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Chinese Medicine and the Immune System

Updated: Oct 9, 2020

After enjoying a relatively low-risk coronavirus summer, we are starting to see the surge of cases across UK and Europe again and, therefore, we must play a part in how to protect ourselves as it is of utmost importance that we look after our health and wellbeing in the coming months.

We are being constantly reminded of the importance of washing our hands, using anti-bacterial hand sanitiser and wearing masks. However, not much is mentioned about protecting ourselves by boosting our immune system.

The immune system is a complex and intelligent system that involves different types of cells, organs, proteins and tissues. It works nonstop fighting off pathogens, such as viruses and bacteria.

How can we boost our immune system?

- Eating loads of fruits and vegetables

- Drinking plenty of fluids, especially water

- Resting

- Exercising (Even light walking is better than no exercise at all)

- Avoiding stressful situations

Fermented foods (such as Sauerkraut, Kimchi, Miso, Sourdough bread) and drinks (Kefir and Kombucha) also strengthen the immune system by feeding good bacteria in the Gut.

What is Wei Qi?

If you are familiar with Chinese Medicine, you probably have heard the word “Qi”, the so-called “vital energy” in the western view. As Chinese Medicine is a very organised system, there are different types of Qi which have unique functions in the body.

In Chinese Medicine there is a type of Qi that protects and warms our body. This protective energy called “Wei Qi” is located beneath the skin and can be thought as an aspect of the immune system protecting the body against invasion from pathogens.

“Wei Qi” is considered the most vigorous type of energy in the body: circulating Qi in the whole body, opening and closing the pores and sweat glands, and hence, working as a defence soldier. When Wei Qi is strong, the body wards off diseases from viruses and bacteria. Conversely, if Wei Qi is weak, pathogens will enter the body and illnesses will develop.

Diet and Wei Qi

It is possible to boost Wei Qi with a diet that contains a high level of fresh fruit and vegetables (especially sweet root veggies) balanced with a small number of good quality proteins (like beef, chicken and eggs). Complex carbohydrates (whole grains) should also be included (avoid refined carbohydrates, such as white bread, white rice, pasta and pastries)

According to Chinese Medicine, foods that nourish Qi, and therefore, strengthen the immune system tend to be warm and sweet in flavour. Some examples are: rice, sweet potato, pumpkin, carrots, brassicas, small amounts of honey

Pungent flavours, as well as aromatic herbs (especially sage and thyme), will stimulate the activity of Qi in the Lungs, also enhancing the immune system. Some examples are alliums (onions, spring onions, leeks, chives), fresh ginger, horseradish, cinnamon, garlic and mustard seeds.

The production of Wei Qi is directly linked to the organs Spleen/Stomach, Lungs and Kidneys, therefore eating food that is beneficial for these organs will also enhance the immune system:

- Dry fruits

- Grains and pulses

- Soybean (tofu, miso, tempeh)

- Nuts and seeds

And the winner is… Mushrooms!!

Mushroom has a special place regarding the immune system, especially shiitake and ganoderma. Mushroom increases white blood cells and therefore, boosts the immune system.

Mushrooms nourish the Lungs and their sweet flavour benefits the Spleen/ Stomach and digestion, therefore, mushrooms help with the production of Wei Qi.

Shiitake mushroom is a natural source of interferon, a protein that appears to induce an immune response against viral diseases.

Mushrooms are also a good source of vitamin D, they feed good bacteria in the Gut and contain anti-cancer substances. Not surprisingly they are the winner!!

Dampness and COVID-19

The Western diet is very rich in damp-forming food, such as refined sugar and carbs, dairy products, processed food and fatty meats, causing our digestion to become sluggish and consequently, accumulating fluids. Dampness impairs the movement of Qi and plays a part in the aggravation of the COVID-19 symptoms such as breathlessness, nausea, poor appetite, diarrhoea. Moreover, dampness is directly linked to obesity in Chinese Medicine and obesity-related conditions seem to worsen the effect of COVID-19¹.

Aromatic alliums and herbs, beans and pulses, vegetables and wholemeal grains are great for clearing dampness in the body. Reducing the intake of damp-forming food is also advisable.

Principles of healthy eating…

In Chinese Medicine, not only what we eat is important, but how and when we eat. Avoid stressful conversation during mealtime. Moreover, don’t eat late at night and don’t overeat. A Japanese practice called “Hara Hachi Bu” is translated as “Eat until you are 80% full”!!

Always bear in mind that the best food is always the one cooked from scratch with love and appreciated around a table in good company

Can Acupuncture help to strengthen the immune system?

Some studies have shown that Acupuncture can enhance the activity of the immune system by increasing white blood cells (T-lymphocytes, NK cells) and proteins (cytokines, interleukins and IFN-Y) ². One of the studies has even shown that the effect of the treatment lasted 30 days after the treatment had taken place ³.

The most popular point in Acupuncture is Stomach 36 (Zu San Li). The translation of its name is Leg Three Miles.

There are some anecdotes about Chinese Medicine warriors that would stimulate this point to give them the energy to continue their journeys. Each mile they would stop and stimulate ST36 so they could walk an extra mile. There is no need to say that this point is a great strengthening point as it energises the body and boosts the immune system!!

The use of moxa (a dried mugwort herb) in ST36 can enhance the benefit of this point for the immune system even further.

To conclude…

The immune system is our best ally when fighting off a disease. With the prediction of a much worse wave of coronavirus during winter, we should all use the next few months to strengthen our immune system. Prevention is always better than cure!!


Chinese Dietary Wisdom (by Danny Blyth and Greg Lampert); Recipes for Self Healing (by Daverick Leggett); Healing with Whole Foods (by Paul Pitchford); Healing Foods (by Neal’s Yard);

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