The Immune System
Can classical Oriental medicine with acupuncture benefit the immune system for the healing and prevention of illness? Most certainly, it can. Classical medicine has a long tradition of treatment for pathogenic chi (contagious diseases) that goes back to the earliest dawn of medicine. The strategy involves the support of the body’s Wei Qi (immune system) to expel the invader and harmonize the regular processes. Acupuncture balances the yin and yang, hot and cold, excess and deficient. In a state of deficiency (depleted immune system), the body is prone to absorb an excess, which is the unwanted invader.
Immunity functions as the first line of defense: guarding the surface protects against internal harm. -Bienfield*
When chasing the pathogen, the physician must first detect its location and then stop its progression. -Su Wen *
When the pathogen is abundant, this is an excess. When the (immune) qi is weak, we call it a deficient condition. -Su Wen
The Wei Qi
In Oriental Medicine, the immune system is a circulating system of energy known as Wei Qi. Wei Qi is also called anti-pathogenic qi or defensive qi. Acupuncture moves, invigorates, and strengthens the Wei qi to protect the body against invading pathogens. Pathogenic invaders, even in ancient times, were recognized as airborne communicable diseases. They called it “pathogenic wind” or Xie qi, “evil wind”.
Pathogenic wind is the root of all kinds of illnesses…When the pathogenic wind invades the body, it gradually turns into heat and gradually damages the energy, essence, and blood. When blood becomes depleted, the liver is not nourished and malfunctions. -Su Wen
The Wei Qi flows on the outer layers of the body, between the skin and muscles in an area known as the cou-li space, and it diffuses over the chest and abdomen. Wei Qi is responsible for immunity and protects the body from pathogens in the environment. It assists in regulating body temperature via the opening and closing of the pores. The Lungs and Liver are the organs that regulate this Wei Qi. The Lungs are the organ closest to the surface and are often the first to be affected by an invading pathogen. The Lungs play a part in diffusing the Wei Qi around the chest. The Liver is responsible for the smooth flow of qi and the body. If the Liver is functioning poorly, openings in the Wei Qi weaken the body’s defense.
A person who has weak or deficient Wei Qi is prone to catching colds and other illnesses, will feel cold easily, have low energy and may have an autoimmune condition. Their sleep-wake cycles may be problematic or irregular. This is because the Wei Qi also plays a part in putting us to sleep at night and waking us up in the morning. During the day, the Wei Qi circulates on the exterior of the body. At night, the Wei Qi retreats to the interior of the body to nourish the internal organs. It emerges at the acupuncture point Bladder 1 at the inner eye in the morning, signaling us to wake up.
Problems with the Wei Qi (immune system) often look like this:
- Disrupted sleep cycle
- Trouble falling asleep
- Neck pain or stiffness
- Shortness of breath
- Runny nose
- Catching colds easily
- Sensitivity of the skin
- Digestive upset
Things that Deplete the Wei Qi
If you have a combination of these symptoms, your Wei Qi is likely impacted. What are some things that negatively impact the Wei Qi? In other words, they deplete or exhaust the immune system. Watch out for these:
- Exposure to pathogens (being around infected people)
- Not sleeping regularly or not sleeping enough
- Stress (especially prolonged stress)
- Improper nutrition
- Lack of exercise and movement (lack of movement causes stagnation of qi, which then cannot circulate properly).
- Grief, sadness, or frustration
- Chemical exposure or endocrine disruptors in the environment or home
- Uncontrolled allergies (Wei Qi disturbance)
So these are all things that can deplete your Wei Qi, resulting in a loss of energy, feeling sick, catching colds often, and recovering more slowly from common ailments.
Types of Pathogens
Oriental medicine recognizes five types of external pathogenic invaders. Acupuncture methods are applicable for each one.
- Virus (pathogenic cold)
- Bacteria (pathogenic heat)
- Fungus (pathogenic dampness)
- Poison (toxic heat)
- Pathogenic Climates (excess of heat, cold, wind, dampness or dryness)
Progression of an Illness
We can call this the “secret life of a pathogen”. This natural progression from the exterior to the interior layers of the body describes the journey of the pathogen from the outside, in, and also shows up as symptoms in the progression of the illness. This is called the Shang Han Lun (stages of progression of a pathogen) . If the pathogen started out on the exterior channels (stiff neck, aversion to cold, shivers, and low energy), and the Wei Qi does not fight it off, it could progress to the interior channels and disrupt the internal organs. Acupuncture is strategically designed to “arrest” the pathogen at whatever layer it is in, and help the body to expel it. If the pathogen is so deep that it cannot be expelled, the acupuncture treatment will be designed to strengthen the body’s natural qi so that it can win against the pathogen.
Here is a quick overview of the first layers of illness. If you have some of these symptoms, especially with sudden onset or a very quick onset, it is essential to get help quickly to “catch” it at the first, and not wait until the pathogen has launched a full attack.
First layer: Aversion to cold, feeling cold, shivers, a stiff or painful neck, possible headache. Your acupuncturist may notice a pale complexion, withdrawn posture, and a floating pulse.
Second layer: Alternating chills and fever, or a high fever; sweating, thirst, irritability, and feeling very hot. The pathogen has penetrated the exterior and moved interior where it turned into heat. Your acupuncturist may notice a red face, and a red tongue with yellow coating, and a rapid or overflowing pulse.
What the Body is Telling You
In Oriental medicine, our body systems are inextricably linked with emotions, and imbalanced emotions are one of the causes of illness. The Western concept of the “bodymind” supports this. All Classical medicine focuses on balancing the triad of Mind, Body, and Spirit. Grief, sadness, and depression impact the Lungs, interrupting their function of diffusing qi properly and leaving a weakened Wei Qi. Frustration, anger, or resentment impact the Liver, resulting in stagnant qi and a condition known as Yang Rising. The Spleen plays a part in controlling the lymphatic system, which is involved in the transport of immune cells and the purification of the blood. What might a depleted immune system be telling us?
- Lung Qi Deficiency (frequent colds, shortness of breath): Sadness, grief, a lack of organization, depleted qi from overworking
- Liver Qi Stagnation (muscle pain or tightness, muscle imbalances): Anger, frustration, resentment, feeling “stuck”, not knowing how to move forward, lack of mental flexibility, unresolved negative feelings
- Wei Qi depletion: Lack of boundaries or personal defenses. Unhealed mental wounds from the past. Disturbance of sleep-wake cycle. Lack of balance of movement vs. relaxation. A lack of nurturing.
Each of these clues from the body describe a fundamental imbalance, an imbalance of Yin and Yang. The “Middle Path” in Oriental Medicine describes the process of seeking to balance aspects of life that affect us physically and mentally. For example, overwork should be balanced with less work and more play. Resentment should be balanced with movement, taking action to prevent “stuck” (stagnant) qi. Opposites in Oriental Medicine are complementary. A depleted immune system is balanced with acupuncture and lifestyle changes to circulate qi properly, strengthen fortifications against pathogenic invaders, and nurturing the organ systems responsible for the creation of Wei Qi.
Acupuncture for Wei Qi (Immune System) Support
In your session with the acupuncturist, relevant points to fortify the immune system for the prevention of illness will be used. First, the acupuncturist will look at your tongue and take the pulses in six locations to see the state of health of the organ systems. Then a treatment with acupuncture will be put together. While you lie comfortably on the table, the treatment begins to take effect. You and your acupuncturist may decide together to use a strategy from the Materia Medica. This might involve the use of moxibustion (the heating of acupuncture points with herbs for therapeutic purposes), food therapy to fortify the qi and improve nutrition, and herbal support for the immune system.
The Effectiveness of Oriental Medicine for Immune Support
As you can see, Oriental Medicine offers a complete and well-established system for boosting the immune system. This is done in a natural, noninvasive way that relaxes the mind and strengthens the body. If you believe you have a depleted immune system, it is best to seek treatment sooner rather than later so that your acupuncturist can pinpoint the root cause of the illness and help you feel better faster.
© Family Care Acupuncture. Classical Acupuncture Clinic in Mobile, Alabama.
*Harriet Bienfield, Between Heaven and Earth: A Guide to Chinese Medicine
*Maoshing Ni, The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Medicine