Wei Qi: The Invisible Protective Barrier
Recently we highlighted some tonic herb recommendations to support the body in the transition from Spring to Summer, and it struck us that the selections we shared (Astragalus, Reishi, and Schizandra) are all herbs that enhance Wei Qi – the conceptual “shield” guarding our bodies. The web of TCM is so intricately woven and comprehensively interconnected that it often feels like there’s no limit to the astounding connections and full-circle realizations we can make, rendering our understanding of life all the richer! So, what is it about Wei Qi that helps our bodies maintain inner harmony despite changing environmental conditions, like the turning of the seasons or exposure to external irritants?
Qi, or “vital energy” is the invisible life force within everything and behind all transformative processes of life. It is the basis for the whole cosmos, animating all living things – including us. After Qi has been converted to human-Qi in our bodies, it takes on two forms: Ying Qi or “nourishing-Qi” and Wei Qi or “protecting-Qi.” According to Daniel P. Reid, author of the book Chinese Herbal Medicine,
"Nourishing-Qi is produced from the purest parts of the food and drink we digest, and circulates throughout the body with the blood. It nourishes organs, glands, nerves, bones, and other tissues. Protecting-Qi is complementary to nourishing-Qi. It is produced from the coarser products of digestion and cannot penetrate the delicate walls of the blood vessels. Instead, it circulates around the surface of the body in the subcutaneous tissues just below the skin… When internal nourishing-Qi is deficient, the body is susceptible to weaknesses or diseases (or both) of the vital organs. When the surface protecting-Qi is too weak, the body becomes vulnerable to outside invasion by wind, cold, damp, and other environmental ‘excesses’ which can cause disease. "
Once again, the Chinese medicinal paradigm reminds us of the importance of not only returning to harmony when our balance is thrown off, but of enhancing our ability to maintain balance by cultivating adaptability. Wei Qi is a crucial component of both balance and adaptability in several important ways:
- Regulation of body temperature: Wei Qi helps maintain the stability of our internal temperature by regulating the opening and closing of pores in the skin. It plays a role in protecting the body from both heat and cold, intimately supporting the body’s ability to adapt to the changing of the seasons and any elemental influence that can be perceived as “extreme” when its onset is sudden.
- Defense from pathogens: Wei Qi is responsible for identifying and repelling external pathogens like bacteria, viruses, and allergens. It functions as the first line of defense in preventing illnesses and infections.
- Skin and respiratory support: The lungs both produce Wei Qi and govern the skin; it is the lungs that supply this protective energy to the physical barrier that is our dermis so that it’s strong and able to deflect climatic / pathogenic entities that could otherwise penetrate and irritate the skin. Tonic herbs that nourish Wei Qi also bring support to our lungs, illuminating the connection between robust Wei Qi and optimal lung health.
- Promotion of circulation: Wei Qi helps regulate the circulation of blood and energy throughout the body. It assists in the smooth flow of vital substances and ensures the delivery of nourishment to all organs and tissues. Interestingly, our skin and breath are two of our most potent points of contact with the external world.
- Emotional balance: In TCM, the lungs are associated with the emotions of grief and sadness. When Wei Qi is strengthened, it can help harmonize and regulate these emotional states, thus supporting the energetic harmony of the lungs. External changes like environmental shifts or seasonal transitions can affect the emotional state of many people, and enhancing Wei Qi may offer mood support in these cases.
Other herbs that support Wei Qi include Cordyceps, Eleuthero, and red Jujube dates, although Astragalus is probably the most commonly enlisted for this purpose. If you suspect your Wei Qi could use some support, look for clues from other symptoms that can help you refine which Wei Qi herb could best support the specific needs of your whole being.