Oriental philosophy and the Immune System

First up, this article isn’t a remedy or cure for Covid 19. It’s about the oriental method of viewing and strengthening the immune system as well as a way to continue training when it isn’t possible to attend classes. By Oriental Philosophy, I refer to Taoist and Buddhist philosophy. The oriental people, especially Chinese, Vietnamese and Japanese, have a long history of dealing with disease, plague, pestilence, climate change, war, famine, floods, bandits etc. They have applied their philosophy and strategy successfully over the millennia to great success. In traditional cultures it was, and still is, important to be healthy. If you couldn’t work you didn’t eat, your health deteriorated and your situation disimproved in a downward spiral.

From a Five Element (Wu Xing) perspective, the immune system includes:

Lungs (metal) – breathing

Stomach/Spleen (earth) – digestion

Heart (fire) – sleep

Liver (wood) – release of energy

Kidneys (water) – constitutional strength

What can improve the immune system

Things which are important to improve the immune system include healthy diet, good quality sleep, minimise stress, exercise etc.

Diet and sleep are the two biggest factors we need to consider when talking of boosting the immune system as well as improving energy generally. In oriental philosophy a healthy immune system is synonomous with good healthy Qi/Chi.

Eating a balanced diet with all the essential nutrients and vitamins we need to be in top condition is important. Consider the amount of activity you are doing, time of year etc. When engaged in more physical activity, eat a more protein based diet. When engaged in more internal work/sedentary activiy, eat more carbohydrates and vegetables. In winter eat more warming foods; in summer, eat more cooling foods. We also consider eating at regular times, not eating too fast, chewing our food well, and allowing time for digestion are all important. Of course, give up eating sugar.

Sleep is another factor which is an indicator of your health and the state of your immune system. By good sleep I don’t mean crashing out for 7-8 hours and waking up feeling like you were dragged backwards through a bush. To sleep well, you should, ideally, wake up feeling refreshed and ready to face the day. Waking up in the same position without remembering anything of your sleep probably indicates that you are exhausted and need to rest more. Dreaming good quality dreams (not the exhausting or consuming type) is usually an indicator of good health.

Exercise is important to boost the immune system.

Exercise is important for developing the immune system, as well as mindfulness meditation and breathing exercises.

Exercises can be put in two types, aerobic exercises and internal exercises like Qigong.

Applying Taoist strategy, when exercising it is important not to deplete the body. If we are training for a marathon or preparing for some specific event, it may be important to train to depletion. However, when training to boost the immune system, our goal is to increase the amount and availability of Qi/Chi in our bodies, so we would train at a moderate level. When finished our training we should feel “energised.”

Aerobic exercises are important for building up cardiovascular strength and improving the lung capacity. Examples are walking, jogging, cycling and swimming, especially in the sea. Cold showers are good if you can’t get to the sea. Include breathing practice when exercising. Inhale may be shorter than exhale. Each breath will be of different length, so let the body movement follow the breath rather than the other way round. Don’t forget mindfulness, the mind follows what you are doing. Mindfulness and focused breathing are very good for dealing with the effects of stress.

Internal exercises include Tai Chi, Qigong, Yoga, and breathing exercises.

Qigong breathing exercises work on building up the lung capacity. Lowering the diaphragm muscle when inhaling and exhaling, as well as working the shoulder joints and muscles on the upper back, facilitates the exchange of air in the lungs and allows for greater oxygen extraction from the air. This also releases endorphins which calm the mind and relieve stress. Qigong also works on calming the mind, so deals with stress, which will deplete the Qi/Ki in our bodies. Follow along with this example:

Part of a series of videos, start at #1. Set of 10 videos.

Stretching is another important tool for optimal health. I recommend the book Aikido Preparatory Exercises by Morito Suganuma.

Another book I refer to is Buddhist Yoga by Rev. Kanjitsu Iijima.

How often to train?

Frequency is also important, every day is best, forty minutes to two hours is good if you have the time. Remember, don’t rush, take your time and practice mindfully. If, like me, you have more stuff to practice than time allows, it’s important to make a list so you get everything covered over the course of a week or month. Varying your routine is important because it keeps you more focused; doing the same old stuff day in and day out in the same way leads to boredom and maybe giving up. From a mindfulness perspective you may be focusing on the destination (getting it over with) rather than letting the process unfold. As Lao Tzu said;  “A good traveller has no fixed plans, and is not intent on arriving.”

Another important aspect is rest. Balance activity with rest. As in music, the silence between notes is just as important as the melody. Listen to your body and take note of biorhythms. If it’s a good day and you feel great, do more. Whereas, if you feel a little tired, do less. Vary the intensity and speed of practice depending on how you feel. Don’t be too fixed on schedules or agendas, but beware of laziness as an excuse. Resting seems contrary to our modern lifestyles, where we are constantly doing things. Yet, we also know that after activity, it’s when we rest that we process information. Even when we do restful activities, like sleeping, meditation or Chi Kung, there is a certain amount of attention and intention directed at the activity, which is different from true rest. Examples of restful activity include lying on the floor after stretching and completely letting go, watching clouds float by, watching the waves on the beach or watching ripples or reflections on water. Which brings us on to Wu Wei.

What is Wu Wei?

Wu Wei means something like “non-doing” or “non-action.” A better way to think of it, however, is as a paradoxical “Action of non-action.” This concept is key to the noblest kind of action according to the philosophy of Taoism,  and is at the heart of what it means to follow Tao or The Way. According to the central text of Taoism, the Tao Te Ching: “The Way never acts yet nothing is left undone”. This is the paradox of Wu Wei. It doesn’t mean not acting, it means “effortless action” or “actionless action”. It means being at peace while engaged in the most frenetic tasks so that one can carry these out with maximum skill and efficiency. Something of the meaning of Wu Wei is captured when we talk of being “in the zone” – at one with what we are doing, in a state of profound concentration and flow. 

History of Chinese Herbal Medicine in treatment of colds and flu

Chinese herbal medicine has a long history of treating colds, flu and viruses. Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) uses scientific principles when approaching this issue. That is, a hypothesis is proposed and the practitioner sets out to either prove the hypothesis or disprove it. This has been done for centuries and is effective. I began to apply this approach in 2002 when I had a bad flu. I haven’t had a dose of flu since, despite being in situations where I was at risk; for example, being in the same room with infected patients for an hour or more and not catching it. I have other examples too, so I know it works for me.

To apply this method we need to know certain things. TCM theory is quite complex, so I will only use everyday language. We need to know what the immune system means in oriental philosophy and what to do to boost it. We also need to know how colds, flu and viruses enter the body and how they develop. Then we need to have a strategy to deal with it. Having a strategy is important, if we are aware of a possibility or outcome, we are more likely to achieve that goal. So, we need to know, for example, that it is possible to get through a year without getting a cold or flu episode.

At any time, we need to know 2 things, the strength of our immune system versus the strength of the pathogen.

What is The Immune System in TCM

The immune system is the working  together of all systems in the body at peak efficiency. Before we start to boost the immune system, we need to evaluate where we are currently. If we have a compromised immune system from a chronic illness, for example, we would have a longer way to go than someone with good health. We would also ask how many, if any, colds or flu episodes we get each year. The more compromised we are the longer it will take to get through a year without any episodes. Strategically speaking, we need to clear the body of any infections we have before we can boost the immune system. If we get an infection, all the resources of the immune system go towards fighting the infection. An analogy I use is that it’s like saving. First you need to clear debts before you can start saving; if a crisis develops you need to spend to get over the crisis before we can build up reserves again. Assuming you are in good health, you can ask yourself at any time “how do I feel now?” This is a good indicator of your immune system. Only you can answer that question honestly to yourself.


Everybody is affected by biorhythms. We feel differently depending on our work, sleep patterns, diet, stress, phases of the moon etc. If you feel less than 100%, your immune system will be temporarily lowered. Too much alcohol will temporarily lower the immune system, so drink less, especially if you feel low already, or are  planning to meet people the next day. Working too hard or long hours etc., will deplete the body of reserves of energy. When we feel low, tired, etc., we are at risk of infection. This can be temporary, when we are in good health we bounce back. The other factor is the strength of the pathogen. When we feel 100% and are faced with a mild pathogen, our immune system may fight it off without it taking hold in the body. On the other hand, if we are facing a very strong virus, no matter how strong our immune system, we may become infected. Conversely, no matter how depleted you are, if you don’t encounter a virus you won’t be infected, hence the necessity of cocooning.

What to do to treat colds and flu?

The next part of the equation is what are you going to do about it. To use the strategy of TCM, we need to know the theory of how colds, flu and viruses enter the body and how herbal medicine works. The best situation is not to be exposed in the first place. The second best time to treat is when we are exposed and have no symptoms yet. We can also take a herbal medicine formula as prevention. To do this effectively, we need to have a formula in our possession as you need to take it straight away.

The first signs are feeling off colour, muzzy feeling in the head, tickle in the throat, chills etc. Chinese Herbal Medicine will also work when we show first symptoms, but the virus hasn’t developed further. This is when Chinese Herbal Medicine works best; as a prevention, and in the early stages. When we have full symptoms, we still treat, but our aim then is to lessen the symptoms and shorten the duration of the illness. If in doubt act sooner, especially when strong viruses are around or you are unsure of the strength of your immune system.

Chinese Herbal Medicine has many formulae to treat colds, flu and viruses. I will talk about two which I use frequently for prevention and treatment of colds, flu and viruses.

Yin Qiao San/Honeysuckle and Forsythia Powder. This formula is good for prevention of infections like colds and flu and also for treating infections. Yin Qiao treats symptoms of colds and flu – aches and pains, sore throat, cough, runny nose and fever. Whenever I took this formula and took my temperature, it went down by 2 degrees and stayed down for 4 hours. This is significant in breaking a fever. So, taking a dose every 4 hours is important. Do this until the fever has broken. If you reduce the dose and symptoms return, go back to the full dose.

Yin Qiao San is available in a lot of places online. However, it would be best to get it from a TCM practitioner. TCM  practitioners will use high quality herbs grown and produced using ethical guidelines and GMP standards. Herbal granules are used which are mixed with warm water, taken on an empty stomach to facilitate absorption.

Lianhua Qingwen Jiaonang is another formula which I use. It is used more for flu like symptoms with cough and sputum and fever. Available in capsules and granules.

How to Take Yin Qiao San/Honeysuckle and Forsythia Powder.

As a prevention, take a half spoonful powder in warm water on an empty stomach. Take this twice a a day.

If you have a compromised immune system due to a chronic illness, or other risk factors: elderly, obese, high blood pressure, for example, take a full dose, 1 teaspoonful of powder, twice a day on an empty stomach.

When you are going to be in a crowded space, travelling, or any space with recirculated air, take a full dose twice a day as a precaution.

If symptoms develop, or you are sharing a space with an infected person, take a full dose every 4 hours.

All of the above works well with viruses like the cold and flu. How it would work with a new virus, like Covid 19, we don’t know. Interesting though, is that one of the ingredients of Yin Qiao is  Rx. Glycyrrhizae, prepared licorice root. This was shown to  be beneficial in the treatment of SARS. See link: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/228473512_Research_and_application_of_Radix_Glycyrrhizae 

So, get Yin Qiao San asap if you want to try this strategy.

P.S. If you have an existing auto immune disorder seek medical advice before taking herbal medicine.

Vitamin D

Vitamin D is important to take for the immune system, especially, during the winter, and when we can’t get out in the sun. Recommended to take 5000 IU, or 5 milligrams daily. See article by Dr. Heather Heying on Vitamin D:


Vitamin C is also important for the immune system. Here is a link to an article I wrote on making your own juice:


Other things to boost the Immune System

Other things which help the immune system:

Green tea. Take this with  a sprig of mint. Make a flask of tea and sip it throughout the day. When I worked in Chinese hospitals, we did this all the time.

Medicinal Mushrooms can help the immune system and have been used in TCM for centuries, especially Ganoderma/Ling Zhi and Shitake. Fresh Shitake is available in some greengrocers and can be added to recipes.See links for medicinal mushrooms:


I draw this information from decades studying and practicing Aikido, Zen meditation, Qigong, Tai Chi, Yoga, Shiatsu and TCM.

David Hankey.

David Hankey

Hi, I’m David Hankey and I have been studying and practicing oriental health systems for more than 30 years.