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Qigong for Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (ME/CFS): Ancient wisdom meets modern science

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Qigong is an ancient Chinese system of posture, gentle movement, respiration techniques and concentration vent disease. It is the preventive and self-healing aspect of Chinese medicine. Today, an estimated 90 million followers in China and tens of thousands in the United States make qigong the most widely practiced form of alternative and complementary medicine in the world. Although qigong can be used to combat specific illnesses, most practitioners consider qigong a way to tap into hidden human potentials and enhance health and life beyond the normal or average.

Chinese medicine is based on the belief that life energy, qi (pronounced “chee”), flows through energy channels to reach all the tissues of the body. When the flow is impeded, a person has too much energy on one side of the dam, creating a condition of congestion, inflammation, stagnation and/or pain, and too little energy on the other side, leading to depletion, weakness and a feeling of disempowerment. In the practice of acupuncture, fine needles are inserted into points that control qi flow. As obstructions dissolve, areas of excess are drained and places of insufficiency are filled, restoring homeostasis. Qigong has been called “acupuncture without the needles.” The practitioner balances his or her own qi flow with gentle exercises and meditation.

Qigong techniques appropriate for ME/CFS require about as much energy as standing still for five to ten minutes and are thus minimally taxing on energy reserves. ME/CFS expert Dr. Majid Ali makes a distinction between two kinds of exercises. In cortical exercises, the body is commanded by the thinking mind to perform intense, highly focused, and frequently competitive exercises that may require sudden bursts of power. Cortical exercises include sports and athletic activities such as weightlifting, sprinting, basketball and football. The other category, limbic exercises, involves gentler, sustained effort, performed with a meditative focus, listening to the voice of the body rather than the dictates of the cerebral cortex. Qigong fits this category perfectly.

One of the greatest benefits of qigong exercise is that most people who practice qigong find they have more energy after a session than before, and the energy gain is cumulative with regular practice. The specific routine can be tailored to the needs and ability of the patient. If movement is impossible, qi can be mentally directed. Chinese qigong literature is filled with thousands of visualizations. A typical one appropriate for ME/CFS would be to imagine that as you inhaled through the nose (allowing the abdomen to expand gently), deep, ocean blue light suffuses the kidneys and adrenals with healing qi. While exhaling gently through the mouth, imagine that all of the stagnant, toxic or unneeded energy is leaving.

By improving self-awareness and learning self-regulation skills, the qigong practitioner learns to control aspects of the metabolism that are conventionally considered involuntary, such as hormonal levels, blood pressure, heart rate, oxygen delivery, etc. Most importantly for CFIDS patients, qigong emphasizes a systemic approach to healing: improving functioning in large areas of the body, rather than focusing exclusively on presenting symptoms or individual organs or body parts. Qigong is complementary therapy and works well in conjunction with both allopathic medicine and other alternative modalities such as massage, orthomolecular medicine, biofeedback and so on.

Thousands of controlled scientific experiments demonstrate concrete evidence for qigong’s healing effects on conditions such as chronic pain, headaches, cancer, asthma, ulcers, bronchitis, hypertension and numerous other disorders. A qigong computerized data base includes more than 1,000 research abstracts.1 Unfortunately, experimental data is not yet available on the effects of qigong specifically on ME/CFS and fibromyalgia.2 Nevertheless, the experience of students and the clinical observations of qigong therapists demonstrate that qigong can be powerful therapy for these conditions.

Qigong can lessen the intensity, duration and frequency of many ME/CFS symptoms and improve overall vitality and quality of life.

Fatigue

Qigong reduces fatigue by energetically yet gently stimulating the internal organs. Abdominal respiration (belly out on inhale, belly in on exhale) massages the internal organs. When combined with deep relaxation and mental quietude, stress hormones and stress levels decrease. According to Chinese medical theory, the body switches from an energy-draining mode to one of energy conservation. Qi, life energy, is actually stored in the body, filling subtle energy reservoirs so that more is available for self-healing, self-repair and improved vitality.

The levels of positive hormones such as DHEA increase. DHEA is the body’s most abundant hormone and a precursor to the sexual hormones. DHEA levels are at their highest during one’s 20s and then decline steadily with age and stress. According to Dr. Jacob Teitelbaum in From Fatigued to Fantastic, “DHEA levels appear to drop prematurely in chronic fatigue patients.”3 Higher DHEA levels are correlated with improved immunity, memory, energy and decreased pain.4 According to C. Norm Shealy, MD, PhD, founding president of the American Holistic Medical Association, “DHEA is the biological equivalent of qi.”5

Recent research has shown that some biochemical processes occur as much as 60 times quicker in ME/CFS patients compared to the general population.6 This may partially account for the tendency toward low adrenal function, decreased libido, and intolerance to stress, cold and prolonged exercise. Qigong’s energy enhancing benefits may be due to a lowering of the metabolic rate in those areas that are on “overdrive” in ME/CFS.

Lack of resiliency

Fatigue, pain and diminished vital reserves make it difficult for ME/CFS patients to overcome or recover from even small challenges. Molehills turn into mountains as hypersensitive minds and bodies over-react to minor irritations in the environment.7

According to Dr. Ali, this lack of physical and mental resiliency is probably caused by the destructive effects of highly reactive oxygen molecules known as free radicals.8 Oxygen in the atmosphere causes oils to become rancid, fruits to rot and meat to spoil. Similarly, oxygen molecules in the body infiltrate and damage the cells, rotting the body’s fats and tissues and destroying biochemical processes, including those controlled by enzymes and hormones. Free radicals are the body’s inner terrorists, on the prowl for healthy tissue.

Free radicals arise spontaneously from ordinary metabolic processes. They are also generated by:

  • Stress hormones
  • Antibiotics
  • Viruses and allergic reactions
  • Air pollution and smoking
  • Ultraviolet rays (increasing because of ozone depletion)
  • Chemical/heavy metal toxicity
  • Imbalanced sugar metabolism
  • Genetic predisposition

ME/CFS patients carry an unusual burden of free radicals and may be extra sensitive to their effects. According to Dr. Ali:

“What would be expected if the normal oxidative pathways were relentlessly overdriven by allergic triggers, chemical sensitivities, designer killer molecules in our antibiotics and pesticides, oxidants in pollutants, metabolic roller coasters of sugar and neurotransmitters and the powerful oxidant molecules of stress? Unrelenting fatigue—chronic fatigue!”9

It is likely that qigong acts like a free-radical scavenger. Qigong has been shown experimentally to increase the activity of superoxide dismutase (SOD), an enzyme that protects cells from free-radical damage.10 In other words, practicing qigong is like taking a healthy dose of vitamin C!

Pain

Musculoskeletal causes of pain can be significantly reduced by learning to use the body more intelligently. For instance, an important qigong principle is guan jie song kai, “relax and open all the joints.” In other words, do not lock the joints. Imagine them in a state of relaxed, open flexibility rather than tense contraction. A specific application of this principle is in the knees, the body’s shock absorbers. By keeping them slightly bent during qigong practice and in everyday activities, movement will not jar the spine. The lower back also remains more flexible and alive.

Qigong also reduces pain by improving relaxation skills. For instance, qigong emphasizes sequential relaxation and sinking (song chen), imagining that each body part, starting at the head, is relaxing downward; tension flows downhill like water and dissipates into the ground.

Qigong promotes the release of endorphins, the body’s good-mood chemicals. Research shows that endorphins can reduce pain and stimulate the immune system.11

Brain fog

The brain requires 20% of the body’s available oxygen. Brain fog is probably related to a dramatic reduction in blood flow in the cerebellum in ME/CFS patients.12 Numerous experiments have confirmed that qigong can improve blood circulation in even the very small capillaries and areas most distant from the heart.13 This means warmer hands and feet, less intolerance to cold and better brain blood supply. Additionally, slow abdominal breathing allows improved vasodilation and the most favorable conditions for oxygen delivery to the cells.14

Qigong has the potential to improve concentration and optimize brain functioning. Several studies have demonstrated the presence of a qigong electroencephalogram, a unique brain-wave signature found among qigong practitioners, consisting of an unusual quantity of alpha waves.15 Alpha waves indicate the ability to maintain a relaxed focus, as when one concentrates on a pleasant image.

Insomnia

ME/CFS patients are hypersensitive to environmental stresses and sensory stimuli. A car passing at night, a telephone ringing or a snoring spouse can disturb a patient as much as a low flying jet might disrupt the sleep of a person without this condition. According to Chinese medical theory, insomnia of any origin is frequently a symptom of blood vacuity and miscommunication between the heart and kidney/adrenals.16 Blood vacuity means a tendency toward anemia and the blood not providing proper nourishment. From the Western perspective, the latter may correspond to diminished oxygen delivery due to an acid–base imbalance of the blood caused by improper breathing.17 In addition to insomnia, blood vacuity may create symptoms of dizziness, palpitations, dry skin and lifeless hair.

Heart and kidney/adrenals are considered the fire and water elements of the body and symbolize the balance of activity and rest. A state of metabolic overexcitation and the hypersensitivity caused by pain depletes the body’s water (kidney-adrenal energy), causing the fire to rage out of control. This results in restlessness, exhaustion and insomnia.

Qigong helps to correct these problems by teaching relaxation skills, slowing down the brain waves, improving circulation and developing a more hardy, stress-resistant state of body and mind.

Empowerment

ME/CFS patients find themselves in a vicious cycle of disability compounded by their emotional reactions to inability/disability. One of the most important benefits of qigong is the sense of hope and self-efficacy, a feeling that you can make a difference in how you feel. The feeling of inner strength engendered through qigong makes it essential training in the Chinese martial arts. For the ME/CFS patient, qigong may turn the odds more in your favor, giving you a better fighting chance against an enemy that seems to attack on all fronts.

This article was first published on ProHealth.com on January 1, 1999 and was updated on May 2, 2021.

Editor’s Note:  For more information about qigong, check out Bob and Fran‘s inspiring messages and instructional YouTube videos.

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