The lungs are the primary organs of the respiratory system. In mammals and most other vertebrates, two lungs are located near the backbone on either side of the heart. Their function in the respiratory system is to extract oxygen from the atmosphere and transfer it into the bloodstream, and to release carbon dioxide from the bloodstream into the atmosphere, in a process of gas exchange. Respiration is driven by different muscular systems in different species. Mammals, reptiles and birds use their different muscles to support and foster breathing. The main muscle of respiration that drives breathing is the diaphragm. The lungs also provide airflow that makes vocal sounds including human speech possible.

Humans have two lungs, a right lung and a left lung. They are situated within the thoracic cavity of the chest. The right lung is bigger than the left, which shares space in the chest with the heart. The lungs are part of the lower respiratory tract that begins at the trachea and branches into the bronchi and bronchioles, and which receive air breathed in via the conducting zone. The conducting zone ends at the terminal bronchioles. These divide into the respiratory bronchioles of the respiratory zone which divide into alveolar ducts that give rise to the microscopic alveoli, where gas exchange takes place.

The tissue of the lungs can be affected by a number of diseases, including pneumonia and lung cancer. Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease includes chronic bronchitis and previously termed emphysema, can be related to smoking or exposure to harmful substances such as coal dust, asbestos fibres and crystalline silica dust. Diseases such as bronchitis can also affect the respiratory tract. Medical terms related to the lung often begin with pulmo-, from the Latin pulmonarius (of the lungs) as in pulmonology, or with pneumo- (from Greek πνεύμων “lung”) as in pneumonia.

The Lungs in Chinese Medicine

The Lung (肺,Fei) is one of the zang organs (or Yin Energy) stipulated by Traditional Chinese Medicine. It is a functionally defined entity and not equivalent to the anatomical organ of the same name.

Functioning on the same physical level, the lungs are an organ system that opens directly to the exterior. It’s function is to regulate and control the breath through inhalation and exhalation. Because of its opening through the nose, the lungs are easily susceptible to cold, heat, dryness, dampness, and most of all, heat and wind. This can effect the biggest organ of the body; the skin.

The lung is closely related to the large intestine (meridian). The large intestine controls the transformation of digestive wastes from liquid to solid state and transports the solids onwards and outwards. It plays a major role in the balance and purity of bodily fluids and assists the lungs in controlling the skin’s pores and perspiration. It depends on the lungs for movement via the expansion and contraction of the diaphragm, which works like a pump to give impetus to peristalsis by regulating abdominal pressure.

The Lung and its paired organ (large intestine) are associated with the element of metal and the emotion of grief. The peak time for the Lungs is from 3-5 am

The Lung has five principle functions:

~ governing qi and controlling respiration. They take in clear and expel turbid natural air (Qi)
~ controlling disseminating and descending
~ regulating the water passages
~ controlling the skin and body hair
~ opening into the nose
~ housing the Po (“white-soul or lunar brightness”)

The Metal Element

The element, Metal is associated with the Fall season and with dryness.

The element is associated with the lungs and large intestines and related to the skin and the nose.

Metal represents our mental activity such as intellect and the ability to reason, memory, thoughts, knowledge and comprehension. Metal governs organization, order, communication, the mind, setting limits, and protecting boundaries. It also rules new beginnings, friendship, clarity, and positive expression. The Metal personality is very good at making decisions and carrying them through.

Emotionally, this element is associated sadness, as metal, like the season itself, represents a withdrawal from life. Reverence is sadness without the loss. This is what makes people cry when they are moved by an experience. A lack of reverence in your life is equivalent to the lack of nourishment from everyday things. The appreciation of each moment in the present, is the virtue of this element in balance.

The Metal element is associated with feng shui and Chinese medicine. The character of metal is “sharp, retracting, polised and finishing.” People with the metal element in their personalities can be well-organized, have strong boundaries, are methodical, principle-oriented, analytical, and are very orderly. Emotionally, metal personalities can appear cold, distant or uninterested. They tend to favor intellect and reason over emotion. Metal out of balance, tends towards worries about the future.

Physically, metal out of balance can manifest as asthma, allergies, colds or flu, constipation, diarrhea or ibs.


Grief, sadness, and melancholy are associated with the lung. If one suffers with grief or sadness for a long period of time, harm to the lung network will result and symptoms of emaciation, lack of energy, or dry skin may occur. The other way around, a low supply of lung qi can cause a gloomy state of mind. A particularly sad experience, moreover, may cause a person to adopt a pessimistic attitude toward life (which is really a state of dampened qi).

The lungs fill the upper space of the body, also known in Traditional Chinese Medicine as the upper Jiao. Also located in the upper Jiao is the heart. When the lungs are overwhelmed by grief, they will disturb and “constrict” the heart. Joy is the emotion of the heart; in a sense it is the opposite of grief and it can be the key for healing.

Grief may manifest physically as chest pain, breathlessness, cough, bronchitis, palpitations, angina, or tiredness. It could also present more seriously as pneumonia or heart disease. The stagnation of energy caused by unresolved grief may create heat which, when longstanding, will become fire. Fire of the heart may manifest as anxiety or insomnia. Fire can also influence the liver and cause irrational or extreme anger. In women, long term stagnation of the heart, lung or liver may present as changes to breast tissue or disruption of the menstrual cycle.

Because grief affects the lungs and heart, it’s important to quiet the lungs, improve respiration by releasing grief and calming the heart. The best way to do this is through a series of breathing exercises.

The food you eat can help you to manage grief, as well. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, specific foods positively and negatively affect the lungs, which are associated with grief. Foods that are bad for your lungs are those foods that are damp in nature and thus mucus forming. They make grieving worse by causing its energy to get “stuck” in the lungs. These include: sugar, bananas, milk, fried and greasy foods.

However, pungent foods are said to strengthen lung function, and so when grieving it is a good idea to consume more of these foods: almond, apricot, asparagus, black pepper, broccoli, cabbage, cardamom, celery, chili, cinnamon, cucumber, eggs, garlic, ginger, leek, miso, mustard greens, navy beans, onion, pears, radish, rice, soy beans, sweet potato, walnuts.

Learn more about the season of the Lungs