top of page

What is Qi: A Traditional Chinese and Modern Chemical Explanation

What is Qi?

Central to the ancient Chinese world-view is the concept of Qi (pronounced chee). The traditional Chinese character used to denote Qi (氣) literally breaks down into a combination of “air” (气) and “rice” (米). Figuratively, Qi is the life force that permeates and animates everything in the world. Qi is the energy that gives birth to the vibrations that quantum physics have found at the smallest levels of the universe. Qi gives birth the flow of creation.

This concept of a universal life force is familiar to many cultures and religious traditions.

In Japan, it is called “ki,” and in India, “prana” or “shakti.” The ancient Egyptians referred to it as “ka” and the ancient Greeks as “pneuma.” For Native Americans, it is the “Great Spirit” and for Christians, the “Holy Spirit.” In Africa, it’s known as “ashe” and in Hawaii as “ha” or “mana.”

In China, the notion of Qi is essential in the language of the people. Take the following examples:

A literal translation of the character meaning “strong” is “ability energy” (力氣).

A literal translation of the character for “angry” is “raw/unrefined energy” (生氣).

A literal translation of the character for “weather” is “heaven energy” (天氣).

A literal translation of the character for “polite” is “visitor energy” (客氣).

So, you can see that the idea of “energy” in Taoism and traditional Chinese culture is not limited to a form of electricity flowing through the body, though that is included. To have “Qi” is to have a fluid way of interacting with the world.  An excellent example of how to express the concept of Qi is through the Star Wars films when they use the word “Force”. Qi is literally everywhere, and it is up to us to tap into its abundance.

What does Qi do?

In the grand scheme, this topic is a lifetime worth of study and reflection, so for the sake of brevity, we need to narrow Qi’s function down to what it does inside our bodies. Without Qi, there is no life, and with weakened Qi people become sick and die.

1. Qi Promotes Activity

Just as the wind provides the energy for a sailboat to powerfully glide along the surface of the water, so too does Qi energize the human body.  From the moment we are conceived to the moment we breathe our last breath, it is Qi that carries us through life. Qi is the vital energy that promotes the generation and circulation of blood. It also supports the metabolism of the human body. If your Qi is weak, your body will be as well. Everything in your body is dependent on a constant stream of nourishing Qi. If you are what traditional Chinese medical Doctors refer to as “Qi Deficient”, illness sets in.

2. Qi Warms Our Bodies

In a gaseous state, air contains more kinetic heat energy than in its liquid state. Like air, Qi also contains heat energy for the body. Being a heat source, Qi warms the body and keeps it at a constant temperature so normal physiological functions can take place. Low levels of Qi can lead to a reduced body temperature, difficulty adjusting to cold environments and cold hands and feet.

3. Qi Defends Our Bodies

In traditional Chinese medicine, one of the main causes of disease is the invasion of “pathogenic factors”. This disease promoting element includes environmental factors that lead to illness. They are classified as wind, summer heat, dampness, dryness, cold and fire. By resisting the entry of external factors into the body, Qi defends against their attack and maintains healthy physiological functions. In western terms, this Qi defending function acts like the immune system.

4. Qi Firms and Preserves

We can all relate to the image of a strong and healthy body. When someone is vibrant, everything is in the right place, nothing is sagging or protruding. That is because their Qi is abundant and blood is healthy and flowing. The first way that Qi promotes vitality is by keeping the blood moving, this prevents the negative consequences of stagnant circulation. When the blood is flowing and full of nutrients it can nourish our organs and tissues and prevent aging. Secondly, Qi controls other essential bodily fluids. These fluids include sweat, urine, and saliva. Thirdly, Qi enhances our sexual energy. Finally, when our bodies have plenty of Qi it stops our organs from reducing in function. This can include things like promoting our kidneys to filter blood properly, and it can also mean physically preventing organ prolapses.

When someone’s Qi levels are low, you see issues with fatigue, anemia, frequent urination, menstrual problems and issues with sexual function.

5. Qi Transforms Material into Energy

This sounds very esoteric, but it is not. Qi promotes metabolism. The definition of metabolism is that it is a collection of chemical reactions that takes place in the body’s cells. Metabolism converts the fuel in the food we eat into the energy needed to power everything we do, from moving to thinking to growing. So, metabolism makes energy from the food we eat.  This is where things get interesting … because ancient Chinese mystics figured out a concept that was not discovered in the West until roughly the 20th century.

Western Science Discovers Qi

Do you remember at the beginning of this post when we broke down the Chinese character for Qi (氣) into “air” (气) and “rice” (米)? This is how our mitochondria work to create the cellular energy currency that fuels our biological existence!

The following scientific formula represents the how we create the energy (ATP) that fuels every single one of our bodies:

glucose + 6 O2 ———> 6 CO2 + 6 H2O ∆G0’= – 686 Kcal (energy content) —-> Heat or Light or Bioelectricity

As you can see, rice is glucose, oxygen is air, and bioelectricity is Qi

NOTE: You can also convert fat in the mitochondria to create ATP as well, in fact, they create even more energy than glucose as we previously covered in the post. (What is a better source of energy – Fat or Carbohydrate) However, for the sake of sticking to a simpler translation of the Chinese character for energy we are using glucose in this equation.

I know that you are going to want some additional clarity on the above equation, and I am more than happy to provide it. This bridge traditional between Chinese thought and modern Western science has some pretty incredible potential benefits. Energy and vitality into an incredibly advanced age may just be upon us through the integration of these two powerful ways of looking at the world. By “hacking” into the way our bodies make energy, we also can tap into a wellspring of health for people recovering from illness and trauma.

What are mitochondria?

Mitochondria (single: mitochondrion) are known as the powerhouses of the cell. They are organelles that act like a digestive system which takes in nutrients, breaks them down, and creates energy-rich molecules called ATP (Adenosine Triphosphate) to fuel the cell. The biochemical processes of the cell are known as cellular respiration. Some cells have several thousand mitochondria while others have very few, or even none. Muscle cells need a lot of energy so they have loads of mitochondria. Neurons (cells that transmit nerve impulses) don’t need as many. If a cell feels it is not getting enough energy to survive, and sufficient nutrients and energy are available, more mitochondria can be created. Sometimes a mitochondrion can grow larger or combine with other mitochondria. It all depends on the needs of the cell.

Where do mitochondria originate from?

Interestingly, mitochondria were not always residents living within another cell. At one point in their history, a long, long time ago, they were once independent organisms. When survival on planet earth became difficult they made a deal with another organism, and they both benefitted. Without this bond, these mitochondria and their valuable talent of energy generation using oxygen, organisms (including us humans) would not have been able to grow bigger and become more sophisticated. In short, we would not be here today.

Our story begins 2 Billion years ago . . .

The earth was still developing and changing, life was becoming more complex. The earliest life on earth survived by breaking down the compounds around them into something less complicated, using a process called fermentation. This rudimentary metabolism generated just enough energy that they could use to survive and reproduce. Very important to this process is that fermentation can only occur when there is no oxygen present.

However, during this time a new type of cell was developing that could use light to generate energy. You might remember this from your biology classes in school, this process is our friend photosynthesis! This is the same form of energy generation that plants use today.

Photosynthesis uses carbon dioxide to create energy and produces oxygen as a by product. This is very important in the way our cells make energy since mitochondria use oxygen to break down the food we eat into ATP. These cells were increasing in number at an alarming rate and because of this, the concentration of oxygen in the atmosphere was increasing. This was bad news for the organisms that relied on fermentation, or that could not tolerate high oxygen levels. All life on earth had to adapt to these changes. This is what the term “survival of the fittest” means, that if a form of life doesn’t “fit” the environment, it simply doesn’t survive. It doesn’t mean that “at risk” bacteria went to the gym and changed their diet to overcome the challenges of oxygen excesses in their environment. This was great news for our ancient ancestral cell lines because they could use this new form of energy in the atmosphere to create even MORE energy for use inside of our cells. This is what allowed for the formation of more complex organisms. For more details on this fascinating topic check out our page on the Primal Origins of the Human Diet.

You might be asking yourself how we know this, and the answer is both simple and fascinating. Our mitochondria have their own DNA that is very distinct from the DNA of our cells. Another interesting side note is that we can only inherit our mitochondrial DNA from our mothers.

Since our mitochondria are the root source of energy/Qi production, what are some ways of increasing their function? The most direct method to boost the health of your mitochondria is through exercise. Exercise also promotes mitochondrial health, as it forces your mitochondria to work harder. One of the side effects of mitochondria working harder is that they make reactive oxygen species, which act as signaling molecules. One of the signals this process sends out to your body is to make more mitochondria. So, when you exercise, your body will respond by creating more mitochondria to keep up with the heightened energy demand.

Just to clarify our Qi/Energy metabolism can be explained as:

glucose + 6 O2 ———> 6 CO2 + 6 H2O

∆G0’= – 686 Kcal (energy content) —-> Heat or Light or Bioelectricity


Air (气) + Rice (米) = Energy (氣)

Now that we know how energy is made, this obviously leads to the next question, how can we make more of it?  The answer to this has three parts, which will be explained in three upcoming blog posts.

Part one is through better nutrition, since we make our energy out of the nutrients we consume, with a focus on the proteins we digest.

Part two is with more efficient breathing because it is oxygen that creates ATP in our mitochondria.

Part three is by taking care of our mitochondria because just like taking care of any machinery, it is the daily maintenance that keeps our mitochondria happy into old age.  You wouldn’t want your car driving around with your engine at 9000 RPM all the time because it will break down much sooner than if you ran it optimally.

Stay tuned and make sure you subscribe so you don’t miss out on how to make more healthy levels of energy!

143 views0 comments


bottom of page