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Viruses, immune system and Chinese medicine

In this period marked by the new coronavirus, it is useful, even necessary, to be able to count on our immune system to fight new pathogens. Instead of waiting to catch it, better prepare your body to respond to any attack. Western medicine knows how to identify viruses, dissect them and reduce them to their smallest elements in order to know their functioning, their strengths and weaknesses as well as their particularities. In Chinese medicine, there has never been any question of this. The approach is quite different. The starting point is the vitality of the body. This depends on the "righteous ", the vital breath which is beneficial to it. The Huángdì Nèijīng, literally the "Inner Canon of the Yellow Emperor", a book dating back to the Eastern Han period (25-220 CE) indicates the vital role of this Qì: "if the righteous is sufficient within (the body), then the pathogen cannot inflict harm, its poison will be repelled”. It has a defensive role against attacks from outside such as viruses and it is therefore important to strengthen it. Of course, even when flourishing, righteous is not always sufficient to counter every attack.



Western medicine recognises the action of our immune system, for example during the flu, when the patient suffers from a fever. The rise in temperature is the body's response to the pathogen. Fever increases blood flow thereby improving the recruitment of lymphocyte counts into the lymphoid tissue. In China, about 2000 years ago, in chapter 30 of the Língshū (one of the two volumes of the previously cited book), the physiological process was already explained in an exchange between the Yellow Emperor and his master Qí Bó:

- The Yellow Emperor asks “How does pain arise? Why? And where does its name come from?

- Qí Bó answers: The wind, the cold and the humidity mix and insert themselves into the intra-muscular spaces, they press them and spread them apart so that a foam is formed; under the influence of cold, this foam collects and leads to the separation of the intramuscular spaces which split; this crackling causes pain; the pain appears and the shēn [spirit, consciousness] arrives; the shēn [actually] present, the fever makes its appearance; with the fever the pain disappears”. Where the shēn arrives, it is the that arrives, and more precisely the yáng Qì, or the defensive , the one that is the first line of defense of our body against external invasions.


What is this defensive and how does it proceed? Very briefly, and according to the physiological view in Chinese medicine, the Spleen receives from the stomach food which it separates into a "clear" part (the nutritive aspect) and the other "turbid" par (not assimilable). The "clear" part is used to nourish the body (organs, muscles, bones, etc.), distributed through the action of the lungs. The "turbid" part of food can be used by defensive to defend the body in places where pathogens attack.


Of course, this explanation remains somewhat incomplete to understand the capacity of the body to react to an aggression since other forces play an important role like the original (acquired from our parents) or the external brought in by the lungs and fixed by the kidneys, or the functional state of the organs. We therefore see here many ways to strengthen an immune system according to the strengths and weaknesses of each individual.

The emergence and spread of the new coronavirus, as well as its scale, has obviously taken the world by surprise. But this situation, unfortunately, should not be thought of as a one-time, one-off occurrence. Epidemics have been a part of human history forever, viruses being living organisms. In China, one of the classics of Chinese medicine, the Shānghán Lùn (Treatise on diseases due to cold), was born in such a context. Its author, Zhāng Zhòng Jǐng, wanted to explain the death of a large part of his family during an epidemic. Towards the end of the Míng period (1368-1644), Wú Yòukě in his text “Discussion of epidemic heat”, describes the phenomenon as the appearance of a kind of abnormal which does not correspond to the season. For example, a stubborn cold during a normally hot season. Or, as in the case of the new coronavirus, a period of warming during a cold season (prevailing situation in Wuhan at the beginning of the coronavirus epidemic) This abnormal weather is what he calls a pestilential . It attacks old and young people, strong or weak, without distinction. It spreads by “contact”, entering the body through the mouth and nose. With climate change, the risk of a resurgence of epidemics cannot be ruled out. Quickly finding vaccines for each of them will remain a challenge, as is the case today for the new coronavirus and as it has been the case for other viruses, for which no vaccine yet exists.


Of course, this is not about discrediting modern scientific medicine. On the contrary, the integration of knowledge of the two different medicines is an undeniable asset. In China, the Government Health Agency has also integrated Chinese medicine into its “Protocol for the diagnosis and treatment of COVID-19” over the course of the epidemic (see my previous post on the subject, currently only in French). What Chinese medicine allows, in this context, is a more holistic approach to the individual, both in terms of prevention and treatment, and which does not require, in order to function, the microscopic knowledge of a virus. The therapeutic modes of Chinese medicine such as acupuncture, Chinese herbs or health exercises in particular, are tools that allow an individual approach to meet the specific needs of each.

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