Spotlight on Five Element Theory for Optimal Immune FunctionJustin Ngui-Hon-Sang, R.TCMP, R.Ac. March 1, 2012
One of the major principles of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is called the Five Element Theory (FET), which goes back thousands of years and outlines the relationship between each of the organs with the entire body.
It explains that like the mechanism of a clock, each of the parts must be able to work on their own, but more importantly their relationship affects the overall design. If one is damaged, then the whole becomes weak, or in the case of the clock, it may function incorrectly and display inaccurate time. This is the same for the human body: each of its parts must be functioning properly on its own as well as together with other organs. If the body is healthy internally, then the body will be healthy externally. And if we are healthy externally, we can defend against disease, illness, and deterioration of the body.
Using the TCM approach to the immune system, we focus on five specific organs called the Zang Organs. These are the lungs, heart, liver, spleen and kidneys. Each of these organs has its own role to play in the whole (immune system) but each must also be self-sufficient.
The Lungs: The lungs are the body’s first line of defense against outside attacks such as viruses, wind, heat, cold and so on. According to the Five Element Theory, the lungs have an intimate relationship to the skin and therefore what you breathe in and what your skin absorbs (or withstands) can affect your body’s immune defense system. Conversely, if your lungs are very healthy, your protective Qi (vital energy) is in abundance, and it shows externally by strong muscles, soft and supple skin and firm tissues.
The Heart: The heart is said to “house the mind”, which means it governs all fuel supply to the mind via blood, Qi, and nutrients. It also monitors the functions of the body’s other organs: as each organ carries out its job, the heart will attempt an adjustment to remedy any malfunctions of other organs.
The Liver: The liver is said to “control the heart”, which means it has a large part in regulating what kind of Qi, blood and nutrients the heart can retain. It is also the main area from which emotions are derived. Therefore an imbalance in the liver can cause severe depression or anger.
The Spleen: The spleen is in charge of the supply of blood and nutrients given to all the organs. According to TCM, the transformation and transportation of blood and nutrients must be precisely controlled in order for balance of the organs to be achieved. If the spleen is functioning correctly this shows in maintained immune function.
The Kidney: The kidney organs are viewed as the “gate of life” and contain the human essence (in Chinese called “Jing”) passed down from birth. They are also the major control centers for the body’s Yin and Yang energies that regulate slow (or cold) and fast (or hot) moving energies throughout the body respectively. This, along with the kidney function governing the body’s constitution, makes this organ very important to the immune system.
The relationship that each of these organs has with one another and with respect to the whole, shapes the basic view of the immune system from the TCM perspective. The beauty of this approach is that it is not just limited to internal (inside the body) but external as well (how the body interacts with its environment). Two basic components to this are energies that you receive from your environment (in the form of food) and energies that you give to your environment (in the form of exercise).
THE ROLE OF DIET AND HERBS IN IMMUNE FUNCTION
Food provides a particular type of Qi to the body as fuel; it is not as “clean” as the Qi that is supplied to you from your biological parents contained in the kidneys. This Qi can aid the body in health and repair, or conversely it can be seen by the body as an invader and trigger the immune system’s defense mechanisms. If the body goes into defense mode, it will inevitably take vital energy from the whole to keep its defenses high. Having the immune system in a heightened state like this is not uncommon for most people; however, being in this state for a prolonged period of time can cause lethargy, weakness in the limbs, fatigue, irritability, and so on.
TCM recognizes that each person is born with particular deficiencies already in their system, so foods for healthy living can vary from person to person. Generally speaking it is recommended that in the spring and summer months you have meals that are lighter, and include fresh fruits and cooling foods such as watermelon, cucumber and pork. In the fall and winter months a general rule of thumb is to have heavier, warmer foods such as baked goods, stir fried vegetables and hearty soups. In addition to foods, some common herbs that can be taken throughout the year targeting immune system functioning, modulation and increasing vital energy are Astragalus (“huang qi”) and Cordyceps Sinensis (“dong chong xia cao”).
USE QI GONG FOR BOOSTING THE IMMUNE SYSTEM
Finally, TCM encourages that the body (and mind) must be constantly exercised. Qigong and Tai Chi are two well-known forms of physical (and mental) exercise that go beyond the realm of just moving your body. They involve connecting physical movements with thought, imagination, emotion, and vital energy. The power of these connections is so great that this alone has been seen to promote spectacular healing and immune function.
One posture in Ngui Style Qigong for helping the immune system is called Standing on the Lake. Like an antenna, once your body has the correct posture it can absorb energies from your environment (and the universe). Start in a standing position, with your feet firmly on the ground. Spread your legs one foot larger than shoulder-width and bend your knees slightly so that you can barely see your big toes. Your back should be straight as you imagine that you are being held up by a long silver thread running from your body’s center line and coming out of the top of your head. Your hands will be relaxed with palms facing you, at about the height of your heart. Your arms will be rounded, like you are holding a giant ball. Breathe slowly and look at the center of your palm, referred to as the Laogong. This center is a gate of energy for your body, and will connect your body and mind. Relax into the position and breathe slowly. With each exhale, you let go of any negative emotion, stagnant energy and feelings of frustration. Feel the center of the palms heat up with the Qi developing from the connection of your mind and body. Do this for 8 minutes a day to re-charge your body, boost the immune system and circulate the blood.