Secrets of Korean Medicine, Part 14: Autoimmune Disease: Conquer the Enemy Within

Cleanse the lungs to help the immune system distinguish pathogens from self
By Dr. Seo Hyo-seok
Dr. Seo Hyo-seok
Dr. Seo Hyo-seok
January 29, 2016 Updated: January 29, 2016

Our immune system protects us from infection by pathogens such as bacteria, viruses, and parasites. It also protects us from cancer and restores damaged tissue.

Although we are born with the foundation of an immune system, the majority of our immunity is acquired through exposure to various pathogens as we age. A healthy immune system learns to distinguish these pathogens from body’s own tissues, but when things go awry, the immune system attacks body tissues, a phenomenon referred to as autoimmune disease.

In the United States, it’s estimated that approximately 5 to 8 percent of the total population suffers from autoimmune conditions, with many more women than men affected.

So why does the immune system attack the body when it should be protecting it from pathogens? This is due to degradation of its identification ability, which arises from the weakening of the lungs. Stress, allergies, environmental pollution, poor diet, and abuse of chemical drugs can all contribute to weak lungs and autoimmune diseases.


As pulmonary functions weaken, the tonsils, which are the first line of immune defense, are also degraded. This results in the indiscriminate attack of immune cells, such as white blood cells (leukocytes), on the body’s own tissues due to the inability of the immune system to distinguish them from pathogens.

For example, the antigen (protein that causes the immune system to react) on the streptococcus bacteria is very similar to cardiac tissue, and when the immune system is not healthy, the antibody formed by the body to fight streptococcus, can attack heart tissues. This is what’s known as rheumatic fever.

There are now more than 80 different autoimmune diseases recognized.

I consider the lungs to be the cradle of life. When they are healthy, white blood cells acquire the ability to identify self from other.

Some autoimmune diseases, such as diabetes and Addison’s disease, damage the tissues of a single organ. Diabetes occurs when the immune system attacks the pancreas, and Addison’s disease happens when the immune system attacks the adrenal glands.

In other autoimmune diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis and systemic lupus erythematosus, the immune system attack hits multiple areas. For example, with rheumatoid arthritis, the immune system typically attacks the joints in the hands and feet but can also attack the skin, eyes, lungs, and blood vessels. With lupus, the immune system attacks the joints, skin, kidneys, blood cells, brain, heart, and lungs.

While symptoms of autoimmune diseases vary, common ones include systemic fatigue without clear cause, feeling unwell even though you’ve had sufficient rest, prolonged fever, joint pain, and rashes.

Healthy Lungs Restore Normal Immunity

In order to restore a disordered immune system so it can discern body cells from foreign matter, you need to have healthy lungs. I consider the lungs to be the cradle of life, and when they are healthy, white blood cells (leukocytes) acquire the ability to identify self from other.

When the lungs are hydrated and thoroughly cleansed of waste matter and toxic substances, the excessive heat (a type of pathogen in traditional Korean medicine) will be cooled, and red blood cells (erythrocytes) will better transport oxygen and remove carbon dioxide from the entire body. Moreover, the ability of white blood cells (leukocytes) to protect the body by forming antibodies will be markedly improved.

As such, when pulmonary functions improve, the immune organs, including the tonsils, will become healthier and produce healthier and more powerful lymphocytes, a type of white blood cell that’s key to successful immune response. These healthy lymphocytes will have greater ability to ward off invading pathogens.

Lymphocytes account for 20–40 percent of white blood cells. After about two months of pulmonary cleansing, the tonsils produce more lymphocytes that are more intelligent. These lymphocytes will discriminate precisely between self and other and begin to destroy the pathogens and foreign matter.

Repairing the Immune System

Traditional Korean medicine deems that given the same environment, diseases will manifest only in people with weaker immunity. In other words, if the vital forces in the body are well-established, pathogens cannot successfully invade.

So how can we strengthen vital forces?

Of foremost importance is eating healthy and appropriate foods. First of all, you must stop eating instant and fast food, and refrain from artificial flavor enhancers.

Instead, focus on eating a lot of bitter and sour foods, which are helpful for nurturing immunity. Consuming large quantities of bitter-tasting vegetables such as bitter greens and chicory, will enhance the health of red blood cells (erythrocytes), such that they will not be affected to any meaningful extent by changes in season and will thereby prevent colds.

Foods with a sour taste, such as Japanese apricots (the pickled version, umeboshi can be found in health food stores), schizandra berries, quince, and cornus (dogwood) fruit, promote metabolism and the secretion of digestive enzymes, and are effective for harmonizing digestion and absorption of nutrients.

Bananas and broccoli have an abundance of vitamins that will help fortifiy the functions of white blood cells (leukocytes). Garlic, tomatoes, and shiitake mushrooms will enhance immune function, helping prevent invasion by viruses and bacteria.

In Korean medicine, fibrous foods are seen to function like water, dousing the pathogen of excess heat within the body, so it is highly advisable to eat a lot of raw vegetables.

Most of all, it is very helpful to eat whole foods that maintain the form they had when alive, such as fish with bones and foods with the ability to sprout, such as brown rice, beans, and sesame seeds.

Other important ways to fortify the lungs include avoiding fatigue, stress, and chemical drugs, and refraining from smoking and drinking.

Daily activities that enhance breathing, such as walking, mountain climbing, and breath training, will also help the tonsils become healthier and improve the immune system, thereby preventing autoimmune diseases.

So it is possible to overcome autoimmune diseases by living in alignment with the forces of nature by eating, working, and resting appropriately.


Dr. Seo Hyo-seok.  (Courtesy of  Dr. Seo)
Dr. Seo Hyo-seok. (Courtesy of Dr. Seo)

Dr. Seo Hyo-seok is the director of the Pyunkang Korean Medicine Hospital, which has seven branches in South Korea, one at Stanton University in California, and one in Atlanta. Dr. Seo entered Kyung Hee University in Korea at the top of his class and after years of research developed the Pyunkang-Hwan herbal formula, which improves immunity by strengthening lung function. It has helped cure over 155,000 patients of various conditions.

Find out more at