What Is Qi

What the Chinese call Qi , and what Ayurveda calls Prana, is the Vital Life Force that moves things, quite literally, and also that creates growth and decay. Qi and Prana are what moves things quite literally on so many levels.  Its only a living body that can move, that can walk, that can breathe, whose blood circulates, that can think, all processes involving literal physical movement, whether on the gross level, as with walking and breathing, and on a smaller, even microscopic level, in the case of the enzymatic processes in the cell involved in the absorption of nutrients and oxygen,  or  in the case of the neurotransmitters in the brain involved with emotions and thought.

The ancient Chinese physicians of Chinese Medicine observed that when diseases form, of any kind, from mental illness to sea sickness, from chronic pain to repetitive use injury from GERD, constipation, and diarrhea to skin disorders like eczema, acne, and psoriasis, that there is, at the most fundamental level, “too much of the wrong thing in the wrong place,” (e.g. heat in skin causing the redness of acne, eczema, and psoriasis, or causing the burning sensation of GERD and diarrhea) or “not enough of the right thing in the right place,” (e.g. dryness in the skin from lack of moisture in psoriasis, poor blood circulation in tight, painful myofascial pain conditions,). 

All Disease is Due to Obstruction of Qi

And in all cases we say that disease is due to blockage of Qi flow. Blockage of Qi flow is so vital because its the “motive force” of the Qi that leads the Blood and Fluids to where they need to go, and so if this Qi flow is blocked for any reason, from physical trauma such as whiplash or dog bite, to emotional trauma such as anger and fear, then everything else stops moving. In modern terms what this looks like is inhibited function such as we see with constipation and pain in IBS, or urinary blockage due to either UTI or Interstitial Cystitis. Of course this is what you see with heart disease, and with certain mental illness.

 When the flow of Qi is blocked, you can  have two basic problems: one is lack of nourishment to an area in the body. There is Qi blockage due to one’s genetic makeup or due to emotional trauma and now the person develops social phobia and cannot handle crowds or simply cannot process feelings well and is socially awkward. Or there is post partum depression associated with fatigue. We can describe this in Chinese medicine as a “vacuity of the heart blood,” because all emotional issues involve what we conceptualize as “the blood.” There is a lack of nourishment to a critical aspect of one’s being, the opposite of what takes place in someone full of themselves, or full of courage and power.

But, blockage of Qi can also lead to a blockage of the blood, since the Qi commands the blood flow, and to a pathological accumulation of fluids, what we call a damp condition. Many factors can be at play here. Qi is light, so a diet rich in heavy moist foods like wheat bread, dairy products, and flesh foods, which are very nourishing, can also be overnourishing. All nourishing foods of this type cause dampness, all sweet foods, too, so we can include excessive fruit here, too, even though fruit is light. Remember, we are speaking of excessive amounts not normal amounts. So if you have a damp producing diet that can obstruct Qi flow, like how you feel after pizza, beer, and ice cream. But if, on top of that, your Qi is obstructed because you are eating emotionally, because you are upset with your spouse or work or life itself, then bingo! you have won the Qi obstruction lottery, because strong negative emotions themselves cause Qi obstructions.

Role of Qi Management in Health

What made me want to mention all this is to try to help people start thinking about the role of Qi in health. This is why healthy lifestyle practices are so valuable, from Tai Qi and Yoga to Mindfullness Meditation to Walking and healthy exercise to having fun and chatting amiably with friends. All these things, and sweet foods, like rice or fruit, too, in appropriately small amounts, relax the Qi and help us come back to normal. 

The difference between being alive and dead is Qi. Qi is not some mystical woo-woo concept, its actually a concept based on empiricism—the close observation over a long period of time by some of the smartest people in history, of how our bodys and minds work, indeed, of what life itself is.

I am often faced with the uphill task of getting my American patients to face the degree to which their health problems derive from their emotional states and historys, and often their powering through such things either with New Aged Spiritual bypasses or with rank harsh “pull myself up by my bootstraps” rationalism. 

Sweating and Qi

But here is a small line from a Web MD article about the body that in its small way justifies the Chinese medical viewpoint.

“Sweat itself doesn’t stink. It’s the bacteria on our skin that makes it funky. Sweat is the body’s way of cooling itself down. Emotions can also affect your sweat glands. We sweat when we’re nervous.”

Here we can see the role Qi plays in the body. Our body, heats up due to increased air or water temperature, or it heats up due to exercise or certain emotions. This process of warming occurs only thanks to the movement of Qi in the form of information sent from the brain to the rest of the body. This information is movement of neurotransmitters, or blood circulation carrying hormonal information, and of nervous impulses in the nervous system. The brain knows it hot and tells everyone else what to do, whether reptile or mammal.

As our body gets hot our hearts beat faster, the blood pressure goes up, etc. If we did not have a way of cooling down we would die. In fact the reason why old folks are more at risk in heat waves is because their Qi is weak and does not modulate body functions as well as healthy young folks do. 

But thank god, our body’s innate intelligence, its Qi, in fact, decides now to cause the sweat glands to hyper function, i say hyper because normally you don’t sweat, at rest at a cool temperature we don’t sweat much. Our body cools off and its all good.

The Five Causes of Sweating

There are three factors that can cause sweating and they all involve Qi.

  • One, the air gets hot, or we enter a hot bath. Our temperature rises and our Qi moves and causes our fluid metabolism to go into overdrive to cause sweating; the sweating itself is Qi moving liquid out of the sweat glands.
  • Two, is when we exercise. Exercise itself is great for getting the Qi moving. That is why its a good therapy for depression, to force yourself to exercise. Because when there is depression there is fatigue and its a vicious cycle. Depression, which involves Qi stagnation leads to fatigue leads to no exercise leads to more Qi stagnation and more depressing and fatigue. In either case, when we exercise we recruit the Qi to make the Qi move, the Qi of the heart causes the blood to pump, etc etc. In Ayurveda exercise builds Agni/Internal Physiological fire, and fire is warm; when we exercise we get warm or hot and the Ying Qi of the sweat glands causes fluid to be produced and the Wei Qi of the pores causes them to open and we sweat and then are cooled by the evaporation of the fluid.
  • Three, is when we are attacked by infectious agents and our body produces a fever in response. This may be why Ayurveda treats colds by drinking spicy hot beverages that make you sweat, as does Chinese Medicine. In Ayurveda we try to stoke the Agni metabolic fire to fight off the attack.
  • Which leads to four, which is sweating in response to hot beverages and spicy hot foods like chile and black pepper. Heat makes us sweat.
  • Five is where it gets interesting, and why its so vital to pay attention to our emotions in cases of disease. As Web MD says, “Emotions can also affect your sweat glands. We sweat when we’re nervous.”

We sweat when we are nervous true. But what does being nervous actually mean? Being nervous is associated with the flight aspect of the flight, fight, freeze response. The single most salient characteristic of nervousness is movement. Nervous folk cannot sit still. They tap their feet, find work to do, they sweat.  Now think about what fear does. It makes you want to flee, which means your nervous system has to mobilize resources into the lower body so you can run. But what if the fear is inchoate, what if you simply have an anxious personality type, what Ayurveda calls a Vata type, and you tend to run high on the fear factor?

The things nervous people do are the same things anxious people do are the same things anyone would do if a mountain lion walked into the room or a crazy guy with a knife came lunging at them. The difference is one of degree, not quality. Even the cartoon characters, what do they do when they are scared? Their teeth and knees chatter. And what is that if not excessive movement, too much Qi where it does not belong. Its fair to say that being nervous is the same as being anxious, the difference is one of degree. And one can be anxious without having a full fledged anxiety disorder, that is also very important to understand. 

Fear and Qi in Chinese Medicine and Sweating

This is of enormous import in Chinese medicine because when we suffer chronic negative emotional state like anger or fear it disturbs the Qi flow, and spins it out of control, scattering it and in predictable ways. Fear makes you sweat. Anxious people often get sweaty palm and underarms. Even non-anxious folk might at a big exam, performance, or job interview, right? This is the Qi, spurred by the emotion of fear, acting as a centrifuge, sending the sweat glands into overdrive, (while at the same time making the mouth go dry, or putting a lump in the throat, or even causing diarrhea). 

The key point, too, to understand is that whether its anger or fear it takes great amounts of Qi, to mobilize our body’s resources to fight or flee from real or perceived danger. Chinese Medicine says that Qi makes the Qi descend, and Anger makes it rise. Common sense, really. To fight is to punch or bite, and we can see anger in people’s faces, all scrunched up, and how frustration makes people want to explode or simply get tight necks and shoulders. These are Pitta dosha responses in Ayurveda.  Whereas fear will tie the tummy in knots, cause sudden diarrhea or urination or IBS pain, and lead to tossing and turning in bed at night with anxious thoughts, mostly related to Vatta dosha in Ayurveda. Freezing, the other response to real or perceived fear is another animal. Dealing with conflict by withdrawal into beer or ice cream. Being afraid to act, afraid of failure or success. This corresponds to Kapha dosha type in Ayurveda.

You can see now that Qi, Fear, and Sweating are tightly related in Chinese Medicine because its the Qi that provides the motive force for all movement, including fluids, and strong emotions, including fear, scatter the Qi making it chaotic, rather than ordered. Where there should be stillness and repose is now movement. Where things should be dry or moist they are now pathologically wet. This is a critical part of the disease mechanism in Chinese Medicine from simple tension headache all the way to cancer. Which is not to say that all scattered Qi is due to emotion. Not at all. DNA can be inherited in ways that are susceptible to scattering, a brick falling on the head or a flu virus scatter the Qi quite well without any emotional involvement, as can overwork and overexercise. Not knowing how to relax, or being overly driven,  for exampdo not necessarily involve an emotional factor, but they can.But modern functional disorders can very often have either a lifestyle or emotional causative factor.

So I think Web MD, as we often see elsewhere, while it is lovely that it concedes that emotions affect our sweat glands and we sweat when we’re nervous, could be more honest, more blunt, and just spell it out. We sweat when we’re frightened, scared, possessed by fear. No need to play games around it, or to be ashamed. Its ok to experience fear. Its when we are afraid to admit be are afraid that we will get symptoms from fear. Once we admit that something exists, then only can we sew the seeds of its destruction, to use a funny metaphor. Ayurveda and Chinese medicine both believe its way superior to treat diseases by removing their causes, not just by throwing drugs and herbs at the symptoms.

Copyright Eyton Shalom, L.Ac., San Diego, CA April 2016 all rights reserved use with permission.

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