What Is Qi Deficiency?

Traditional Chinese Medicine Pattern of Illness

Qi deficiency

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A qi deficiency is a diagnosis in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) defined as the loss of the vital life force believed to circulate throughout the body and form a part of every living entity. According to TCM, a deficiency of qi (pronounced chi) is the source of both physical and psychological symptoms.These are highly variable but may include fatigue, spontaneous sweating, depression, a weak heartbeat, and a swollen tongue.

Qi deficiency can usually be diagnosed with a physical exam and a review of medical history. Treatments are tailored to the individual and may include Chinese herbs, acupuncture, diet, and mind-body therapies. While there is no rigorous scientific evidence to support the concept of qi deficiency, it is a central facet of TCM and one that has been embraced for centuries in many Asian cultures.

Types of Qi Deficiency

The concept of qi deficiency is difficult for many Western practitioners to grasp given it suggests a "lack of energy" is at the heart of many acute and chronic illnesses.

It is believed a qi deficiency triggers an imbalance in meridians that interconnect within the body and govern its function. This imbalance is said to increase vulnerability to illnesses that might otherwise be avoided.

Qi deficiency is a concept not dissimilar to immunity in Western medicine, wherein the depletion of the body's defenses leaves it exposed to a host of illnesses. But qi is a much broader concept as the vital force not only circulates through the body but binds all things in the universe. As such, everything you are and everything around you can contribute to illness if universal balance is not maintained.d

Broadly speaking, qi can be broken down as follows:

  • Yang qi, also known as primordial qi, is the vital force you inherit from your parents and the functional driving force of your heart and other organs.
  • Yin qi, also known as acquired essential qi, is the vital force influenced by the things you eat and drink (also known as ying qi ), the air you breathe (wei qi), and the way you interact with the world.
  • Ying qi, also known as nutritive qi, is a facet of acquired qi controlled by the stomach. It influences the life force based on what you consume.
  • Wei qi, also known as defensive qi is another facet of acquired qi controlled by the lungs. Wei qi protects against wind pathogens (such as "wind-cold" which causes chills and nasal symptoms and "wind-heat" which causes fever and cough).
  • Zong qi, also known as pectoral qi, is the life energy stored in the chest that is influenced by both ying qi and wei qi. Zong qi helps regulate both respiration and circulation.

Because the components of qi are interconnected, any imbalance in one will invariably impact the others. Qi deficiency is often linked to the spleen and stomach but can affect any part of the body, including the heart, lungs, and kidneys.

Qi deficiency should not be confused with qi stagnation in which the energy flow is blocked and becomes "trapped" in a meridian, such as the liver meridian.

Qi Deficiency Symptoms

A 2015 review of studies from Tzu Chi University in Taiwan outlined the hallmark symptoms of qi deficiency that TCM practitioners commonly use to make a diagnosis:

  • Chronic fatigue
  • Fatigue after mild activity or eating
  • Physical weakness
  • Shortness of breath
  • Weak voice
  • Weak pulse
  • Depression
  • Unprovoked sweating
  • Sweating after mild activity
  • Weak urination
  • A tender, pale, or swollen tongue

Although qi deficiency is largely characterized by fatigue, malaise, and weakness, the consequences of qi deficiency can be far-ranging depending on which 12 meridians are affected.

For example, qi deficiency of the spleen may lead to a loss of appetite, nausea, diarrhea, gas, bloating, varicose veins, hemorrhoids, or acid reflux.

Causes

Because qi deficiency is defined by the disruption of inborn, acquired, and external forces, there are many potential causes for the deficiency.

It is believed, however, that stress is one of the major risk factors for qi deficiency. According to a 2017 study in the Journal of Acupuncture and Meridian Studies, stress—characterized by "anxious or racing thoughts," "constant worrying," and the "inability to concentrate"—increase the risk of qi deficiency in certain organs.

According to the research, the most common qi deficiencies linked to stress in men and women were:

  • Heart qi deficiency (62% of women and 55% of men)
  • Liver blood qi deficiency (60% of women and 51% of men)
  • Heart blood qi deficiency (60% for women and 53% for men)

Depression is also believed to play a role. Research published in Complementary Therapeutic Medicine concluded that depression not only contributes to the development of qi deficiency but is a common consequence of qi deficiency.

A 2014 review in the Taiwanese Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology identified other common risk factors of qi deficiency, including aging, a busy work life, poor diet, and frequent or prolonged sickness.

Diagnosis

There are significant variations in how qi deficiency is diagnosed. TCM practices are often passed down through generations and can change over time with both regional and cultural variations.

While there are no standardized protocols governing practices, TCM practitioners will typically review a patient's medical history and perform a hands-on exam to look for patterns consistent with qi deficiency, such as:

  • A review of risk factors (including age, stress, and poor diet)
  • A review of symptoms (including poor appetite, weak voice, and sweating)
  • Examination of the tongue (including the smell of the breath)
  • Checking the pulse
  • Assessing meridians of the spleen, kidneys, lungs, and heart for heat, cold, sensitivity, tingling, etc.

As the diagnosis is largely subjective, it's not uncommon to have a divergence in opinion between practitioners.

Treatment

Within the realm of TCM, the treatment of qi deficiency is typically personalized using one or more common modalities. Among them:

  • Chinese herbs are central to the treatment of qi deficiency. These remedies may be personalized or combined in proprietary formulations. Among the Chinese herbs commonly used to treat qi deficiency are Huangqi (Astragali Radix), Danshen (Salviae Miltiorrhizae), Fuling (Poria), Renshen (Ginseng Radix), Tinglizi (Semen Lepidii), Baizhu (Atractylodis Macrocephalae), and Guizhi (Cinnamomum Ramulus).
  • Acupuncture may be used to correct energy "disharmony" in specific meridians. Spleen deficiency, for example, may benefit from acupuncture on one or more of the 17 acupuncture points, while heart deficiency may be treated in one or more of the 7 acupuncture points.
  • Therapeutic diets may be used to overcome wind-cold, wind-heat, or other conditions that contribute to qi deficiency. For example, wind-cold may be treated with pepper, cinnamon, glutinous rice, pine nuts, garlic, onion, coffee, black tea, and mutton, while wind-heat may be treated with watermelon, bitter gourd, kelp, aloe, millet, mung bean, pear, mango, tofu, lotus root, milk, and rabbit.
  • Mind-body therapies such as tai chi and qigong may be recommended to help overcome stress, improve sleep, and restore work-life balance.

Emotional care through counseling or psychotherapy may also be used to treat anxiety and depression in people with a qi deficiency.

A Word From Verywell

Qi deficiency is a complex, fascinating phenomenon within TCM. With that said, since symptoms of qi deficiency may mimic those of other medical conditions, it's important to see your doctor if you have any health concerns. Self-treating and avoiding or delaying standard care may have serious consequences.

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