Breathe, baby breathe.
As I write this Boise and much of the Northwest is weighted down under heavy smoke from wildfires. I have been cautioning clients, friends and family to be wary of going outside. I am also concerned about protecting the Lungs of those who already have respiratory issues, weak immune systems, allergies, asthma and chronic illness. Ideally, this 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 centimeters 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. Muscles diaphragm, intercostals, accessory muscles include, shoulder, neck and abdominal. The reflex for breathing is triggered by a build up of CO2 , not oxygen. 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 of your Lungs and regularity of breath to help regulate and stabilize the breath. Pausing and taking 5 deep breaths will illustrate this point. More severe patterns of stagnation can appear as hard masses or fibroids. Let’s look at D & D a little more.
Control 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’. Because they are the uppermost organ in the body–they must descend. The Lungs must descend to communicate with the Kidneys.
The Lung is the top organ and the Kidney is the bottom organ, yet both have a strong influence over water. If the Lungs do not descend to the Kidneys. There will be disharmony: 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. Remember we call the upper burner a mist. This function moistens the skin. If there is a disharmony: in excess, pores may be blocked and there is no sweating (this we see in wind-cold, prevalence) If there is deficiency, (Yang def) the pores are overly relaxed or slack and the fluids will flood out.
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: headache, stuffy nose, sneezing, congestion, etc.
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 cirucluation 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
Grief, loss and longing all dissolve or drain the Qi of the Lungs.–Sigh.
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
- 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!