The following is an extract from Jill Blakeway’s new book, Energy Medicine: The Science and Mystery of Healing, published by Harper Collins in April 2019.
In 1996, scientists at the Roslin Institute in Edinburgh, Scotland, were keeping a radical project under wraps. Unbeknownst to the rest of the world, including their colleagues in the scientific community, they were attempting to clone a sheep. Their plan was simple—or so they thought. First, the team removed an unfertilized egg from an adult female sheep and extracted its DNA. Thanks to a process called meiosis, the DNA of an egg is incomplete, which allows it to combine with the DNA of a sperm to create an embryo. In lieu of sperm, however, the researchers removed the egg’s incomplete DNA and replaced it with a full set of DNA taken from a cell of that same adult female sheep’s body.
And then the researchers hit a wall. The DNA from a mature cell is technically complete, but it has also lost some of its capacity. As it ages, an adult cell switches on the parts of its DNA necessary to fulfill a specific function, such as creating a bone or even a freckle, and then switches them off again once the tasks are complete. The scientists in Edinburgh realized that they had the ingredients for creating life within their grasp—if they could unlock this cell’s potential, making it behave as if it were young again. In an inspired move—and employing a somewhat Frankenstein-like concept—they introduced a tiny electric charge into the process. Amazingly, this was the spark needed to bring the egg to life. Thus Dolly the sheep, the first mammal ever to be cloned from the cell of an adult animal— and our first ovine celebrity— was introduced to the world in 1997.
I was a student at Chinese medical school at the time, and the news intrigued me. The idea that electricity was the impetus needed to produce life struck me as meaningful: an electrical energy that was a vital animating source sounded a lot like the Chinese concept of qi to me.
The idea that the body has electrical properties dates back to 1789, when an Italian physicist, Luigi Galvani, made a discovery while dissecting a dead frog. He touched the frog’s exposed sciatic nerve with a charged metal scalpel and noticed that the leg flexed as if the frog were alive. (The word, “galvanize”—meaning to stimulate, or stir to life, with electricity—was coined in tribute to Galvani.) Two years later, he reported these findings in an academic journal, Proceedings of the Bologna Academy[i]; out of this simple observation grew the modern field of bioelectromagnetism, the study of electrical and electromagnetic phenomena, such as the electric currents that flow in our nerves and muscles, that are crucial to our body’s ability to function.
In terms of human physiology, the basic unit of bioelectromagnetism is the cell. Most types of cells exhibit some form of polarity, which means that there is an electrical difference across the cell membrane, creating a voltage gradient, also called an electric potential. Some cells, including neurons and muscle cells, have particularly high electrical potential due to electrically excitable membranes whose purpose it is to transmit the electrical impulses that send signals around our bodies.
Qi is not unlike this electrical activity in that it, too, is invisible and understood mostly by its effect. But there is this distinguishing factor: science believes in one and not the other. That may be because the concept of qi, to scientists, can seem too abstract. The word is often translated into English as “energy”, although qi doesn’t really correlate to the scientific definition of energy. The literal translation of qi is “breath” or “air”, and the Chinese character represents the vapor that rises from a pan of rice, signifying the way food becomes energy. But, as I’ve discussed throughout, qi is also far more than this. Qi is the body’s intelligence and its organizing system— and it links us to the greater field of the Tao.
When I was part of the acupuncture program in the labor and delivery wing of Lutheran Medical Center, I learned an important lesson about qi as it relates to the body’s electrical energy. For two years, in addition to running my private practice, I ran Lutheran’s inpatient acupuncture services, where part of my job was to deliver care to women in labor. My primarily low-income patients often arrived with many challenges and few resources. When things got down to the excruciating nitty-gritty, as they inevitably do in labor, it was very gratifying to be able to offer these women a respite. Sometimes the pain was so intense and chaotic that they were hardly even aware of the needles going in, but they certainly took notice once the pain abated.
To make that happen, I would insert a needle in an acupuncture point known as “Spleen 6”, which is about three fingers’ breadth up from the medial malleolus, the knob-like bone of the ankle. Spleen 6 is a crossing point of three acupuncture channels, all of which affect the reproductive organs, so it is used to calm uterine pain and menstrual cramps as well as speed up labor. Once I had the needle in, I would “put some qi on it”, as I like to say, which meant stimulating it by twisting it slightly with my fingers for about a minute. I knew that I was done when I would feel the needle grab—that is, I would feel a tug, almost like a fish taking the bait. The Chinese call this sensation de qi; patients can feel it on their end, too, sometimes as a tingling or deep ache around the needle. It was in doing this, time and again for these women in urgent need of a remedy, that I came to realize that the needle grab was essential.
When I did feel that satisfying little tug, the pain would not only begin to ease more readily, but these women’s cervixes would also dilate more quickly— there were midwives, nurses, and doctors examining them after the treatment to confirm this. I was also overseeing acupuncture students in this program, so once I’d established that this made all the difference, I began to watch like a hawk to be sure my students were getting the needle grab too. I could actually see from the door of a hospital room if one of my students had only superficially inserted a needle, leaving it listing to one side, or if they had established this more profound relationship. “Fewer needles,” I remember frequently calling out, “more de qi!”
The effect was so pronounced, in fact, that one of the doctors overseeing labor and delivery suggested that we chart what we were doing with patients on the contraction printouts. (Yes, there were still printouts then.) We began to write down on the contractions graphs when we’d treated with acupuncture, at what point we felt the needle grab, and the effect on the patient. In doing so, we created a clear record that treating the Spleen 6 point, when accompanied by a strong needle sensation, increased contraction strength and frequency in addition to dilating the cervix more quickly.
It is always a relief to have instinctual practices verified in a concrete way, and yet, despite the fact that we’d been able to track the success of the de qi sensation at this acupuncture point, I still didn’t have a clear idea of what was occurring internally. That is, not until nearly a decade later, when I came across new research that specifically investigated this phenomenon and the physiological effect it has on the body.
Helene M. Langevin[ii], a clinical endocrinologist who was curious enough about her patients’ interest in acupuncture that she took a course in Chinese medicine and then carried her newfound skills into the lab with her at the department of neurology at the University of Vermont College of Medicine, led a study that found[iii] a measurable “pull out force” after every needle grab. And the strength of this grab was, on average, 18 percent higher when measured at acupuncture points as opposed to non-acupuncture points. This was, to me, a corroboration of the anatomy as designed by Chinese medicine; the needle grab is more vigorous at these points because they are more conductive of electrical energy.
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Perhaps more crucially, however, Langevin and her colleagues found, experimenting with acupuncture on a piece of rat abdominal wall, that when they rotated the needles—putting some qi on them—the connective tissue underneath the skin became “mechanically attached”. Writes Langevin: “Even a small amount of rotation caused the connective tissue to wrap around the needle, like spaghetti winding around a fork.”[iv] Langevin also found that the tissue remains stretched in this way for the duration of the acupuncture treatment, causing chemical changes at a cellular level that increase electrical conductivity.[v]
Connective tissue, long underplayed by Western medicine and science, has recently become of interest, particularly among molecular and physiological researchers, as new evidence has demonstrated that such stimulation to the connective tissue can be sensed at a cellular level, decreasing chronic inflammation, reducing pain, and even potentially inhibiting the growth of cancer cells or fibrotic tissue.
Connective tissue is everywhere inside of us—“one could draw a line between any two points of the body via a path of connective tissue,”[vi] Langevin points out. And it has many functions: it holds organs in place, offers a path for nerves and blood vessels, stores energy and attaches muscle to bone, and, yes, conducts electricity. The latter ability is thanks to a critical component of connective tissue: collagen. There are layers of water bound to collagen fibers that form a uniquely conductive pathway, allowing an electrical charge to travel rapidly throughout the body, just as it did when Dolly the cloned sheep was suddenly brought to life.
I felt vindicated in a new way when I discovered this research. I was feeling qi in the needle grab, I thought, and it was not only activating the connective tissue but also conducting electrical energy, sending a message of relief throughout the bodies of those women at Lutheran, allowing them to relax, at least for a little while, as they entered motherhood.
Jill Blakeway, DACM, is the founder of Yinova in New York City and the author of three books on health and healing. For her latest book Energy Medicine: The Science and Mystery of Healing, Jill travelled the world meeting with scientists and healers to better understand the body’s own intelligence and the variety of prompts that promote self-healing.
[i] Luigi Galvani (1737–1798). De viribus electricitatis in motu musculari commentarius. Bologna: Ex typographia Instituti Scientiarum, 1791.
[ii] “The Science of Stretch,” The Scientist, accessed October 1, 2017, https://www.the-scientist.com/features/the-science-of-stretch-39407.
[iii] H. M. Langevin, D.L. Churchill, and M.J. Cipolla, “Mechanical signaling through connective tissue: a mechanism for the therapeutic effect of acupuncture,” The FASEB Journal 15, no. 12 (2001): 2275–82.
[v] H. M. Langevin et al., “Biomechanical Response to Acupuncture Needling in Humans,” Journal of Applied Physiology 91, no. 6 (2001): 2471– 78.