The immune system in Chinese medicine

In light of the changes COVID-19 has brought to everyone's life, all around the globe, I wanted to bring the focus back to something that we do have control over in our lives, the health of our immune system. At a time such as this, we can put more energy into keeping ourselves healthy and making the right choices to keep our bodies in the best shape possible. There are many, many ways that we can boost this system, and there are also ways that we can avoid putting any extra pressure on the body so that when we may come into contact with micro-organisms that cause disease, such as the Coronavirus that is spreading around the world at an extreme rate, our body can fight hard to limit the degree to which we are affected. But before we go into ways to keep the immune system running optimally, let's talk about what exactly the immune system is and how it functions.

Although I want to focus more on the TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) aspect of immunity, it is important, first, to understand the western side of this equation. Every organism has an immune system, even microscopic bacteria. Of course, humans have a much more complex system comprised of many biological structures and processes that work together to keep us free from disease. The basic job of the immune system is to keep the body free from invaders and to rid the body of dead or sick cells that may be circulating. It is very important that the immune system is able to distinguish self, from non-self, and when a foreign invader is detected, the immune response is activated. One of the key players is the white blood cells or leukocytes. WBC are on constant patrol, looking for pathogens, and when they detect something foreign they multiply to signal further immune response. WBC is stored in the lymphoid organs - thymus, spleen, bone marrow, and lymph nodes. There are two types of WBC - the phagocytes, which essentially destroy and "eat" pathogens, and the lymphocytes, which form a sort of memory of past pathogens, produce anti-bodies and stay on the watch to alert the cleanup cells if this pathogen returns - which is how immunizations work. During an immunization, certain molecules of a pathogen are introduced to the body so that the immune response can be activated, and antibodies created. Overall, this is an extremely complex system that we need to have worked at optimal levels at all times.

In Traditional Chinese Medicine, the immune system, and all other systems are looked at very differently. Overall, TCM looks at everything as a whole and doesn't separate the immune system from the rest of the body. In order to have healthy immunity - all systems of the body - including the qi (“CH-EE”), blood, body fluids, meridians, and organs, have to be functioning optimally. All of these things work together to build up the strength of the body’s defenses. In TCM theory, the body’s resistance to disease and its ability to repair in the presence of disease is determined by the healthy flow of the “zheng qi”, or healthy qi around the body. The zheng qi is abundant and free-flowing, we are able to fight off pathogens before they cause much if any, damage. This zheng qi is similar to the movement of WBC in the bloodstream. When the zheng qi is abundant, pathogens cannot prevail. So how do we make sure we have sufficient zheng qi, along with healthy qi, blood, body fluids, and the meridians and organs are unblocked and operating well? Of course, Acupuncture and herbal formulas work very effectively at keeping a perfect internal balance or restoring the balance that has been lost. But there are many things that we can do and not-do outside of regular treatments to protect ourselves.

The first and maybe the most important step we can take is ensuring our diet is well balanced, and full of fresh nutrient-dense food. We know that VITAMIN C plays a key role in the immune system because Vitamin C enhances the WBC's ability to kill off foreign microbes. Vitamin C is a potent antioxidant that improves and supports the skin's barrier functions. We also know that things like sugar, alcohol, and fatty foods will damage our digestion when not consumed in moderation, which can lead to a build-up of toxins for the body to deal with, along with the potential for leaky gut, which floods the bloodstream with unwanted substances. Both of these situations can dull the immune response. In TCM, these things are true as well, and food is divided into categories by one of five flavors, and their effect on the body. It is important to balance the intake of food so we don't end up tipping the balance off. For example, foods like dairy are considered to produce dampness, so if we overeat this, we end up producing an excess of phlegm, which can settle in many parts of the body, including the lungs. The presence of phlegm in the lungs inhibits their ability to regulate the opening and closing of pores. On the other hand, some foods are warming and drying, such as turkey! So eating turkey can help dry up phlegm in the lungs. Another example is alcohol, which is actually medicinal in small doses because it can help expel wind and cold, and it helps improve the circulation of blood. But when overdone, alcohol adds excess heat to the body, and can lead to liver damage and poor digestive function.

Exercise is the next on the list! We all know getting some type of physical activity every day is important, but how does it affect our immunity? One way that exercise keeps us healthy is by draining our lymphatic system. When we MOVE our body, such as brisk walking, jogging, or jumping up and down - gravity moves the fluid in the lymph system. As we talked about earlier, this is a very important function in keeping invading pathogens at bay. Along with the movement of the lymph system, exercise gets the heart pumping blood faster, again improving circulation to remove toxins. The same goes in TCM, we need to keep moving to keep the qi, blood, and body fluids moving.

Keeping stress at bay is another key factor involved in our immunity. Of course, that is sometimes easier said than done. We are living in a fast-paced society, where it seems there is always more expected of us. When we become stressed out, our bodies get trapped in our fight or flight mode, which keeps our nervous system on high alert and suppresses the immune system. When we are stressed, our cortisol levels skyrocket, and cortisol actually reduces the number of lymphocytes circulating in the blood. In TCM, when we become stressed, our liver becomes sluggish, and it can't circulate the qi around the body properly. The lungs and all other organs rely on this smooth flow of qi to function, so high levels of stress for long periods of time will absolutely disrupt every single system in the body, including our lungs and immune system. Exercise will release endorphins and lower cortisol, and 15 minutes of mediation a day can make a huge difference in our moods.

Lastly, I want to talk about Acupuncture, Cupping and Herbal Medicine, or TCM! The goal behind all the modalities in Traditional Chinese Medicine is to restore the body to balance - so it can heal itself, and the immune system is part of that healing! TCM can reduce the stress response, and increase the liver's ability to deal with the everyday life hustle. We can use herbs like astragalus, cordyceps, and Ginko Biloba to boost the respiratory function and keep the lungs effectively working to keep pathogens out, and to the blood circulating well, in case something does get in. Acupuncture naturally calms the central nervous system, reduces pain, and moves the qi, which in turn keeps the body ready to heal. And lastly, my favorite way to keep the lungs clear and the immune system strong is CUPPING Therapy! Firstly, Cupping gets the blood and lymph system moving. We use this to treat muscle spasms, injuries, and overall well-being, but we also know, this keeps the immune system strong. When we cup over the back, we’re causing a somewhat large area of local inflammation, which stimulates the immune response, and we also glide over the lungs! Because Cupping can affect tissue up to 4 inches below the surface of the skin, this is almost like a workout for the lungs. We can loosen up lodged phlegm, which if you've had Cupping during a chest cold, you may have experienced the phlegm clearing that comes after your session. To conclude, Cupping opens the pores on the back, which can allow the release of pathogens that may be trying to enter the body. This forced opening of the pores also improves the lung's ability to keep the pores opening and closing when they need to.

So, although times are scary right now, there are many things that we can do on a daily basis to keep our bodies strong! We can't always fight off all possible infections, but we can keep all our organ systems running optimally, so if and when we do succumb to a pathogen, we can more easily fight it off.


Dr. Amy Nykoluk, DTCM + Registered Acupuncturist

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