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  • Ellen Brown L.Ac. DACM

Your lungs in TCM – the master of Qi and custodian of grief

Updated: Sep 11, 2020

While the Lung’s most vital and obvious role is to take in oxygen, ancient Chinese sages understood that the Lung represents – and is responsible for – much more than respiration. More broadly, the Lung is charged with taking in the new and releasing the old – a constant cycle impacting every aspect of our being. Both physically and emotionally, the Lung (along with its Yang organ partner, the Large Intestine), is responsible for helping us “let go” of the things we no longer need – from metabolic waste products to “toxic” relationships and emotions. Healthy Lung energy underlies our ability to embrace new experiences, as well as release painful feelings that are harmful to our well-being. Ultimately, the Lung is associated with clear thinking, an openness to new ideas, healthy (physical as well as inter-personal) boundaries, order and renewal.

Importantly, Chinese medicine views the lungs as a network whose function spans both the body and mind, and assigns a much broader – and more profound – significance to the organ system than western medicine. To remind us of this difference, the “Chinese lung” we refer to here is singular and capitalized: the Lung.

The Lung is responsible for establishing a boundary between the inner and the outer world that both defends and defines each of us as people. Physically, vital materials are taken in across this boundary, while waste materials are excreted. In addition, the Lung (and Large Intestine), are both related to immunity, the body’s primary protective boundary. External pathogens find easy entry into the body through our respiratory and digestive systems; the Lung and Large Intestine are responsible for maintaining the integrity of both these systems and fending off penetrating invaders that cause illness or dis-ease. Additionally, the strength and vitality of the Lung is closely linked to the health of our skin. According to Chinese medical theory, the skin acts like an outer Lung, with the pores being seen as the “doors of Qi.” Indeed, our physical boundary to the world begins with our skin—the largest organ on our body—which helps us breathe and exchange substances with the outer environment.

Just below the skin, protective energy known as Wei Qi (Defensive Qi) circulates, forming a boundary that further guards the body against invasion from pathogenic forces. According to Chinese medicine, the body’s defensive energy is directly dependent on the strength of the Lung and Large Intestine. The health of the Lung determines if Wei Qi is sufficiently strong to protect the body from pathogenic invasion. Should Lung Qi be deficient, immunity will be weak and we will be prone to illness.

In addition to physically establishing the boundary between a person and their environment, the Lung also establishes our sense of personal boundaries on a psychological level. Clear emotional boundaries enable us to know who we are, as well as establish healthy relationships with others. When our emotional boundaries are strong, we are open to receiving “good” influences and close ourselves off to screen out “bad” influences. Ultimately, strong Lung energy enables healthy self-esteem and respect for both ourselves and others. Knowing who we are, believing in our self-worth and taking our place in the world are all part of the realm of the Lung.

Below are 12 truths regarding the Lung and the remarkable role it plays in our health, according to Chinese medicine:

The Lung is the master of Qi.  All bodily Qi has its physical origin in the Lung. Moreover, the Lung commands and maintains the unobstructed flow of Qi throughout the body. When Lung Qi is clear and well-ordered, then energy within the entire body will flow strong and smoothly. If, however, Lung Qi becomes obstructed or congested, then the Qi dynamics of the entire body will start to go against their natural flow, ascending instead of descending (Counter Flow Qi).

Abundant Lung energy engenders strong physical energy. When the Lung is healthy, immunity is strong, and recovery from illness is quick and robust. Body posture is another physical expression of the state of the Lung, so a strong upright posture also reflects healthy Lung energy. Alternately, if Lung health is weak, it will present as low energy, with a poor immune system, and a stooped posture.

The Lung is a “delicate” organ. Because the Lung opens to the external environment (via breathing), it is particularly vulnerable to attack by exogenous pathogens. While the Lung has an innate aversion to dryness, dampness, and wind, the Lung is especially susceptible to heat and cold, and will quickly become imbalanced if either of these “evils” attack. In the presence of such pernicious influences, the Lung easily loses its equilibrium such that the free flow of Qi becomes obstructed and stagnates.

Lung energy extends to our skin and body hair. The Lung is responsible for opening and closing the pores of the skin: opening them to sweat during exertion or hot weather, and closing them to protect us when external conditions such as wind-cold surround us. Lung health is also reflected in the appearance (luster) of the skin and hair, since they both receive their nourishment through the Lung’s disseminating actions. For example, dry skin may imply that Lung Qi and Yin are inadequate to nourish the skin surface. Likewise, the appearance of acne may be attributed to excessive (damp) heat in the Lung.

The Lung houses the Po spirit. Within the body, the Lung is the residence of the corporeal soul, or Po, the most dense and tangible aspect of the soul which dies with the body at death. The Po gives us awareness of the physical body, our own aliveness, and the physical rhythms of our body. In nature, the term Po represents the visceral life force that lies latent within the earth and the material world. Essentially, the Po represents the basic instincts we possess from birth – enabling us to see, hear, eat and cry. Since breathing is the most fundamental of all instincts, it is not surprising that the Lung provides residence to the Po spirits.

The Lung is in charge of orderly flow. The Lung is closely associated with the Heart, just as Qi is closely associated with Blood. This “administrative” aspect of the Lung reflects its controlling and harmonizing function in regard to the flow of Blood. As the Neijing reads: "The Lung opens the one hundred vessels." Concerning the intimate relationship between Qi and Blood, the classic further states: "Qi is the commander of Blood” – where Qi moves, Blood flows.” 

In addition to governing respiration, the Lung regulates water passages. The Lung directs the descending movement of Qi, which in turn, moves water downward, circulating body fluids and controlling the metabolism of water in the body. Thus, the Lung provides the rest of our body with fluids, even regulating urination. As the Neijing states: "The Lung is the upper source of water." A dysfunction in the Lung, or the loss of this crucial descending function, may result not only in symptoms such as cough and asthma, but also signs of water stagnation/retention including phlegm, urination and edema. 

The Lung connects with the Large Intestine below. According to Chinese medicine, all Yin organs (structural, essence storing) have a Yang counterpart (hollow, transmitting). The Large Intestine is the Yang partner to the Lung. Both organs are characterized by their excretory role, responsible for eliminating what is unnecessary or toxic from our bodies. Physically, the Lung takes in oxygen and eliminates carbon monoxide, while the Large Intestine absorbs water from undigested food and passes unused waste material from the body. The two organs are intimately related since it is Lung Qi’s descending power that enables the Large Intestine to transport and discard waste materials. Constipation is often due to a deficiency or stagnation of propelling power, or a fluid problem (dryness), related to the Lung. Importantly, this idea of “excretion” extends beyond the physical body. Think of the daily onslaught of “garbage” directed at our minds and Spirit – it is just as crucial that we eliminate mental and spiritual rubbish. Otherwise, our minds may become toxic and constipated, unable to experience the pure and beautiful that also surround us.

Autumn is Lung season. Fall is a transitional period between summer and winter, when nature is winding down and life is preparing for hibernation. It marks the end of the growing season – a time of turning inward and a decline in our outer-directed energy. Leaves change color, dry out, and fall to the ground where they decompose and make room for new growth in the spring. The Lung and Large Intestine both take their cues from the autumn season. Nature instructs us about our own cycles of creating and letting go: trees in autumn don't stubbornly hold onto their leaves because they might need them next year. Yet how many of us defy the cycle and hold onto what we have produced or collected – old decayed leaves, old negativity. We cannot hope for a bountiful harvest next year unless we are willing to let go of the old and start afresh. These striking metaphors of autumn provide powerful life lessons. The energy of this season, more than any other, supports our letting go of the waste – the old and stale in our lives – allowing us to be receptive to the pure and new. Autumn compels us to eliminate what we no longer need, while revealing what is most precious in our lives. As the season which defines the Lung, it teaches us to slow down, look inward, and reassess our intentions.

Metal is the element of the Lung. Ancient Chinese philosophers looked to the natural world and discovered that phenomena can be defined according to five energy types called the Five Elements: Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal and Water. The Lung is Metal, which embodies correct and fair behavior. Metal types are faithful and brave, with a strong sense of self-worth and integrity. Metal allows us to shine, be brilliant, and to inspire. When there is strong Metal/Lung energy, there is no room for disorder or conflict. Just as Metal is rigid and sometimes unbending, someone who is a Metal/Lung-type is likely to take comfort in rules, organization and rationality – they are methodical, exhibiting remarkable self-disciple and attention to detail. As with any of the five elements, an imbalance can cause certain archetypical personality traits to become more pronounced. When Metal becomes overbearing, a person may have difficulty with intimacy, spontaneity or expressing themselves. When Metal/Lung energetics become imbalanced, a polite manner might become aloof; an orderly nature might transform into the desire to control people; high standards can turn into self-righteousness and impossible perfectionism. People with a Metal/Lung imbalance may be driven to seek respect and recognition from the outside because they feel the lack of self-worth within – and compensate by seeking what they think will add to their esteem: status, money, power, conquest.

The Lung is the custodian of grief. All of us have experienced grief, sadness or loss at one time or another in our lives – it is a painful, unavoidable, yet necessary, process. This powerful emotion represents a transitional period of acceptance that one part of our life has forever changed or ended, and that things will never be the same. While all of our emotions have the potential to negatively affect our health when excessive, grief is one of the most difficult emotions to process.

According to Chinese medicine, grief and sadness directly affect the Lung (and Large Intestine). If you cry easily or have trouble processing grief and loss, you may have an imbalance in your Lung energy. Likewise, if you find yourself overwhelmed by these emotions, they will weaken and eventually compromise the Lung’s main function: respiration. Typically, this will manifest as having a hard time taking full breaths or feeling like something is sitting on your chest. Some people may experience a flare-up of asthma or allergies during particular sad periods of their lives.  Weakened Lung Qi can also lead to the pores opening, thereby making them susceptible to external conditions and catching colds easier.  

Grief cleanses us of what is no longer needed in our lives. When Metal/Lung energy is blocked or imbalanced, our expression of grief likewise becomes imbalanced and inappropriate. It may be excessive and ongoing, or in the other extreme, absent altogether. When we leave our emotions alone for too long and don’t take the time needed to find the answers we need, unresolved issues from our past can resurface and cause more sadness and insecurity.  Grief may become chronic and prevent us from living life to the fullest, damaging our present-day relationships. This can make it hard to form bonds with other people, and material possessions may replace intimacy.

The Lung relates to the idea of letting go. Emotionally and physically, the Lung (along with the Large Intestine), is responsible for helping us “let go” of whatever we don’t need – from life experiences to emotions, to actual metabolic waste. From a physical standpoint, when the body can’t let go, constipation often results (recall that the Lung relates to constipation via its descending energy vis-à-vis the Large Intestine). Similarly, if the mind can’t let go, we may feel stuck, unwilling to change. Or, we may simmer over past grievances, unable to move on. We may become frozen by our desire for perfection. Someone with a Lung imbalance might have trouble processing grief and loss, or have difficulty letting go of past suffering.

Nourishing the Lung with Chinese herbs

Because the Lung is so closely related to Qi — breath is the first energy to enter our bodies — Qi strengthening herbs (tonics) are often used to strengthen the Lung.

GINSENG ROOT. Ginseng is considered to be especially nourishing to the lungs, skin and stomach. Ginseng moistens and cools the lungs, making it particularly useful for those with a dry cough. American ginseng is recommended over Asian ginseng for this purpose, since American ginseng is considered a Yintonic that is cooling in nature. Alternately, Asian ginseng is a Yang tonic that tends to be hot in nature.

ASTRAGALUS. Astragalus is one of the most commonly used Chinese herbs for strengthening energy and tonifying the immune system. In Chinese medicine, astragalus helps build up immunity to protect us from external pathogens. Astragalus is most useful for those who frequently come down with a cold or the flu, have difficulty breathing (such as asthma), or have a sweat imbalance (too much or not enough).

CORDYCEPS. Traditionally, this medicinal mushroom is used to strengthen weak lungs in those who require intense breathing energy, such as athletes. It is also highly recommended for those who suffer from chronically deficient lungs, marked by coughing or wheezing due to shortness of breath. Importantly, it also has a natural ability to resist a wide range of pathogenic bacteria, fungi and viruses.

SCHISANDRA. Schisandra helps keep the lungs moist so it’s best for those with weak breath function, such as people with asthma and chronic wheezing.

Additional ways to nourish the Lung

In addition to Chinese herbs, other daily habits to strengthen your Lung include:

BREATHE DEEPLY. The Lung is nourished by breathing. The best way to support Lung health and amplify Lung energy is to take plenty of fresh air. This can be done through deep slow belly breathing, mindful awareness of the breath, and (aerobic) exercises that engage the Lung such as swimming, running and walking. A few minutes spent each day focusing on breathing with the diaphragm and relaxing the muscles of the chest and shoulders can be very effective at building the power of the Lung. Deep abdominal breathing also helps reset your nervous system (engaging the parasympathetic system) and restore a sense of calm. 

DRY BRUSH YOUR SKIN. Scrubbing the skin with a brush, or rubbing it with a good cotton towel, nourishes the skin’s health and help support our immune system. Wearing natural fibers also allows the skin to breathe freely and easily.

SUNBATHE. Moderate sunbathing nourishes the skin, which in turn, benefits the Lung. As with everything in TCM, balance matters, so avoid overexposure to the sun’s rays which may be damaging.

BUNDLE UP. Because the Lung is our most superficial organ, it is the first to be affected by harsh external weather or pathogens. Likewise, we are also exposed to the elements through our skin, so treat yourself to a new scarf and wrap up your neck to cover up the “wind gates.” 

GET OUTSIDE. Spending time outdoors, going for long walks or hikes, and inhaling fresh air all help to relax our body and rejuvenate our mind.

CLEAN YOUR SPACE. Take time to clean the physical world around you – cleaning up your home/office environment can literally give you a sense of fresh air.

RESPECT YOURSELF. Emotionally, the Lung is nourished by respect. Learning to appreciate yourself will attract respect from those around us. Deeply exploring what we value, and finding ways to express those values in the world, helps nourish Lung energy.

LET GO. Let go of unnecessary things and negative thoughts that are holding you back and give yourself room to breathe. This includes old books or clothes, as well as unfulfilling relationships and outdated ideas/perceptions that no longer serve you.

Abundant Lung energy manifests as strong physical vitality. Immunity is boosted, so resilience is strong and recovery from illness quick. The skin is glossy and the complexion is bright and fresh. The body’s posture is erect, expressing a clear sense of self-worth. Emotionally, someone with strong Lung energy exhibits a strong sense of their own personal boundaries and self-esteem. When our Lung Qi and vital energy are strong and steady, we are able to inhale energy that renews us – breathing in new vitality and ideas – while letting go of painful emotions, negative thoughts, and outdated prejudices that are toxic to our minds and Spirit. 

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