Channels, Nadis, Meridians, Oh My! The Science Behind The Alt Medicine Idea


We typically think of energy as something that powers light, heat, and electricity in our homes.

But is energy, in some ways, powering us?

Throughout history, religions like Hinduism, Buddhism, and systems of medicine like Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) have referred to a vital life energy that runs through the body in currents or “channels.”

Traditionally, channels are said to play a role in health and well-being as well as spirituality.

Does it hold any water under the scrutiny of science? Let’s take a look.

First, what are channels?

Channels may be most well-known for their use in TCM. But they’re also found in a number of traditions, including Ayurveda, or traditional Indian medicine.

They can be referred to as:

  • channels
  • meridians
  • srotamsi
  • nadis

In Traditional Chinese Medicine

A 2010 study states that meridians are a system of channels through which vital energy, or qi, flows. It’s believed that qi can be blocked or depleted, leading to imbalance and disease.

The study also notes that meridians may correspond to the peripheral and central nervous system.

According to a 2015 review, meridians are “low resistance fluid channels where various chemical and physical transports take place.”

The review noted there are 14 main channels linked to 365 sub-channels, called subcollaterals. The joints of the main and sub-channels are known as acupoints.

Acupoints are used in TCM practices, such as:

In Ayurveda

Ayurvedic texts often refer to channels in Sanskrit as srotamsi, plural for srotas.

An older 2007 study noted that health in Ayurveda is governed by equilibrium between the three doshas, or humors. The accumulation of doshas can cause blockages in the srotas, the macro and micro-channels that nourish the body.

Nadi is another Sanskrit word for channels often used in Buddhist and Hindu traditions.

According to a 2016 review, the main nadis are believed to correspond to the nervous system in the physical body, though they’re distinct from it. The same review noted there are 10 main nadis in the body, along with 350,000 minor nadis.

In addition, three principal nadis are believed to represent the basic energetic qualities of life: ida, pingala, and sushumna.

They’re said to correspond to the different aspects of the nervous system as well as particular energies, shown in the table below.

Pingala and ida are said to meet at a point behind the eyebrow center, known as ajna, or the third eye chakra.

They’re also believed to play a role in some breathwork practices, like nadi shodhana, or alternate nostril breathing.

In a 2013 study, this practice was shown to influence the parasympathetic nervous system, the part of the nervous system responsible for relaxation.

Channels may play a role in Ayurvedic practices, including:

It’s important to note that the terms “masculine” and “feminine” in this case don’t refer to biological sex or gender, but to the complementary energies believed in Ayurveda to exist in every person, regardless of sex and gender.

This mirrors the concept of yin and yang in traditional Chinese medicine.

In yoga and energy healing

Proponents believe that working with the channels can help people take a more holistic approach to their health and well-being.

Kristin Leal, a yoga teacher and the author of “MetaAnatomy: A Modern Yogi’s Practical Guide to the Physical and Energetic Anatomy of Your Amazing Body,” is one such person.

“Our health is more than just how our immune system is doing,” Leal says. “That’s super important… but taking care of our emotions, how we are feeling, our state of energy, how we interact in our relationships and patterns — all of that is important for overall vitality.”

According to Leal, channels can play a role in each of these.

Cyndi Dale, an intuitive healer and the author of “The Subtle Body: An Encyclopedia of Your Energetic Anatomy,” says channels are like “riverways of energy that flow through the body.”

They’re subtle and internal, but it’s believed by some that they affect the physical body.

“The idea [of channels] is that we’re not just physical or spiritual/emotional, but a full person,” Dale says. “They go in and through cells, inclusive of vessels and capillaries, [and deal] with tissues, waste, and nutrients.”

Likewise, energetic channels are responsible for the flow of energy through the subtle, or nonphysical, body.

“We use it to literally unblock tissue… and get physical fluids moving in the body,” Dale says.

Working with the channels may “clear your physical and emotional energies, physical or subtle, that are in the way of having true well-being,” Dale says.

Practitioners use channels to aid in pain management as well as mental and emotional difficulties.

Some believe that channels can be cleared through practices, like:

Despite the lack of scientific evidence, channels have been a fixture in alternative medicine traditions for ages.

In the “Hippocrates Corpus,” a collection of ancient Greek medicinal works, channels link important body parts, such as organs and orifices, like the eyes and ears.

In the history of acupuncture mentioned above, researchers noted that the earliest references to channels were likely in Chinese medicine texts found at the site of the Mawangdui graves. These texts dated from between 186 and 156 B.C.

Called “mai,” researchers described them as “imaginary ‘channels’ associated with diagnosis and treatment.”

In the 20th century, French diplomat Georges Soulié de Morant reportedly coined the term “meridian.”

According to the 2014 review mentioned above, the first organized scientific study of meridians was conducted by Dr. Kim Bonhang in North Korea during the 1960s, though a team of scientists in China were unable to replicate the results a few years later.

Scholars debate the timeline of the inclusion of channels in Ayurvedic traditions, as the early history was likely oral.

Some of the earliest mentions are found in Hindu religious texts, including the “Upanishads” in 500 B.C. and the Vedas in 2000 B.C.

They’re also mentioned in more recent central texts in the Ayurvedic medicine tradition, including the “Ashtanga Hridayam” and the “Charaka Samhita.”

So what’s the word from the scientific community on channels?

In a 2010 report about the history of acupuncture, researchers noted that channels are not a universally accepted scientific concept.

Still, many researchers have attempted to find evidence to support their existence.

A 2013 review of multiple studies noted several hypotheses, including the existence of a primo vascular system (PVS) that may offer support for the physical existence of meridians, and that fascia, or connective tissue, may play a role.

A 2019 study of human corpses noted that acupuncture meridians may be part of the human extracellular matrix. Researchers also hypothesized that vessel nerve bundles may account for 80 percent of acupuncture points.

Though multiple studies have been conducted, there’s no conclusive evidence of channels. Their existence is still contested in the scientific community.

Channel-based therapies are part of complementary and alternative medicine. They’re not a replacement for medical care.

“If I think I’ve broken a bone, I go to the ER,” Dale says in agreement.

Ultimately, she advocates for integrating channels and other alternative theories into your lifestyle to supplement medical care.

Channels are mentioned in texts dating back centuries, but modern scientists have yet to validate their existence.

There’s research that some treatments using channel theory, such as acupuncture and breathwork, are beneficial to mental and physical health. Still, this doesn’t necessarily support the existence of channels.

Channel-based therapies are forms of complementary and alternative medicine and can provide support alongside appropriate medical care.


Beth Ann Mayer is a New York-based writer. In her spare time, you can find her training for marathons and wrangling her son, Peter, and three furbabies.

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