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Chinese Herbal Medicine

Immunity: The View From Chinese Medicine

For most people, even those of us who make an effort to take care of ourselves, the immune system is something of a mystery. Though there are plenty of scientific studies (and medications) geared toward what happens when we're sick, there is much less information available in the West about learning to remain well.

In Chinese medicine, however, the emphasis is different. Building health is the central pillar around which Chinese medicine is organized, so that when it comes to treating sickness, less attention is paid to the germs (called pathogenic "wind" in Chinese medicine) than to the body that must resist them.

According to Chinese medicine, health in the body is a function of its overall energy, or Qi “chee". There are many different kinds of Qi in the body, but they're all interdependent, and rely on each other for their production and quality.

The qi that most closely correlates with the Western concept of immunity is called Wei qi, which means "outside" or "defensive" qi. This defensive qi resides in and around the skin and mucus membranes, like a protective shield. If the shield is weak, then the body is vulnerable to invading germs, but when it is strong, even communicable viruses will be unable to enter the body. The focus of immunity, then, is on keeping the Wei qi strong. Since Wei qi is a product of other kinds of qi in the body, however, this in fact means keeping the whole body strong. In Chinese medicine this means some very specific things, including eating healthy foods in appropriate amounts, sleeping well, working and resting in suitable proportions, and being responsive to but not overly caught up in our emotions. It is a firm tenet of Chinese medicine that healthy balance in these areas of our lives will promote health and increase longevity.

However, nobody leads a perfectly balanced life all the time, and imbalances are bound to occur. The first signs of an energy imbalance can include tiredness, changes in appetite, constipation, loose stools, skin problems, or congestion. These symptoms are part of an early warning system that indicates deficiencies of the body's qi – and thus of Wei qi as well. If you notice any of these signs, pay attention: at this point rest, herbs, acupuncture, and a careful diet will probably be enough to bring the body back into balance and thereby prevent illness. But if you don't notice, or don't address, these slight imbalances, your Wei qi may weaken enough to allow pathogenic germs to invade.

When a wind invasion occurs, the body will attempt to expel it; sneezes, coughs, runny noses, chills, fevers, sore throats, sweating, and vomiting can all be signs of a body struggling to expel a pathogenic factor.

Acupuncture and herbal treatment at this point are designed to help in this expulsion process. Whereas many people think of strengthening their bodies when they begin to feel ill, Chinese medicine finds this to be a counterproductive strategy; hearty meals and strengthening herbs (like ginseng) interfere with the body's ability to open up and clear itself out. What's more, they can actually strengthen the pathogens, too, and thereby prolong illness even further. If clearing treatments don't occur or aren't successful, then the pathogenic germs will penetrate deeper into the body. Symptoms vary widely at this point, but can include muscle aches, and infections in the lungs, sinuses, ears, or tonsils. Alternatively, symptoms may slip into a less dramatic but more persistent state of chronicity, resulting in constant or recurrent bouts of intestinal trouble, fatigue, sinus pains, asthma, joint pain, etc. Because chronic ailments tend to become more severe and harder to treat over time, they are more damaging to long-term health than acute colds or flu. Prevention and appropriate treatment at the earliest stages of illness (or, preferably at the pre-illness stage of qi deficiency), can thus prevent a lifetime of chronic suffering.

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Studies Support Use of Acupuncture in Respiratory and Gastrointestinal Disorders

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