Welcome to Chinese Medicine Bristol's official blog! Here, Acupuncture and TCM pracitioner Sandra Arbelaez will share information about Acupuncture and Chinese Herbal Medicine, how they work, and the latest research and developments related to TCM. You will also find knowledge and ideas on how to enjoy a full, healthy life that she has picked up over the course of 15 years of exploring the world of natural health

Tuesday 25 September 2012

TCM basic substances: Qi

This is the first post on the series on basic body substances in Traditional Chinese Medicine. The basic substances are Qi, Blood (Xue), Essence (Jing), Spirit (Shen), and Body Fluids (Jin Ye). You will find out about the concept and functions of each substance as well as ways to maintain their health and balance within the body.

Qi is the basic ingredient of everything in the universe
Qi is the most fundamental substance in TCM, and is a concept deeply ingrained in Oriental thought. Variously called Chi, Ki, or Prana depending on the culture, it is often understood as -or associated with- “energy”, “life force”, and “breath”. The concept of Qi is rooted in Taoism where it is considered the basic ingredient of everything that exists and the transformational force behind all that happens around us and within us at every possible level. Qi is omnipresent, invisible and, because it is the basic ingredient of everything in the universe, it connects it all together. Qi is the fabric that provides the background to all things that happen in the universe, and of which everything that exists is made of. Qi is also the force behind the movement and transformation of all things.

In terms of Traditional Chinese Medicine, Qi is regarded as the basic material that makes up each of the cells in our body and is behind everything that happens within us from cellular functions to whole bodily systems. Qi gives us vitality, strength, and health. Its quantity and quality are associated with our growth and development and with the efficient absorption, transformation, secretion, and excretion of all substances within our body.

Types of Qi
TCM subdivides our Qi into two main types: Pre-natal Qi and Post-Natal Qi.

Qi flows through the meridians
  • Pre-natal Qi: Also called Yuan Qi, is the transformative energy derived from Jing or Essence, which accounts for our constitutional traits determined by the health of our parents at conception and the health of our mother during pregnancy. Yuan Qi provides the basis for our growth, development, reproduction, and every bit of transformation that takes us from one stage of life to the next. Pre-natal Qi is thought to be fixed in quantity. We can exert little influence on it apart from exercising moderation in our physical and sexual activity so that we do not use it all at once and enjoy health and longevity. Plentiful Post-natal Qi can provide support to our pre-natal Qi preventing it from being used unnecessarily, so supporting our post-natal Qi is a way of conserving pre-natal Qi and can help us improve fertility and age graciously.

  • Post-natal Qi: Also known as acquired Qi, it is made up of the Qi extracted from food (Gu Qi) and the Qi extracted from air (Kong Qi). These two basic ingredients are catalysed by Pre-natal Qi to produce the different types of Qi which provide the energy that circulates through the Acupuncture channels found throughout the body (Ying or nutritive Qi), protecting us from disease (Wei or protective Qi) and provide fuel for the functioning of our every cell, tissue, and organ (Zhen or true Qi).  

Post-natal Qi is used up every day and needs to be constantly produced and supported for our body to work optimally. In order for it to be plentiful, the Spleen and the Lungs need to be strong. In addition, our life-style and dietary habits can exert enormous influence in the amount of Qi that we make and that we spend.

Functions of Qi:

As well as providing strength and vitality, Qi:
  • Keeps us warm
  • Protects us from disease
  • Makes all organs work and holds the organs in their place and the Blood in the Blood vessels.
  • Transports nutrients, blood, and other substances all around our body to wherever they are needed

In other words, strong Qi can not only keep us at the right temperature but also make our immune system strong, prevent varicose veins, bleeding without cause and prolapse and keep our organs strong and working properly.

Qi imbalance

When Qi is either weak or not flowing harmoniously around the body, we can develop symptoms. There are two broad categories of Qi disharmony: excess and deficiency. The table below shows the TCM diagnoses and symptoms that can be related to both.

TCM diagnosis
Possible Symptoms
Qi deficiency
Low energy
Poor appetite
Little desire to speak or move
Low appetite
Poor digestion
Pale complexion
Under-functioning in any organ
Susceptibility to feeling cold
Frequent colds
Maximise rest
Avoid cold and raw food and liquids
Eat nutritious and warming meals
Dress warmly
Consume specific foods that nourish Qi
Avoid excess activity including sexual activity
When severe, Acupuncture and Chinese herbal remedies can be used to tonify Qi and improve energy levels and digestion, and boost the immune system
Qi deficiency- Sinking of Qi
Prolapse of any organ
Feeling of cold and exhaustion
As above
Since this is a more serious type of Qi deficiency Acupuncture and/or Chinese herbs may be necessary to improve symptoms
Qi stagnation
Pain or distension if any part of the body
Emotional instability
Poor circulation
Avoid stimulants such as caffeine, alcohol and drugs. Avoid refined sugar, spicy, and heavy food.
Regular moderate exercise to move Qi: walking, swimming and cycling are best
Stretch daily or practise yoga
Qi Gong and Tai chi are also useful to move Qi and promote relaxation
Qi stagnation- Rebellious Qi
Acid regurgitation
As above. When symptoms are severe, chronic, or persistent specific Acupuncture points may be needled to alleviate cough, reduce acidity and relief nausea and vomiting

What you can do
 As mentioned above, there is little we can do to directly improve our pre-natal Qi, which is comparable to the constitutional strength and genetic make-up that we inherit from our parents. However, our constitution and strength can be indirectly improved by supporting our post-natal Qi through both nourishing and conserving it. This in turn, will serve us to improve our present health and contribute to our future health and a gracious old age.

How to nourish Qi

As the two sources of post-natal Qi are the air that we breathe and the food that we eat, keeping the organs of digestion and respiration strong and healthy is the first step towards having a strong Qi. For this you can refer to my previous posts on the Spleen and the Lungs

Post-natal Qi can easily be influenced both in positive or negative ways by our life-style, particularly by how and what we breathe, and by our dietary habits. As I have already covered breathing in a previous post, I will focus on food here.

In terms of acquiring proper nutrition, we need to: 

1) Eat food that is fresh:
Fresh food is rich in nutrients and Qi
Everything we eat has its own Qi, by this we are talking not only about vitamins, minerals, protein, essential fatty acids, fibre, etc.; but about the actual vitality of the food. Qi makes living things strong and healthy so lack of vitality, strength, and health in our vegetables or meat reflect a lack of Qi and will cause the same in us if we consume them.

Ideally, we need to cook our meals from scratch, preferably with ingredients that have not been highly processed or exposed to too much chemical or biological pollution. Fresh vegetables, grains, pulses, meats, and fruits should constitute our basic ingredients. Check for local organic box deliveries, farmers’ markets, and greengrocers’ and focus on getting fresh and when possible pesticide-free produce. Unrefined rather than refined products will best complement this, so honey and molasses should be used to sweeten our foods, and wholemeal grains should be favoured over refined ones. In the same way, frozen or canned vegetables shouldn’t be considered replacement for fresh vegetables as they have lost their Qi along with much of their nutritional content, just as re-formed meats are not the same as eating real meat.

Light processing like the one needed to make bread, tofu, yogurt, or dry fruit alters the composition of the foods providing new nutritional values rather than destroying nutrients, unless preservatives and chemical additives have been used.  Pre-packed meals, junk food, and highly processed products which not only do not resemble the original ingredients but contain an endless list of colourings, flavourings, preservatives and man-made vitamins, have little nutritional value and are also high in toxicity providing no basic ingredients for the body to make Qi.

Processing and packing destroy nutrients and Qi
2)Eat food that is low in toxicity: The Qi of a food product depends not only on its freshness but on its “cleanliness” or lack of chemical and biological toxicity. Most of us are aware that that our clever food industrialists have devised ways to keep food looking fresh despite it travelling for miles and being packed in plastic and held under strong lights for days or months on end. In the same way as heavy makeup can make an exhausted woman look great but cannot actually give her more energy, food that has been “made up” or covered with chemicals in order for it to look fresh or keep for longer is not actually prevented from becoming less nutritious or losing its Qi. When to this we add a host of chemicals created to emulate flavours of real food we end up with the common scenario of empty calories and excess fats and toxins that make people in developed societies both obese and malnourished at the same time.

If you think about it, every one of your cells is made from the food you eat. If you eat man-made substances, you will end up with cells made up of chemicals. Amongst other things, your cells need protein, essential fatty acids, vitamins, minerals, and water. If instead of any of these you give them chemicals and “non-foods”, what do you think is going to happen to you? Of course we do not know the answer to that, but it is no news to most of us that the increase in severe chronic illnesses from heart disease to diabetes and cancer is closely related to the lack of nutrition in our diet.

3)Eat foods that strengthen Qi:  
In TCM, not only what we eat but how we eat it is considered important for good health.   
Here are the how's:
  • Eat in a calm environment and avoid eating in the midst of emotional upheaval. If you are angry or upset the food will not be processed properly and will just sit on your stomach producing indigestion and other symptoms
  • Chewing your food well makes it easier for your digestive system to extract nutrients and produce energy from what you eat. As Ghandi said: “drink your food and chew your drink”.
  • Cooking and eating our food is both a question of survival and of celebration. Do not eat for the sake of eating, give your body what it needs and be grateful for the nourishment you are receiving and which will give you health and vitality. This will open your Heart to the joy of eating well, and relax you to allow the digestive process to work better.
  • Eating food that is well-cooked and warm rather than raw and cold is of paramount importance in TCM. This is because the Stomach essentially “cooks” the food that we eat in order to make Qi and Blood. Eating cold and raw food will make the digestive system work harder which may result in you spending more energy than you gain trying to digest the food. In previous posts, I have covered TCM views of  the digestive process and how to have a balanced diet.
A variety of foods in proportions of 40-60% vegetables, 20-30% whole grains, and 10-20% proteins. Vegetarians need to consume protein in larger quantities and with more regularity than meat eaters. I covered the main aspects of a healthy diet according to TCM in a previouspost.

Foods that particularly tonify the Qi include:

Chicken, eel, herring, mackerel, trout
Lentils, soya beans, tofu, walnuts
Oats, brown rice, corn, barley
Mushrooms, sweet potatoes, potatoes, yam, squash
Coconut, dates, figs, grapes, liquorice, longan, royal jelly, molasses

Energy-based exercise helps conserve and move Qi

How to conserve Qi

Nourishing ourselves is just one aspect of having strong Qi, we also need to be careful not to overuse our available Qi.

In order to conserve the Qi and have enough reserves to fight illness and fend off stress, we need to balance the amount of activity and rest in our everyday life, making sure we rest when we feel tired and that we are moderate in the amount and type of exercise we do. Generally speaking, we need to exercise so that our Qi does not become stagnant. Walking and moderate swimming and cycling are good ways to move our Qi without exhausting its reserves. 

Prenatal Qi is closely related to the Kidneys, and the Kidneys rule reproduction and childbirth. Because of this, excessive sexual activity in men and numerous consecutive pregnancies in women -even if they do not come to full term- are believed to exhaust prenatal Qi. Being moderate in our sexual and reproductive activity is thus another way to conserve our Qi. 

Energy-based exercises such as Qi Gong, Tai Chi, and Yoga can also contribute to moving our Qi without using our reserves. This type of exercise can also help us tune into our bodies and become more aware of our Qi. This results in more awareness of our own needs and more control over our health and well-being.

 TCM treatment 

Acupuncture works directly on the Qi that circulates through the Acupuncture channels (Nutritive or Ying Qi) and depending of the points used can also invigorate the Qi of all the organs and unblock Qi that has become stagnant anywhere in the body. Because of this, Acupuncture is often regarded as an invigorating treatment as well as being a recommended
treatment for any type of pain which can result from stagnation of Qi.

Chinese herbal remedies can also be used when a person displays symptoms of Qi deficiency such as weakness and under-functioning. Once the type of Qi or organ of the body affected is identified, specific remedies can be selected to tonify the specific type of Qi that has been depleted. When Qi is stagnant, pungent and dispersing remedies are used to break up blockage and relieve symptoms such as distension and pain.

A qualified TCM practitioner should also provide you with advice as to the type of foods and the amount of rest or type of exercise that are most suitable for your condition. Following this advice will not only enhance the effects of treatment but provide you with a tool to prevent the recurrence of symptoms.

Qi is the most basic substance of our body. Learning to nourish it and protect it can be the single most important step towards enjoying good health, feeling strong and vital, and planting the seeds of aging well. What’s not to like?