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, 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 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,
The Foundations of Chinese Medicine by Giovanni Maciocia
Healing with Whole Foods by Paul Pitchford
Photo Credit: Pontus Edenburg www.edenburg.com