What is Qi?

Emily Whitelock - Chinese Medicine Practitioner 

What is it? Is it real?

Free from gross passion or of mirth or anger
constant in spirit, not swerving with the blood,
garnish'd and deck'd in modest compliment,
not working with the eye without the ear,
and but in purged judgement trusting neither?
Such and so finely bolted didst thou seem.
William Shakespeare, from “King Henry V”

William Shakespeare is considered one of the greatest English writers in history, yet many of us barely have an idea what the above paragraph references. This is how English was spoken in the 1600s. Much different than today, is it not? But both are correct — both English, yet different because they are separated by time.

Although separated by time, similarities between Western medicine and Chinese medicine can be seen. I really feel and think as though we are talking about the same things. 

When I think of ‘Qi’, it makes no sense to my Western brain, it also holds no value within the Western world and we are often looked upon with confused looks when we talk about Qi in the clinic. We are often asked “What is Qi?” and “Is it real?” 

Now what if I said Qi is just the eastern equivalent to ATP, or adenosine triphosphate, which transports chemical energy within cells for metabolism? When we change the language we can see the comparisons - they are the same thing.

ATP is energy. The definition of energy is “the strength and vitality required for sustained physical or mental activity” and “power derived from the utilisation of physical or chemical resources, especially to provide light and heat or to work machines.” Qi is the same thing, though communicated via an older language. Qi is the force that gives life.

Qi is not mystical energy; it’s actual energy! ATP is the energy you and I need to live. With no energy, like a battery, we will die. Is this that far from our understanding of Qi?

Qi is the formation of what we eat combined with the oxygen we breathe, just like ATP. If we split glucose (food) in half, it becomes two molecules of pyruvate. These pyruvate molecules go into a citric acid cycle. In this citric acid cycle, the goal is to make high-energy electrons. One we make high-energy electrons, they get dumped into the electron transport chain.

Now this is where we come to the interesting part: If we don’t have oxygen at the next step, the system stops. Without oxygen, we don’t make any ATP (ATP=energy, qi). Without oxygen, we don’t make any real energy to move and live.

For you to have energy and make ATP, you need the food (nutrients) you eat and the air you breathe (oxygen). The Chinese just figured out this whole idea a long time ago and without a microscope. Are their words a bit ancient? Sure, just like Shakespeare’s. We might have no idea what they’re saying, but we are speaking of the same things, just with different words and context, separated by time.

Thanks so much to Brad Whisnant for letting us use his article as inspiration - Let's bridge the gap between ancient and modern medicine together!