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Eastern Medicine & Natural Healing, Health for the Body, Herbs, Nutrition, Traditional Chinese Medicine

The Four Vital Substances Part 1 – Qi (Energy)

April 28, 2015
Qi and Energy one of the Vital Substances

In Chinese Medicine, our bodies contain four vital substances: Qi, Blood, Essence or (Jing), and Body Fluids. Our lives depend on these four vital substances to exist. I will focus on the first vital substance, Qi, and then talk about the other three in a subsequent post.

Qi

Qi, pronouced chee, can be translated as our “energy”, “life-force”, “vital force”, “moving power”, “material force”, or “matter”. It is a fundamental principle in Chinese medicine and the energetic force that circulates through our physical body enabling it to function. It is yang in nature (to review basic yin and yang principle, read here) and its functions are transforming, transporting, holding, raising, protecting, and warming (see in bold below regarding the functions of different forms of Qi).

Two aspects of Qi pertain to medicine.

1) Qi is an energy that can manifest simultaneously on a physical and energetic (or spiritual) level. The components of the Chinese character Qi (氣) define that it is both material and immaterial. The top part of the character means “vapor, steam, or gas” while the bottom part of the character means “uncooked rice” (i.e., a subtle substance such as steam can be produced from a more tangible substance such as uncooked rice) and hence why I featured an image of steamed rice! =)

2) Qi is also in a constant state of flux and can manifest itself in different forms. When it condenses, Qi can transform into a physical shape. In Chinese medicine there are different forms of human Qi, but it is important to remember that there is only one Qi energy that assumes these different forms of energy.

The different forms of Qi:

  • Original Qi – This is Essence (another vital substance), but in the form of Qi. It originates between our two kidneys from “Pre-Heaven Essence” and is continually replenished by “Post-Heaven Essence.” Original Qi is Essence that has transformed into Qi. We will discuss the significance of Essence in a subsequent post.
  • Food Qi – This is the first step in transformation of the food we eat into Qi (energy). Food first enters the stomach where it is processed and then transformed into “Food Qi” by the Qi of the Spleen. Spleen Qi then transports Food Qi to the lungs and heart. In the lungs it is combined with air to form Gathering Qi, and in the heart it is transformed into blood. (Spleen Qi holds the blood in the blood vessels, Kidney-Qi and Bladder-Qi hold urine, and Lung-Qi holds sweat. Spleen Qi also raises the organs by keeping them in our body cavities).
  • Gathering Qi – This Qi nourishes the heart and lungs, controlling respiration, blood, and blood vessels. It controls our speech and the strength of our voices. It sends blood circulation to our extremities. Hence, poor circulation to the extremities and a weak voice signify weak Gathering Qi.
  • True Qi – This is the last step of Qi transformation. Gathering Qi is turned into True Qi by Original Qi. True Qi originates in the lungs like Gathering Qi and is the energy that circulates all through our meridians (or channels) and nourishes all our organs. There are two different forms of True Qi – Nutritive Qi and Defensive Qi.
  • Nutritive Qi or Nourishing Qi nourishes and moistens our internal organs. It flows in our blood vessels and meridians. This Qi is extracted from food and water to regulate and moisten our internal organs. It is yin relative to Defensive Qi because it is nourishing and travels in the interior of our bodies.
  • Defensive Qi – We discussed this last week on my post on The Six External Pathogenic Factors. This Qi protects and defends. It is more yang than Nutritive Qi since it flows in the outer layers of the body, outside our channels. It warms and protects our bodies from exterior pathogenic factors such as Wind, Cold, Heat, and Damp. It warms, moistens and nourishes our skin and muscles, controls the opening and closing of our pores and regulates our body temperature through sweating. Our lungs control Defensive Qi. Those with weak lungs will have weak Defensive Qi, weak immunity and be more susceptible to colds.

Direction of Qi Movement

The Qi of our internal organs move in specific directions in order to function correctly. When Qi is flowing in the right direction, our organs work properly. When Qi moves in the wrong direction, we will see symptoms and even pathology in those specific organs.

Lungs – Our lungs inhale clear Qi (air) and exhale impure Qi (impurities). Lung Qi descends. It directs Qi downwards towards the kidney and bladder. When Lung Qi is rebellious and ascends, this can result in coughing.

Liver – The Liver controls the overall smooth flow of qi in all directions of our body. In general, Liver Qi ascends and counterbalances the descending action of Lung Qi.

Kidneys – Kidneys control transformation of Water. Impure fluids move down while clear Qi (air) moves up. The Lungs and Kidneys also balance each other as Kidney Qi ascends, while Lung Qi descends.

Spleen and Stomach – Spleen Qi ascends to the lungs and heart, while the Stomach sends impure Qi downwards. These two organs balance each other. When Spleen Qi rebels and descends, the resulting symptoms are diarrhea or in more severe cases organ prolapse. When Stomach Qi rebels and ascends, this can result in nausea, belching, or vomiting.

Heart-Kidneys – The Heart Qi, associated with the Fire Element, flows down to meet Kidney Qi, associated with the Water Element. Kidney-Water rises to meet Heart-Fire.

Qi Pathology

Qi pathology happens in four ways:

1) Qi deficient – Spleen, Lung, and Kidney Qi are especially susceptible to Qi deficiency.

Spleen Qi deficiency signs and symptoms: This is caused by poor diet or malnourishment, stress, worry, thinking too much, overeating or overeating sweets. Symptoms include loose stools, fatigue, generalized weakness, pale tongue with a thin white coating, and a weak pulse. Spleen Qi deficiency can cause food sensitivities, indigestion, diarrhea, dysentery, anemia, ulcers, and upper abdominal pain. In more severe cases of Spleen Qi deficiency, we will see prolapse of organs such as hemorrhoids and prolapsed uterus or bladder (see #2 below – Qi Sinking).

Foods that can correct Spleen Qi deficiency:

  • complex carbohydrates such as oats, spelt, and sweet rice, and foods that are sweet and/or pungent (see my post on The Five Flavors for review)
  • carbohydrate-rich vegetables: winter squash, carrots, parsnip, turnip, garbanzo beans, black beans, peas, sweet potatoes, yams, and pumpkin
  • pungent vegetables and spices: onions, leeks, black pepper, ginger, cinnamon, fennel, garlic, nutmeg
  • sweeteners or cooked fruits in small quantities: barley malt, molasses, cherries, and dates
  • with severe deficiency, small quantities of animal products prepared in soup or congee: mackerel, tuna, halibut, beef, beef liver or kidney, chicken, turkey, or lamb. No dairy products except for butter, as dairy products are phlegm producing and further weaken the spleen.

Lung Qi Deficiency Signs and Symptoms: This is usually a chronic problem resulting from chronic long-term lung disease, over-all lack of body Qi, and long-term grief or sorrow (the emotions associated with the lungs). Symptoms are weakness, fatigue, weak voice and limited speech, coughing, and shortness of breath. You may see spontaneous sweating with any kind of physical activity and poor immunity if Defensive Qi is weakened.

Foods that treat Lung Qi deficiency include foods that tonify and support Lung Qi as well as improve the absorption of Food Qi:

  • rice, sweet rice, oats, carrots, mustard greens, sweet potatoes, yams, potatoes, fresh ginger, garlic, molasses, rice syrup, barley malt, and herring; herbs like licorice root
  • foods should be cooked warm; avoid cooling foods or phlegm producing foods like citrus fruits, salt, milk, dairy products, spinach, chard, or seaweed.

Kidney Qi Deficiency Signs and Symptoms: When Kidney Qi is deficient, the kidneys do not have enough energy to control urine and semen. This is caused by either a congenital defect, too much sexual activity, sexual activity at an early age, or uncontrolled fear and anxiety (the emotions associated with the kidney). Typical symptoms are low back pain, weak knees, pale tongue, weak radial pulse, minor cold signs (aversion to cold weather, wanting to drink warm food and drinks, clear urine, watery stools, or thin watery mucus), frequent urination, incontinence, inability to urinate, dribbling urine, and other problems with urinary or seminal control (involuntary emission).

Foods and herbs for Kidney Qi deficiency:

  • parsley, wheat berry, sweet rice; herbs such as rose hips, oyster shell, clam shell, schisandra fruit, and raspberry

2) Qi sinking – Qi that is deficient can sink, resulting in prolapse of organs. As mentioned above, this is mostly from Spleen Qi deficiency, where a severe deficiency will cause prolapse of organs such as the uterus, bladder, and rectum. Since Spleen Qi sinking is a direct result of Spleen Qi deficiency, foods that treat Spleen Qi deficiency will also treat Spleen Qi sinking.

3) Qi stagnant – This happens when Qi does not move and becomes stagnant in your body. Liver Qi stagnates the most. (Liver syndromes which include Liver Qi stagnation require a post of its own which I will discuss soon).

4) Qi rebellious – This is when qi flows in the opposite or wrong direction (e.g. rebellious ascending Stomach Qi results in nausea, belching, and vomiting.)

Ok, here’s what you need to know about Qi:

  • Qi is one of the four Vital Substances in our body and essential to our body’s function. Qi is the substance that gives us life and we cannot live without it!
  • Qi manifests simultaneously on a physical and energetic level, and can manifest in many different forms.
  • Qi transforms, transports, holds, raises, warms, and protects.
  • The different forms of Qi are Original, Food, Gathering, True, Nutritive, and Defensive Qi.
  • Each form of organ Qi moves in a specific direction. When the organ Qi goes against its natural direction, this causes disharmony and disease in that organ.
  • Pathologic Qi is deficient, sinking, stagnant, and rebellious.

I presented a lot of information on Qi today because I would like you to have a solid and thorough understanding of what it is, and why it is essential for life! I will be talking about Qi frequently, so feel free to reference back to this post if you need a refresher. And please don’t hesitate to ask any questions for clarification!

In health and wellness,
Dr Elain

References:

The Foundations of Chinese Medicine by Giovanni Maciocia
Healing with Whole Foods by Paul Pitchford

Photo Credit: Pontus Edenburg www.edenburg.com

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Health for the Body, Men's Health, Nutrition, Supplements, Women's Health

The Yin and Yang of Calcium and Magnesium

April 14, 2015
Kelp and Fish - Calcium and Magnesium

You’re probably wondering why I used an image of kelp to talk about calcium and magnesium. Kelp actually contains one of the highest concentrations of both calcium and magnesium with 1,009 mg of calcium (more than 9 times the amount of found in milk!) and 780 mg of magnesium (the highest amount delivered in any food) in a 3.5 ounce serving. See? There is a method to my madness. Moving on, let’s talk about two important minerals we absolutely cannot live without and how they need to be balanced in order to function correctly. Let’s examine the yin and yang of calcium and magnesium.

What are their respective roles?

Calcium is the most abundant mineral in our bodies and makes up 2% of our body weight. We use 99% of our body calcium towards our bones, teeth, and maintaining our skeletal structure and function. The other 1% is utilized for:

  • cell signaling
  • blood clotting
  • nerve function
  • muscle contraction
  • enzyme activation
  • ion transport across cell membranes
  • sending and receiving neurotransmitters for cell communication
  • conducting electricity in our bodies crucial in maintaining a regular heartbeat, since it contains an electric charge

Magnesium, is the fourth most abundant mineral in our bodies that regulates over 300 biochemical reactions. As one of the most common enzyme cofactors, it is necessary for:

  • protein synthesis (a building block for RNA and DNA)
  • muscle and nerve function
  • blood glucose control
  • regulating blood pressure
  • energy production (generating ATP)
  • glycolysis
  • oxidative phosphorylation
  • aiding in digestion of proteins, carbohydrates, and fats
  • a precursor to neurotransmitters like serotonin
  • calcium and potassium transport across cell membranes vital in nerve conduction, a normal heart rhythm, and muscle contraction.

Magnesium is the yin to calcium’s yang

Since magnesium is the mineral that moves calcium across cell membranes, it is considered the gate keeper and controls when calcium should be moved out of the cell.

This is best summarized in Magnificent Magnesium, an article published in Weston A. Price Foundation’s quarterly magazine:

Magnesium works in concert with calcium to regulate electrical impulses in the cell—magnesium concentration inside healthy cells is ten thousand times greater than calcium, and there are crucial reasons for this safeguard. Cellular calcium channels allow that mineral to enter the cell only as long as needed to conduct an impulse; it is ushered out immediately by magnesium once its task is fulfilled. This vigilance is necessary to prevent calcium accumulation in the cell, which could cause dangerous hyper-excitability, calcification, cell dysfunction and even cell death. When excess calcium enters the cells because of insufficient magnesium, muscle contraction is sustained for too long, and we suffer, for example, twitches and tics in mild cases. When magnesium deficiency becomes chronic, we suffer the symptoms of heart disease such as angina pectoris, hypertension and arrhythmia, or the spasms and contractions characteristic of asthma, migraine headache or painful menstrual cramping.”

So if we are experiencing any type of cramping, whether it is muscle cramps or leg cramps, the mineral we should be looking to for a deficiency is not calcium, but in fact, magnesium. Magnesium is what is needed in order to move calcium out of the cell to relax our muscles. Calcium causes contraction while magnesium elicits relaxation. The article goes on to state that:

“Magnesium operates as a natural calcium channel blocker and is responsible for relaxation—counter to calcium’s contraction. Thus magnesium is pivotally important to the healthy functioning of our parasympathetic nervous system. It may be hard to believe, but our bodies were actually designed to operate for the most part in a calm, relaxed parasympathetic state, rather than in the heart-pounding, stress-and adrenaline-driven mode of sympathetic nervous system dominance that is nearly constant for many of us today, and which uses up great quantities of magnesium.”

Magnesium is a very important mineral in managing and dealing with stress as it is the calming mineral which opposes the excitable actions of calcium. The more stressed we are, the more our muscles tense up and contract. Hence, when we are stressed, we need more magnesium to relax our muscles. It counteracts calcium and acts as a necessary antagonist in order to maintain balance in a body function as basic as muscle contraction and as vital as our heartbeats.

What should our calcium magnesium ratios ideally be?

Calcium and magnesium need to be in balanced amounts in our body in order to carry out their roles. Researchers previously suggested that 2:1 is a healthy ratio. However, according to Dr Carolyn Dean, MD, one of the leading researchers in magnesium, this 2:1 ratio has led her to see statistics with a “700 times increase in osteoporosis in a 10-year period, even while taking calcium”! In fact, many supplements reflect this ratio where there is 1200-1500 mg of calcium versus a few hundred milligrams of magnesium. The frightening reality is that our ratios are probably closer to 4-5:1 with our high calcium and low magnesium diets along with extra calcium supplementation! A more appropriate ratio should be 1:1 and some have even postulated that a 1:2 ratio is warranted. This is because we have tipped the scales so heavily towards calcium with over-supplementing and calcium fortification of our foods.

More concerning, there have now been studies in the past several years showing that calcium supplementation may not only increase your risk of heart attack by up to 30%, but also does not slow the process of bone loss and may even increase your risk of prostate cancer! Bone is made up of at least a dozen minerals and supplementing with only calcium may actually increase your risk of osteoporosis. Other studies have shown that higher bone density in women may actually increase your risk for breast cancer by 2 fold, because bone density is a marker for life-time exposure to estrogen.  (I also do not recommend taking osteoporosis drugs such as bisphophonates, as there is enough evidence to prove that they do not decrease fracture risk nor strengthen bones, but cause other deleterious side effects including bone death, liver, kidney, and digestive problems. More on this later.)

How does calcium over-supplementation cause this? When we have too much calcium in our bodies, it gets deposited into areas where they shouldn’t be. Calcium deposits can cause kidney stones, gallstones, bone spurs, stiff joints, osteoarthritis, coronary artery disease, artherosclerosis, hypothyroidism, and obesity. It is the calcium deposits in blood vessels that actually cause hardening of your arteries (not cholesterol, which is a soft, malleable waxy substance), and may increase the risk of heart attack.

What’s worse, magnesium deficiency is widespread. It is one of the most depleted minerals in our soil. Now, more and more new plant hybrids are made to survive mineral depleted soil, so our foods are already grown with less minerals. Magnesium is further depleted and even lost during harvest, refrigeration, transport and storage. For some reason, calcium is much more resilient during these processes. Maybe because it is a more yang and robust mineral? (To review the basics of yin and yang, read here.)

In addition, processing foods continues to deplete magnesium. Magnesium in grain is lost in milling. Magnesium in nuts is lost in roasting. Magnesium is leached out into water when we cook greens. Then, eating processed foods with high sugar content, drinking alcohol, and soda also deplete the magnesium in our bodies since it is needed to metabolize and detoxify these foods. According to Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride, “the body requires at least twenty-eight molecules of magnesium to metabolize a single molecule of glucose. Phosphates in carbonated drinks and processed meats (so-called “luncheon meats” and hot dogs) bind with magnesium to create the insoluble magnesium phosphate, which is unusable by the body.”

What is the solution to this huge calcium/magnesium imbalance?

The best way to get your calcium is through your diet. In fact, studies show that calcium from food sources are more effective than calcium from supplementation as our bodies absorb calcium from food sources more completely. Food sources highest in calcium include seaweed (hijiki, wakame, kelp, and kombu, which are available in most whole-food or Japanese markets), dark leafy greens (such as kale, spinach, and collard greens), nuts (such as almonds, hazelnuts, and brazil nuts), wild salmon, sardines and parsley. The calcium content in milk does not even come close to these foods. While calcium is necessary at all ages, certain stages require more calcium than others. Calcium requirements ramp up during increased periods of growth and should be supplemented during pregnancy and lactation. I supplemented 500mg calcium daily in addition to my pre-natal when I was pregnant and nursing, then decreased to 200mg daily, once my son started solids. (My multi-vitamin, has a 1:2 (10mg:20mg) ratio of calcium to magnesium.)

How do we know if we are magnesium deficient? Early signs and symptoms of magnesium deficiency include fatigue, nausea, headaches, loss of appetite and weakness. Signs of chronic magnesium deficiency may lead to more serious symptoms of numbness and tingling, muscle contractions and cramps (as I stated above), seizures, coronary spasms, abnormal heart rhythms, and even personality changes. An easy way to find out if you are deficient is to get a magnesium RBC test. The “normal values” are between 4.2-6.8mg/dl, but you really want your levels to be 6mg/dl or higher. Once you find out your baseline, check every 3 months to make sure you are taking enough to maintain your levels. According to Dr Dean, unlike most medications, “as your body becomes saturated with magnesium, your body will need less, not more, to maintain these levels.”

What form of magnesium supplement is the best and how much of it should I take?

The Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) of magnesium for young adults is 400mg for men and 310mg for women. In adults over 30, the RDA is 420mg for men and 320mg for women. If you don’t get enough in your food, which probably applies to most people, then we need to supplement. There are many forms of magnesium in the supplement market because magnesium must be bound to another substance in order to be absorbed. One of the cheapest and most common forms, magnesium oxide, is not absorbed very well by our bodies (4% absorbed, with the remaining 96% going through your intestines). This is what is usually used as a stool softener and laxative, which is helpful if you have constipation.

Magnesium glycinate probably provides the highest level of magnesium absorption. Metagenics comes in 100mg tablets (take 2 twice a day for a total of 400mg/day) and OrthoMolecular Products offers 235mg in 2 tablets (also taken twice daily for a total of 470mg). It is probably best to start with the recommended dosage and adjust according to your levels. Other forms, which provide less absorption include magnesium chloride and magnesium lactate (12% absorption) and magnesium taurate, which is used for its calming effects. I will talk more about the additional health benefits of magnesium in later posts!

Here’s what you need to know:

  • calcium and magnesium have a yin and yang relationship — calcium is the active yang mineral, while magnesium is the calming yin mineral.
  • we need calcium and magnesium to be in constant balance in order to carry out our body functions.
  • most people over-supplement with calcium and tend to be deficient in magnesium.
  • you can get your magnesium levels checked with a magnesium RBC test to see if you are deficient.
  • the most highly absorbable magnesium supplement is magnesium glycinate.

Do you think you are magnesium deficient?

In health and wellness,
Dr Elain

References:

Healing with Whole Foods by Paul Pitchford

Contact Dr. Elain
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