The Lungs and Large Intestine in Chinese Medicine
According to the traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) theory of the five elements, the Lungs and Large Intestine are paired together in the metal element. At first, it may seem strange to pair these two organs together, but look a little closer and it makes perfect sense.
The Lungs are responsible for breathing in oxygen from the air, and breathing out carbon dioxide, the waste product of respiration. The Large Intestine is also responsible for getting rid of waste, this time from the digestive process.
So the Lungs and Large Intestine have the function of removing what is no longer useful to us, and creating space for the new. They are associated with beginnings and endings, taking in and letting go. This function is also echoed by the season associated with the metal element, fall.
In the fall, leaves drop to the ground and begin to decay. Although the trees may look bare and bleak without their leaves, this process is entirely necessary for the health of the trees and their habitat. As the fallen leaves rot away into the earth, they provide nourishment for the soil, preparing it for a new season of growth in spring.
The metal element is also associated with the emotion of grief. Here in the west, we often think of grief as a negative emotion, associated with mourning those we have lost. However, in TCM, grief is considered a very healthy emotion. It represents the ability to let go of ideas and feelings that no longer serve us and can prevent us from moving forward with our lives.
The Lungs and Large Intestine also have an important role in our physical health. Although some of their functions are similar to those of western medicine, in TCM, these organs’ role is even more complex. Let’s take a look at the functions of the Lungs and Large Intestine in TCM, and how they work in both health and disease.
The Functions of the Lungs
We can easily recognize the Lungs’ function of breathing and respiration. They take in oxygen from the air which is transported in our blood to every organ and tissue in the body. They then breathe out the waste product carbon dioxide, which would make us very ill if it remained inside our bodies.
Because TCM developed thousands of years ago, doctors did not know about the existence of microscopic molecules such as oxygen and carbon dioxide. However, they did understand the role of the Lungs in a very similar way.
The functions of the Lungs in TCM are as follows:1. Governing Qi and Respiration
Although TCM doctors in ancient times did not know about oxygen and carbon dioxide, they did understand the process of respiration. The Lungs were seen as being responsible for breathing in ‘clean qi’ and breathing out ‘dirty qi’ from our bodies.
Because they are responsible for breathing in qi from air, the Lungs play a very important role in building the ‘nutritive qi’ and ‘defensive qi’ which are necessary for good health. In the process of qi formation, qi from the air combines with qi from food (extracted by the Spleen), and our own ‘original qi’ with which we are born.
This provides the energy required for all of our biological functions, and keeps our bodies well-nourished and free from disease.2. Controlling the Channels and Vessels
In TCM, the Lungs also play a crucial role in the circulation of qi and blood. They provide the movement that is needed to ensure that these vital substances reach every part of our bodies, from the tops of our heads, to the tips of our toes.3. Controlling Dispersing and Descending
Anatomically speaking, the Lungs are the highest organ in the body. In TCM they are seen as a roof or a canopy, covering all of the other organs. Because of this, the Lungs have the role of descending qi, sending it downwards to the other organs.
The Lungs also have the role of dispersing qi around the body. This qi is usually thought of as a fine mist which is circulated underneath the skin. This mist is known as ‘defensive qi’ or wei qi in Chinese. It is responsible for warming our bodies, and protecting us from invasion from external pathogens.4. Regulating the Waterways
As well as circulating qi, the Lungs are also responsible for circulating water and body fluids, especially to the skin. When the Lungs are healthy, the skin will be soft and supple. If they become imbalanced, the skin can become too wet leading to problems such acne, or too dry leading to cracking and sores.
The Lungs are also responsible for opening and closing the pores to allow sweating, and sending fluids downwards to the Bladder to be excreted.5. Controlling the Skin and Body Hair
The Lungs have a close connection to the skin in TCM. Both organs come into contact with the outside world, and both play a role in protecting us from invading pathogens. The Lungs provide the fluids needed to keep the skin and body hair healthy and well-nourished, and the skin forms a barrier on the surface of our bodies, protecting us from disease.6. Opening into the Nose
In TCM, each of the yin organs is associated with a particular sense organ, in the Lungs’ case, the nose. Like the Lungs, the nose plays a role in protecting us from infections as well as helping us to breathe and smell.
When the Lungs are healthy, the nose will be moist, but not runny, and the sense of smell will be keen. When the Lungs are imbalanced, problems such as nasal congestion, nosebleeds, and a poor sense of smell can occur.7. Housing the ‘Corporeal Soul’
The ‘corporeal’ or physical soul, known as the po in Chinese, is the part of our soul which remains with our bodies when we die. It is returned to the earth, much like the dying leaves that nourish and fertilize the soil. In this way, our bodies are able to continue the cycle of life, even after we die.
Lung Symptoms in Traditional Chinese Medicine
When the Lungs are healthy, they will be able to carry out all of the above functions effectively, but if they become imbalanced, disease can occur. Some common symptoms of Lung imbalances include:
- Weak voice
- Shortness of breath
- Chronic cough
- Frequent coughs and colds
- Sweating too much or too little
- Skin conditions such as eczema, psoriasis, and acne
On an emotional level, a Lung imbalance can cause an inability to let go of past hurts and regrets. In the long-term, feelings of unresolved grief can further damage the Lungs, leading to the physical symptoms listed above.
The Functions of the Large Intestine
The functions of the Large Intestine in TCM are very similar its functions in western medicine. It receives digested food from the Small Intestine, removes excess water and allows it to be reabsorbed into the body, then forms stools to be excreted as waste.
The Large Intestine has a close relationship with its partner, the Lungs. It needs the lungs to provide energy so that it can expel waste, a process which can sometimes require a great deal of effort! Equally, the Lungs need the Large Intestine to be clear and free from debris. If the Large Intestine becomes blocked, this can have a knock on effect on the Lungs, resulting in a stuffy chest and shortness of breath.
The Large Intestine also has a close relationship with the Spleen. The Spleen is the primary digestive organ in TCM, and controls the function of the Large and Small Intestines to some extent. When the Spleen is in harmony, the digestive process will be smooth and unproblematic. However, if the Spleen becomes imbalanced, this can result in symptoms throughout the whole digestive system. A weak Spleen can lead to a number of symptoms in the Large intestine, including:
- Chronic diarrhea
- Abdominal bloating
- Abdominal pain
- Conditions such as IBS, ulcerative colitis, and Crohn’s disease
The Large Intestine can also create symptoms of its own, especially if it becomes too dry, too hot, or too cold. The most common problems associated with the Large Intestine are constipation and diarrhea.
Keeping Your Lungs and Large Intestine Healthy
With so many important functions, it is important that you take good care of your Lungs and Large Intestine. One of the best ways to do this is by keeping your emotions well balanced and not holding onto negative feelings for too long.
This may be easier said than done, but it is possible with practice. Talking therapies such as counselling and CBT are a good way to literally get things off your chest and ensure that they do not start to weaken your Lungs. Acupuncture is another great way to maintain emotional balance and keep on top of stress.
Breathing exercises are another effective way to keep your Lungs healthy. You could try practices such as tai chi, qi gong, or yoga, or simply breathe deeply while paying attention to the sensations in your body. Try to get some fresh air every day by getting outside, and open the windows in your home or workplace whenever you can.
You can also try eating more Lung nourishing foods. These are generally white and moist, and include foods like tofu, pears, and mushrooms. Keep your Large Intestine functioning well by including plenty of fiber in your diet, staying well hydrated, and exercising regularly.