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1) Qi

Some have speculated that the concept of the Force in Star Wars is based on qi (pronounced “chee”). Qi is a life force — the intelligent consciousness of the cosmos itself. “Mountains, plants, and human emotions all have qi,” explains Ted Kaptchuk, OMD, author of The Web That Has No Weaver: Understanding Chinese Medicine.

“Qi is the basic building block of existence,” adds Megan Odell, LAc, MS, acupuncture lead at the Penny George Institute for Health and Healing. Many TCM practices focus on “building qi” and ensuring it behaves properly to support overall health.

Qi initiates and accompanies all movement, protects and warms the body, and ensures stability. A healthy body has not only enough qi but qi that flows in the right direction. “It needs to be flowing smoothly through the body in the directions it’s supposed to be moving,” says Odell. Nausea might represent rebellious stomach qi, for instance — energy moving up when it’s supposed to move down.

“Qi can get stuck, stagnated, or weak,” adds Di Guan, LAc, DAOM, who practices acupuncture and Chinese medicine at Shén Acupuncture and Meditation Studio in Minneapolis. “Qi stagnation can lead to pain, irritability, anxiety, depression, or poor sleep. Qi weakness or deficiency might show up as heart palpitations, shortness of breath, poor digestion, or fatigue.”

2) Meridians

During an acupuncture treatment, a practitioner places needles in the body along energetic channels called meridians. They form an invisible lattice that links all the organs and parts of the body; qi and blood travel through these channels.

“You can understand meridians as highways inside our body,” Guan explains. “We have more than 400 acupoints on our body, including acupoints that are on meridians and some extra points that are not.”

Embryos form through electromagnetic communication — even before the formation of the nervous system.

When the notion of meridians was introduced to the West, people thought they were a kind of imaginary construct, says Blakeway. “But these days, we know that the body communicates electromagnetically internally. And in fact, meridians follow the path of the fascia plains.”

Fascia is the connective tissue that surrounds all the body’s vital organs, muscles, bones, and nerve fibers; researchers have explored this network as the anatomical basis of meridians. “Fascia has a high water content, so it’s electroconductive, and it can create charge too. This is one of the ways the body communicates internally,” she explains.

Blakeway notes that embryos form through electromagnetic communication — even before the formation of the nervous system. “While the embryo is constructing itself, it forms these little nodes that are more electroconductive than the tissue around it. It turns out the major acupoints are in the same places as these embryological nodes. This slightly more electromagnetic tissue that was used to create us can also be used to maintain us.”

3) Organs

TCM takes a broad view of the body’s organs. Rather than considering the liver a fixed mechanical structure, for instance, TCM defines it by the activities and qualities associated with it as well as by the way it interacts with other organs, such as the spleen, kidneys, lungs, and heart.

TCM sees the liver as responsible for the smooth flow of all the emotions, qi, and blood, and holds that it suffers under excessive mental stress.

TCM sees the liver as responsible for the smooth flow of all the emotions, qi, and blood, and holds that it suffers under excessive mental stress. When the energy of the liver is stagnated, it causes downstream problems for digestion, among other things.

It can also correspond to excessive anger, which is the emotion associated with the liver in TCM. A treatment plan for digestive issues accompanied by irritability might consist of stimulating the liver with herbs and diet as well as encouraging the healthy expression of anger.

4) Blood and Other Fluids

As with the organs, TCM understands blood differently from Western medicine. Blood is the nurturing yin counterpart to qi’s motivating yang; it’s the fluid that moistens and maintains the body.

“TCM pays a lot of attention to the quality of the blood because it’s what nourishes all the other tissues. Diet is a big factor in the quality of the blood, and we have a whole category of herbs called blood tonics,” says Jill Blakeway, DACM, LAc, founder and director of the Yinova Center in New York City and the author of Energy Medicine: The Science and Mystery of Healing.

TCM also categorizes lymph, phlegm, mucus, saliva, and sweat as fluids that, like blood, help keep tissues flexible and balanced. They can also become stuck or stagnated.

Along with jing, or essence (the subtle substance responsible for our growth and development), and shen (our consciousness or spirit), blood, fluids, and qi represent the “five substances” in TCM.

“The five vital substances contribute to each other, and they can actuate or transform into each other,” Guan notes. “By regulating qi, we can regulate the others as well.”

5) Temperature

“Ancient Chinese culture was largely agrarian, so they used a lot of words and concepts that were important to an agrarian society, like cold, dampness, wind, and heat,” Odell explains.

Symptoms of a common cold might translate to symptoms of wind and heat in TCM. Wind opens the pores of the body, allowing a pathogen to enter. And heat might express itself as yellow phlegm that looks like it’s been cooked down or as a burning sensation in the throat.

Using the principles of yin and yang, balance is restored by introducing the opposite qualities. “If someone is presenting in that wind and heat way, we’d have them eat foods that are more cooling in nature,” Odell explains. “Their friends might be telling them to eat chili peppers and ginger, but if their cold is actually in the heat territory, they should be having cool things like peppermint.”

There are also colds that fall under the “cold” category, accord­ing to TCM, and those do benefit from stimulating spices. (For more about treating colds with TCM, see “11 Foods to Eat When You Have a Cold.”)

This was excerpted from “How Does Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) Support Your Health and Well-Being?” which was published in Experience Life.

Mo Perry

Mo Perry is an Experience Life contributing editor.

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