What is Qi? A Brief Explanation.

What is Qi? Many explanations of Qi make it sound like a mystical substance that flows in our body along invisible channels. Problems in our body are often attributed to disruptions in the flow of Qi. My background is in Western Medical sciences and I had a hard time wrapping my head around Qi when I was in school for Chinese Medicine.

Today I read a wonderful Facebook post by an Acupuncturist in Washington that drew correlations between Shakespeare and Chinese Medicine. It really helped me wrap my head around Qi. With his permission to use the text, I have paraphrased his explanation here.

Free from gross passion or of mirth or anger constant in spirit, not swerving with the blood, garnish’d and deck’d in modest compliment,
not working with the eye without the ear, and but in purged judgement trusting neither? Such and so finely bolted didst thou seem.

William Shakespeare, “King Henry V”

William Shakespeare is considered one of the greatest English writers in history, yet many of us can barely understand the above paragraph. This is how English was spoken in the 1600s. Shakespeare’s vocabulary is much different than ours.  Both are correct — both are English, yet they differ because they are separated by time.

We can draw a similar correlation between Western medicine and Chinese medicine. Both medical systems are trying to describe the physiological processes of the body. They are talking about the same things with vastly different vocabulary.

The word “Qi” is a concept that many of us struggle to comprehend and interpret.  It makes no sense to my Western brain, nor does it hold value with the Western medical world. The most asked question I get in the clinic is, “What the heck is Qi, and is it real?”

Qi as Cellular Energy

Qi is often translated as “energy”.  This tends to make people think of mysticism and ethereal, unmeasurable forces. But what if I said Qi is just Chinese medicine’s equivalent to ATP, or adenosine triphosphate.  Dredge through your memory to Grade 10 biology. ATP is a molecule that transports chemical energy within cells for metabolism. They are exactly the same thing.

ATP is energy. Energy is defined as: “the strength and vitality required for sustained physical or mental activity” and “power derived from the utilization of physical or chemical resources, especially to provide light and heat or to work machines.” Qi is the same thing, though communicated via an older language. Both terms refer to the force that gives life.

Qi is not mystical energy; it’s actual energy! ATP is the energy you and I need to live. With no energy, like a battery, we will die. Is this that far from our understanding of Qi?

Qi is derived from what we eat combined with the oxygen we breathe, just like ATP.

Qi Metabolism

If we split glucose (food) in half, it becomes two molecules of pyruvate. These pyruvate molecules go into a citric acid cycle. In this citric acid cycle, the goal is to make high-energy electrons. One we make high-energy electrons, they get dumped into the electron transport chain.

Now here is the cool part: If we don’t have oxygen at the next step, the system stops. Without oxygen, we don’t make any ATP (ATP=energy, qi). Without oxygen, we don’t make any real energy to move and live.

For you to have energy and make ATP, you need the food (nutrients) you eat and the air you breathe (oxygen). The Chinese figured out this whole idea a long time ago and without a microscope. Are their words a bit ancient? Sure, just like Shakespeare’s. We might have trouble understanding what they’re saying, but we are speaking of the same things.  We’re just using different words and a different frame of reference, separated by time.

Understanding Traditional Chinese Medicine can be challenging. The terminology is quite different from what we are used to. Another good article in this FAQ series is: How Acupuncture Works.

Thank-you to Brad Whisnant at Pinpoint Acupuncture for expressing this so well!