By Christina Morris, L.Ac.
When the immune system is functioning properly the body should not experience illness. The immune system viewed through traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) consists of two parts, one being the external system and the second being the internal system. The external aspect of the immune system involves the body’s natural ability to ward off external pathogens, or disease factors that can cause illnesses, such as colds, flu, allergies and sinus problems. This article will focus on the external immune system.
In TCM, the external immune system is a superficial defense energy called “wei qi”. Wei qi is like a shield that surrounds the body, located in the layers of the muscle and skin. This energy controls the opening and the closing of the pores. Wei qi is nourished by the air that we breathe and the foods that we eat. Air quality and diet can directly affect our protective energy. The circulation and activation of wei qi is propelled by the energy of the lungs. Poor lung energy can lead to a poor defense against external pathogens and environmental factors such as wind, cold, heat, dampness, or dryness. Since wei qi is controlled by the lungs which is part of the respiratory system, the nasal passage, throat, mucous membranes, and sinuses are commonly affected by an external invasion of pathogens.
Environmental factors can contribute to the cause of illness. When the body’s wei qi is weak, wind can invade the body. Wind is the primary transporter for most external invasions. The wind can transport other pathogens, such as those found in cold, hot, damp or dry weather. Typically, wind affects the head and the neck. Common symptoms felt from a wind invasion may include sore neck, tightness in the shoulders, a runny nose with a clear discharge, a headache, and a general overall weakness of the body. These symptoms may be the first sign of an external invasion. In response to the invasion the body tightens the muscles in the neck and upper back to protect the body in attempt to block the wind invasion. This process often leads to achiness in the neck and upper back. The pores may then open to try to sweat out the invader. External pathogens are often purged through sweating. A wind invasion complicated by cold (wind-cold invasion) usually results in chills, a white nasal discharge, and an aversion to cold. A wind-heat condition usually results in a fever, yellow nasal discharge, and an aversion to heat.
Exterior conditions are usually acute and have a shorter duration then internal conditions. If the external pathogen is not expelled from the body the illness may move deeper into the body. As a cold condition moves toward the interior, the cold condition begins to turn into a warm condition, and the body may respond with alternating chills and fever. This is a typical disease pattern of the common cold, either from a wind-cold or wind-heat. Wind-cold conditions are most common in a cold environment, while a heat condition is most common in a hot environment, and damp in a damp environment, and dryness in a dry environment. When a disease becomes an interior condition it can have a greater impact, affecting the body’s interior energy and the interior immune system. If a person’s immunity is really weak, external pathogens can go straight into an interior condition affecting the body at a deeper level right away.
It is important to understand the difference between exterior and interior conditions. If trying to treat an exterior condition with an interior treatment, one can drive the illness deeper into the body. A qualified acupuncture practitioner will be able to diagnose and treat in accordance to the proper condition. Acupuncture points and herbal formulas vary according to the disease pattern of the individual.
Ultimately, having weak wei qi can lead to an increased susceptibility to illness. Even if we have healthy lungs physically, energetically the lungs are taxed on a daily basis by the pollutants of our environment as well as being affected by emotions such as worry, grief and sadness. Acupuncture is commonly used in traditional Chinese medicine to boost the immune system and strengthen the wei qi or protective energy. If you are susceptible to colds, allergies, sinus problems or other respiratory problems, acupuncture may be a very good choice for you. Acupuncture is effective in treating both acute and/or chronic conditions and also works well as a preventative. Acupuncture is a great way to strengthen your primary defense against illness.