Wheezing has 6 main causes in Chinese medicine

Wheezing dog
Photo by Jamie Daykin on Unsplash
Wheezing happens when your air passages tighten up and you make a sound as you breathe. If frequent, your doctor may suspect asthma.

Causes of Wheezing

In Chinese medicine there are basically six causes of wheezing.

You can have more than one of them at the same time.

1. Inherited or Acquired susceptibility to Wheezing

  • If your parents suffered from asthma or respiratory infections, 
  • or you grew up in a house where people smoked a great deal indoors 
  • or in some other way you damaged your lungs, you may inherit or acquire the problem. 
Genes can lead to wheezing
Family fun by sea – Photo by Jude Beck on Unsplash

For instance, you may have suffered from a severe or prolonged illness or illnesses that weakened your lungs. Such illnesses might have been childhood diseases like severe whooping cough or measles, or prolonged coughs, or illnesses such as tuberculosis of the lungs.

In Chinese medicine these conditions weaken your Lungs and your Spleen. What happens then is that your Lung’s ability (in Chinese medicine) to descend Qi when you breath is impaired, and your Spleen’s ability to disperse (‘transform’ is the technical word) fluids is weakened.

Your Lungs also have an important role to play in maintaining fluid levels in your body. (Think of the effect on your lungs of very dry air, especially hot, dry air. It can make it painful or almost impossible to breathe properly. To perform properly, your Lungs need moisture in the air – though not too much. Then they can help to maintain the fluid and moisture levels in your body.)

Spleen can’t transform fluids?

If your Spleen can’t transform fluids, they build up deep inside you as Damp and eventually, if there is any heat around, such as from lying in bed at night when heat collects and doesn’t disperse so easily, the fluids turn into Phlegm.

By the way, what about that phlegm you cough up in the morning?

If it’s clear most of the day but a bit yellow in the morning when you wake up, that does not mean that you have bacteria in your lungs – any more than the rest of us.

It simply means that overnight, while you were asleep, the fluids were unable to circulate and, well, cooked.

Cooking them concentrates them and makes them thicker. Once you get up and start breathing normally, the cool air you breathe will cool the fluids, your body will naturally make more which will dilute, cool and wash away the dark phlegm (if you haven’t already spat it out!)

Of course, if the phlegm remains coloured or gets thicker or more yellow or green, then you probably DO have an infection. See Hot Phlegm, below.

The heat for this can also come from what is called Yin deficiency which mostly arises later in life as your body’s ability to cool itself down properly slowly weakens. Click on the Yin Deficiency link to read more about this common syndrome.

If you have an inherited or acquired susceptibility, it doesn’t mean that you WILL get wheezing or asthma. It just makes it more likely. There is plenty you can do to guard against it.


2. Diet as a cause of Wheezing

Nutrition for Chronic disease
Foods for health – but take warm food too!

You might not think that what you eat, over time, can be a cause of wheezing and/or asthma, but in Chinese medicine there is often a clear connection.

Why? Because a bad diet messes up your Spleen energy. When your Spleen energy stops working properly, it weakens your Lung energy.

For more about food and diet, read Nutrition. But basically the ancient Chinese noticed that the following upset your Spleen:

Foods that upset your Spleen function, causiong wheezing

  • Food that is raw, cold, uncooked, chilled or frozen. Even cooked food that is eaten unheated could matter here.
  • Food that is sweet to the taste. That means it is already sweet-tasting when you put it in your mouth, which includes all forms of sweetener including sugar, honey, molasses, artificial sweeteners and even natural sweeteners like Stevia. It also includes foods like bananas.
  • It also includes food that, after a little chewing, taste very sweet in your mouth from the action of enzymes in your saliva.
  • Food that is too rich, oily or greasy or fatty – even if eaten hot.
  • Too many foods that are very sour.
  • Over-eating, or eating when exhausted, or too late at night: also see below on ‘how you eat‘.
  • Food that is hard to digest, either because it is indigestible or because it is too refined, lacking substance
  • Also, how you eat affects your Spleen. For instance, rushing your food, eating on the go or as you work, not chewing it properly, eating when over-tired or emotionally upset: all these can deplete your Spleen energy. Your Spleen likes life to be predictable and calm. It likes to take time to do things, including eating properly.
  • What modern foods might we add to this list of foods that weaken the Spleen? Probably we should add foods that have been pasteurised, refined foods such as white flour foods; some people might be better to reduce or cut out grains altogether; meat from animals reared on antibiotics or force -fed. Genetically modified foods? Maybe. We don’t have enough evidence over an extended period of time to know. Tap water treated with Chlorine? Try to filter it.


What about healthy people?!

However, the healthier you are, the more you can transgress. But even a super-fit individual would weaken his Spleen if he ate the foregoing ‘wrong’ foods too often or for too long.

Anyway, if you weaken your Spleen (and there are other ways to do this too, see below), you end up with Phlegm.

Phlegm lodges in your lungs and throat, blocking your natural Lung actions. What happens then? Wheezing!

3. Overwork as a cause of Wheezing

Photo by Aiony Haust on Unsplash

Overwork includes 

  • working without breaks or holidays
  • work, either mental or physical, done for too long or too hard
  • working to impossible or very tight schedules, always with the worry that you’ll miss one, bringing disaster on either yourself, your employer or your clients
  • working hard for too long even if enjoying it. For example, those who trade in the money markets may get a tremendous ‘buzz’ out of it, but if they don’t take regular breaks, they risk – in effect – overworking.
  • working steadily but not getting enough rest, especially time asleep
  • shift patterns that constantly alter
  • working so that you can never ‘switch off’
  • sitting for too long at a time, working: make sure you get up and walk around at regular intervals, not more than 45 minutes apart.

The above are just examples of what is meant by overwork.

What happens is that constant thinking injures your Spleen energy, and the tension and worry or need to keep different times may also upset your Liver energy, which then interferes with your Spleen.

Too much hard physical work, which includes over-lifting, can also cause Kidney Yang deficiency. That means your body may become less good at burning out extraneous fluids, meaning Damp collects. That Damp can easily become Phlegm.

If your work is mental, too much of it tends to damage your Kidney Yin energy. That can lead to Yin deficiency which means any fluids that have become Damp in your body are more easily stewed to become Phlegm.

Eventually the phlegm collects in your lungs, blocking their action and producing wheezing.

4. Emotional strain

In Western medicine, over the last 50 years doctors have gradually come to accept that many diseases start in the mind. Chinese medicine has always accepted this, and in fact the mental or emotional aspect of a disease is always intrinsically there, potentially.


Fire cracker - what Liver Fire feels like
© Christos Georghiou – Fotolia.com


What that means is this. In Chinese medicine, your mental or emotional state can be the cause of your problem. However, it goes further, because physical disease can also produce emotional and mental states, often predictably.

To produce wheezing, common emotional forms of strain are:

  • worry, anxiety, over-concern for others: these upset the Spleen
  • grief and cares, sorrow and disappointments, affect the Lungs
  • fear affects the Heart too, but mostly the Kidneys
  • frustration and anger  disrupt the action of the Liver. The Liver then disrupts the action of the Lungs, often because of Liver Qi Stagnation, which I wrote a book about, because it affects us all at one time or another.


If the Kidneys are affected, they may not be able to ‘anchor’ the Lung energy, meaning you can’t get your breath. You can read more about this on the page about Breathlessness.

But the Kidneys also support the Spleen function, so if the Kidneys are weakened, so may also be the Spleen.

5. Sex

Photo by Caroline Hernandez on Unsplash

I have seen this in practice only a few times, but it appears quite definitely in the classical texts as being a possible cause of wheezing.

But we are talking about excessive sex, and mainly for men. More or less what happens is this:

  • Excessive loss of sperm depletes the man’s Jing-Essence
  • That means there is less Kidney  energy.
  • Less Kidney yang energy means weaker Spleen.
  • Weaker Spleen leads to Phlegm.
  • Phlegm causes wheezing.


Of course, what is ‘excessive’ sex? Men vary. But if they start getting, after sex, signs of Kidney Yang deficiency, they are probably doing it too much.

Is there an equivalent for women? Opinions vary. I tend to think that if a woman has very heavy periods that drain her, and/or too many pregnancies close together, she might be draining her Jing-essence. 

If so, the consequence might be the same as for men, even if the means were different.


6. Invasion by ‘Wind’: a frequent cause of Wheezing

Wind frequently causes wheezing
Photo by Dawid Zawiła on Unsplash


Although I’ve left this until last, it is often the main trigger. Wind can be triggered by environmental factors, including the weather, air-conditioning, central heating, drafts and sudden changes.

Some people are what I call ‘windy’, meaning not that they suffer from disturbing levels of flatulence, but that they are very changeable.

Often young people are like this, and you have to put up with them, but their changeable, unpredictable personalities can make them more susceptible to Wind, and can, what with banging doors with open windows lead to drafts and bad air. Their habits of bad posture and irregular sleep patterns don’t help and weaken their Lung Qi.

Wind also carries pollens and other allergens, and in susceptible individuals may trigger wheezing, amounting to asthma. See more under asthma cause.

  • Wind is the word the Chinese use for what we might call infection, although Wind actually means much more. Click on the link to read more about it. It has various forms, of which the following are what often trigger wheezing.
  • Wind-cold: read the link for more on this, but basically you get a ‘chill’ that penetrates into the Lungs. When the Lungs are blocked up by Wind Cold, they don’t work properly, so fluids collect, ultimately becoming Phlegm. That causes wheezing.
  • Wind-heat: this is more easily understood as an illness with a fever, or at least with a sensation of heat. Read the link for more. Again, it enters the Lungs and leads to Phlegm.

Two main kinds of phlegm

Tissues for Lung Phlegm Fluids and wheezing
Paper tissues for Phlegm

Hot phlegm

Hot phlegm symptoms have symptoms not just of Phlegm but also of Heat. They include:

  • Feeling hot, tends to reduce clothing and coverings
  • Feeling irritable
  • Hot perspiration
  • Phlegm is yellow and sticky
  • Wheezing is noisy
  • Breathlessness
  • Chest distends as you try to get more breath
  • Thirsty for cool drinks
  • Bitter taste
  • Cough, temporarily better if you can cough up the phlegm
  • Looks hot, often red
  • If severe, can produce fever
  • Tongue: body is red, covered in a sticky yellow coating
  • Pulse: Fast and ‘slippery’ (Fast pulses mean Heat and Slippery pulses mean Phlegm, usually.)
  • Treatment: if this is the kind of phlegm that you have, the principle of treatment in Chinese medicine for this syndrome is to clear the Heat, resolve the Phlegm, and stop the wheezing by persuading the Lungs to start Descending Lung Qi. (As you see, it is very logical!)

Cold Phlegm

Cold Phlegm this has signs of Cold as well as of Phlegm:

  • Feeling cold; you like warmth
  • Averse cold conditions and cold weather
  • Worse in cold conditions, wants to cover up
  • Phlegm is scarce, mostly white, may be colourless, occasionally a little yellow in the morning after sleep. This means, at least, that you almost certainly do not have an ‘infection’.
  • Breathing may be rapid
  • Wheezing is quiet, or quieter than that of Hot Phlegm
  • Chest feels heavy, oppressed, constrained, full, blocked
  • Cough is quieter than that of Hot Phlegm; more like trying to clear the throat. Better if you can get the phlegm up and out.
  • No thirst, and/or prefers warm fluids to drink
  • Looks cold, complexion is blue or white.
  • Tongue: body is swollen, covering is white and sticky
  • Pulse: ‘slippery’ and tight. (Tight pulses usually mean Cold, and Slippery pulses usually mean Phlegm.)
  • Treatment: if this is the kind of Phlegm you have, then in Chinese medicine the correct treatment protocol for this syndrome is to warm the Lungs, scatter the Cold, resolve or transform the Phlegm and hence relieve the wheezing and breathlessness.

I wrote a book …

If it turns out that you develop an unhealthy fascination with phlegm (like me) then you’ll be entranced to discover that I’ve written a book on it.

I wrote it after looking at a huge number of websites and blogs that purported to explain how to get rid of it. I think Chinese medicine has a much better grasp of the matter.

My book shows you what to do in around 80% of phlegm problems.

The book is not exactly poetic but it is useful, and the reviews I’ve received have been very positive.

Treatment to reduce acute episodes

Foot acupuncture for wheezing treats syndromes like Spleen deficiency


In Chinese medicine, treatment of wheezing can be done during acute attacks – of course! See Hot and Cold Phlegm above.

Just as important though, is to deal with the underlying susceptibility which, if you’ve read what’s above, means treating one or more of the deficiencies of your

  • Spleen
  • Lungs and/or 
  • Kidneys


This is usually better done out of season if your problems occur seasonally, or otherwise between acute attacks.

If you don’t do this, you’ll continue to get the acute attacks.

I have found, having practised in Edinburgh since 1982, that many people seek help during the acute attack but, though requested, don’t return for treatment between the acute attacks. So they just keep coming back every year! 

Please, if you suffer from wheezing, whether or not it’s diagnosed as being asthmatic, do seek treatment between acutes or outside the seasons that trouble you.

Just think! You might even not get acute attacks again!

Jonathan Brand colours

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