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Getting to the Point: How to Support the Immune System with Traditional Chinese Medicine

By Dr. George Gillson, MD, PhD

The EvolveWell clinic, in keeping with its multidisciplinary approach to patient care, is privileged to have a highly skilled practitioner of Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) on staff. Therefore, I would be remiss if I didn’t include the TCM approach in my discussion of how to support the immune system.

The featured image represents the concept of yin and yang, the contrasting cooling and heating energies which are integral to TCM. The first things many people think of when TCM is mentioned are acupuncture and herbal medicine. It’s true that these are important tools used in this healing practice and I’ll talk about them in due course, but it is worth first spending some time looking at the philosophical underpinnings of TCM compared to Western medicine.

I found the following metaphorical image in an article by a TCM physician, Huang Wei Ling, that helps to start the discussion. The tree represents a single patient but is also a template for the healing approach itself. There’s a system facing outward to the World, and it is exposed to contrasting and opposing factors: temperature, humidity, motion. There is an inward-facing aspect to the system with many main components or branches, nourished by the Five Elements, deep, contrasting influences with myriad contrasting characteristics that can include seasons, directions, climate, stages of growth and development, internal organs, body tissues, emotions, tastes, colors, sounds. The entire network is also completely connected to the natural world in TCM philosophy.

Schematic drawing of the views o western and traditional Chinese medicine Metaphor of

It doesn’t come through in the diagram, but the system is permeated by flows of energy or Qi (pronounced “Chee”) which is literally translated as “vital breath”. The Qi flows in meridians that connect all the various aspects of the whole network.  The flow of Qi along the meridians can be influenced in various ways at key points along the meridians via needling, placement of suction cups or moxibustion (placement of small containers of burning herbs on meridian points).

It is nowadays understood that the meridians closely follow the paths of peripheral nerves and stimulation of the acupuncture points has been shown to affect the function of the autonomic nervous system by modifying brain neurotransmitter release, release of endorphins and modification of sensory information relayed back to the brain.

Meridians closely follow the paths of peripheral nerves

I don’t claim to understand all this in any detail (The plasma physics and atomic spectroscopy I got into when I was doing my PhD have nothing over the subtlety and complexity of TCM).  Suffice it to say that this is a multidimensional framework with rich interrelationships and a central concept of homeostasis/balance between opposing forces. TCM looks at patterns and imbalances that might be present. It looks at the network. In the West, Graph Theory, the basis of network thinking, didn’t get going until the early 1700’s whereas TCM has been evolving since at least 300 BC.

Compare this multidimensional, homeostasis-seeking approach to Dr. Ling’s description of Western medicine: “… The tree has a trunk with several branches. Each branch represents one medical specialty and each leaf coming out of each branch represents the symptoms and diseases of each specialty. The focus is to treat each leaf in each specialty, in Western medicine.”

In Western medicine, we do this via pharmaceuticals which are most often designed to antagonize or block one very specific aspect of a road or pathway that leads to a specific symptom or sign. After the fact, when enough people have used the pharmaceutical, we learn that other “traffic” we never knew about also uses that path and eventually backs up behind the blockage. The molecules and what-have-you start crashing into each other and causing side effects. Too often we wind up prescribing drugs to combat the side effects of other drugs.

The interventions/treatments used in TCM are never intended to address or block one thing but instead are carefully chosen to strengthen or restore balance in one or more parts of the entire system. To put all this into the context of immune function, to get ready for cold and flu season, a TCM practitioner will look to strengthen the Wei Qi or “defensive” Qi, if needed. TCM practitioners believe that prevention is the best cure.

Ask yourself what prescription medication has ever been suggested to you by your GP to prevent a cold?  (Don’t get me wrong. I practiced as a conventional Family Doctor for six years.  Conventional Medicine is really good at putting out fires but not very good at keeping them from starting.)

But back to strengthening the immune system. What would this look like in TCM?

It might start with a physical exam including the measurement of a variety of pulses at various points as well as an examination of the tongue and will include questions about symptoms, some of them seemingly irrelevant or trivial, but helpful to determine what imbalances might be present.

Once the practitioner determines the pattern of imbalances, they are addressed by various means: stimulation of the acupuncture points as described, use of various herbs in some situations and recommendations about lifestyle and food. In classical TCM herbal formulas, the herbs are chosen to help restore balance in many areas. You might recognize some of the common herbs used in TCM such as Astragalus, Asian and American Ginseng, Rehmannia, Skullcap, Kudzu and Schisandra. Different foods may be chosen in the same way, to deliver energy to specific organs. Again, the intent is to strengthen the whole network so that the immune system can function optimally.

In TCM, Fall is seen as a time of subsiding yang energy, with decreasing activity, warmth and sunshine, and increasing yin energy with increasing stillness, cold and darkness.

I’m now about to shamelessly paraphrase from a document given to me by one of the EvolveWell practitioners: Jennifer Palmer B Sc DTCM R. Ac.  Jennifer is trained in TCM and is a Registered Acupuncturist. Thank you, Jennifer!

Per Doctor Palmer: “[Fall] is a season of introspection, a folding inward, a hibernation of sorts where we “hunker down” and prepare for what is to come.

In Chinese Medicine, Fall is the season of the Metal element, the ore found deep within a mountain. Metal reflects our core issues, our support network, our scaffolding. The fall is a time to pare down and focus on what is necessary for the coming winter. It’s a time to get focused on what’s most important, reserve your energy during this time to help keep you strong and healthy, to keep your scaffolding stable and strong.”

Lifestyle tips Doctor Palmer provided to me include: dressing warmly and wearing a scarf to protect from drafts hitting the back of the neck, eating warm soups and stews, eating lots of roasted Fall vegetables, avoidance of cold breakfasts, taking care not to drink cold water, drinking warm beverages such as ginger tea with honey and lemon.

This site gives a good summary of the TCM view of the Fall season and had good tips not already mentioned, including deep breathing to support Lung Qi.

Speaking of breathing, I found this book to be fascinating and I highly recommend it. After you read it, you’ll probably immediately start trying to breathe through your nose by day but also race out, buy some tape and start sleeping with your mouth shut at night. I know I did.

Breath the new science of a lost art

In closing, I hope that this brief discussion has given you some insights into a fascinating healing tradition. I took some rudimentary training in Acupuncture when I was a Family Doctor and used it to good effect for various musculoskeletal patient complaints, but never got into TCM.

Healing is an art and there is no single approach that works for all people. I have found that the rich metaphorical aspect of TCM resonates deeply with many people. If you find that you are struggling to progress in your journey toward healing/optimal health it might be time to think outside the box and benefit from an approach with over 2000 years of careful observation and refinement.

P.S. I thought that the feature image for this post was a mighty fine rendition of the yin-yang concept. With all due respect to the artist, if you like the image you can buy a reproduction here.

George Gillson MD PhD

Author: Dr. George Gillson, MD, PHD, CCFP
EvolveWell Medical Director


Ling, Huang. (2020). Chakras’ Energies Alterations in Patients with Chronic Gastritis. Gastroenterology Open Access Open Journal. I. 20-23. 10.33169/gastro.GOAOJ-I-105.

Lu AP, Jia HW, Xiao C, Lu QP. Theory of traditional Chinese medicine and therapeutic method of diseases. World J Gastroenterol. 2004 Jul 1;10(13):1854-6. doi: 10.3748/wjg.v10.i13.1854. PMID: 15222022; PMCID: PMC4572216.