Why am I so tired? Pt 1. The Breath of Life

February 16th, 2015





The importance of breathing need hardly be stressed. It provides the oxygen for the metabolic processes; literally it supports the fires of life. But breath as “pneuma” is also the spirit or soul.”


– Alexander Lowen – The voice of the Breath



Energy and health






Probably the single biggest indicator of a disturbance in our health is a low energy level. The model upon which traditional Chinese medicine is based defines health as a ‘free flow of chi’. Therefore dis-ease (literally, a lack of ease) is defined as some degree of blockage in that flow. Furthermore chi energy also expresses as conscious awareness.


This infers that where we have a blockage in chi flow there may also be a blockage in conscious awareness about something. Correspondingly, as energy flows again we can experience an ‘aha’ moment of understanding or clarity.


The chi/energy model sees the body as ‘software controlled hardware’ and provides the missing  link between physiology and psychology; the body and the mind


From time to time in this short series on energy and health we will see how our emotional and mental life impacts our physical energy and visa versa. So, let’s get down to basic principles of energy in the body and health…




The Mysterious ‘Three Heaters’[1] and energy



The Triple Heater energy system is probably the most confusing to new students of therapies like shiatsu and acupuncture as it does not have a corresponding physical organ. It is best seen as an overview of our energy metabolism. That is, it describes how energy is absorbed, refined, distributed, stored and excreted.






The metabolism of energy in the triple heater is quite a complex study but in today’s blog we are going to focus on how energy can stagnate in each of these areas, how we might experience that and what we can do about it.





The Upper Heater and the Lungs



This upper ‘burning space’ rules over the activity of our heart and lungs. The lungs are considered the ‘bellows’ that fan the flame of metabolic activity and even drives the heart.



An important difference in this model is that the ‘pump’ or drive comes from the lungs (its title is ‘the Master of Chi’) whereas the heart is considered more of a regulator and distributor of this force. We will look more closely at the significance of that next week in a look at the heart and energy in health.



The lungs themselves are highly dependent on two main factors for healthy functioning:



  1. The integrity of the mucosa so that proper gas exchange can take place and our outer immune defenses function properly
  2. The proper use of breathing via the diaphragm, abdominal and intercostal muscles.



Anyone who has had a cold will know how compromised our ability to absorb and utilise oxygen becomes. A simple act like walking up a set of stairs can suddenly be transformed into a wheezy, breathless trial.



The surface of the alveoli (lung cells) is coated in a substance called surfactant. Its role is to ensure the integrity of the lung cells so they don’t collapse and to allow gas exchange to take place during inhalation and exhalation. Think of the surface of a surfactant coated lung cell to be like a well-tuned drum skin with just the right amount of surface tension.



If the lungs become burdened by too much mucus this exchange becomes more difficult. Likewise if the lungs become too dry (due to a very dry environment, or chronic smoking that heat and dry the lungs) surfactant can be compromised and its helpful role in breathing radically reduced.



The energy connection between healthy lungs and diet



One of the most common but overlooked factors that directly affects the mucosal balance in the lungs (and everywhere else that has mucosal surfaces in the body for that matter) is diet.





A diet that irritates the mucosa can cause the mucus secreting ‘goblet cells’ (they are shaped like a goblet) to secrete more mucus to protect itself from the irritation. ‘Modern’ problems like:



  • Gluten intolerance
  • An exponential rise in synthetic chemicals and sugar in food preparation
  • Even simple over eating and too many food combinations in a single meal causing a rise in acidity


– can all cause the mucosa to protect itself as best it can by producing more mucus.



In the Triple Heater model of energy production, a proportion of the energy produced by eating is distributed up to the lung for further separation and distribution through the meridian system. If the digestion is struggling it creates what is called ‘damp’ – a negative environment for health.



Examples of damp in our energy system:



  • A phlegmy condition in the lungs and upper respiratory tract causing coughing and expectoration, sneezing and so on
  • Poor digestion with bloating and gas
  • Swelling of the joints and oedema
  • Poor memory and learning difficulties
  • Minor infections and discharges



A damp digestion gives poor ‘service’ to the lungs resulting in a compromised energy metabolism in this ‘upper heater’ area.  Look at young children whose digestion and food habits are still developing and observe how much phlegm, saliva and mucus they constantly produce.







Immunity and the lungs



Immunity is another reason why it is important to have healthy mucosa. Our mucosa is our first line of defence in our immune response as it houses immunoglobulins – also known as ‘antibodies’.[2] Think of these as ‘sniper shooters’ that lie in wait for any potentially harmful substance (called antigens) entering from the outside that may cause harm to us.[3]


A phlegmy, bacteria-rich environment makes life difficult for our immune response and we place ourselves at far greater risk for repeat inflammations and infections as a result. It goes without saying that living in a body that is constantly fighting a low-level war is a huge drain on our energy.


Many of these symptoms may be subclinical. We either don’t notice them directly or just take them for granted as ‘part of life’. The only subjective sign we do pay attention to is a constant, nagging lack of energy that seems to come from nothing.




Posture, breathing and energy





Look at a healthy infant if you want to be reminded about posture and breathing technique. If we do not breathe with the whole of our lungs (at least part of the time) we risk creating infection.





Poor posture like the ‘computer slump’; lack of exercise that stimulates us to breath more fully and deeply; stress and depressive states where our mind and body become disconnected to the point we literally forget to breathe for regular periods can all worsen our health and short circuit our energy.


artist unknown

artist unknown



In order to take a full breath our diaphragm, abdominal and intercostal muscles (between our ribs) must all work in concert so the lungs can descend and create a vacuum pulling air in to fill the void. Chronic tension of these muscles can lead to us never taking a full breath.



Here is an experiment I give my students. Give it a try while you read this:


  • Take a breath in and then breathe all the way out tensing down with your stomach muscles and contracting your rib cage to fully expel as much air as possible from your lungs.
  • Maintain that tension while trying to breathe in again.
  • Notice how you do not get much of an in breath?


Stress and anxiety states has us half tensing these muscles as if waiting for a punch to the stomach that never comes. This in turn stagnates the air at the bottom of the lungs and poor energy and even serious infection can result.



It is for this same reason that patients with broken or cracked ribs are encouraged to take pain killers. If they tense with the pain of breathing they are less likely to take a full breath. The result can be a ‘mechanically caused’ (poor breathing technique) pneumonia.



At a more subtle level we will experience low energy if we have poor posture and breathing technique.


That is why the first place to go to for an immediate increase in energy is the lungs. A little effort to use them properly will not only help oxygenate the body but have other positive health benefits:


  • Better elimination of waste from the body

◦   This is not only via gases in the blood. The wave-like massage of a properly descending diaphragm helps the colon eliminate waste more effectively too.

◦   The skin will also be able to perform its job better as we enjoy better peripheral circulation and excretion of waste via sweating.

  • Greater positivity. Visit a lung ward or a person with a chronic lung disease – not the most cheerful souls on the planet. When we have better inspiration of air we feel, by an amazing coincidence, more inspired. Who knew?

◦   It is no coincidence that the word for breath and spirit is the same in many languages.

  • After all health is not just something abstract like good blood values. It shows itself as vitality and ‘joie de vivre’.


 The Animal Spirit


This energy (called the ‘Po’ in Taoism and traditional Chinese Medicine) [4] rules our instinctive, reactive nature and is said to be “housed in the lungs”. It rules our physical, ‘animal’ form and is defined as the time between our first and last breaths. It is the joy of experiencing life in a living, breathing body. It gives us our lust for life and positivity.



Our body is the vehicle through which we experience life on earth. It pays to look after it. There are so many levels and ways we can create or hinder energy flow. Next week we will look at the heart and its role in regulating our energy and how that manifests in health and disease. A hearty subject for discussion if ever there was one.



Till another Monday takes our breath away,




[1] The three heaters has several alternate names. The Triple Burner, the three burning spaces, the San Jiao and so on. It is contained in the Fire element. Fire transforms so a little fire is necessary for each aspect of metabolic change and activity in the body

[2] The second, deeper line of defence is our blood, which, unsurprisingly, also contains immunoglobulins

[3] Antigens can also be formed inside the body like bacterial toxins for example but by that stage we are way beyond our outer protective response

[4] That this also became the name of the central animal character in the animated film ‘Kung Fu Panda’ may come as little surprise then 




© Jeremy Halpin all rights reserved. All images are the author’s own unless otherwise indicated or if the original source is unknown at the time of writing. You can subscribe to this blog by clicking the button in the bottom right hand corner of the page – or share it on the social media of your choice. If you have any wishes or questions regarding subjects to be discussed on this blog use the contact information below. Jeremy is also available for seminars, lectures and personal consultation: info@jeremyhalpin.com

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