With the COVID pandemic, there’s a lot of concern about our lungs and their ability to fight off the viruses and remain healthy.
From a Western perspective, supporting our lungs seems limited to breathing exercises and hoping for the best.
But if we look to Chinese medicine there’s plenty of action we can take!
Let’s take a tour through Chinese medical physiology and discover ways to nourish our lungs so they’re balanced and healthy.
The lung is responsible not only for breathing in Chinese medicine, but also for creating a clear boundary between the outside world and our internal world, and regulating our immune health.
Our skin is a direct manifestation of the lung and is the outermost boundary of our physical body.
In the panicked and uncertain state of COVID-19, it makes sense that our once clear boundaries between our internal and external universes are a bit muddled.
This struggle can show up in our lung or skin health.
For example, dry skin can point to dryness in the lungs and that we need to hydrate.
Skin that’s broken out can tell us that our lungs are struggling to clear irritants and need to be cared for more.
In terms of our immune system, one of the main ways our lungs are connected with immunity is through wei qi (pronounced way chee).
Qi can be equated to life force, vitality, or energy, and there are many types of it in Chinese medicine.
Wei qi, or defensive qi, sits just below our skin and protects us from viruses, bacteria, or other harmful influences.
If our lung qi or vitality is weak, it can’t distribute our wei qi properly, leaving us vulnerable to pathogens.
Sidenote: Wei qi is made in the spleen, which is the major digestive organ of Chinese medicine. Maintaining a healthy diet is crucial to a strong immune system!
What are these pathogens I keep talking about?
They’re more than the bugs we think about in germ theory based Western science.
Chinese medicine includes what are called “climatic factors” as pathogenic influences on our body.
These consist of heat, cold, wind, and damp and they can disrupt our wei qi.
We can experience these influences in our environment, like a cold, blustery spring day, or pathogens like viruses and bacteria can create these patterns within us.
For example, COVID-19 has been reported as a cold damp pathogen.
If we think of how we might feel if we went on a long hike in the rain and cold without proper gear, that’s a pretty good analogy of what COVID-19 is like for the body.
Pathogens, or “evil qi” in Chinese medicine, make their way into our system through the superficial channels located on the back of the body, particularly at the base of the neck at an area known as the windgate.
It’s common to get a stiff, sore, or achy neck when you’re getting sick and that’s a sure sign your windgate has been compromised and your wei qi is struggling to defend you.
The more we can do to protect ourselves from these influences in our environment and keep our internal system balanced, the less susceptible we’ll be to infection and the faster we’ll be able to fight something off should we be exposed.
So how do we do that?
In Chinese medicine, all organs have mental, emotional, spiritual, and physical functions which can’t be separated or parsed out from one another. They are an integrated whole.
If we support one aspect of our lung health, the entire organ is able to function more efficiently and effectively.
Here are some pro-tips to increase lung health and immunity:
#1 Keep your neck, back, and head covered
A scarf is especially helpful on days when the weather is cold, damp, or windy. It covers the windgate at the base of your neck and keeps your superficial channels protected.
A coat and hat can also be a smart move to protect your upper back and head from the influence of those climatic factors, putting less stress on your defensive wei qi.
#2 Breathe deeply
Breath is vital to the health of your lungs, moving qi in and out.
Breathing deeply activates our parasympathetic, or rest and digest, nervous system that allows us to relax and heal.
Breathing fresh air invigorates the lungs, so take walks outside when you can and dress appropriately for the weather.
Find a breathing practice that you enjoy to fortify your lung health.
I love the simplicity of breathing in for a count of 4, holding for a count of 4, breathing out for a count of 4, and again holding for a count of 4.
Repeat the 4 count 3-5 times until you feel yourself relax.
Visualize breathing out your stress or any negativity.
Feel your body relax and consciously release areas of tension in your face, jaw, neck, abdomen, and pelvis as you breathe deeply.
#3 Make food choices that avoid inflammation and that support your lungs
Now is the time to avoid anything that you know doesn’t agree with you.
Cutting down refined sugar and alcohol will really help your spleen which produces your wei qi.
For your lungs, eating foods that are pungent in taste can be helpful.
Pungent foods, like ginger, onion, garlic, horseradish, cinnamon, and black pepper stimulate circulation of qi and blood, encouraging our lymphatic and immune systems to circulate and respond to invaders.
They are perfect for breaking up mucus or dispeling cold and damp if you’re feeling under the weather.
White is the color of the lung in Chinese medicine, and eating foods that are that color (with the exception of white flour, dairy, and refined sugar) can be helpful for maintaining lung health.
White flour, sugar, and dairy products all create damp in the body, which the spleen dislikes and leave the lung more vulnerable to damp pathogens.
This doesn’t mean you have to be 100% perfect with removing those foods, but being conscious of how much you are consuming them and how they make you feel is a great place to start.
Pears and apples are particularly supportive for your lungs. They are slightly moistening and nourishing.
Other helpful white foods include: cauliflower, radish, sunchoke, turnips, parsnips, almonds, daikon, apples, pears, rice, oats, sesame seeds, onion, garlic, white fish, white meat, and white peppercorns.
Check out my easy and delicious homemade pho broth for warming, pungent, moistening broth perfect for your lungs and spleen.
#4 Cry it out
Many organs in Chinese medicine have emotions associated with them, and the emotion of the lungs is grief.
Grief can show up as crying, overwhelm, exhaustion, anxiety, fear, denial, depression, and many other emotions.
It also manifests as a longing for things to return to “normal” or to a familiar state.
Deep grief right now with the loss of structure, routine, livelihood, and security is normal and natural.
If you’re experiencing these feelings, honor them.
The lungs are associated with the metal element in Chinese medicine, which values respect and honor above all else.
Let these feelings come to the surface so you can release them.
Watch a sad or funny movie.
Create something to help you process emotions.
See a therapist over Zoom.
Talk to an understanding friend.
If we don’t process our grief, it sits in our lungs, compromising their ability to function, heal, and protect us.
The lungs are paired with the large intestine in Chinese medicine and its emotional blueprint is about finding the balance between holding on and letting go.
Right now many of us feel caught between two worlds: pre-COVID and the present.
We’re struggling with the balance of holding on to our old lives and letting them go as we search for structure, facts, and normalcy in an uncertain time.
Instead of flippantly suggesting to ourselves or others to just “let it go” a better word to focus our intention around is surrender.
“Letting go” isn’t possible until we’ve appropriately processed our thoughts and feelings. Then letting go happens effortlessly.
“Letting go” implies that if we just follow certain rules and steps it will all work out.
That we’re in control.
But we are not in control.
Our minds can’t provide us with the answers we need to feel secure and certain.
Our best action is to release the expectation of figuring out what will happen and focus on what is.
It’s ok not to know and in fact right now it’s imperative that we not try to know what will happen.
We can’t control the future.
We can educate ourselves then surrender to the circumstances of current events.
Surrender isn’t about giving up, apathy, or disconnection.
And it definitely isn’t comfortable.
It’s about recognizing the reality of the massive universe of unknowns staring us in the face and accepting its presence.
Surrender allows us to acknowledge our discomfort so we can connect with it.
Acknowledging something -- calling it out in plain sight instead of expending precious energy trying to hide from yourself -- is often transformative.
When we connect with our emotions we realize we can only support, not control, the process of their resolution.
We become more equipped to navigate whatever pops up personally, professionally, or globally because we’ve stopped allowing the illusion of control to run our lives.
When we surrender to the present moment of mystery and uncertainty, we can await our next cue without expectation of what’s to come.
Because we simply don’t know and that’s ok.
There’s a lot you can do to support your lung health according to Chinese medicine and in the process you often find a clarity and peacefulness that help you adapt to other challenges in life.