What is this Qi?
What is this Qi (Chee) you’re always hearing about?
A big part of the Yang function of the body is what we call Qi. You often hear this translated as ‘energy’, which gets mixed up with a new-agey concept, but it is actually a very practical concept.
Qi is the vital energy that powers your body’s functions. It’s the difference between a living body and a corpse. It is basically the chemical and electrical processes of your body – that propel peristalsis in the digestive tract, that contract your heart muscle to pump blood, that regulate and distribute fluids in the body. The early TCM doctors didn’t know that glycolysis was producing ATP energy in our cells, or about the sodium-potassium pump, but they did have their own explanation of how Qi is produced in the body, and they built a system of treatment out of that understanding that continues to be effective.
When Qi flows freely in the body, there is harmony, balance, and good health. When there are blockages causing a build-up of Qi, or there is too little Qi, there is an imbalance which can lead to disharmony, pain, and disease.
Qi is said to travel through the body along meridians. Meridians are traditionally talked about as rivers or major highways of Qi through the body. According to TCM theory, Qi flows through these meridians in a pattern, and different meridans relate to certain Organs that they are associated with. When Qi flow is congested or reversed along a meridian, pain or a number of other symptoms can result.
Besides the 12 major meridians, there are also divergent meridians, connecting meridians, and deeper “extraordinary” meridians that can all be affected by a pathology. So really, the body consists of a web of spaces for Qi flow.
Some people think that the meridians really refer to the spaces between cells and tissues. One researcher in Vermont, Helene Langevin, has suggested that the meridians may actually be pathways along the body’s fascia system (connective tissue) that conduct electricity faster than other lines adjacent to them. Another study, published in 2011, examined what happens on a cellular level when an acupuncture needle is inserted into an acupuncture point. They found that when bodily tissue is pierced by a needle while being manipulated, slow-moving acoustic waves are sent into the muscles. These waves then trigger inter-cellular calcium flow. Calcium then interacts with white blood cells to produce endorphins that help alleviate symptoms such as pain and nausea. One important aspect of this study was that they found a stronger effect at actual acupuncture points than at non-points off the meridians.
This is an area that is not yet understood by western science, but there is some interesting research happening at the moment, so hopefully our understanding of Qi and the meridians will expand in the near future. We will be sure to keep you informed of the developments!
These 12 major meridians are each associated with an organ system like the Lung or Liver, but don’t let the names fool you. The organ concept in TCM is somewhat different than the organs you learned about in Biology. Organ systems are the next important concept to understand.