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5 substances in Chinese medicine

The 5 substances in Chinese medicine that determine your health

So I’ve laid out the basics of Chinese medicine nutrition in my first two blogs on the subject (here and here) so now I’m going to go a bit deeper in the weeds on the subject. Its worth it though – once you’ve understood the basics of how Chinese medicine looks at food (and herbs, which uses exactly the same framework), you will gain a deeper understanding of how your body and mind are affected by what you ingest. I find that this naturally guides my food choices.


Another benefit to understanding Chinese medical food theory is that its complementary to Western ideas around nutrition, but with very little overlap. What you will gain is a different lens through which to view food that can only enhance and enrich your understanding of the role food plays in your health and well-being. 

We’ll start with the five basic substances:

  1. Qi or life force

  2. Jing or congenital essence

  3. Xue or blood

  4. Shen or spirit

  5. Jin ye or body fluids

Qi is usually translated as energy or lifeforce but these words don’t capture the full meaning of the word in Chinese medicine. A good way to think about qi is about function – when we have enough and its flowing properly, our organs function properly. We digest and absorb our food properly, we have healthy and regular bowel movements, our minds work properly and our hearts and lungs don’t have any problems. 

But when our qi is low, our organ function reduces, we become pale and weak, we get tired easily, we lose our ability to digest and absorb food well, our immunity suffers, we get easily short of breath and our voice becomes quiet. Our tongue becomes swollen and pale and our pulse becomes weak. 

The other thing that happens with qi is that it can become stagnant, meaning that it doesn’t flow properly. We get feelings of pressure, tightness or oppression particularly in our chests, we get areas of pain and we get tense and anxious. 


Jing is what we come into life with, our genetic inheritance. Jing provides the foundation for all of our physical and mental development and determines the quality and length of our lives. It can’t be regenerated but it can be used too quickly through poor lifestyle habits such as excessive drug taking, not enough sleep over a long period of time or way too much sex. Jing is also responsible for our body’s reproductive strength and capability. Chinese medicine places great emphasis on the preservation and careful treatment of jing through diet and exercises such as tai chi and qi gong. 

Deficiencies of jing show up in various ways, including having a poor constitution, infertility, deformations and physical and mental disabilities. 

Supplementing jing through diet is not possible, but we can maximize its potential by living a balanced, moderate lifestyle. 


Blood is seen as a more dense and material form of qi and is derived from the essence of the food we eat, digest and absorb. While qi and blood are distinct substances in Chinese medicine, they are mutually supportive; for example, qi is what drives digestion and absorption of food and drink, which forms the basis of blood, while blood is necessary for the proper function of our digestive and elimination systems. I spend a lot of time in my herbal medicine practice optimizing the production and flow of qi and blood. They are extremely important for good health and wellbeing. 

Blood becomes dysfunctional in two main ways, deficiency and stagnation, which often appear together. 

Blood deficiency signs include muscle cramping, pale complexion, low energy, cravings for red meat, anemia, fatigue, poor vision, poor memory, insomnia and mental instability. 


Blood stasis sign include pain that is fixed and stabbing in nature, pain that happens at night, painful periods, bruising, swellings as well as spider nevi and other dark, purple blemishes on the skin. 


Shen or spirit includes the mental, psychological, emotional and spiritual health of a person. It is expressed in your personality and consciousness, and is closely related and connected with qi, blood, jing and body fluids. In Chinese medicine, there is no separation of mind and body; the body affects the mind and the mind affects the body. 


Dysfunction in the spirit shows up in insomnia, unstable mental and emotional states, dull eyes and mental illnesses in more serious cases. The best ways to balance and modulate the spirit is through meditation, tai chi and qi gong as well as living a balanced, moderate life. 


Body fluids is different depending on which Chinese medical tradition one practice. In my tradition (Jing Fang according to Dr Hu Xi Shu), body fluids is considered to be the basic strength and vitality of a person. Its basically a combination of qi and all the fluids of the body that allow smooth, harmonious, healthy functioning of body, mind and spirit. 


Signs of its depletion include poor organ function, dryness, poor appetite and coldness of the body. 


So that’s it. You now have a good overview of the substances that Chinese medicine looks at when analyzing your state of health or ill health. From here, treatment flows logically; for example, if blood is deficient and you have muscle cramping and poor memory, I will give you food or herbs that replenish blood. If you are dealing with pain at night that is fixed and stabbing, I will give you herbs and food that improve circulation and clear blood stagnation. If you are low in qi and body fluids, I might give you herbs such as ginseng or licorice. And so on and so forth. 

Now that you know the elements of health, in my next blog post I will go over the causes of disease, and how they interact with the 5 basic substances that we’ve just gone over. 


As always, I welcome questions and comments. Also, if you’d like to know how acupuncture, Chinese nutrition and herbal medicine could help you, please drop me a line. I will be happy to see you in my Collingwood, Meaford or Toronto clinics. Chinese medicine can solve many health problems that aren’t easily dealt with by Western medicine or other systems, so don’t hesitate to reach out. 


Picture of Chris Savidge, R.Ac, R.TCMP

Chris Savidge, R.Ac, R.TCMP

Chris is a Chinese medical herbalist & acupuncturist who's passionate about helping people overcome health challenges.