The Lung in Chinese Medicine

The Lung’s task is that of making a boundary between the inner and the outer world. The inner environment needs to be protected by a clear boundary which both defends and defines the person. Across this boundary vital materials can be taken in and waste materials excreted. The most vital and obvious material that the Lung takes in is oxygen; but as we shall see, the Lung, in Chinese medicine, is more than the respiratory system. The Lung has to do with boundary, breath and renewal.

The Lung’s Physical Realm

At the physical level, boundary, breath and renewal are expressed as the lungs, the skin and the colon. The Lung refers to the whole respiratory system and includes the nose and sinuses. Across the boundary of the lungs oxygen is taken in and carbon dioxide waste is excreted. Since most human energy is derived from air, the Lung is primarily responsible for physical vitality and is said to govern Qi in the body.

The skin is like an outer lung and the pores are seen as the ‘doors of Qi’. The skin also breathes and exchanges substances with the outer environment. Its healthy functioning is seen as an aspect of Lung function. Beneath the skin the protective energy known as Wei Qi is said to circulate, defending the body against invasion from pathogenic forces.

The Lung’s paired Organ, the Colon, is concerned with release and elimination. The Lung and Colon together are related to immunity, the strength of the protective boundary. Pathogens most easily enter through the respiratory and digestive systems and the Lung and Colon are responsible for maintaining the integrity of these systems so that they are not penetrated by invaders. According to Chinese medicine, the body’s defensive energy is directly dependent on the strength of the Lung and Colon.

The Lung’s Non-Physical Realm

The Lung’s physical expression as the boundary between the organism and its environment is expressed at the psychological level as a sense of one’s personal boundary. A clear psychological boundary enables us to know who we are, to meet another and to establish clear relationship. When the sense of boundary is strong we can receive experience through the boundary and communicate outwards through it; the boundary is flexible and responsive, opening to receive ‘good’ influences and closing to screen out ‘bad’ influences. It enables us to say ‘yes’ to what we want and ‘no’ to what we don’t want.
Whereas the Spleen is archetypally related to the mother, the Lung is archetypally related to the father. Traditionally it is the father who teaches a sense of self-value and helps us to leave home and find our place in the world. Good fathering teaches boundary, and helps with individuation and separation from the mother. The Lung is therefore concerned with feelings of self-esteem and respect for both ourselves and others. Knowing who we are, believing in our self-worth and taking our place in the world are all part of the realm of the Lung.

The Lung is also said to be the residence of the corporeal soul, or Po. The corporeal soul is the most dense and tangible aspect of the soul which dies with the body at death. The Po gives us awareness of the physical body, of our own aliveness and the physical rhythms of our bodily life. Sometimes translated as the vegetative soul, the Po belongs to the earth, to the material world and to the world of pure sensation. Its counterpart, the Hun, which is housed in the Liver, belongs to the world of spirit and consciousness.

The Well-Nourished Lung

Abundant Lung energy manifests as strong physical vitality. There is a sense of softness and fullness in the chest, strong lungs and a clear powerful voice. Immunity is strong, so recovery from illness is quick and effective, the skin is glossy and the complexion is bright and fresh. The breath is usually clear and pleasant. The body’s posture expresses a clear sense of self-worth, presenting the chest openly to the world. Gestures are clear and expansive, a person’s gaze is forthright, and their presence is clear and strong. Someone with strong Lung energy usually evokes a response of admiration and respect in another.

In conditions of dysfunction the Lung is either weak or obstructed. Physically weak Lung energy will manifest as low vitality and a poor immune system. The breathing may be shallow, not expanding the lower part of the lungs or the sides, and there may be respiratory problems. The skin may appear unhealthy and circulation of Qi and Blood may be weak. Emotionally there is likely to be constraint and sadness, perhaps a hiding within one’s boundary. There may be lack of self-esteem, harsh judgment of both self and others and failure to respect or understand one’s own and others’ boundaries. Dignity may turn to false pride, leaving a person feeling alone and separate. It may be hard to claim a place in the world.

Nourishing the Lung

The Lung is nourished by breathing. The best way to amplify Lung energy is to take plenty of fresh air, develop the physical capacity of the lungs through exercise such as swimming, and to consciously bring awareness into the breath. A few minutes each day of relaxed breathing, learning to breathe with the diaphragm and relaxing the muscles of the chest and shoulders, can be very effective at building the power of the Lung.

Expansive movements which physically open the chest are also helpful. The intention is to stretch, to bring tone and release contraction in the muscles that surround the rib cage. It is also possible to develop the Lung through voice work such as singing or learning to project the voice. This can be an emotionally charged process for some people, bringing them face-to-face with all the inhibitions which have been allowed to constrain self-expression.

The skin, as part of the Lung system, can be nourished by brushing. Rubbing with a good cotton towel or scrubbing the skin with a brush will maintain the skin’s health and support the immune system. Wearing natural fibres will allow the skin to breathe freely; going naked from time to time when weather and circumstances allow will also help the skin to breathe. Moderate sunbathing will nourish the skin, although overexposure may be damaging.

Emotionally the Lung is nourished by respect. Learning to value who we are and what we do will attract respect from those around us. Deeply exploring what we value, and finding ways to express those values in the world, help open us to the energy of the Lung.

In the outer world we can give value to our environment, attend to cleaning out stale corners of our house, or of our life. Clearing up our environment can be a way that we externally support the Lung function and may well bring more clarity into our emotional and mental life. A person’s aesthetic life is an outer manifestation of the Lung and attending to beauty and order, making art both of daily environment and of life, will also support and nourish the Lung.

Finally, the Lung’s role as boundary-keeper may be metaphorically extended to the boundaries we keep in our own home. Well-maintained fences, sensible security, clean windows and a well-kept exterior are domestic expressions of Lung energy.

Nourishing the Lung Through Food

A Lung-supportive style of eating attends to the aesthetics of food and gives food a high value in daily life. A quality of respect for the importance of food and a delight in the simple rituals of eating set the tone for supporting the Lung.

The Lung governs Qi, so a Lung-nourishing approach to food will include many foods known as ‘Qi tonics’ and fresh foods alive with Qi. A diet high in fresh organic vegetables with some sprouted seeds and grains is helpful. The Lung also needs protein, and a craving for protein often indicates Lung Qi Deficiency. However, the best protein for the Lung is generally low fat such as tofu, beans and white meat.

When tolerated, dairy produce is strengthening for the Lung but in many cases causes congestion and the build-up of Phlegm. If this is the case, use goat or sheep products, or minimise dairy. Some pungent-flavoured foods are helpful to open the lungs and stimulate Lung function. Foods to keep in check are all those which cause congestion, i.e., rich fatty foods and any food which is processed or denatured.

Lastly, white and light-coloured foods resonate with the Lung, so foods such as radish, white meats and white mushrooms tend to have some benefit.