As important as it is to comprehend the meaning of qi in order to fully understand Chinese philosophy as it pertains to health, there isn’t a literal equivalent in the Western world or an easy way to explain what it represents. In the U.S. and other Western nations, qi is much like what we think of as bodily “energy,” which is why a qi deficiency can have a negative impact on our health.
According to Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and ancient Chinese philosophy, qi is translated to something similar to “the circulating life force.” The concept of qi goes by many names around the world. It’s called “prana” or shaki in India, “ki” in Japan, “pneuma” in Greece, “Great Spirit” by many Native Americans, and “ashe” by certain African groups. (1, 2) In the West, the concept of energy is generally very different than it is in the East. In our fast-paced society, we often think of being overly busy or “stressed” as a good thing. Many people wear their stress as a badge of honor, equating a packed schedule and little time to rest as being a sign of hard work, ambition and diligence.
But in Eastern medicine practices, having little time to yourself in order to reflect and recoup is a not a good thing. In fact, it’s problematic for both your physical and mental health, mostly because it disturbs proper hormonal balance. For over 2,500 years, TCM practitioners have believed that when under a lot of stress, the body becomes fragile and more susceptible to illnesses of all kinds. (3) That’s because an overabundance of business, drive and perfectionism leads to an increase in stress hormones, decrease in certain sex hormones, and stagnant energy within organs like the kidneys and liver — which is why a qi deficiency is so dangerous.
So what is a qi deficiency, and how can you overcome one? Let’s take a look.
5 Steps to Overcome Qi Deficiency or Blood Stagnation
1. Prioritize Sleep and Rest
Always tired? This is on of the most obvious signs of qi deficiency. It’s not uncommon for many hard-working adults to overextend their energy and fail to prioritize rest. Between managing a job, balancing family obligations, dealing with financial issues and keeping up with the social scene, it’s easy to feel like there’s not enough time in the day.
But make no mistake about it, sleep is crucial for overall health and well-being. If you feel like your daily obligations requires more energy than you’ve got available to give, then it’s time to make some changes.
Sleep helps keep stress hormones balanced, builds energy and allows the body to recover properly. (4) If you can’t sleep or are simply skipping out on sleep, beware. Lack of sleep has been correlated with higher levels of morning cortisol, decreased immunity, trouble with work performance, and a higher susceptibility to anxiety, weight gain and depression. While things are sure to come up now and then that interfere with getting a good night’s sleep, in general make sure to get seven to nine hours of sleep every night.
2. Eat a Nourishing Diet
In addition to sleep, the other way we acquire the majority of our bodily energy is through our diets. Some foods give us more energy and protect us from qi deficiency or liver stagnation better than others. To help with optimal hormonal balance and digestive health, focus on a healing diet:
- healthy fats high in short-, medium- and long-chain fatty acids, such as coconut oil, avocados, grass-fed butter and wild-caught salmon (very high in omega-3s)
- foods with plenty of phytonutrients and fiber, such as veggies, fresh fruit, nuts, and seeds like flaxseeds, chia seeds, walnuts and almonds
- fermented foods that support gut health and healthy digestion, including bone broth, kefir and fermented vegetables
- clean sources of protein foods, including animal foods that have been grass-fed, pasture-raised, and are cage-free or wild-caught
- also consider supplementing with adaptogen herbs, a unique class of healing plants that promote hormone balance and protect the body from the ill effects of stress
3. Reduce Consumption of Toxins that Stress the Liver
According to TCM, the liver is one of the hardest-working organs in the body and crucial for overall health, both emotionally and physically. It has the major responsibilities of detoxifying your body by helping clean the blood, producing the bile needed to digest fats properly, breaking down hormones, and storing essential nutrients like vitamins, minerals and iron. TCM practitioners also believe that the liver helps us process difficult emotions. (5)
For this reason, the symptoms of a sluggish liver and poor digestive system function closely mimic those of a thyroid disorder or hormonal imbalance (fatigue, digestive problems, etc.).
The more toxic substances you put into your body, the harder your liver has to work to remove them and restore homeostasis. In addition to cleaning the blood, the liver regulates blood composition to balance protein, fats and sugars, plus it protects our health by helping process excess hormones.
The best things you can do to help cleanse your liver and fight qi liver stagnation?
- Reduce your intake of any unnecessary medications or antibiotics
- Reduce conventional household or body care products that are high in DEA, parabens, propylene glycol and sodium lauryl sulfate.
- Use glass and stainless steel to store food or water instead of plastic to avoid BPA toxins, plus use ceramic or cast iron pans.
- Try to eat more organic foods free from chemical pesticides.
- Maintain a healthy diet full of antioxidants, vitamins and minerals.
- Reduce your intake of alcohol, cigarettes, recreational drugs and artificial food additives.
- Work on maintaining a healthy body weight (many people with fatty liver disease are overweight and malnourished).
- Exercise regularly — shoot for doing physical activity for at least 30 minutes a day.
4. Spend Time with People You Love
This may or may not come as a surprise, but fostering good relationships is one of the keys to long-term happiness and one best ways to ultimately beat stress. It’s now well-supported by scientific studies, such as the 75 year-old “Harvard Happiness Study,” that social connections to family, friends and community lead people to be happier, physically healthier and to live longer lives than people who are lonelier and more isolated. (6)
Considering loneliness increases stress hormones and might turn down immunity and brain functioning, being socially connected is important for supporting strong qi.
5. Take Steps to Reduce Stress
By now you’re probably realizing that stress is mostly to blame for qi deficiency and even poor blood status. Research shows over and over again that stress can lead to changes in the serum level of many hormones, including cortisol, glucocorticoids, catecholamines, growth hormones, dopamine and prolactin. (7, 8)
Stress relief looks different for every person, whether it’s exercising regularly to blow off steam, reading or writing, using relaxing essential oils to help balance hormones, spending time outdoors, meditating, or practicing healing prayer. Do whatever works best for you, trying to schedule these practices into your daily routine just like you would anything else that’s very important for your health.
What Determines Qi?
Qi is both acquired at birth and earned throughout life. It depends on lifestyle factors like the quality of diet, balance of how we spend our time, general emotions, physical exercise and exposure to environmental pollutants. (9) It’s also partially inherited from our parents and with us from the time of conception, at which point we store it within our organs as it helps determine our temperament, personality, body constitution and susceptibility to diseases.
How Yin and Yang Affect Qi Stagnation
You’re likely familiar with the black and white symbol called “yin and yang,” but did you know that in the East this actually represents equanimity and the concept of balance between opposing forces of life? (10) The yin yang meaning and symbol date back to ancient China and were created to represent how we must manage opposing but complementary forms of energy (such as work and rest) to build healthy lives. Yin and yang in balance is at the heart of hormonal health and strong immunity according to Eastern philosophy because it represents peace of mind, nourishment and overall happiness.
The kidneys and liver are fundamental roots of all yin and yang energy. They help us absorb nutrients, disperse substances throughout the body, balance sex hormones and eliminate waste. A healthy liver and kidneys therefore are tied to fertility, longevity, healthy aging and mental clarity, according to Chinese medicine.
A major difference between Eastern and Western medicine is that in the East, hormones are part of complex, interrelated functional systems throughout the body. While yin and yang don’t exactly correspond to the two genders, yin energy is said to encompass more typical feminine qualities, while yang energy is more like those we think of as masculine traits.
Yin can be thought of as the female sex hormones (like estrogen and progesterone) since it cools the body down, nourishes the body by supplying nutrients to the organs through blood, and helps the body rest and stay calm. On the other hand, yang energy (sort of like testosterone) helps produce strength and heat, motivation, stamina, and physical energy.
Signs of yin deficiency can include:
- dry skin and hair
- night sweats
- excessive thirst and dry mouth or throat
- muscle aches
- weakness, especially in the knees or lower back
- poor memory
- anxiety, irritability, mood swings and being easily startled
- restlessness, not getting good sleep or waking frequently through the night
On the opposite end of the spectrum, signs of yang deficiency typically include:
- low core energy
- low sexual energy
- muscle pains or weakness
- loss of strength
- a drop in energy in the afternoon around 3 p.m.
- anxiety, panic attacks and fear
- cold feet and hands
- general coldness of the body
Symptoms of Qi Deficiency
From an Eastern perspective, the human body is a part of the larger aspect of nature and the governing laws that help keep things balanced. The body itself is a microorganism that represents what’s going on around it — so it’s no surprise that when things are hectic in our lives, our bodies suffer and become off-kilter.
Someone with good qi is likely to eat a nourishing diet, exercise in a moderate way that helps him or her feel better as opposed to rundown, spend time with people he or she loves, and to dedicate enough time to naturally relieving stress or simply being alone. More often than not, this person has balanced qi and is happy, healthy, calm and centered as a result — as opposed to frantic, fatigued, angry or bitter.
Of course, it’s normal to have stressful periods and to deal with situations that alter your diet, schedule or sleep. But in general, building good qi means that energy flows freely, and therefore bouncing back from stressful events, illnesses or injuries is usually pretty easy. In this way, some experts describe qi like a bank account: You deposit plenty of energy during the good times so you’re better able to handle difficult situations and recover more quickly when things get tough.
Hormonal imbalances and digesitve problems such as liver disease can develop when our reserves of energy drop too low. (11) Qi stagnation is said to occur when we no longer have the resources available to “face the storm” and deal with uncomfortable situations that arise. The liver and endocrine (hormonal) systems become fatigued just like our muscles and tissue do. When qi is depleted, symptoms can manifest both physically and mentally. For example, we might recover more slowly from a cold or the flu, develop a mental disorder, or even face a chronic disease.
Signs and symptoms of qi deficiency can include:
- thyroid disorders
- irregular periods
- autoimmune disorders
- higher susceptibility to infections
- muscle aches and pains
- liver disease
- changes in appetite and weight
- and much more
How Qi Deficiency Affects Blood Status and Liver Health
From a Western perspective, qi deficiency is a primarily a result of too many stress hormones circulating throughout the body. Excess stress hormones, such as cortisol or sometimes adrenaline, can cause numerous side effects, including all of those listed above.
An overabundance of stress hormones depletes the natural balance of sex hormones, which can disturb normal functions throughout the entire body. This includes the hypothalamus in the brain, reproductive organs, liver and digestive systems, lymphatic system, skeletal system and cardiovascular system. Because they help counteract the effects of stress, practices like acupuncture, massage therapy, qi gong and tai chi are used in TCM to restore balance. (12)
In fact, some scientific studies have found that these practices actually bring about positive hormonal changes in the body, which turn down harmful inflammation and poor immune function. In one 2003 study involving 94 adults, the Center for Integrative Medicine in South Korea found that short sessions of “qi therapy” helped elicit positive psychological and physiological effects, such as reducing anxiety and blood pressure. (13)
What is qi therapy? It involves holistic practices, such as qi gong, which according to the Qi Qong Research Center is “a powerful system of healing and energy medicine from China … it incorporates art and science of using breathing techniques, gentle movement, and meditation to cleanse, strengthen, and circulate the life energy.” (14)
A proper balance of sex hormones is important for building and maintaining strong bones, a well-functioning heart, keeping inflammation at bay, and helping to control energy levels, appetite and body weight. For example, estrogen, the dominant female sex hormone, is needed for fertility, many heart functions and building bone mineral density. Thyroid hormones are responsible for maintaining a strong metabolism, healthy body weight, body temperature and sleep cycle.
In TCM, blood stasis (called Xue Yu) is the term used for the pathology of many disease that are caused by slowed-down circulation and static energy between the liver and heart. (15) Stagnant blood caused from poor liver health over time progresses to blood stasis, which is the root of most chronic illnesses. Blood stasis is a lot like the Western term “inflammation,” since it’s observed following development of hormonal imbalances, after surgery, or following traumatic experiences and injuries.
While the liver is the most impacted organ from stagnant blood, the heart, lung, stomach and intestines can also suffer and contribute to stagnant qi. Qi deficiency can develop slowly over time, but all the while many people in the West never equate their health concerns with an underlying hormonal or energy imbalance. After some time, qi (in order words, energy or hormonal balance) can become so depleted that it becomes obvious and hard to ignore. For example, it shows up in the form of general weakness, “brain fog” at work, sexual dysfunction or mental impairments.
Qi Deficiency Takeaways
- In the U.S. and other Western nations, qi is much like what we think of as bodily “energy,” which is why a qi deficiency can have a negative impact on our health.
- You can overcome qi deficiency by prioritizing sleep and rest, eating a nourishing diet, reducing consumption of toxins that stress the liver, spending time with people you love, and taking steps to reduce stress.
- You’re likely familiar with the black and white symbol called “yin and yang,” but did you know that in the East this actually represents equanimity and the concept of balance between opposing forces of life? The concept is a large part of qi.
- Signs of yin deficiency include dry skin and hair; night sweats; excessive thirst and dry mouth or throat; muscle aches; weakness, especially in the knees or lower back; poor memory; anxiety, irritability, mood swings and being easily startled; and restlessness, not getting good sleep or waking frequently through the night. Signs of yang deficiency include low core energy; low sexual energy; muscle pains or weakness; loss of strength; drop in energy in the afternoon around 3 p.m.; anxiety, panic attacks and fear; cold feet and hands; and general coldness of the body.
- Building good qi means that energy flows freely, and therefore bouncing back from stressful events, illnesses or injuries is usually pretty easy.
- Qi stagnation is said to occur when we no longer have the resources available to “face the storm” and deal with uncomfortable situations that arise. Signs and symptoms of qi deficiency include: thyroid disorders, irregular periods, infertility, anxiety, fatigue, autoimmune disorders, higher susceptibility to infections, muscle aches and pains, allergies, liver disease, changesi n appetite and weight, and much more.
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