The immune system is composed of specific cells, tissues, and organs that work together to protect the body from outside influences (invading organisms like viruses, bacteria or molds, toxins, chemicals, radiation or allergens).
It operates on many levels:
- Intact skin that creates a barrier from outside invaders
- Complex workings of the different types of white blood cells in destroying invasive organisms or substances.
The word immune is defined (in the modern medical sense) as “exempt” as from a disease.
It was first used this way in English in the 1800’s. The earliest word origin (from a very early Eastern Indian/European language) loosely means “not able to move against”. System is derived from the early Greek meaning “form in order”. Together they indicate an organized function by which the body fights pathogens in order to protect itself and maintain health.
If your immune system is functioning well, you will not become ill unless you are exposed to an extremely potent pathogen; one so dangerous it is unstoppable. This type of pathogen is fairly rare in developed countries like the United States. On the other hand, if your immune system is weakened, it is more likely that you will fall ill with lesser invaders, and more often.
The Immune system in Chinese Medicine is dependent on two main organ systems, the Lung and Spleen systems.
The Lungs open to the outside of the body. They are coated inside with a thin mucous lining that, when healthy, carries cells to destroy invaders as they enter the airways. The Chinese considered the skin as a part of the Lung system. Its job is to create a solid barrier to outside “evils”. By regulating the entering (or non-entering) of outside organisms; and the function of sweat glands to expel heat and other possible pathogens, Lungs are the first line of defense for the body. If the Lung system becomes weak it is unable to fight off invaders at the most outer level, letting them in and causing other organs to become involved in the fight, which is when we begin to feel sick.
The Spleen is another organ that helps out them immune system. In Western medicine it is part of the lymphatic system, which fights and destroys pathogens and transports them out of the body as part of the circulatory system. In Chinese medicine it is responsible for transforming fluids from dirty to clean, transporting them and moving the pure part of food into the blood (to the cells) and the unclean out of the body. If Spleen is weak, fluids accumulate and become murky resulting in phlegm and swelling. This ends up interfering with the Lungs’ ability to repel pathogens and leaves the inner tissues of the body in an unhealthy environment.
What can we do to protect/improve our immune system?
Both Lung and Spleen are dependent on healthy diet. Overly sweet or “sticky” foods cause phlegm-like fluids to accumulate by weighing down the actions of the Spleen, which spreads those bad fluids around, especially to the Lungs. When the Lungs are congested, it is difficult for them to push out the pathogens that enter as we breathe.
Cutting down or eliminating “dampening” foods like sugars, dairy, fried foods or processed and chemical filled foods will allow the Spleen system to remain unclogged.
Healthy, natural foods like fresh fish or meats, a variety of colorful and lightly cooked veggies and seasonal fruits, and carbs derived from root veggies, legumes and minimally processed grains provide the nutrients we need in a form that is efficiently handled by our digestive system.
Remember to stay hydrated and drink plenty of water. A good rule of thumb is half of your body weight in ounces daily. Other beverages like coffee, soda or juice can’t really be counted – but herbal teas are ok to count as “water”.
Decreasing stress can also benefit the immune system. Stress causes our brains to trigger the release of hormones into our blood stream. These hormones ready our body for a flight or fight emergency situation. One of the things they do is reduce the digestive and immune cells functions in order to provide energy to escape the danger we are in.
Chronic mental stress creates this same hormonal output but we never do the “run” to use them up and they continue to accumulate in our blood, suppressing other systems. Increased levels of these hormones (Cortisol being the one most commonly talked about lately) decrease our level of immune function, decrease white blood cells and NK – cancer killing cell production.
Daily meditation, exercise and socialization can help reduce the effects of stress on our systems.
Adequate sleep benefits the immune system. The National Sleep Foundation has conducted some interesting studies that indicate our body undergoes muscle repair, memory consolidation and the release of hormones that regulate growth and appetite at specific levels of sleep. In the deepest levels of sleep our body tissue receives the most restorative blood flow, and our tissues grow and are repaired. REM sleep provides energy to our brains and improvements to the immune system. It is all to easy to cut our sleep amounts because of busy life schedules and demands, but getting enough sleep to enter these important deep states has so many benefits to our overall health that it should become a priority.
Once your immune system starts to decline, it is important to start making some of the above lifestyle changes.
Some other things that help are regular self care like Acupuncture or massage. An Acupuncturist can help you define just where the system has become weak, design a treatment strategy to correct the weakness and give tips and info to help you rebuild your body’s natural ability to resist outside pathogens. Chinese Medicine regularly uses Acupuncture as well as herbal remedies, systems of low-impact and restorative exercise (Tai Chi and Qi Gong), and specific dietary regimens to benefit all of the organ systems. In this way, the medicine is an important resource for anyone looking to improve the function of their immune system and overall health.