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Immune system and Chi Kung

Over the years, as I read about the many health benefits of chi kung and tai chi, I became fascinated by reports of increased leucocyte production, stabilized blood pressure, improved immune functioning and so forth. For me it wasn't a question as to whether this was so, but rather how does this occur? I found a lot of material describing the energetic effects of chi kung, from the traditional perspective. But finding information on the physiological process - that is, how does this actually happen, this has proven more difficult.

During my studies of anatomy and physiology, while in massage school, I gained some insights into how the effects of chi kung benefit the immune system. Since then I've been exploring this relationship further, through the study of anatomy and physiology theory and chi kung practice. The following are some of my findings to date that I would like to share.

The immune system is not necessarily a true system, but is more of a function or response. This response is the action of such cells as phagocytes and killer cells, as well as substances such as interferons and antibodies. These cells live in the blood and lymph fluid and are known as leukocytes, or white blood cells, and others are known as lymphocytes, or lymph cells. Both leukocytes and lymphocytes migrate into the surrounding tissue as part of their immune function. These cells work together to defend the integrity of our bodies. This action is an elaborate interrelationship whereby they identify, ingest, destroy and eliminate disease-causing organisms. An additional immune function is the removal of damaged, dead and irregular cells, such as those that are cancerous.

The immune response is often described as a military-like action, with first and second lines of defense, and cells that destroy and kill. However, the image that was given to me by my anatomy teacher is that of an organic garden. I see this as a natural environment in which everything has its place and purpose. Where life and death are constantly interchanging. And where the activity of seeking balance or homeostasis, is an active and ongoing process.

Immune cells are produced in the lymph tissue and red bone marrow. The cells are then stored in the lymphatic organs and blood. And, in order to perform their functions of cleaning and protecting, they must be circulated throughout the entire body. It is primarily this action of circulation that we are going to look at here.

First, let's look at the vascular system. As the blood travels through the vascular system it eventually reaches the capillary beds. These "beds" are networks of very small vessels with permeable walls. These capillary beds are located in various concentrations throughout all the organs and tissues of our bodies. Here the liquid portion of the blood leaks out into the surrounding tissue. This liquid is basically the blood plasma and is filled with cells of various kinds including immune cells. This liquid flushes through the tissues, carrying nutrients into the cells and washing away the wastes. This fluid is then drawn back into the blood vessels on the venous side and carried to the organs of filtration, where the wastes are filtered out. Not all of this fluid is returned immediately to the blood. Much of it remains in the tissue and is called intercellular fluid. This is an important point. This fluid fills the microscopic spaces between the cells.

Interwoven within the capillary beds are lymph capillaries which are part of the lymph system. Some of the intercellular fluid is drawn into these lymph capillaries. This then becomes "lymph fluid". So, the liquid portion of the blood (plasma), intercellular fluid, and lymph fluid are basically the same substance. The distinguishing characteristics have to do with where they are located within the body.

The lymph system comprises the network of capillaries and vessels that carry lymph fluid through the lymph nodes and the lymphatic organs of spleen, tonsils, and thymus gland. As the lymph fluid passes through this system it is filtered, cleaned of impurities and infused with new lymphocytes (lymph cells). Eventually the lymph is returned to the blood, becoming plasma again. You can see that there is a very close relationship between the lymph and the circulatory systems. The "immune response" is the complex interaction of the pathogen-destroying cells that live within the blood, lymph and intercellular fluid. In varying concentrations, this fluid exists virtually everywhere throughout our bodies, from just under the skin to the bone marrow, where immune cells are formed.

The connective tissue also plays a part in the immune function. Connective tissue is the most abundant tissue in the body. It is a binding and supporting tissue that has a rich blood supply and contains considerable intercellular space. Fascia, bone and ligament are all connective tissue. This tissue group can be seen as consisting of the same basic ground substance or "matrix" that is infused with different elements. When this matrix is infused with calcium it becomes bone, when infused with dense fibers, it becomes tendon, when infused with loose flexible fibers it becomes fascia. This tissue wraps through and around all of the organs and tissues. Each muscle cell is wrapped in fascia, then the muscle cells are wrapped together by fascia into bundles, and these bundles are wrapped together into groups to become "muscles". The fascia that wraps muscles extends beyond the muscle cells, where it becomes tendon and attaches the muscles to bone. In a similar way the organs are wrapped and held in place. Fascia attaches organs to the surrounding tissues, which would include bones, muscles, ligaments, and other organs. There is a continuous nature to the tissue that arises out of bone, wraps the bone, connects bone to bone (ligaments and joint capsules), connects bone to muscle (tendon),and travels around and through the muscle (fascia) connecting the other end of the muscle to bone. An important aspect of connective tissue is that it is continuous throughout the body. Remember that this tissue also contains volumous intercellular space and so contains large quantities of intercellular fluid. This means that a mobile cell, such as an immune cell, can travel throughout the whole body within the connective tissue.

Connective tissue is also important within the structure of organs. The connective tissue wraps through and around the cells and tissues, binding them together, helping them hold their shape, and anchoring them to the surrounding structures.

In order for a pathogen (a disease-producing organism) to impact the body, it must enter what is referred to as the "internal environment". This means that the pathogen must pass through the protective layer of cells. This is our skin on the outside and the mucus membranes that line our body cavities, on the inside. In contrast, when food is taken into our mouth and travels the gastro-intestinal tract only that which is assimilated enters the internal environment. The digestive tract is viewed as a tube through our bodies and is not considered the internal environment. The same is so with our lungs. When we breath in, some of the air is assimilated and the rest is exhaled, along with the waste gases. This "internal environment" is either the blood, the individual cells, or the connective tissue. Though some pathogens can be absorbed, if our protective layers are healthy we are more likely to be disease free.

The protection of our internal environment is what the Chinese call "wei chi" or protective energy. A white blood cell known as a "macrophage" is an important player in this process. Macrophages are present in most tissues, some are fixed within the host tissue and others wonder around. Large numbers of wondering macrophages travel throughout the body and are particularly present in the connective tissue. The function of the macrophage is to "clean" the tissue. They do this by ingesting pathogens, dead tissue and other "trash". This is the protective wei chi in action.

When a pathogen does enter our internal environment, which could be any of our organs, tissues or cells, the macrophages in the immediate vicinity are the first to act upon the intruder. If this isn't enough then more help is called, and this sets off a process that brings more blood to the area. This brings more fluid, which contains more immune cells. The immune cells try to break down and ingest the intruders. The cells that have accomplished this are then drawn back into the blood and lymph to be filtered, cleansed and eliminated. The process continues until the pathogens are brought under control. This is facilitated by the increased flow of blood to the area. The increased fluid engorges the tissue, which also brings more cellular activity to the area. The increased blood and cellular metabolism increases the local temperature. This is the heat, redness and swelling that create inflammation. And, increased circulation is also important to the repair of damaged tissue.

Because there is so much intercellular fluid, which is filled with immune cells, in the connective tissue, and the action of the immune cells occurs primarily in the connective tissue, it becomes clear how important the connective tissue is. With this information one can see how tissue health as a whole, is very important to the proper functioning of the immune response. Chronic tension and restricted range of motion are signs of contracted tissue. Contraction in the tissue restricts the flow of blood, intercellular fluid, and such cells as macrophages, within the tissue. Connective tissue has a gel-like nature and tends to solidify through lack of movement. As connective tissue solidifies, it becomes dehydrated and can "hold" the contraction in place.

This brings us to what I feel is a very important point. Chronic contraction has a direct and profound affect on the movement of blood, lymph and interstitial fluid. The contraction squeezes the vessels, reducing the volume of fluid that can flow through them. Through lack of movement the connective tissue stiffens. This restricts fluid flow through the intercellular spaces and this in turn diminishes local cellular metabolism. The cells become malnourished and/or toxic. When this happens in muscle tissue, the muscles become sore and inflamed. When this happens in organs, their functioning is diminished. As this cycle intensifies, such conditions as chronic pain, fatigue and various organ pathologies may manifest. This is how long term stress and tension can lead to disease.

When this process manifests in a larger region, say the abdomen, one can end up with several organs being slowly depleted. Eventually the weakest organ will develop some form of dysfunction or disease. If only the most obvious, or weakest, organ is treated, this leaves the whole background condition to resurface again, thus the benefit of a holistic approach.

This is where the benefits of chi kung come in. Movement generates heat, and heat softens connective tissue. The soft, flowing movements of chi kung gently massage the tissue, and this encourages the flushing of the intercellular fluid through the tissues and organs. As the connective tissue softens, this helps in the releasing of the contraction. This sets up a positive feedback loop. As the tissue softens, more fluid enters, and as more fluid enters, the tissue softens more.

Chinese theory refers to "Chi and Blood". I think of this as "energy and fluid". "Where blood is, Chi is also", is another phrase from Chinese medicine. To me this fluid that exists throughout the tissues of our bodies is one of the primary dwelling places of our vital energy, chi. Contraction of the tissue becomes a block to this flow of fluid and energy, or "energy block". Dissolving these blocks in our bodies has a direct and profound impact on our whole being. In the classes that I teach, I communicate these concepts through what I call the "soft body principle". Focusing on softness, I work with opening the "breath wave" and softening the body. The breath wave is the hydraulic-like dynamics that propel respiration. Through the direct and indirect relationships of the various tissues the entire muscular-skeletal system participates in the breath. And through the oxygenation of the blood our entire body is affected. In order for this oxygen and the other fluid components to reach all parts of our bodies, our tissues must be resilient and soft. Resiliency of the tissue is also required in order for the breath wave to be free. So, there is a reciprocal relationship here, between the tissue allowing the opening of the breath wave, and the breath feeding the tissue. Relaxed deep breathing also supports the flow of lymph fluid. The soft relaxed and repetitive movements of chi kung are especially effective for this.

Relaxed movement is movement with minimal contraction. As one is able to allow this process to manifest, over time, one can develop a sense of letting go that sinks deeper and deeper into the body. This deep letting go allows for freer breathing and more effective nourishment to the deep tissues. This is why time and repetition are so important to chi kung practice. As one becomes more soft, one is able to do more movement with less contraction, which increases the fluid movement within the entire body, and increases the resiliency of the tissues.

Practicing with faster movements or deeper postures, when performed within the soft-body principles, are ways to "pump up" the process. It is important that this is done in a way that encourages the tissue to become more soft and fluid, and not so that the tissue becomes tight and hard. Learning to monitor one's ability to stay within these principles is very important to increase your understanding and improve the effectiveness of your practice. The sensation of warmth spreading throughout the body is the primary indicator that you are achieving this. Energy filling the body is manifested as the intercellular fluid flowing throughout the tissues. This produces what I refer to as "flushing the lymph drainage system", a process which occurs when soft fluid movements, combined with open breathing, "flush" the intercellular fluid throughout the body. This process of flushing the tissue is a very real, physical sensation. And in order for this to manifest, it is important that your body is soft and open.

Since it is the blood and intercellular fluid which nurture the tissues and organs, including the heart, one can see how tension can inhibit health. By sending the flow of intercellular fluid deep into the body, the organs of lymphocyte production are stimulated. With more healthy immune cells as well as oxygen and other nutrients moving freely throughout our body, our organs become nourished and cleansed. Many organ dysfunctions and diseases are accompanied by inflammation and/or deterioration of the tissue. So it becomes more clear how chi kung and tai chi can physiologically affect such conditions through increased lymphocyte production and improved circulation. When our immune response as a whole is in optimum working order, this has a general, broad-spectrum effect on our health. In the case of recent injury, this process of flushing the fluids through the tissues can also aid in the reduction of inflammation, which can become a form of stagnation if untreated.

The exercises that I find most beneficial to developing this soft fluid body energy are those that lend themselves most to rhythm and repetition. To get the feeling of this, first you tune into your basic energetic rhythm or "pulse". This is done by getting a sense of the movement of your breath, as you soften your body. Allow the inhalation to gently expand your body, and as you exhale, simply let go of the expansion. Let the natural movement of your breath create the rhythm, which you follow with your whole body. Inhaling and expanding, exhaling and letting go. This pulse of the breath wave can be carried into further movement by allowing the expansion to lift your arms. And, as you exhale, let your arms settle down, and sink into a gentle sitting posture with your legs. This is the opening movement of the Yang family tai chi form. Other movements such as Chen family silk reeling are also very effective for this. The important thing is repetition over time, and regular practice.

I have found that the more simple, and gentle movements are the most beneficial for developing the feeling of softness and the flow of fluid within the body. This is because these basic movements allow your awareness to go more inside and focus on the subtle sensations. In the beginning, simply bringing the attention to these sensations is enough to elicit change. As your awareness of this internal process becomes more refined, you can fine tune your attention and intent. On the physical level, as your body becomes more accustomed to the exercise, you can sink deeper into the posture. This increases the feeling of compression within your tissue. By increasing the compression while at the same time staying soft, you create the physiological effect of working deeper into the tissue. For the purpose of flushing the lymph drainage system, it is of great importance to work within a range that allows you to keep your body soft and your breath wave open. This is also the criteria for encouraging chi flow, which is essentially the same thing. I see the movement of our bodie’s fluids, and the interstitial fluid in particular, as the physical expression of chi or energy flow.

I realize that in this article there isn't much mention of the importance of mental awareness or the meditative state. It has been my intention to present, as much as possible, a clear picture of how chi kung affects the immune response. The process of mental relaxation and the connection between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems is an equally fascinating subject! and indeed is worthy of its own article.

The technical information for this article was largely drawn from "Principles of Anatomy and Physiology" by Tortora and Grabowski, eighth edition. Not all anatomy books agree on everything and some of the material in this article you might not find in any book. Some of the ideas in this article are based on my own observations and interpretations of current theories. So any inaccuracies are solely my own.

I also recommend "Job's Body" by Deane Juhan. This book is excellent for getting a deeper perspective of soft tissue and its function in our bodies.

For myself, this understanding of the physiological dimensions of chi kung, and in particular the relationship to the immune function, has profoundly changed my experience and my practice. It is my hope that this article will inspire others to find new perspectives to their practice as well.

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