Breathe, baby breathe.
When I first wrote this blog, Boise and much of the Northwest was weighted down under heavy smoke from wildfires. It is like that now. However, this year we have also have the highly contagious coronavirus that causes Covid-19 that is affecting millions.
I have been cautioning clients, friends and family to be wary of going outside during the heavy smoke. I am also concerned about protecting the Lungs of those who already have respiratory issues, weak immune systems, allergies, asthma and chronic illness. Ideally, summer is the time of year is when I want to be actively building The Lungs before the fall and winter seasons – right now, my focus is having to switch to protecting, clearing and just holding a line in some instances. Perhaps this blog is accurately timed. We shall see.
Our Lungs are considered the delicate organs in Asian (Chinese) medicine. The most external of the Yin organs, they have the most immediate contact with the outside environment. No where else in the body is there such easy access by pollutants and microscopic organism as there is in the air and blood interface of the Lungs. They are our first line of defense, literally.
The Lungs’ major functions in Western medicine – a quick look.
The Lungs are two cone shaped organ, housed neatly in the protective cage formed by the ribs. The top apex of each lung reaches behind the first rib level of the clavicle, with the base resting on the diaphragm. They utilize the space from the spine at the back to the sternum at the front. The curved diaphragm muscle spans the base of this bee-hive shaped cage. The lungs are separated by the heart, blood vessels and the esophagus.
The left lung consists of two lobes and is slightly smaller than the right, which has three lobes. Each lung is surrounded by pleura (a 2 layer membrane). Air enters the body through the nose and mouth to reach the back of the throat-pharynx-before passing through the voice box-larynx- to reach the windpipe-trachea. The trachea is about 12 centimetres long. It is kept open by C-shaped cartilages which when the trachea divides, continue into the main bronchi to the lungs. The two main bronchi subdivide to bronchioles to alveolar sacs, which resemble bunches of grapes, containing individual alveoli. A rich network of capillaries surrounds each alveolus, and it is at this point in the tract that the exchange of gases takes place.
The respiratory tract functions to bring atmospheric air to a place where it can readily be absorbed by the blood and supply the cells of the body with oxygen. It then exhausts undesired gases (carbon dioxide) that is created from cellular functions to the exterior, thereby helping to maintain the appropriate pH level in our blood.
Even from a western perspective, the Lungs have a good defensive system to protect them. Air enters the nose or mouth and moves to the throat- to the adenoids and the tonsils which filter the air against infectious disease. The voice box (larynx) and the windpipe (trachea) also filter air borne particles and large objects like food. The air then moves into the branching system (bronchial tubes) and bronchii in the lungs where it is either warmed or cooled to body temperature. Here more impurities are trapped in mucus and pushed by cilia into the throat where it is coughed, sneezed, spat out or swallowed. Hack…. Mucus also moistens dry air so that the lungs don’t dry out and the oxygen can go into solution before being absorbed by the body.
Lungs occupy most of the thoracic cavity. The reflex for breathing is triggered by a build up of CO2 , not oxygen. With each breath the including the muscles of the diaphragm, intercostals, accessory muscles in the shoulder, neck and abdominal should all be activated. Take a nice deep breath. Respiration (resting) in a healthy adult is about 12 times a minute, twice that for babies. During normal breathing the diaphragm does most of the work. It contracts, becoming flatter, and the rib cage expands. This increases the volume of the thorax and air is drawn down the tracheas into the lungs (inspiration). Expiration takes place passively by the natural elasticity of the lung tissue and should be and effortless movement. The Lungs also helps develop sound, refining that sound into intelligible vocalization.
The Lungs’ functions and sphere of influence in Asian medicine
The Lungs govern Qi and respiration
The Lungs are the organs responsible for moving Qi, Blood and fluids in the body. Their actions of descending (activated on inhalation) and dispersing (activated with exhalation) move Qi, Blood and Fluids throughout the body. When Qi, Blood or fluids fail to move they will may stagnate in one area and/or become deficient in another which can lead to a myriad of problems. We might see mood swings, digestive difficulties, GERD, acid reflux, headaches, migraines, cold hands and feet and problems with bile secretion, urinary complaints, constipation or diarrhea, and – here’s a big one – irregular Heart rate. Though the Heart (The Emperor) is responsible for physically pumping the Blood, it relies the Lungs and regularity of breath to help regulate and stabilize the heart beat. Pausing and taking 5 deep breaths will illustrate this point.
Controls the direction of Qi and Fluids by Descending and Dispersing
Lungs control dispersing and descending by influencing the flow of Qi, Air, blood and vital fluids down through the body.
Because the lungs are the uppermost organ in the body, Chinese medical texts often referred to them as the ‘lid’, or ‘imperial carriage roof’. Therefor, the Lungs must descend to communicate with the rest of the body’s organs, especially the Kidneys.
The Lung are the top organs and the Kidney are the bottom organs, yet both have a strong influence over water. If the Lungs do not descend water to the Kidneys patterns of disharmony will arise including urinary problems, swelling in the upper body, asthma, stiffness in the chest, cough and wheezing.
The Lungs disperse or spread Wei Qi (your immune system) and body fluids over the entire body to the spaces between the skin and muscles. Activated on exhalation, this is one way in which the Lungs are related to the skin. This function warms the body and protects it from exterior pathogens. With each exhalation, the Lungs spread a fine ‘mist’ over the body that moistens the skin. In disharmony the pores may be blocked and there is no sweating or the pores may become overly relaxed and there will be profuse perspiration.
If the Wei Qi is deficient the person seems to always be fighting a pathogen. The Wei Qi can not reach the rest of the body and the person is easily invaded. If a person contracts a cold, most of the signs and symptoms appear as a dispersing dysfunction including headache, stuffy nose, sneezing, and congestion.
They pull in clean Qi of Air and get rid of dirty Qi (Co2).
The lungs help create nutrient Qi with Spleen by combining the Qi of air (Ta Qi) with the Qi of grain (Ku Qi) to create Zhong Qi or Gathering Qi which the Lungs then distribute over the entire body. Because this process takes place in the chest we call the chest the Sea of Qi. Lungs are said to dominate the Qi of the entire body.
Control the Channels and The Blood Vessels
The Lungs govern the Qi. Qi is essential in assisting the Heart (The Emperor) to circulate the Blood. The Heart controls the blood vessels, yet the Lungs have and important role by controlling circulation within the blood vessels themselves as well as in the channels.
Controls aspiration and houses the “Po”
Each organ holds a specific role in our ability to plan, create and act in our lives at an energetic level. The Metal element’s is the Po, which is the most physical of the spirits. It protects the body, helps us feel sensations and then dies and returns to the earth upon the death of the body. My daughter calls it the “spidy senses” – there’s something behind me, isn’t there? Animals possess Po, though they do not possess some of the other spirits.
Opens to the nose and rules the throat
The nose is the “gateway to the Lungs and the throat is the doorway to the Lungs.” Therefore any problems of the nose, sinuses or throat are treated through the Lung Channel and system. If you have strong Lung Qi your sense of smell will be acute, words will be audible and the voice will be strong. If weak there may be invasion in the nose or throat, there might be loss of smell. If the Lungs are weak the voice will be low and mouse-like, or if obstructed by phlegm the voice will be muffled.
Rules the skin and the cutaneous regions
We look to the Lungs for pathologies of the skin. The dispersing function should move Qi, Blood and Fluids to the distal portions and exterior of the body to moisten and nourish the skin. It is also the strength of the Lungs that properly opens and closes the pores. So watch for Lung Qi deficiency in many cases of spontaneous sweating.
Lungs’ emotion is grief
This year is already difficult for many with grief, loss and sadness. Our lives have shifted dramatically due to Covid-19, and I expect Autumn will be even more hard as the emotion of Autumn is grief and sadness.
Grief, sadness, loss and longing are the emotions that correspond to the Lungs and Colon. Like all emotions, they are not ‘bad’. What we look at is context and the relationship to the emotion the person. If someone has recently lost a loved one, they should grieve. For how long and how deeply is a personal thing, but we become concerned if the person becomes so lost in any emotion that if keeps them from moving forward in their life. I worked with a woman years ago who was deeply lost in grief – even dressed entirely in white of the Metal element. It appeared as if she had just lost her husband when in fact she had lost him nearly 15 years earlier. Her Metal pathology had literally frozen in her place. With treatment, she was able to soften, let go and find hope.
As Summer let’s go and we move to Autumn I always start seeing an increase in subtle depression and sadness issues in friends and clients. “The sun is going away, Summer is gone.” It’s not a bad thing in particular. It is the energy of the season – sadness, grief, loss, and sentimentality. The trees and plants are dying back. We live in a culture that values joy above the other emotions and finding the virtue in the other seasons and emotions isn’t something we embrace as a culture. In some cases, the client’s emotional congestion around the season can be severe, in others a simple shifting of habits to help embrace the season, foods and tonic herbs to bolster the Metal element are enough to transition into appreciating the blessings that the season provides. Though there are some broad recommendations that may be helpful for all, the best results come from guided personalized help and focus. It’s about getting to ‘know yourself.’
The Lungs loath dryness
Remember the Lungs are delicate organs. The Lungs, nose (sinuses) and throat all require the right amount and quality of mucus to protect their tender tissue. The moisture arises from the Kidneys who send pure fluid up to mist the Lungs. Chronic dehydration, living in too dry a climate, using medicines (like antihistamines) call all damage Lung Yin. I like to use the analogy of gravy when explaining Lung phlegm patterns. You need proper moisture, thin, clear, not too much, just enough to protect the delicate linings. If it becomes too thick, sticky or hot, we have to actually use more fluids to thin it out, maybe clear heat or warm cold too, to regulate the fluids. This is where allergy medicines can run us into havoc as they just dry up the membranes. In an attempt to moisten the Lungs may produce more heavy, dense phlegm.
Lungs’ flavor is Pungent
The pungent family, ranging from cool pungents like mint to hot pungents like garlic, help to regulate the mucus and open and ventilate the Lungs. However, use with caution, if you are hot and dry, use the cool pungents if you are cold and damp head for the warmer ones. Read more here.
Lungs’ season is Autumn and corresponds to the Metal Element
Autumn is the season of natural decline and decay. Many people feel its corresponding emotions of grief, loss and longing pointedly especially as so many people are don’t like letting go of Summer. Yet, the season provides numerous virtues can be explored and embraced. It’s a great time to do some clearing and letting go. Perhaps a light fast or cleanse may be in order.
Common Patterns of Lung Disharmony
Just a quick overview.
- Lung Qi deficiency – You are a little breathless, run a little cold, tire easily, may catch colds easily may have a slight cough
- Lung Wei Qi deficiency – You catch colds and flus easily, coughs, asthma. You are vulnerable to exterior invasions.
- Wind Cold Attack on the Lungs – You’ve got a cold, chills, profuse urine, slight or no fever
- Wind Heat Attack on the Lungs – You’ve got a cold with fever, thirst, scant dark urine
- Lung Yin deficiency – Dryness, thirst, scanty urine, deficiency of fluids, dry skin, tidal fevers or hot flashes
- Phlegm Damp Obstructing the Lungs – Cough with thick, sticky phlegm. The phlegm will be yellow if there is heat, green if there is infection. Get it?
A few simple steps to protecting and strengthening your Lungs
- Learn breathing techniques like Qigong, Yoga and meditation that teach you how to recognize and control your breath.
- Get aerobic activity that is appropriate for your health. If you had bronchial issues for 6 months, you should not start off with a marathon.
- If the air quality is poor, stay indoors.
- If you have chronic Lung Qi patterns, get in for treatments like Amma therapy to learn how to work with what you have.
- Clear phlegm. If you have a lot of congestion and excess mucus, work with your diet to drain out the phlegm. Avoid dairy, sweets, refined, greasy and fried foods and add in some pungents and squash.
Here’s to protecting your Lungs!