This article is purely educational and should not be taken as medical advice. Please consult your healthcare provider for medical advice and treatment.
This article is focused on what Chinese Medicine has to offer anyone who is about to receive vaccinations, and will focus on two key areas: understanding the body’s immune functions from a Chinese Medicine perspective, and how to support the body to receive a vaccination, learn from it, and have the least amount of injurious side effects possible.
Vaccination can be a big decision for families, and a cause of stress and concern for many parents. This article is not about the choice to vaccinate or not to vaccinate, the science behind both arguments, or the politics and public health concerns on both sides of the issue.
Chinese Medicine has thousands of years of history of continued practice, and has been dealing with individual and public health crises since its beginning. Through the countless generations of practitioners, we have come to understand the body’s defenses in a number of ways.
Chinese Medicine physiology focuses on function and relationships, as much as form. With this in mind, we don’t look at the ‘immune system’ as a ‘thing,’ but immune function as a process. How does the body stay in relationship to the world, but protect itself from dangerous influences? This is the functioning of the Wei Qi, sometimes called the “Defensive Qi.” Chinese Medicine is clear that a key component of being healthy is having an interactive relationship with the world, being strong internally, and resilient in the face of forces that can throw off the delicate dynamic balance of the body and mind.
In Chinese Medical thinking, everything exists in a dynamic Yin-Yang relationship. The active externally-directed (more-yang) Wei Qi exists in relationship with the internally-circulating (more-yin) Ying Qi that nourishes growth and development. The Ying Qi serves to support the Wei Qi and the relationship between Wei Qi and Ying Qi is an integral component in living a physically, emotionally, and socially healthy life.
The Wei Qi has a presence everywhere in the body, but circulates primarily on the exterior, like an army protecting the border. Like a border patrol, it is constantly screening anything that comes our way, and when it perceives threats, the defenses are mounted. When we fight a pathogen it’s called “getting sick," which is also the mechanism by which the body learns how to defend against a pathogen it perceives as dangerous. Sometimes the defense system thinks the body itself is the threat it will direct its attack towards internal tissues, organs, etc. This is called auto-immunity.
Cutting edge understanding of our immune system recognizes that immune cells have evolved as part of a broader system known as the Neuro-Gastro-Immune Complex involved in learning and memory. (1) This relationship is something Chinese medicine has recognized for centuries, specifically within the Ying Qi-Wei Qi relationship.
Vaccines are injections that intentionally try to teach the body’s defenses to recognize and remember a dangerous pathogen. In fact, there is historic evidence of inoculation against smallpox in the Chinese medical literature dating back to the Ming dynasty. (2) In modern vaccines, the pathogen is altered in ways that inactivate (killed) or weaken (live-attenuated) it. When injected into the body, there is a clear message being sent to the body: see this pathogen, identify it as dangerous, defeat it, and remember what it looks like and learn how to fight it, in case you see it again.
When we look at epidemic febrile diseases (diseases that cause fevers) in Chinese Medicine, we often work with a system of immune functioning called ”Wen Bing.” The Wen Bing School emerged during the late Ming and early Qing dynasties to address epidemics that were caused by “pestilence qi” (li qi) which were sweeping across China (and Europe). One of these such diseases was Measles.
The Wen Bing approach looks at how the body defends itself against exterior pathogenic forces (like viruses and bacteria) and then displays a predictable pattern of symptoms as the pathogen ‘moves deeper into the body.’ These pathogens are often infectious, spread quickly among people, and cause drastic responses from the body’s defenses: fevers, rapid sequential changes of symptoms, and potentially permanent damage or death from the experience of interacting with the pathogen. This theory has been tested and practiced for nearly 400 years and continues to be an accurate description of how to manage febrile diseases playing out in children and adults. The goal in medical treatment in response to illness is to contain and expel the pathogen, while nourishing the body through and after the difficult fight.
In normal circumstances, the body ‘sees the threat coming’ from the exterior. This would be equated with the exterior parts of the body interacting with the disease first: the skin, nose, mucosa, etc. Typically, most epidemic diseases spread through the air, saliva, food or water.
Vaccines bypass the normal ‘exterior’ of the body, introducing an altered form of the pathogen directly into the muscle or subcutaneous tissue, in order to activate the immune system into a response and create a lasting memory of the encounter. From a Chinese Medicine perspective, the muscles and subcutaneous tissue is at a ‘deeper level’ than the skin, nose, etc. This calls the Wei Qi to fight an invasion that has been implanted within the body, not its ‘normal trajectory’ of entering through the exterior. One concern from a Chinese Medicine perspective is that this is not the terrain where the immune response and the fight against the pathogen normally begins, so the process of defense will be inherently different. One concern if the body does not properly learn how to resolve the conflict, is that the inflammatory process can be held in latency after the exposure, resulting in what Chinese Medicine calls a ‘Lingering Pathogenic Factor,” which can cause “Latent Heat” and a variety of other complications. Another concern is the body’s defenses recognizing its own tissues as the source of the pathogen, creating a situation where the body becomes programed to fight against itself. These two processes often coexist and are two potential side-effects that Chinese Medicine’s support can try to prevent.
If you were going to pick a fight with a potentially dangerous adversary, you would want that fight to be rigged as much as possible. Vaccines do this by weakening the pathogens (either injecting dead or weakened viral material) themselves. But, there are things people can do to go further using Chinese Medical treatment strategies and time-tested methods to strengthen the person’s Ying-Wei relationship, prepare them for the ‘invasion’ of a pathogen, and to set the terms for remembering the encounter as best as possible.
A successful experience with a vaccine can be defined as: quickly eliminating the pathogen, acquiring immunity (memory), and having no damaging side effects from the experience. In the case of vaccinations, we know the fight is coming, so we can prepare as best as possible by choosing some parameters to ready the body for the encounter.
To make sure the person who is about to receive the vaccine is prepared to deal with it, ideally we’d like to see a few pre-conditions met, in order to best set the person up for success.
The pre-conditions for receiving a vaccine are (in order of importance):
The bowels are moving: if the person is not having regular bowel movements, they can not cleanse and detoxify the body.
The patient is not actively sick and fighting something else: it’s hard enough having one fight; that should be the focus. Once they’re not sick and recovered, then they can take on something else.
The patient is well rested and not jet-lagged: a person should be emotionally grounded, stable, and ready to take on what is about to happen in their body.
What follows are the Chinese Medicine treatment principles that we have found over many years of practice help prepare the body for the encounter. It is of utmost importance to note that every patient is unique. These principles need to be seen as a tool box rather than a protocol. A practitioner’s intimate understanding of their patient will determine the best way forward and this builds lasting trust that is one of the keys to healing.
In the days before: begin preparing for vaccination encounter with healthy diet, herbs, and lifestyle preparations. We want to support the Wei Qi through the Ying Qi by eating nourishing foods, getting good rest, and preparing the body and mind to interact with the pathogen. The treatment principles for the vaccination support are threefold:
Prepare the Ying Level for the encounter with the pathogen: make sure that it is open and vented so that the pathogen does not linger here.
Prepare the Liver and Large Intestine for detoxifying the body from any of the additional ingredients in the vaccine and the pathogen itself.
Support the overall alignment of body-mind-spirit, represented by the Jing-Shen (Kidney-Heart) relationship.
The day before or the day of vaccination: acupuncture, essential oil, homeopathy, herbs and rest. If available, acupuncture on the day before or day of vaccination to prepare and fortify the body’s defenses at multiple levels of defense.
The week(s) after: herbs and lifestyle. Continuing with the herbs to harmonize the Ying Level and resting and eating as if you are sick. Vaccines are engineered in such a way to induce a subclinical level of inflammation. Treat the body with the rest and easily digested foods you normally would eat if you were sick.
Follow-up is just as important as preparation. If side effects from the vaccine occur, like fever, swelling, behavior changes, etc, know that these are signs the body is actively fighting the virus. These are positive, but sometimes alarming signs. Chinese Medicine practitioners can support a person using acupuncture during these times. If symptoms are prolonged or progress to deeper levels, it is important to seek support from a medical expert. The goal is to avoid a condition of latency where the inflammation process has not completely resolved.
Chinese Medicine embraces complexity rather than running away from it. There are no guarantees in life when interacting with pathogens. Vaccines are designed to intentionally have the body interact with pathogens in order to learn how to develop protection.
The intention in sharing this article is to support practitioners so that they can support families to be as prepared as possible for the experience.
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Stephen Cowan and Moshe Heller have a combined fifty years of clinical experience and are the co-founders of JingShen Pediatrics, a teaching collective that brings together the world’s leading experts to teach practitioners about Pediatric Acupuncture. For more information, please visit JingShenPediatrics.com to learn about their upcoming training, the 2020 JingShen Pediatric Certificate Course, a 100-hour training and mentorship program. There will be an AAC Facebook Live event dedicated to this topic on Wednesday, July 31st at 1pm EST. There is a Vaccination Support ToolKit for Acupuncturists available on JingShenPediatrics.com
(1) Fundamentals of Neurogastroenterology: Basic Science 2017 Gastroenterology. : S0016-5085(16)00184-0.
(2) Needham, Joseph. "Part 6, Medicine." Science and Civilization in China: Volume 6, Biology and Biological Technology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 134.