practices. Walking outdoors with no phone or outside stimulation is excellent exercise since it creates no feeling of panic and circulates our blood. Journaling is a calming way to acknowledge your feelings. Intentionally creating a calm period each day to help turn off fight or flight is one benefit of all of these practices. Checking the news only once a day takes the steady supply of uncertainty and fear out of your life.
With physical food, cooking for yourself (as unprecedented numbers of people are now doing ) provides a message that sustenance is plenty and I can care for myself. Preparing and eating real, whole, unprocessed foods provides the greatest nutrition and creates the least inflammation. Specific foods for the kidney are kidney and black beans, mushrooms, bone broth, seaweed, and seeds like sunflower and pumpkin.
Using the same approach as I did with kidney energy, let’s first consider what we can do or not eat to diminish destruction of stomach fluids.
Digestive problems are enormously popular in our culture. In my practice I find most often that stomach and digestive fire is weak. Acid reflux for example is, in about 60% of cases, not due to excess acid production, but to the stomach being so weak that it can no longer move its contents downward. There are several factors that lead to the digestive upset in our nation.
The number one factor that weakens stomach energy and function is worry and its associated monkey-mind thinking. Part of the job of the stomach in Chinese medicine is to contain. When it is constantly called on to contain thoughts that are unresolved it gets tired and weak. Here again mindfulness practices are helpful to slow down thoughts temporarily, taking pressure off of the stomach.
Also just like our physical food, we must eat or take in the emotions that come at us from the world. We chew on them, swallow them, digest them, then assimilate or eliminate them. There is an awful lot in our world these days that is hard to swallow and digest and leads to digestive upset.
Healthy thought is described beautifully in Chinese medicine: Think-Decide-Act. We are designed to have a thought, make a decision about it, and act on the decision to resolve the thought. An example is washing the dishes. Thought: I need to wash the dishes. Decision: I will wash them now. Action: wash the dishes to completion and walk away. Generally we do not look back on fully-acted-out thoughts. It takes practice and cultivation to win this process back. Become aware of when you think about an item or task then do not act on it. Find little places to practice healthy thinking each day and it will eventually become the norm and be less taxing on your stomach energy.
There are several dietary habits in our culture that severely weaken digestion especially in combination:
- Drinking ice-cold beverages and eating cold food taxes our stomach fire dramatically. Stomach fire is all used up simply warming up this thermal ice block and can no longer perform its role of “ripening and rotting” our food; in other words, digesting it. America is the only country in the world where people constantly drink ice beverages, especially with meals when digestive fire is demanded most. We are warm-blooded beings and doing all we can to support that warmth supports health. The current fad of cold water immersion is misplaced and severely weakens immune function.
- Sweet is the resonant flavor of the stomach. A little turns up stomach energy, a lot toxifies the organ and weakens it. Americans now consume on average 150 pounds of sugar per year. Ice- cold beverages and sugar are the main contributing factors to obesity.
- And finally irregular and hurried eating weakens stomach energy. Moderate-volume meals at regular intervals strengthen digestion. Leaving empty space at the top of the stomach to breathe into for digestion aids and strengthens the stomach.
To support and nourish stomach energy and therefore the protective fluids it produces, practicing healthy thinking. As with kidney, having a time each day to be relaxed and out of fight or flight are very beneficial. Physical foods that support the stomach to produce high-quality fluids are things that are soothing for digestion. Porridge made from rice (congee), millet, and oats are helpful. Root vegetables of all kinds strength digestion. And bitter foods like endive and radicchio strengthen digestive fire. An excellent and very readable book on Chinese medical dietary concepts is Welcoming Food by Andrew Sterman.
How Does All This Help Repel Pathogens?
With a better understanding of the two foundations of Wei Qi/immune system now in place, let’s examine how it responds to an external pathogenic factor like a cold, flu, or covid virus.
All viruses are classified as cold pathogens in Chinese medicine. Bacteria are classified as heat pathogens. It makes sense then that warmth or heat are the approach to fighting a cold pathogen. With this definition it is easy to understand why antibiotics, which are cold substances, are not effective against viruses. It is also easy to grasp why viral infections lesson in warm weather; there is less cold to invade and more warmth to neutralize them.
A viral attack on a human is an attack of wind and cold. Wind transports cold. This wind-cold attacks the surface of our skin and mucous membranes and our body responds to keep it there or ideally repel it. In a healthy state with kidney energy and stomach fluids in full complement, the response is to increase warmth by raising our temperature and to create a micro sweat to transport the cold away. This all takes place in our external defensive channels called the sinew channels, the realm of Wei Qi.
Two things can contribute to a weak or insufficient response:
- an internal weakness of the host, meaning insufficient warmth (kidney yang) or insufficient stomach fluids;
- and, a very strong pathogen. Even people appearing healthy can become sick from a very strong pathogen like COVID-19. We are seeing more and more strong, resistant pathogens and weakened immunity due to the misuse of antibiotics by modern medicine.
When the initial response fails the pathogen begins to progress inward. Its goal is the warmest place possible, one of our internal organs. There are a series of other protective mechanisms the body then employs to prevent organ infection. These are covered in detail in my book Does it Hurt? They all utilize Wei Qi (in the form of higher fever) and fluids, so keeping kidney and stomach energy strong and fluid intake high is essential when illness is active.
Our lungs are our most delicate organ and are susceptible to cold. Air from the outside with foreign particles, cold temperature, and moisture droplets reach the inside of the lung which are lined with mucous membranes and coated with mucus (a stomach/protective fluid) full of Wei Qi/antibodies. It is helpful to support the lungs by minimizing the intake of outside particles using masks and keeping the external air warm and moist. Breathing through your nose accomplishes the latter. Covering your face and the back of your neck and head in cold weather is another step that protects the lungs, lessening the chance of getting an external invasion of wind and cold, a virus.
Now you have a different, less complex, and more usable view of your immune system and protection against external pathogens. You also have many specific emotional and food variables to examine and address in the cultivation of a stronger immune function. In the presence of increasingly strong pathogens like COVID-19, the best we can do to increase our chances of not becoming infected is to use the wisdom of this 2000-year-old medical practice and apply it. This is the one thing about Chinese medicine that so humbles and excites me, that such old knowledge when applied to real people so many centuries later still produces health changes!! Use this information with the great confidence that it is truly time tested.
You will find more in-depth descriptions of these theories, case studies, and illustrations in my introductory book on acupuncture, Does It Hurt? A Dialog to Help You Understand and Trust Acupuncture. This book demystifies acupuncture for medical professionals and those curious about trying acupuncture, and is a valuable resource for practicing acupuncturists to explain the theories to their patients in layman’s terms.