What is the Role of the Lungs in TCM?
What is an Organ System (Zang Fu)?
To best understand the Lung system, let’s break down the basics of what organ systems really are. In TCM, each of the five sets of organ systems consist of two parts, zang and fu. This is why in Chinese they’re referred to simply as zang fu. You might have heard about the concept of yin and yang. These two energies are equal in strength, but opposite in their qualities, making them a balancing force in the world.
The organ systems also abide by the laws of yin and yang. In the zang fu systems, a zang organ has yin energy, while the fu organ has yang energy. It’s important that both organs within a system maintain equal balances of yin and yang. If this harmony is disrupted, negative symptoms and disease can arise. In total there are 10 primary organs that make up the zang fu systems. They include; Spleen and Stomach, Lung and Large intestine, Kidney and Bladder, Liver and Gall bladder, and Heart and Small intestine.
These organs were selected based on their production of important bodily substances, as well as their strong connections with the other parts of the body. Each pair is also linked to qualities that help TCM practitioners understand how the organs will react to various scenarios, and ultimately provide specific diagnoses. One of the qualities used to describe the zang fu are the elements of earth, metal, water, wood, and fire.
Each organ system is in charge of specific functions and connections. While some may cross over or partner with additional organs, they tend to focus in on the most vital jobs. Below, learn more about the role of the Lung, symptoms of imbalance in this system, and ways to keep your Lung healthy.
The Role of the Lung System in TCM
The two most important jobs of the Lung in TCM are keeping the immune system strong and alert against the threat of pathogens, and the circulation of qi, or energy. Qi is one of the most important substances of the body in TCM. As the innate energy that flows through all things, qi also flows within our bodies, through channels called meridians.
One of the highest placed organs in the body, Lung qi flows downward to the rest of the organ systems. The descent of qi also initiates water and other fluids to travel as well, regulating organ hydration and even the urinary tract. When there’s an issue with the descending nature of qi, issues like colds, coughs, congestion, asthma, phlegm, or urinary problems may occur.
It’s important to note that the Lung includes all parts of the respiratory system; the lungs, nose, mouth, throat, and sinuses. Often these orifices, along with elements of the digestive system, tend to be the key areas through which pathogens and illness invade the body. For this reason, in TCM it’s believed that the Lung is one of the protectors of the immune system. The power and balance of both the respiratory and digestive systems is said to directly determine the quality of the body’s ability to fight disease.
It comes as no surprise that the season connected with the Lung system is autumn. As the cool winds move in, it often marks the beginning of cold and flu season, meaning that the Lung will have to step up its game in defense. It’s also believed that the emotions of sadness and grief are attached to the Lung and it’s partner the Large Intestine. Easily triggered or long bouts of these emotions are said to be due to an imbalance in Lung qi.
Lung Qi Deficiency
As the organ system centered around the flow of qi, a deficiency in this essence can cause significant disruptions within the human body. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, the term qi deficiency is used to describe any organ or area of the body that is not getting the typical amount of qi. This is often due to a blockage or imbalance. When experiencing a Lung qi deficiency there are many potential symptoms that can arise.
Some of the primary symptoms of a Lung qi deficiency include:
- Pale face
- Shortness of breath
- Low, gravelly voice
- Avoidance of cold temperatures
- Asthma flare ups
- Spontaneous sweating
Due to the strong connection between the Lung and the skin, or outer self, many people suffering from a Lung qi deficiency might find they repeatedly suffer from or experience longer-lasting colds. It’s believed they might also feel paranoia or claustrophobia when surrounded by large groups of people. Other symptoms can include fatigue, watery phlegm, lack of interest in talking, and a weak pulse. The tongue might appear very pale with a light white coating.
What is Protective Qi (Wei Qi)?
In Traditional Chinese Medicine, it is believed that we all have an outer, invisible bubble of energy called wei qi, or protective qi. This type of qi acts as a sort of shield, guarding the body against external pathogens and threats. These threats can include things like disease, strong emotions from others, and weather. All of these threats are usually unable to be seen, but can cause serious distress and imbalance within us.
It’s believed that the protective qi exists in the outer layers of the body, the muscles and skin. Known to move quite quickly, it is able to move within and outside of the meridian channels. During the daylight hours, it acts as the driving force for protection. Wei qi opens and closes the pores, and fends off threats on the outside of the body. It’s believed that during the night, this protective qi moves inward and flows through the internal yin organs for support.
Other Important Functions of the Lung System
Beyond the primary tasks of circulating qi and acting as defense against pathogens, the Lung is involved in several other processes. In TCM, it’s believed that there is a strong connection between the Lung and the Heart system, the skin, body hair, and throat.
Connection Between the Large Intestine and the Lung
As mentioned above, the Lung system consists of two primary organs, the Lung and the Large Intestine. While seemingly an unlikely pair, the lower side of the Lung channel actually connects with the Large Intestine. Within each organ pair is the representation of both yin and yang. In this case, the Lung is a yin organ and the Large Intestine is yang.
As the commander of the qi circulation, the Lung provides the energetic power that directs the Large Intestine to remove waste from the body. If there’s an imbalance with the Lung and its functions are limited, the Large Intestine might not receive enough qi to work normally, resulting in digestive blockage like constipation.
The partnership between the Lung and Large Intestine is also evident in their emotional influence. When both are working in tandem and at full health, they can assist with the process of letting go of sadness, fear, and grief. In the same fashion as releasing physical toxins from the body, the Lung can help circulate the movement, or process, and the Large Intestine facilitates the release.
The Connection Between the Heart and Lung Systems
Qi and blood are two of the most important substances in the body, according to Traditional Chinese Medicine. As the rulers of the blood and qi respectively, the Heart and Lung systems also have a strong connection. Even further, it’s believed that qi controls the movement of blood. When there’s an issue with the flow of qi, there will likely be a subsequent stagnation in the blood. Therefore, these two organs rely on one another to remain healthy. The Lung works to control and balance the blood flow to match the flow of qi.
Skin, Body Hair, and the Lung
In addition to controlling the flow of qi, the Lung also monitors the travels of protective qi, bodily fluids, and nourishment from food. Included in the disbursement of these substances are stops at the muscles, skin’s surface, body hair, and skin. The pores in the skin are considered gates for qi to flow through the body. It’s believed that they open and close as if they are breathing.
When there’s an issue with the Lung’s qi, these areas can experience a lack of nourishment and weakened qi. This means that the pores don’t have their normal powers of opening and closing to keep out pathogens. Results can include brittle body hair, and an excess or lack of sweating. The level of oils, moisture, and skin blemishes might also noticeably shift when there’s an issue with the Lung system.
The Throat and the Lung
Did you know that your ability to breathe and smell through your nose is completely determined based on the health of the Lung? As the extended regions of the Lung, the throat, nose, and mouth are the pathways for oxygen and carbon dioxide. They are also potential entry points for pathogens. This is why so many symptoms of colds and flus include nasal and throat issues like congestion, loss of smell, sore throats, and coughing. The sound of the voice can also be affected, resulting in an altered tonal quality, raspy sound, or temporary loss.
How to Keep Your Lungs Healthy
Naturally, we all would like to avoid those unpleasant symptoms that come with imbalances in the Lung system. While there’s no guarantee, the following tips and tricks can help you stay well and protect the harmony of the Lung and Large Intestine.
Keep Your Chest and Neck Warm
Particularly in the autumn and winter months, it’s important to keep the chest and neck warm. As gatekeepers to the body, the nose and mouth can introduce pathogens. These pathogens are only strengthened by the influence of cold. When you’re not properly dressed for the cold, the body sends signals to the Lung system, putting it on red alert. This in turn drains the energy of the Lung. Be sure to cover as much exposed skin as you can; bundle up with coats, scarves, gloves, and hats.
Let Go of the Past
As mentioned above, it’s believed that feelings of sadness and grief are connected to the Lung. When these emotions become prolonged or overwhelming, it can create an imbalance in the Lung’s qi. These emotions don’t always have to stem from major emotional trauma either. If you find you’ve been living in the past, stuck in old habits, and need more space in your life, those lingering feelings can be affecting your Lung.
Easy ways to keep your Lung’s emotional energy clear include talking with a therapist, donating old clothing you no longer wear, and clearing out clutter from your home. You can also try actively cutting out toxic relationships, writing out your thoughts each morning or evening, or trying a new hobby. It’s time to throw out the old and negative and invite in the new and positive. Your Lung will thank you.
Eat Spicy Foods
In Traditional Chinese Medicine it is believed that foods that are spicy or white in color are the best choices for Lung health. Some of these foods can include; cauliflower, potatoes, sauerkraut, kimchi, turnips, parsnips, rice, oats, sesame seeds, kombucha, onion, garlic, and white peppercorns. Fruits and lighter options are still on the table too including items like almonds, daikon, apples, and pears.
In general, it’s suggested to eat foods that are warm and slow-cooked over several hours like stews, soups, porridge, and rice bowls. These types of foods are said to help support the body’s yin, and lighten the amount of work the digestive system needs to do. Drinks should also be kept at room temperature. Avoid adding ice or having frozen beverages when attempting to strengthen the Lung.
Herbs for Lung Health
If you pay a visit to a TCM practitioner, they will likely prescribe you a custom herbal mix to treat your specific Lung-related concerns. However, there are several herbs that are often used to support Lung health. These include:
- Astragalus (Huangqi)
- Ginseng (Renshen)
- Atractylodes (Baizhu)
- Dioscorea (Shanyao)
- Schizandra (Wuweizi)
- Jujube (Dazao)
- Licorice (Gancao)
- Siler (Fangfeng)
The easiest way to get the benefits of these medicinal herbs from home is by brewing a tea. If you don’t buy the tea packets already prepared, you can take most herb and grind them down. Then add to boiling water to brew tea. Strain and serve. Sipping on these teas can act as a supplementary preventative for Lung health.