Prev Next  


The Basics of Qi

Other Vital Substances in Chinese Medicine

Prenatal essence is inherited but can be                                      supplemented with postnatal essence from nutrition                                      to help ensure a child enjoys good health.
Prenatal essence is inherited but can be supplemented with postnatal essence from nutrition to help ensure a child enjoys good health.

Qi is only one of the vital essences that traditional Chinese medicine considers important to one's health and wellbeing. The blood, as well as the other body fluids, the essence, and the spirit all play essential roles as well.


In traditional Chinese medicine, blood has some parallels to its Western counterpart, such as its function of circulating through the body and nourishing the organs.


However, it also has some very subtle functions in traditional Chinese medicine, such as providing a substantial foundation for the mind and improving sensitivity of the sensory organs.

In other words, a deficiency of blood causes an impairment in mental function, leading to poor memory, anxiety, and insomnia.

Blood deficiency can also impair the senses, especially the eyes, causing blurry vision. Closely aligned with qi, blood has a complementary relationship with it. The saying, "Blood is the mother of qi, and qi is the leader of blood," refers to the fact that without blood, qi has no fundamental nutritional basis; without qi, the body cannot form or circulate blood, and the blood would fail to stay within the vessels. The two are considered to flow together through the body.

Disorders of Blood

Blood's main function is to circulate throughout the body, providing nourishment and moisture to the organs, skin, muscles, and tendons. When blood is deficient, symptoms such as dry skin and hair, inflexible tendons, and various emotional and reproductive imbalances can occur, depending on the organs involved.

Since qi and blood are so closely related, a deficiency or stagnation of one of the substances often leads to the same type of imbalance in the other one.

The organs that have the most intimate relationship with blood are the spleen, heart, and liver. The spleen creates qi and blood from food; it also helps keep blood within the vessels. When spleen qi is deficient, blood deficiency or bleeding disorders can occur.

The heart is said to "rule the blood and vessels." When it is qi or yang deficient, energy to move blood through the vessels is insufficient, resulting in poor circulation and feelings of coldness in the extremities.

Since the heart blood is also the resting place for the mind and spirit, deficient heart blood leads to symptoms of insomnia, palpitations, restlessness, and poor memory.

Finally, the liver stores the blood during times of rest or sleep. This function is a process of regeneration, and it is also intimately involved with menstrual flow and fertility. A deficiency of liver blood can lead to scanty menstruation or infertility.

Stagnant liver blood may lead to menstrual cramping and discomfort. Since the liver opens into the eyes, this deficiency can also produce such symptoms as blurry vision, floaters, and dry eyes.

Body Fluids

Body fluids refer to all the fluids in the body, such as sweat, tears, saliva, and various secretions and lubricants. The spleen and stomach regulate the formation of fluids, which are considered byproducts of digestion, while the intestines and bladder are involved in their excretion.

The lungs regulate body fluids from above, and the kidneys are in charge of their metabolism throughout the body.

Fluids consist of two basic types: clear thin fluids known as jin, and thick viscous fluids known as ye. Jin is distributed mostly to the muscles and skin, keeping them moist and nourished.

Ye acts as a lubricant to the joints and nourishes the brain. Jin ye is the collective term for all the body fluids.

Because of the relationship between the organs and body fluids, a traditional Chinese medicine practitioner can extrapolate a wealth of information about organ function from the condition of the jin ye.

For this reason, the initial interview includes questions about thirst, urination, color of fluids, and the amount and timing of sweating.

Sweat is ruled by the heart. Excessive sweating during the day is considered a sign of yang deficiency; night sweats, on the other hand, are a sign of yin deficiency.

Tears relate to the liver; dry eyes are a sign of liver blood and yin deficiency. Sputum is ruled by the spleen; excessive sputum is a symptom of yin excess in the spleen.

The lungs are the storage area for mucus; a runny nose or wet cough is a sign of yin excess in the lungs. Since the kidneys control the moisture of the entire body, a dry mouth can indicate kidney yin deficiency.

The body fluids also have an intimate relationship with qi. Since qi is involved in the transformation of fluids, deficient qi can lead to fluid retention or excessive sweating.

Conversely, fluid stagnation can impair qi circulation, and profuse loss of body fluid can lead to a severe deficiency of qi. For this reason, herbs that induce sweating are used cautiously in people who are qi deficient.

Essence and Spirit (Jing and Shen)

Essence and Spirit (Jing and Shen)

Stored in the kidneys, essence (jing) is the subtle substance that is responsible for growth, development, and reproduction.

Prenatal essence is inherited from the parents, and it is the original substance of life. It cannot be increased, but it can be conserved through a healthy lifestyle and moderation. It can be supplemented with postnatal essence, which is derived from nutrition.

When the essence is strong, a child grows and develops normally and enjoys healthy brain function and strong immunity and fertility as an adult.

Conversely, birth defects, mental retardation, and a child's failure to thrive are considered signs of a deficiency of essence. In adults, essence deficiency can cause infertility, low immunity, and premature aging.

Spirit (shen) is a person's innate vitality. It can be considered the soul, but it also has a material aspect. When an individual has healthy shen, the eyes have the glow of life and the mind is clear.

Since the heart is the resting place for the spirit, disturbances in shen are typically diagnosed as heart imbalances.

A mild shen syndrome appears with a heart blood deficiency, with signs of forgetfulness, insomnia, fatigue, and restlessness.

In a more serious shen syndrome, "heat phlegm confusing the heart," the individual may be violent, with red face and eyes; the Western diagnosis of this condition might be psychosis.

A person who is in a coma as a result of a stroke or a person who experiences epileptic seizures may receive a diagnosis of the shen disturbance known as "phlegm blocking the heart opening."

For more about traditional Chinese medicine, treatments, cures, beliefs, and other interesting topics, see:


Bill Schoenbart has been practicing traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) since 1991, when he earned a Masters degree in TCM. He teaches TCM medical theory and herbalism at an acupuncture school in California, and also maintains a clinical practice.

Ellen Shefi is a licensed massage technician, licensed acupuncturist, and registered dietitian. She operates a private acupuncture practice, has assisted in developing acupuncture protocol, and has contributed to a national research project funded by the National Institutes of Health Office of Alternative Medicine. She is a member of the American Association of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine, the American Herb Association, and the Oregon Acupuncture Association.