Qi Regulation and Gene Expression

Lately, I have been thinking a lot about the effect of natural therapies on gene expression. I found this study on Chinese herbs:


Chinese herbs obviously have pharmacological actions like sedative or anti-inflammatory. However, this type of analysis has always been unsatisfactory because it is inherently reductionistic. Biochemistry (of which pharmacology is a subset) is very useful to know, but the millions of moving parts mean there is no way to understand it holistically (at least not with the human brain alone — maybe with a future AI?).

As I have noted in the past, the Chinese medicine understanding of physiology is quite congruent with the functional physiology framework. However, the question that keeps popping up in my mind is where Qi fits into this. One of the reasons that Qi is generally left untranslated by scholarly translators is because it has been oversimplified into words such as energy, breath, or vital force. Breath, in the colloquial sense, is admittedly one meaning of the character Qi, but it is insufficient at best and misleading at worst. Energy is just pseudoscientific, while vital force is metaphysical. Interestingly, the most esteemed scholars of Chinese medicine, Paul Unschuld, did translate the term in his earliest works — as “influences.”

I have always liked the term “influences” for a number of reasons, but it has taken on new meaning to me in era of genomics. I feel there is a conceptual congruity between the traditional idea of Qi regulation and the modern understanding of the regulation of gene expression, both of which can be modulated with foods, plant medicines, exercise, movement, meditation, and connective tissue therapies. One might say that when Qi is strong and unimpeded, the “influences” of food, herbs, exercise, etc. are literally optimizing gene expression. In addition, the function of one’s Qi is directly tied to the quality/quantity of one’s Essence, which is a concept that is clearly similar to the modern understanding of genes. One could perhaps say that essence is your genetic inheritance and Qi is the expression of that inheritance.

As noted, there is currently no way to measure gene expression holistically. There are just too many moving parts. It is like the parable of the blind men and the elephant. At the end of the day, it does not matter if the labs appear normal (or the pulse is balanced) if the patient still presents with signs or symptoms of dysfunction (or inability to achieve their performance goals). It also remains unknown how altering biochemistry based on a few lab variables affects other physiological and biochemical functions down the road. To be clear, this does not mean that I see no place for a biochemical approach within the context of holistic medicine. I just think that what we can do in this area still remains quite limited.

I know I’m preaching to the choir here, but long story short —the answers to the so-called “10+ questions” of TCM pretty much tell us everything we need to know about whether our clients are moving toward optimal health or greater dysfunction. My point is that the best tools we have for measuring healthy gene expression are the same tools we have been using for thousands of years. It is arguably a reductionistic mistake to focus on the trees, when managing the ecosystem of the forest as a whole is so much more effective. This doesn’t mean that we should be looking down our nose at the “omics” revolution. Instead, we should be embracing research that shows the Chinese herbs, acupuncture, and bodywork all alter gene expression. By paying attention to how our therapies change the signs and symptoms of our patients, we can know if this alteration is beneficial or not.