Everyone knows how their lungs function. You just breathe, and that’s it! Well, in Chinese medicine, that’s hardly even the start of it.
April 2, 2020
How your Lungs function is a major topic in Chinese medicine – really important for understanding its attitude to health. Of course, the Lungs cover respiration – breathing – but they also govern Qi, without which we would all be inert!
Once you get to grips with what your lungs do, and what your Lungs ‘manage’ in terms of Chinese medicine, you will have more respect for them and perhaps realise their vital importance for your health.
If you are more interested in the path of the Lung channel, or ‘meridian‘, click here.
Lungs Function 1: Govern Qi and Breathing
Check out Qi before reading on. You may also enjoy our page on Lung Qi.
If the many functions of Qi are understood, then you’ll see how important is the energy of the Lungs – because the Lungs Function Number ONE is governing the Qi and Breathing.
The example given on that page (Lung Qi) of when you get angry and tense, your shoulders tighten, your jaw grinds, your forehead furrows and you incline towards a headache, all because Qi is pushing up: well, if your Lungs function right, they’ll steady and control it so you won’t hit anyone or anything.
Probably you’ll do this partly by steady breathing. At any rate, your Lungs are deeply involved in this. And because your Liver energy is usually involved in those symptoms of frustration, you could say that your Liver and Lungs work hand in hand, but also balance and to some extent regulate each other.
For example, if you are so angry that you stop breathing, (your doctor may think of asthma) your Liver energy is likely to be impeding your Lungs’ function, and there is a well-understood mechanism in Chinese medicine as to how this happens – and what to do about it.
Everything that functions in your body needs Qi. That includes every kind of physiological process, from your heart beat to the health of your skin, from how alert you are to how well your bowels work.
Your Lungs inspire and expire; they breathe in and out. When breathing in, they extract from the air what the Chinese called ‘pure Qi’. When breathing out, they return so-called ‘dirty qi’ back to the environment.
Some Agreement with Western Medicine!
So you can see that Chinese medicine agrees with Western medicine on this. If your breathing is inadequate or faulty, an early consideration is whether your Lungs’ function is working properly.
Some examples of when this Lungs’ function is a problem:
… though please realise some of the above involve other zang-fu energies too, and their interaction with the Lungs.
But that’s not all. The Lungs have a close relationship with your digestive powers, which in Chinese medicine are your Stomach and Spleen energies. When you eat something, your digestion leeches essential nutrients from the food. These essential nutrients are sent, according to Chinese medicine, first to the Lungs.
In the chest the food and the air nutrient energies combine to form ‘Gathering Qi’. This distributes via your Lung energy to every part of your body to feed it and enable it to function properly.
Because it starts from the chest, it enables your Heart and Lungs to function well. This qi powers your heart to give you good circulation. If you have poor circulation, this may point to problems in your chest, which is known as the Sea of Qi.
That Sea of Qi also powers your voice. A strong voice suggests good Qi.
However, the Lungs’ function is far wider than this, which is where the story begins to depart from that of Western medicine.
Lungs Function 2: controls Acupuncture Channels
This is where, for the scientifically inclined, it gets a bit fanciful.
OK, you say, you can accept Lungs Function 1. That accords with Western medicine, pretty well.
Like it or not, there is a branch of Chinese medicine, a huge branch, called acupuncture, that has been used for 3000 years and relies on a theory of channels that has been elaborated to a considerable degree.
Acupuncture is highly sophisticated and just because you can’t yet prove the channels’ existence doesn’t mean they don’t exist or, to be more precise, that the theory of them can’t be used daily in practice to help people towards better health.
After all, there are many drugs in Western medicine that are highly effective but the action of which is not yet, or has only been recently, understood. Aspirin, for example.
So, for those who are willing to read further, if your body shows weakness – one of the effects of Qi deficiency – an acupuncturist could quickly diagnose which channel(s) were involved.
I once had a patient who was a body-builder. He had a superb physique – not bulging but beautiful, the kind that most men would want, and many women might desire. He caught a cold and had an accident to his left arm.
His left arm, though it looked just as healthy as his right arm, failed to recover and felt permanently weak.
His doctor couldn’t understand this and so for several months he found he had to use his right arm for most tasks. By chance he met me and told me about it.
One brief look showed me his Lung channel was affected, and his Lung pulse was very weak.
One treatment was all he needed – two needles. Because he was otherwise well, he recovered completely and later applied to join the army, successfully, at a time when they were not inclined to accept anyone not fully fit.
So the Lungs Govern Qi …
Because the Lungs govern Qi, wherever Qi is said to flow, the Lungs control. Qi flows along the acupuncture channels, so the strength with which it flows there is directly related to the Lungs.
But in Chinese medicine, the Qi is said to lead the Blood. So poor circulation can be from Blood stasis, but can be from Qi Stagnation or Qi deficiency – which probably comes from Lung qi deficiency.
If your hands are always cold, this suggests your Lungs’ function is poor. When certain fingers are colder than others, this may be that Qi is flowing less strongly in the channels that flow along them.
If you habitually like to play hot water from your shower onto your upper back, especially when cold or tired, or after sleeping poorly, this again suggests that you should work to make your Lungs function better.
Lungs Function 3: spreading out Qi and fluids
The Lungs spread both your immune force (defensive qi) and your body’s fluids to the space just under your skin, where it warms and protects your muscles and flesh.
What does it protect you from?
From any pathogenic factor from outside. Mainly these are from the weather and problems such as dust, pollen, bacteria and viruses wafted at you by or through the air: sneezes and water droplets for example.
The first you know about these is when your nose signals a sneeze and summons a puff of wind from your lungs. (Partly that sneeze also comes from your adrenals and your Kidney Yang, also involved in your immune system.)
But sometimes your Lungs function is poor, perhaps weakened by previous illness, emotion or lack of exercise. Then you may not get that vital sneeze and just begin to feel generally slow and under the weather, eventually contracting a chest cold. In other words, the pathogen goes straight past your nose and down to your lungs. This happens less with Wind-Heat invasion, when your body fights harder, than with Wind-Cold.
For more about the fluids spread out by your Lungs, see Skin, next section.
We all know the calming effect of taking a few deep breaths. Their effect is to descend our feelings. The same goes for the breath. It’s ‘caught’ by your Kidneys.
So some forms of asthma occur because of weak Kidney function, and some from weak Lung function.
Your Lungs have a very close relation in Chinese medicine with your Bladder and your Large intestine. If neither work as intended, it may be because your Lung function of descending qi is impaired. Mostly this occurs in the elderly or those weakened by severe illness or distress.
With a history of poor Lung function, you may be susceptible to asthma and other lung problems. If the Lungs can’t spread out your body fluids as described, they can become more generalised oedema. In this case, acupuncture treatment for oedema would need to address your Lung function as well as whatever other syndrome is diagnosed.
Lungs Function 4: your skin
Your Lungs spread out your body’s fluids, as already mentioned. They spread these out not just within your lung organ, keeping it moist, but underneath the surface of your skin.
This works in several ways:
Firstly, it moisturises your skin. So very dry skin, for example, may not be because of poor diet but because your lung function is poor. Get out, exercise and breathe more!
Very greasy skin could be due to Damp or Phlegm. In either case, your Lungs aren’t functioning as they should, though poor nutrition could be contributory.
Your sweat-pores. This is a curious one. Your Lungs govern how easily your sweat-pores open and close. It you never sweat, or only with difficulty, or you sweat far more than you should, it’s probably because of Lung qi misfunction. This sweat-pore opening and closing has important implications for your health. After a hot bath, for example, you will probably be sweating (of course, possibly by intention, say to clear an invasion by Wind-Cold – see more about this under ‘Cope with Fever‘). Depending on what you want to do, you must either wrap up well, to avoid Wind-Cold entering via your sweat-pores, or have a very short cold shower, to close them without letting you get cold.
Oedema can occur when your Lungs malfunction. It usually occurs in the upper part of your body and on your face. You sometimes see this when you wake in the morning after a night’s sleep. This happens during a cold, for instance. Also, since the fluids managed by your Lungs come from what you’ve eaten, if you ate with poor choices the night before, the fluids will be below par, and so will your skin.
Lung Function and your Nose
Although your Lung channel doesn’t reach up to your nose, the Lung’s partner, the Large Intestine, does extend there. So you could say the Lungs reach there by proxy. At any rate, the organ ‘owned’ by your Lungs is your nose. Many nose problems emanate from your Lungs.
Nose runny with watery like liquid? Probably deficient Lung qi or, because of that, invasion by a Cold pathogenic factor: cold air, perhaps?
Lost your sense of smell? Could be invasion by Wind-Cold or Heat: both upset the Lungs moisturising process and the inside of your nose needs to be properly moist.
Other Lung Functions
Every physiological process in your body depends on Qi. In fact, nothing exists without Qi. So when something under-functions, always suspect Lung function for just not providing enough ‘buzz’ to keep it going.
Your P’o. While you breathe, you live and your body and its organs continue their daily dance of life.
When you die, this dancing process, your P’o, melts away as its constituents return to earth, dissolving before emerging in some other life-form. To me, this ‘P’o’ is the dance of life. NOT the same as your Shen-Mind, and certainly nothing to do with the Western Abrahamic concept of the Soul.
Because your Lungs spread your body fluids just under your skin, if your body hair doesn’t flourish, it could be Lung under-function: not spreading enough manure on the fields for the crops to grow!
Note, HEAD hair comes more under your Kidney function.
Judge from someone’s voice how good their Lung qi is.
Weak: a low voice, or one which soon weakens
Blocked by phlegm: has to clear throat before speaking
Resonates well., strong as a bell: good Lung qi! The bell is used as a symbol for the lungs in Chinese medicine.