First of all: What is Qi?
Qi is one of the vital substances of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). It is a word which is difficult to translate, but its meaning is often described as “energy”or “life force”. In fact, there are many different types of qi, and they can be described in different ways. Each organ has its own qi, with a slightly different function. There is also qi which comes from the air, qi which comes from food and qi which lies deep within our own, unique genetic make-up.
The qi in our bodies is formed when the qi from air combines with qi from food and our own genetic qi. It then goes on to become either ying qi (nutritive qi) or wei qi (defensive qi). Ying qi is distributed to all of the organs, where it nourishes them and provides them with the energy they need to carry out their functions. Wei qi is transported to the exterior of the body where it acts as a defensive layer, protecting us from external pathogens.
Qi has many different functions within the body. It transforms food and fluids into nutrients, aids the production and excretion of waste products such as urine, and plays an important role in the formation of blood. It transports nutrients around the body and fluids to the skin to keep it moist. It holds the blood in the vessels, the urine in the Bladder, and the sweat in the pores of the skin. It keeps the organs in their places, protects us from infection and provides warmth for all of our biological processes.
With so many important functions, an abundance of qi really is necessary for good health. So when it becomes deficient, a whole host of problems can occur.
The Symptoms of Qi Deficiency
The Lungs and the Spleen are two of the most important organs in the formation of qi as they are responsible for extracting qi from the air and food. Therefore the symptoms of general qi deficiency are almost always related to these two organs. There may be other, more specific symptoms too depending on which organs are being affected.
The key symptoms to look out for with qi deficiency are:
- Shortness of breath
- Weak voice
- Spontaneous sweating
- Loss of appetite
- Loose stools
The Lungs are responsible for taking in qi from the air by the process of respiration. They are also responsible for nourishing the skin (which is often seen as the third lung), and circulating defensive qi around the exterior of the body.
The main symptoms of Lung-qi deficiency are:
- Shortness of breath
- Cough with watery sputum
- Weak voice or a dislike for talking
- Daytime sweating
- Dislike of cold weather
- Tendency to catch colds easily
Lung-qi deficiency can arise from a genetic weakness (especially if one of your parents has suffered from lung diseases such as tuberculosis), or an infection which was not treated properly at the time. Lung-qi deficiency can also be caused by a poor posture, for example working in a stooped over position for a long time. This causes the chest to become constricted and hinders respiration.
The Spleen is one of the main digestive organs in TCM. It has the task of extracting qi from food and converting it into a form which can be used by the body. If Spleen-qi becomes deficient, most of the symptoms will be related to the digestive system.
In addition to the general qi deficiency symptoms, you may also experience:
- Loss of appetite
- Bloating after meals
- Loose stools
- Dull, pale skin
- Weak limbs
The main culprit of Spleen-qi deficiency is a poor or irregular diet. The Spleen is also badly affected by mental overwork, including excessive studying or worry. Another factor which may contribute to Spleen-qi deficiency is living in a damp climate. The Spleen dislikes dampness, and over time an excess of moisture can reduce its ability to function.
Along with the Spleen, the Stomach is responsible for the digestion of food. The symptoms of Stomach-qi deficiency are very similar to those of Spleen-qi deficiency, and may also be accompanied by a loss of the sense of taste.
Stomach-qi deficiency is usually caused by a diet which is lacking in nutrition or protein, or simply not eating enough. It can also be a result of chronic disease.
According to TCM, the Kidneys play an important role in growth, development and reproduction. They provide the basis for all yin and yang within our bodies and play a key part in qi formation. Kidney-qi is also responsible for controlling the opening and closing of the lower orifices (the urethra and anus) and keeping urine in the bladder.
As well as the general symptoms of qi deficiency, Kidney-qi deficiency can cause:
- Weak or painful lower back
- Frequent and abundant urination
- A weak stream of urine
- Incontinence or bed-wetting
- Premature ejaculation
- Excessive vaginal discharge
- Prolapse of the womb
The main reason that Kidney-qi becomes deficient is related to the Kidneys role in reproduction. In TCM, excessive sexual activity in men and multiple childbirths in women are said to weaken the Kidneys over time. This reduces their ability to hold things in, resulting in leaking urine, semen or vaginal discharge. Overwork, chronic illness and old age may also contribute to Kidney-qi deficiency.
The Heart is seen as the seat of our mind and emotions in TCM. It also plays an important role in the formation and circulation of blood.
If your Heart-qi is deficient, you may experience all of the general qi deficiency symptoms, plus:
- Shortness of breath on exertion
Heart-qi can become deficient as a result of long-term emotional issues, especially sadness. It can also arise from chronic illness or extreme blood loss.
Preventing Qi Deficiency
Since the Lungs and the Spleen both play an important role in qi formation, it is crucial to look after these two organs well.
Ensure that you are getting enough qi from the air by exercising regularly. Exercise which raises your heart rate and gets you breathing deeply is especially good, so try running, cycling or racket sports. More gentle exercises such as tai chi, qi gong and yoga are also helpful as they promote deep breathing while you work out. Keep your chest open by paying attention to your posture and avoid stooping or hunching over for long periods.
It is also important to get enough qi from food. You can do this by eating nourishing, whole foods which are rich in vitamins, minerals and protein. As a rule, the fresher a food is, the more qi it has. It is therefore better to eat food which is locally produced and in season, rather than food which has traveled half way across the world or been processed. Slow, gentle cooking methods help to extract qi from food, and so stews and soups are perfect, especially if you have weak digestion. It is best to eat foods which release their qi slowly, such as complex carbohydrates, protein and high fiber foods.
Acupuncture for Qi Deficiency
Acupuncture is a branch of TCM which can directly influence the quality and quantity of your qi. There are many points on the body which are said to help to nourish qi and prevent deficiency. Points can also be selected which will help to support the Lungs and Spleen in their functions of extracting qi from air and food, or to deal with any specific symptoms that you may have.
Acupuncture can be combined with herbal medicine and other therapies such as moxibustion to further enhance its effects. Your acupuncturist will also be able to give you individually tailored lifestyle and dietary advice to help you boost your qi levels and keep you in good health.