TCM Series #3: Keep Breathing!
Life, as we know it, begins and ends with the breath. Anyone who has ever found themselves afraid of drowning because they have swum too far from shore will know very well just how true this is. Anyone who practices meditation eventually notices that it is the body’s continuous breathing, independent of any willful action, which means that we are still alive, here in this physical body. And as the health of the physical body is – at least primarily – the reason for the practice of medicine, it is appropriate that the Lungs are the organ where a discussion of the organs in Chinese medical theory usually begins.
Returning to our discussion of Yin and Yang, there are very few places where we can see a perfect balance of Yin and Yang illustrated more clearly than in the breath. The air, and the Qi which the air contains, must consistently be both drawn into the body and released outward in equal amounts. Any imbalance here will obviously become a problem very quickly. Asthma is often a clear illustration of a severe Yin/Yang imbalance: Commonly, during an asthma attack, the individual is quite capable of drawing enough air in, but unable to fully exhale the air back out, and therefore the lungs can never fully relax and remain tense, almost like a stretched, inflated balloon.
The importance of a proper Yin/Yang balance within the Lungs can also be seen quite clearly in the way the Lungs’ health is so easily affected by temperature variations. When the body is too hot, as in the case of illness with a fever such as the flu, lung function is almost always compromised. Sometimes you can even feel a “burning” sensation with each cough. Or consider the example of asthma above: In this case, there is most likely a deficiency of the “Lung Yang,” which is why it is common for many asthmatics to have asthma attacks triggered by exposure to very cold air. Also worth considering: While they are not synonymous, “Yang deficiency” is definitely a close cousin of “Yin excess.” Asthma often also involves an accumulation of phlegm – a very Yin substance – in the Lungs. Not surprisingly, strengthening the Lung Yang will help to get rid of this accumulated, excessive Yin!
In Chinese medical theory, the primary roles of the Lungs are to take in Qi from the environment (we also do this through our digestive organs), and to disperse the Qi throughout the body. They also assist the Heart in the circulation of the blood. Any pattern of disharmony in the body that involves either an apparent shortage of energy or stamina, or a sluggishness of the circulation, may be a reason to suspect a Lung problem as part of the cause. In addition, the Lungs are the organ which controls and regulates the “Wei Qi”: a specific form of Qi which is responsible for fighting off illness and infections. For simplicity, it can be thought of as the Chinese equivalent of the immune system, although they are not exactly synonymous.
All organs have varying degrees of vulnerability to particular pathogenic influences. Being the organ that has the most direct contact with the environment outside of the body, the Lungs are often the first organ affected by environmental factors. They are particularly sensitive to exposure to severe cold and wind, which can quickly interfere with their proper functioning. Conversely, because heat rises, the Lungs can also be susceptible, over time, to problems caused by too much heat in the abdominal organs. And what the Chinese call “pathogenic wind-heat” and “pathogenic wind-cold” can also easily invade the Lungs via contagious viral or bacterial infections.
From an emotional standpoint, the Lungs are profoundly affected by severe sadness, and especially by grief. This can be observed in the shallow breathing and quietness that comes over an extremely sad or grieving individual, or conversely, by the intense crying or even wailing that may accompany grief when it is most acute. (The Lungs are, of course, the main organ behind the power and volume of the voice.) Grief is sometimes even described as a “suffocating” feeling. Unrelenting feelings of sadness or unresolved grief can lead to chronic Lung health problems over time, or unresolved feelings of this sort in childhood may predispose one to Lung problems in adulthood. More often, though, they are observed to cause temporary flare-ups of problems, such as the asthmatic person who may have a more difficult year than usual after the loss of a close loved one.
In terms of self-care and maintenance of healthy Lungs, one can begin to see what the Lungs prefer by considering the opposites of the factors described above. Avoidance of exposure to severe weather and temperature changes, and particularly when there is wind involved, is a good way to protect your Lungs. The back of the neck and just below it in particular should be protected in severe or windy weather, as this area contains what Chinese Medicine literally refers to as the “Wind Gate,” where pathogenic factors are said to frequently enter the body. While it is difficult to avoid grief and sadness, as they are at times necessary parts of life, one can still be aware that if such states are allowed to persist for an unusually long and inappropriate length of time, the Lungs may start to suffer as a result. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why regular aerobic exercise, and even “remembering to breathe” are known to be effective tools in the treatment of depression.
In the Five Element System, which I will discuss in more detail later, the Lungs correspond to the Metal Element. The other Elements are Water, Wood, Fire, and Earth. Each Element has two organs which specifically correspond to it, one considered a Yin organ, and one considered a Yang organ. Yin organs are those which produce, store and/or “govern” what are known as the vital substances (Qi, Blood, Body Fluids, and “Essence”). The Lungs are said to govern Qi, and play a major role in the production of Qi that is usable by our bodies. Yang organs process these vital substances and move them along, but they do not produce or store them. In the case of Metal, the associated Yin organ is the Lungs, and the Yang organ is the Large Intestine. We’ll discuss the Large Intestine next.