The immune system is an intricate and delicate system that involves many complex biological structures and processes that protect the body against pathogens. It is directly associated with the digestive system, and gut health plays an important role in immune health. Additionally, the immune system is inextricably intertwined with the nervous and endocrine systems, as many of their processes involve a perfect balance of hormones, enzymes, and neurotransmitters that communicate with one another. From a Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) perspective, immunity is also quite complex. It involves the Spleen, the Liver, and the Lung (viewed as energetic systems, rather than the Western organs). The TCM view of immunity focuses on prevention of illness, rather than treating an illness after it has already occurred. In this series of posts, I will show you easy, simple ways to boost your immunity which will help prevent illness in the future. Let’s start with stress.
Stress wreaks havoc on most systems of the body, including the immune system. Stress hormones (namely, cortisol and epinephrine/adrenaline) that are activated immediately and dissolve quickly in animals (for example, an antelope being chased by a lion) do not seem to diminish quite as rapidly in humans. In fact, when we experience a stressful event we tend to mull it over repeatedly, dream about it, and relive it endlessly. This creates a perpetual state of stress hormone production in the body, which suppresses immune function. There is so much research being conducted on the link between stress and immune function that an entire field of medicine is now dedicated to it: it is called psychoneuroimmunology. A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine showed a higher rate of infection of the common cold in individuals with higher stress levels. Additional studies show that people who meditate have healthier/stronger immune function. This strong link between mind and body has always existed in Chinese medicine.
TCM view of stress and the emotional effects on physical health:
Spleen- The Spleen is one of the most crucial organs in the body and is responsible for transporting and transforming food essences into the Qi and blood for the entire body. Highly affected by food and drink, it is also susceptible to damage by chronic overthinking. When the Spleen does not function properly, dampness can accumulate in the body (this can be compared to Candida overgrowth, edema, or excessive mucous). The Spleen is a central organ of the digestive system, which when depleted, like in Western medicine, can lead to immune suppression. The Spleen is also where Wei Qi is formed, which is the Qi that is responsible for protecting the body against external pathogenic invasion.
Liver- The Liver is responsible for controlling the smooth and even flow of Qi throughout the body. Chinese medicine views emotional stress as highly damaging to the Liver because emotions can congest Qi, a condition known as Liver Qi stagnation.
Lung- The Lung is seen as the organ responsible for grief: it can become damaged in times of excessive sadness, worry, or grief. The Lung is also the first organ to act as a barrier against pathogenic invasion.
Of these organs, the Liver and Spleen are the most readily affected by stress. However, in TCM all of the body’s organs, fluids, and the mind are interdependent. Therefore where one is affected, all systems will be affected.
To reduce stress, try practicing any of the following tips:
- Relaxation and deep breathing techniques: A deep, steady breath has been shown to immediately engage the parasympathetic (rest and relax) nervous system. This can be extremely useful while driving in traffic or during a meeting, when stress levels can build.
- Chamomile tea: Soothes the nervous system, especially helpful in the evening during the few hours before sleep.
- A glass of red wine: Not only does it contain antioxidants and promotes production of HDL (the good cholesterol), but the skins of the grapes contain varying levels of melatonin, the hormone responsible for sleepiness.
- An evening bath: wind down your evening with a warm bath. Add some Epsom salt to soothe tight muscles and some essential oils like lavender for extra stress reduction.
- Meditation: meditation is a powerful tool in combatting stress and learning a simple technique and using it first thing in the morning or just before bed.
- A walk: just a short walk can get blood moving and take your mind off your troubles.
- Open a book: reading a book can take your mind off of stressful situations and keep you entertained. Try something light and funny.
- Cut caffeine: if you are a regular drinker of sodas and coffee, try cutting them out (or down) as caffeine is a stress contributor.
- Get a massage and/or acupuncture regularly: These techniques are notorious for calming the nervous system and providing relief from anxiety, nervousness, and physical and emotional stress.
These are just a few of the many simple ways you can take your health into your own hands and lower your stress levels. Try different options, and discover which of the tools work best for you, and use them each day to combat stress.
Stay tuned: In the next blog, we will look at how the diet affects the immune system and I will provide dietary solutions for boosting your immunity.
Written by: Lauren Phillips, L.Ac.