Whether you’re perpetually running low on energy (same!) or are straight-up fatigued and worn down, instead of reaching for that second (or third…or fourth) cup of coffee to power you through the day, consider revving up your vitality with a traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) approach, and eat more foods for qi.
In TCM, “qi is our vital energy,” says Jenelle Kim, DACM, LAc, a doctor of Chinese Medicine, certified herbalist, and lead formulator of JBK Wellness Labs. “It flows through all living things and circulates within our bodies.” So, when you have a qi deficiency, Dr. Kim says that can manifest as a general unwell feeling, low mood, lack of motivation, poor digestion, and—you guessed it—physical fatigue. She adds that eating an overall healthy diet is one way to improve your qi deficiency and, in turn, boost your energy.
Like most things, though, Dr. Kim says TCM is very individual-based, and the cause of someone’s qi deficiency is considered before recommending specific diet changes. According to Chinese medicine, she says recommended foods are often based on a person’s qi deficiency, and also whether their body has a damp heat or damp cold. However, generally, a balanced diet that is high in whole grains and incorporates herbs and foods that support the spleen is advised. Ahead, Dr. Kim shares eight foods for qi to add to your rotation in order to elevate your energy.
Dr. Kim says that warm foods are the easiest for the body to digest and absorb qi from. So, adding more healthy, nourishing soups into your diet is an easy way to improve a qi deficiency. In particular, she recommends consuming soups that are full of yang tonic ingredients such as barley, green beans, and lots of fresh herbs, or miso soup which is fermented and great for digestion. “In Chinese medicine, we speak about our bodies in terms of yin and yang,” Dr. Kim says. “Ingredients that are yang tonic help bring more yang into our bodies and support our organs and systems that are yang, such as the spleen, which plays a key role in extracting qi during digestion and helping it flow throughout the body.”
“Fresh, adaptogenic herbs also support proper qi in the body,” Dr. Kim says. Specifically, she suggests adding ginger and nutmeg to your diet regularly to improve qi deficiency, create internal warmth in the body, and aid digestion.
To maintain proper qi, Dr. Kim emphasizes the importance of ensuring half of your overall healthy diet is made up of grains and legumes. Here’s why: “Foods that are too heavy or rich can overwhelm the digestive system and lead to qi not being properly absorbed,” she says. On the other hand, cooked whole grains such as rice, barley, oats, and rye are complex carbs that are very gentle on the stomach.
Lean, healthy meats such as organic chicken also support spleen health and are easy for the body to digest, Dr. Kim, says. The key, she adds, is consuming it in small quantities.
Many veggies are great for qi, so incorporating more is always a good idea, Dr. Kim says, especially root vegetables such as onions and sweet potatoes which are yang tonic. To reap the most benefits, Dr. Kim says it’s best to cook these root vegetables slightly so “they are warm but still retain most of their nourishment.”
In addition to root veggies, stock your grocery cart with squash too. “Various types of squashes are also great as they help create a healthy internal environment and promote the circulation of qi,” Dr. Kim says. This calls for anti-inflammatory butternut squash biscuits or arugula squash salad.
Dr. Kim says certain fruits such as dates (aka nature’s candy) also support the spleen, provide antioxidants, and help balance blood sugar thanks to its fiber.
Dr. Kim says garlic is generally beneficial for most people to improve qi, no matter their internal condition.
More TCM ways to improve Qi deficiency
TCM also offers qi-improving recommendations beyond using food as medicine. The top ones are movement and meditation. For Dr. Kim, movement looks like practicing qigong in the morning before starting the day, as well as other practices such as tai chi. For meditation, it can be whatever style resonates with you. Dr. Kim’s favorite qi-cultivating meditation, though, is Myung Sung living meditation, which she wrote a book about after learning from her father, who was a Korean monk. This type of active meditation is meant to be incorporated into every moment of your day to find balance, happiness, and calmness.
All that said, once you start incorporating more qi-friendly foods into your diet along with movement and meditation, how long it’ll take to feel more energized depends on your initial qi levels. But, generally, Dr. Kim says it’s all about long-term results. “You will probably notice some benefits after a few days, but you’ll really start to feel a deep, long-term, sustaining sense of energy after a few weeks of maintaining the proper flow of qi in your body,” she says.
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