You may have heard the term “qi” before if you’ve tried acupuncture or have seen a doctor who practices Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). Qi (pronounced “chee”) is arguably the most important component of TCM.

Below, you’ll find everything you need to know about qi, including how to know if you’re deficient in it and how to regulate it.

Most major cultural traditions identify a “vital energy” that guides someone’s physical and mental processes, says Dr. Jill Blakeway, a doctor of acupuncture and Chinese medicine. In Indian culture, it’s called prana. In Greek culture, it’s called pneuma. In Chinese culture, it’s called qi.

“Chinese philosophy calls this vital energy qi and describes it as the body’s innate intelligence — the intangible yet measurable way we maintain what’s known as homeostasis, or the body’s ability to regulate its internal environment to create good health,” Blakeway says.

Qi is an integral component of TCM.

“Everything is based on qi,” says Dr. Greg Sperber, a doctor of acupuncture and oriental medicine. “Blockages of qi, deficiencies of qi, [and] too much qi are what cause illness. What we do with acupuncture, herbs, and all of Chinese medicine is we try to line up qi.”

How can you tell if you have enough qi? Blakeway says someone with enough qi in his or her body is typically seen as outwardly healthy and energetic. People with balanced qi can quickly fight off a virus, for example, or bounce back after an injury. They typically have good endurance, digestion, and immunity, as well as a clear state of mind.

“People with a healthy amount of qi feel as if they have enough energy to meet their body’s needs,” Blakeway says. “They sleep well, wake rested, and are able to complete their daily tasks.”

People who do not have enough qi will likely be fatigued and might feel as though some of their body’s systems aren’t working properly, Blakeway says. This could mean anything from difficulty digesting food, no appetite, and catching colds easily to allergies, anemia, and depression. A qi deficiency can also be emotional. For example, Sperber says, fright can scatter qi, and anger can stagnate qi.

It’s also possible to have excess qi. People with excess qi might appear irritable, stressed, or tense. And anytime you experience pain, you likely have “stuck” qi, Sperber says. This is where acupuncture comes into play, as the goal of the needles is to move your stuck qi around.

In short, anytime you’re dealing with a medical problem, your qi is likely out of balance.

Because qi is involved in all of the body’s processes, there are many different ways you can regulate it.

Sperber says that if you breathe well, eat well, and sleep well, your qi prognosis will likely be good. If you don’t do these three things, he says, your qi won’t be able to flow effectively, and you will likely continue to struggle with whatever medical problem you’re having.

Sperber adds that avoiding toxic relationships is crucial when it comes to regulating your qi.

“We all have those people in our lives that I say drain qi,” he says. “You feel physically drained after talking with them because they’ve sucked your qi away from you. And you have those friends that just really build you up and give you energy when you talk to them. That’s a good, healthy exchange of qi.”

If you think you’re deficient in qi, you can begin to regulate it by:

  • getting sufficient restful sleep
  • exercising regularly, including a practice that focuses on your breath, like yoga
  • maintaining healthy eating habits
  • taking care of your mental health

It’s also wise to consult a Western medicine doctor in the event that your symptoms need a different form of treatment.

There are myriad ways you can balance your qi if you think you’re deficient. Below, you’ll find some of the most common methods:

1. Get enough sleep

Being tired is a hallmark sign of a qi deficiency. Getting sufficient restful sleep, meaning seven to nine hours per night, is one of the most important things you can do to balance your qi.

In addition, taking life more slowly can be a crucial part of balancing your qi. If you’re constantly busy and always on the run, your qi could be out of balance. Try to avoid multitasking and remember to pause when necessary.

2. Work on your breathing

One way to improve a qi deficiency is through purposeful breathing. If you’re struggling to take deep breaths, you might be experiencing anxiety, which could contribute to a qi deficiency.

There are several different breathing exercises you can do to balance your qi. One method is belly breathing, also called abdominal breathing or diaphragmatic breathing. It can be done standing up or lying down. Here’s how it works:

  • Take a slow, deep breath in through your nose.
  • As you breathe in, think of your belly expanding.
  • Let that breath enter your stomach, making your stomach full. Relax your abdominal muscles. (If you rest your hand on your stomach, you should feel it expand.)
  • Exhale through your mouth.

3. Try tai chi or qi gong

Gentle exercise is a crucial component of managing one’s qi. Not only does it help with stress, but it can also give your body the light motion it needs. Two common forms of martial arts used to balance one’s qi are tai chi and qi gong.

These two exercises can help with breathing, knee and back pain, balance, relaxation, mental health, and more.

4. Give acupuncture a go

The goal of acupuncture is to move around one’s stuck qi and balance the body’s overall energy. If you have physical pain as a result of stuck or deficient qi, such as migraine headaches, low back pain, or osteoarthritis, acupuncture could be worth trying.

In addition, some research has shown acupuncture could have a positive impact on your sex drive. One small 2013 study published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine found that some people who had sexual dysfunction as a side effect of taking antidepressants had an increased libido following acupuncture.

5. Balance your diet

A healthy, nutritive diet is a crucial component of having balanced qi. Most of the body’s qi comes from food, so nourishing your body with healthy foods that heal and promote good digestive health is crucial.

Nutritional therapies for balancing one’s qi typically involve avoiding cold foods, raw foods, fried foods, dairy products, and junk food. Cooking one’s food through steaming, grilling and roasting is advised, as is ingesting “warming” foods like chicken, ginger, whole grains, bamboo, and mushrooms.

6. Take care of your mental health

The mind-body connection is a crucial component of qi. If your mental health is out of balance, your body will be, too. Taking care of your mental health is as important as taking care of your physical health. Consider consulting a mental health professional for counseling if you have — or think you may have — anxiety or depression.

In addition, some strategies mentioned above, such as acupuncture, exercise, and getting sufficient restful sleep, can help you manage your mental health. Make sure you also maintain strong, positive social connections, as loneliness can cause a range of negative physical symptoms, such as increased inflammation and higher levels of stress hormones.

If you’re not feeling your best, whether mentally or physically, an imbalance in your qi may be at work. Take care to eat well, sleep well, and breathe well to boost your “vital energy” and keep your qi flowing effectively.

Jamie Friedlander is a freelance writer and editor with a passion for health. Her work has appeared in The Cut, Chicago Tribune, Racked, Business Insider, and Success Magazine. When she’s not writing, she can usually be found traveling, drinking copious amounts of green tea, or surfing Etsy. You can see more samples of her work on her website. Follow her on Twitter.