What Is Qi Deficiency, and How Is It Treated?

Medically reviewed by Alana Biggers, MD on October 10, 2017Written by Julie Ryan Evans

Overview

Chances are you had no idea you even had a qi, much less knew that yours could potentially be deficient. However, according to Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), a balanced qi is vital to your good physical and mental health. If yours is out of whack, it could be the reason you’re not feeling well.

Read on to find out just how being qi deficient may be affecting your health and how to keep it balanced.

What exactly is qi?

Loosely translated, qi is the life force that drives every activity in organic life forms, according to TCM. It’s present in everything from physical objects such as your phone to immaterial aspects of the world like light, heat, and emotion. In Korean culture, it’s known as “ki,” while in Vietnamese culture, it’s known as “gi.”

There’s not a word in Western medicine that translates directly to a body’s qi, but it’s similar to one’s energy. So, a qi deficiency translates loosely into a lack of energy. But it’s much more than that.

Qi, along with the theory of yin and yang (the harmony of seemingly opposite forces), are the two core components of TCM. It’s thought that a sufficient amount of qi is required to maintain the yin and yang of your body. When a person’s qi is balanced and in harmony, they’ll benefit from health, well-being, and contentment. When one’s qi is deficient, pain, suffering, and illness may occur.

What are the symptoms of qi deficiency?

Symptoms vary widely, as every organ and every process of the body has its own qi associated with it. A qi deficiency can happen anywhere the body doesn’t have enough energy to perform its functions.

Symptoms may affect the following:

Digestive system

TCM practitioners refer to the digestive system as the spleen, which serves a different function than the organ by the same name in Western medicine. Symptoms of qi deficiency in this system include:

Lungs

Symptoms of qi deficiency related to the lungs include:

  • asthma
  • weak or breathy voice
  • weak immune system
  • spontaneous sweating

Heart

Symptoms of qi deficiency related to the heart include:

Kidneys

Symptoms of qi deficiency related to the kidneys include:

Other symptoms

Other symptoms may include:

Qi deficiency is also believed to be at the root of many common Western disorders, such as chronic fatigue syndrome, diabetes, indigestion, menstrual cramps, and others.

What causes qi deficiency?

In TCM, a variety of things determines your qi. It begins with your genetic makeup. It’s also affected by your diet, emotions, and habits from birth onward. It’s always changing.

There are a variety of physical and emotional conditions that are thought to diminish your qi. Among the most common causes are chronic stress and sleep deprivation. Both of these can elevate the stress hormone cortisol, which can interfere with immune function and increase the risk of depression and burnout. You may be able to lower your cortisol levels naturally, using both home remedies and a TCM supplement like ashwagandha.

Other causes may include:

What’s the connection between qi and the spleen?

Western and Eastern medicine view the spleen’s role in the body quite differently. In Western medicine, it’s considered part of the immune system. But it’s not a vital organ, as people can live without one if necessary.

In Eastern medicine, however, the spleen is thought to play a fundamental role in the body and is central to the digestion and distribution of food as it extracts the qi from everything we eat. Thus, it’s frequently a primary suspect if you’re experiencing a lack of energy.

How is qi deficiency treated?

Treatment will depend on the type of qi deficiency, how long it’s existed, and the cause. Blood work may be performed as well to rule out causes better addressed by conventional medicine or addressed in conjunction with it.

Treatments may include:

Nutritional therapies

Most of a person’s qi comes from the foods they choose to eat and the air they breathe, so often nutritional recommendations are made to treat a deficiency. They typically include the elimination of raw foods and cold foods like ice cream and fruit. These are believed to weaken digestion.

Utilizing heat to cook foods by steaming, grilling, or roasting can build qi. It’s also typically recommended that junk food, fried food, and dairy be removed from the diet. “Warming foods” such as grains, pumpkin, and chicken, as well as spices like cumin, cayenne, and ginger, should be consumed frequently. Learn more about yin yang nutrition.

Chewing food thoroughly is also recommended to help preserve the spleen’s energy.

Chinese herbs

Known as adaptogens, many herbs used in TCM claim to help one’s body and mind adapt to stress. This helps restore normal immune system protection and communication. Some of the most often commonly used herbs for this purpose include:

Lifestyle changes

While Western culture tends to reward and admire people who are always on the go and constantly busy, TCM advocates for the opposite. Slowing down one’s lifestyle and not doing many things at once, or multitasking, is often recommended to get one’s qi in balance.

For example, instead of eating while watching TV and checking your email on your phone, it’s recommended that you just eat and enjoy your food.

How is qi deficiency diagnosed?

A TCM practitioner will typically take a detailed medical history and conduct a physical examination to identify the pattern of disharmony. Particular attention is often given to the tongue in TCM. The tongue is believed to be a strong indication of a person’s harmony or disharmony.

A pale tongue may indicate a qi deficiency. Once the pattern and source of disharmony have been identified, your practitioner will develop a course of treatment.

Can fixing my qi deficiency cure my condition?

It’s difficult to determine the effectiveness of treatment, as there are limited studies on the subject.

Anecdotally, many people have seen symptoms improve. Conditions like infertility and digestive problems eased after treatment for their qi deficiency.

Some studies have shown balancing qi energy may suppress cancer cell growth. Others have shown it to improve the survival rate of cancer patients and ease symptoms such as pain, fatigue, and nausea.

However, it’s important to discuss the research behind conventional medical treatments with your doctor. There’s much more evidence to draw from.

What if I suspect I have qi deficiency?

If you have any of the symptoms associated with qi deficiency, seeking TCM treatment may provide safe, natural, and effective treatment in some cases. However, it’s also prudent to request that blood work be done to eliminate any causes that may be treated best by Western medicine or in conjunction with it.

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