To understand the aging process from the perspective of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), one must first understand the concept of qi (pronounced “chee” ).
Qi is best translated as “vital energy,” “animating force,” or “subtle breath.” According to Chinese philosophy, qi is the substrate of the living universe. It is the life energy that is present in all living beings. This concept is relatively new to our modern Western culture, although we are familiar with the ideas of “mojo” in the Austin Powers movies and “the force” in Star Wars. It also has counterparts in other cultures. For example, it is similar to the Hindu concept of prana, and the European esoteric concept of ether.
The flow of qi is analogous to the flow of water. In the body, it flows through invisible channels similar to blood vessels. Through careful observation and note-keeping over hundreds of years, the ancient Chinese developed a map of the body’s energetic system. In the body, the channels of energy known as meridians connect to the internal organs so that the qi of the organs flows to its associated body parts.
To be healthy and balanced, a person must have ample qi, and the qi must flow freely throughout the body without blockages. When qi becomes deficient or blocked, disease and pain occur.
In the human body, qi comes from three sources:
The first source, prenatal qi, is inherited from our parents at conception. Many congenital conditions are classified as disorders of prenatal qi. Prenatal qi is stored in the kidneys and acts like a savings account. It is available for withdrawal when necessary, but difficult to replenish.
The second source of qi comes from the essence of digested food. Known as grain qi, it is best obtained from high quality fresh foods.
The third source of qi, fittingly called air qi, comes from the essence of inhaled air. It is obtained from clean air and with proper abdominal breathing and aerobic exercise.
The qi obtained from food and air act like a checking account linked to our prenatal qi savings account. If we keep a positive balance in our checking account by eating well, breathing clean air, and living a moderate lifestyle, we use less of our prenatal savings. When our prenatal qi is depleted, we die.
How does qi function in the body?
Qi performs the following physiological functions in the body:
- It protects against disease-causing entities by creating a layer of protection that surrounds the body.
- It transforms the essence of food into blood, sweat, urine, and other fluids.
- It maintains the normal temperature of the body.
- It keeps the organs in their proper place and stops undue leakage of bodily fluids (e.g., excessive sweating or urination).
Many of the symptoms associated with aging, such as bruising easily, feeling inappropriately (or excessively) hot or cold, experiencing bodily dryness, prolapsed organs, fatigue and frequent urination are all directly related to a lack of qi affecting bodily function.
What can be done to maintain or supplement qi?
Qi declines naturally with age. The youthful energy that we see in children cannot be sustained. However, we all know people who look, act, and feel younger than their chronological age. These people have stronger qi. Certainly, some people have inherited stronger prenatal qi than others, but much about whether we live a long, healthy life is within our control. Lifestyle choices, including proper nutrition, exercise and deep breathing, can improve our health and lengthen our lives by supplementing our prenatal qi with good quality grain qi and air qi.
Below are some lifestyle guidelines to help you maintain and enhance your qi:
- Eat good quality fresh foods—organic, if possible.
- Avoid processed, canned, or preservative-laden foods.
- Consume whole grains such as brown rice, quinoa, amaranth or millet. All are great sources of qi.
- High quality organic meats, eaten in moderation, make excellent qi tonics.
- Avoid an excess of raw vegetables. Cooking them increases the availability of qi to the body. Try lightly steaming or stir-frying them.
- Avoid processed sugars and excess gluten (which is found in bread), which can create “damp” conditions in the body and impede the flow of qi.
- Use only good quality oils. Avoid trans-fats, which are found in partially hydrogenated oils.
- Avoid stimulants such as caffeine, which give the body a temporary boost of energy, while depleting prenatal qi. Consuming stimulants can also lead to a cycle of dependence.
- Exercise regularly! Exercise increases circulation of qi and blood, and allows us to gather more air qi through the lungs.
- Avoid other qi-depleting factors, which include stress, lack of sleep, overwork, recreational drugs, excess alcohol, and tobacco. Qi is also depleted by excessive ejaculation (in men) and childbirth (in women).
- Control your emotions. Uncontrolled emotions such as excessive worry, anger, sadness, fear or giddiness deplete qi.
- Try to live a happy life!
Acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine can be very helpful in supplementing qi and helping to bring the body back into balance. Contact a licensed acupuncturist for a personalized evaluation.
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