Acupuncture Basics Part 2: What is Qi?

In case you missed it, last month I started a blog series on the basics of Acupuncture and Chinese Medicine. Many of my patients ask questions, wanting to understand their treatments on a deeper level, and it's my hope that these articles will help explain a few things. The first article was on Yin and Yang - you can read that here.

Answering the question, "What is Qi?" is one of the most challenging thing us acupuncturists have to do. Not only does the word not have a direct English translation, but there are many types of qi that are used for different processes in the body.

What is Qi? The cast of Breaking Bad helps us explain.
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Examples of Qi

To make this a bit easier, I will bring back our favorite Breaking Bad characters. Remember all the times Jesse (our young drug addict) gets high? That surge of energy he gets is qi (though, not necessarily the type of qi we want in our bodies). When Skylar (Walter White's wife) is pregnant, she is giving her baby nourishment, and both her and Walter provided genetic material to this baby - that's all qi, too. When you eat food, or breathe the air, you're taking in qi. And the immune system that keeps your body from getting sick from every little bug that comes around, and helps heal you when you do get sick - yet another form of qi.

Try this little experiment. Rub your hands together for 10 seconds or so, then separate them a few inches, still holding the palms to face each other. Feel that tingly, prickly sensation? That's qi. If you slowly pump your hands closer together then farther apart a few times, you'll start to feel a place where the air feels a bit dense and your hands don't want to go in any farther. There you're starting to feel qi.

Types of Qi

Acupuncturists learn the Chinese names of many different types of qi, but here I just want to give you an easy explanation. If you're interested in the detailed specifics, this is a great article to explain in depth. 

First, there is a prenatal qi - or the qi you get from your parents when you were conceived, and postnatal qi - all the other types that you acquire after birth.

Of these acquired, or postnatal types, you receive nutrient qi from the food that you eat (which is why it's so important to eat high quality, nutrient dense food), and air qi from the air you breathe. Then there's also defensive qi, which protects your body from outside invaders or all types.

Acupuncture and Qi

When you get sick, qi is usually the first thing that changes. There are a few things that can happen to the qi in your body that creates disharmony.

Qi Deficiency is just what it sounds like, when you don't have enough qi. This manifests as tiredness and fatigue, changes in sweating, shortness of breath, poor appetite or dizziness. It's caused by not getting enough quality food/drink/air. This can happen if your food is not nutrient dense (i.e. processed foods), or if you're digestion is impaired and unable to extract the qi from your food. Also, respiratory problems can cause you to not get enough air, or if you breathe from your mouth and not your nose, the air isn't filtered properly.

Qi Stagnation happens when the qi gets stuck, either from injury or trauma, or from not expressing emotions. When qi stagnates, it causes pain in the physical body, and depression and anxiety in the emotional body.

Sinking Qi can cause diarrhea or prolapsed organs, and Rebellious Qi is seen with acid reflux, nausea and vomiting, or headaches.

Thankfully, acupuncture works very effectively for these disharmonies, and we acupuncturists have many techniques for regulating the qi in your body.

The next installment of Acupuncture basics is on the channels, or meridians of the body, and acupuncture points, you can find that here. And if you’re the skip ahead type, the fourth and final article of the series, the 5 Elements, which you can read here.


Elizabeth Williams is an acupuncturist in Greenville, South Carolina, specializing in pain management, women’s health, and psycho-emotional issues. She’s passionate about helping people feel their best and sharing her wealth of knowledge with the community. Elizabeth is the owner of Dragonfly Acupuncture & Massage, on Wade Hampton Boulevard. Appointments can be made by calling 864-451-4313, or scheduled online here.