Traditional Chinese Medicine and Qi

01 February 2019

What does body energy or Qi mean exactly and why is it so crucial? Alex Wu explains.



Qi, pronounced ‘chi’, is central to traditional Chinese Medicine. But what is it, and how can we nourish and protect it?

Traditional Chinese Medicine sees body energy as the combination of two essential elements: blood and Qi.

Traditional Chinese Medicine sees body energy as the combination of two essential elements: blood and Qi. To understand fully what these elements embody needs many years of study, but to grasp their essence, a contemporary analogy can tell us a lot – that of a battery. Blood is the equivalent of the battery’s capacity and Qi is the amount of energy stored within it. So the amount of Qi you can have is limited by the storage capacity of your blood. For this reason, the focus of healthy living should be on increasing the amount and quality of blood together with the amount of Qi held in it. In Tra

Qi is what makes us energetic. When we wake in the morning (if we are healthy) we feel refreshed and energised. After a day’s work we feel tired. The difference between morning and afternoon is the loss of Qi. When we rest after feeling tired, our Qi is replenished and we feel refreshed. Our sleep and nutrition affect how much Qi and blood we can generate but the quantity and quality of blood limit how much Qi we can hold in store.

TCM believes that many chronic diseases are the result of low levels of blood and Qi. Without body energy the body cannot heal and repair itself and keep itself healthy in the long term. Determining a person’s level of body energy is therefore an important part of the TCM diagnostic process. Western medicine has no equivalent for this. While one of the commonest reasons for people in the UK to visit their family doctor is being ‘tired all the time’, no method for measuring body energy has been devised. GPs will take blood tests and measure factors known to contribute to energy, such as vitamin B12, iron and blood sugar control, but if these are found to be within ‘normal’ parameters then any experience of tiredness/fatigue is thought to be ‘subjective’ and ‘psychological’.

TCM on the other hand takes great interest in assessing levels of body energy. TCM doctors look at the patient’s visual appearance, including complexion and tongue colour, just as doctors once did in the West, to form a ‘clinical picture’. They look too at ‘signs’ such as reflexes, pulse and muscle tone and assess how the patients says he/she feels. But in addition they measure the ‘flow of Qi’ through the body’s meridians – pathways for energy and detoxification that run and intersect throughout the body – to assess the patient’s energy level. Where these meridians are blocked, energy will not flow and interventions such as massage and acupuncture are needed to restore proper functioning.

TCM talks about five levels of body energy. Level 1, for which we should all aim, is associated with optimal levels of blood and Qi. At this level the body’s maintenance is fully up to date and any new damage – either interior or exterior – can be dealt with immediately. At level 2 you are semi-healthy – your body goes through noticeable maintenance cycles which may manifest as minor illnesses. At level 3 – the sub-healthy level – the body has to conserve energy and therefore can’t waste it on non-urgent repair work but concentrate on maintaining daily operations only. While there may be no immediate symptoms long-term problems build up. A large proportion of today’s working adults are at this level.

Level 4 is the energy depletion level – the body no longer has enough blood and Qi to maintain its regular functions and the person feels constantly exhausted. People at this level will feel their health is weakening but not understand why that is and what can be done to change it. Level 5 is ‘complete exhaustion’ when serious illness sets in – cancer, kidney failure, stroke, heart attack. Yet this end point can be avoided if we nurture our levels of blood and Qi earlier in life so that our body has enough energy to keep healing itself.

In the 1990s, when I was in my forties, I became seriously ill.  I was an investment banker in China working 60+ hours per week under constant pressure. Illness led me to study the concepts of Traditional Chinese Medicine and through those I came to understand the harm my lifestyle was causing my body. I quit my job and everything changed. Now I go to bed at 10 pm and wake at 6 am. I do the pericardium massage I describe in my book when I wake in the morning and at night I do the hair-combing and back massages I describe to ensure my bladder meridians (which are key to removing body wastes) are functioning properly throughout the night. After my main meal I do the gallbladder massage (outside of upper leg) to ensure good digestion. I also work hard to prevent ‘cold temperature damage’ (as described in my book) by exercise and wearing appropriate clothing. Since adopting this regime I have never felt more energetic!

The hours of 10 pm to 1 am are key to replenishing Qi

Good quantity and quality of sleep are particularly essential for replenishing blood and Qi – the hours of 10 pm to 1 am are key to this and this has been borne out by recent research. Exercise, unprocessed foods and stress reduction are all important also – but easier said than done. We can only do our best to attain these within our life circumstances. As the New Year begins it is worth considering whether we can change those life circumstances and what we can do to mitigate them. If it is only 10 minutes of meridian massage a day, every little can help.

Alex Wu is the author of A User’s Manual for the Human Body: How Traditional Chinese Medicine helps the body to heal itself (Hammersmith Health Books). Buy the book from the Saga Bookshop

A User's Manual for the Human Body by Alex Wu


The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

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