Hello readers! This post about the Kidneys from a Chinese Medicine perspective is an older writing of mine, originally from January 2008. I am posting it here because it is indeed the Kidney time of year in the Northern hemisphere, and the Kidneys are very active – and vulnerable – during this time.
2008 was almost 13 years ago. This was before I entered Chinese medicine school, and my understanding of Chinese medicine was not what it is today.
But yet, I still like this article. And I believe it to be accurate. Many of us want to learn the Chinese medicine because it models what it looks and feels like to have our personal, inner ecology in relationships with the cosmological, outer ecology.
If you are new to Chinese medicine, this information will meet you where you are. We do not need a practitioner’s level of understanding to listen to our bodies, in this case, the Kidney organ system.
If the Chinese Medicine 5 Elements and organ systems interests you, I have a few entries about the Earth element and the Spleen and Stomach in Chinese medicine:
I missed the season of Autumn and the element of Metal, which corresponds to the Lungs and Large Intestines. This is unfortunate because they a very interesting system to me. Metal is about both grief/sadness and letting go.
The Lungs hold the Corporeal Soul, called the Po, which is what connects the spirit to the body, and is associated with spirituality and the dead/ghosts. This is right in alignment with the ancestral connections of autumn in Western folk traditions, too. Maciocia has a great intro to the Po if you’d like to get acquainted.
It kind of goes without saying, but the Lungs are very important currently on a collective as well as personal level because of Coronavirus. And also, for the grief from the excessive violence and loss of life due to white supremacy and racism against people of color, especially against Black people.
Yes, we all need to care for our Lungs right now, physically and emotionally/spiritually (and Large Intestine). This post contains some info on herbs to help tonify the Lungs, as well as care for the nervous system in times of intensified stress:
Winter is the season of the Kidneys
Growth, development, reproduction and the immunity that is deep within us are ruled by the Kidneys. It is no surprise when you consider that the Kidneys also rule the uterus and the brain (two of the extraordinary organs in Chinese Medicine). The Kidneys are classified as the most Yin organ, so Yin it is the source for Yang.
Think of Yin as blood and moisture. Cool and fluid. It flows, passive and receptive, to nourish the substances of the body. To know Yin we must also know Yang–as they are interdependent.
Yang is the energy and warmth which circulates stuff around the body. Yang is the processes, the things that happen like digestion, assimilation, homeostasis, libido, and appetite.
Indeed the Kidneys are full of moisture, and they maintain the correct water balance of the body and the correct composition of extracellular fluids. They concentrate urine, pass it to the bladder for storage until it is released through the urethra. To do this, the Kidneys have about 1 million nephrons and receives 1 liter of blood every minute. The nephrons are lined with many mitochondria, which are helpful since almost all of the glucose and amino acid molecules filtered from the blood are reabsorbed.
Someone mentioned to me that it seems like the Kidneys do a ton of work, so does that make them more Yang?
The kidneys do a lot of work, yes, but they do it in a very energy efficient way. The work in the Kidneys are done with the help of concentration gradients, which employes movement from a region of greater concentration to a region of lower concentration. This is also known as diffusion, which is the process of random motion to form a state of equilibrium. It uses no energy. It is homeostasis in action, which is really non-action. That certainly sounds Yin to me!
Functions and Associations of the Kidneys
- Govern birth, development, growth, fertility because they store Jing, Essence
- Create Marrow which is connected to the brain and bones
- Connected to water
- Helps the Lungs grasp Qi from the air
- Opens to the ears
- Controls spit
- Manifest in the color of your hair
- House the Zhi, will power
- Control Ming Men – Ministerial Fire
The Kidneys are a Water organ, along with their Yang organ pair, the Bladder. Yet the Kidneys are the root of Fire in the body too.
The Kidneys store Jing, Essence. Jing is an inherited substance we obtain from our birth parents. Jing contributes to Marrow. It is slightly different from what we know as bone marrow in Western medicine, which is why it is capitalized, to denote a named concept (just like the organs are). Marrow fills up the Brain and the Spinal Column, and these areas are referred to as the Sea of Marrow. If Jing is defincient, or if Marrow is not nourished, there can be poor concentration, memory problems, dizziness, and poor vision.
This is also related to the hair, particularly the quality of hair related to aging. A lot of Chinese Kidney Jing tonics will have herbs known to keep the hair black aka prevent premature graying. He Shou Wu, Polygonum multiflorum is one such herb. It’s English translation is “Black-Haired Mr. He“, although for some reason we call it Fo-ti in the West.
And again, this is related to the hearing and the ears. As you can see, the Kidneys have a lot to do with aging, just as much as they do with birth, reproduction and puberty.
This connection also explains the association of the Kidneys with the teeth, Teeth are obviously bones, formed in utero under the direct guise of Pre-Natal Jing like everything else, but they can show developmental anomalies more quickly than other bones. This is right in alignment with epigenetics and the work of the dentist Dr. Weston Price. It is worth noting that I appreciate the original work of Dr. Price about diet and teeth from his 1939 book very much, but have a harder time following the work of the Weston Price Foundation.
The concept of Ming-Men Ministerial Fire is not something I feel confident to dissect. But it is the root of Yuan Qi, the Original Qi of the body. As Maciocia says,
“Original Qi (Yuan Qi) is a form of dynamically activated Essence (Jing) that has many functions, amongst which is that of assisting in the making of Blood. Original Qi relies on heat for its performance and this heat is provided by the Gate of Life [Ming Men stored between the Kidneys]. If the Fire of the Gate of Life is deficient than Original Qi will suffer, and will inevitably lead to a general deficiency of Qi and Blood.”
If you want to learn more about the Kidneys, Jing and Yuan Qi, check out Subhuti Dharmananda’s incredible website.
Signs of Kidney Imbalances of TMC
In the “Zhi” article, (coming up, 2020 readers) I mentioned that the Kidneys rule over the bones and marrow, joints, sexual-urinary organs. Here are some typical Kidney imbalance symptoms. Note if any of these issues happen to you only in damp, cold environments or seasons.
- Joint problems and pain
- Weak knees, wobbly legs, weak ankels
- Fertility, sexuality, hormonal issues,
- Urinary and kidney problems, night time urination
- Morning loose/watery stool
- Teeth problems
- Brittle bones
- Fear, paranoia, lack of willpower
- Poor memory, especially short-term, senility
- Thinning, loss, or premature graying of hair (including body hair)
- Premature aging
- Hearing and ear problems
- Leg edema
- Low-back pain and weakness
Kidney imbalances are not just some esoteric things that only apply in a Chinese Medicine context. Western medicine gives diuretics for swollen ankles.
A friend of mine had some sort of kidney failure as a child, and has since had teeth problems. People with anxiety problems tend to also have loose stools.
Some of the signs of Kidney imbalance mentioned above overlap with the principle of Cold, like achy joints, loose stools, and urinary and menstrual problems. If the lower back is sore, I think Kidney.
If not, I lean towards Cold. This is not be a catch-all way to differentiate as there are many exceptions, but it helps me to begin somewhere.
Other Kidney Associations
- The smell is putrid
- Black color
- Groaning sound
- Salty taste
- Cold climate
Kidney Supportive Practices
- Taking salt baths, or swimming in saltwater (when it’s warm, of course)
- Keeping the feet covered and warm – no going out in sandals without socks unless your feet are very warm to the touch
- Keep the inner ankles covered too, preferably with wool. This also protects Damp from damaging the Spleen channel that also goes through the inner ankle. I have seen some people’s low back pain go away with this one simple layer of protection!
- While you are at it, also keep the low back and belly covered. This prevents the cold damp from directly damaging the Kidneys.
- The time of the Bladder is 3-5pm, and the Kidney 5-7pm. The Kidney time of day when we should start to rest our body and transition into a more Yin time. It is a good time to put, or do legs up the wall pose. Do Water related rituals or therapies then for extra support.
- Yin Yoga is very soothing to the Kidney network. By Yin Yoga, I mean any sort of Yoga that is not at all like hot yoga or power yoga. In fact, excess sweating will drain your Jing, essence! Emphasize deep breathing, holding restorative poses for a long time (10 breaths at least), using lots of props to take strain off the muscles so the nervous system can “melt”, and gentle twists of the spine.
- Anything that soothes the nervous system will support the Kidney network, but think long term support like gentle adaptogens rather than nervines. Also nutritive tonics like Nettle.
- Get the most basic, primal foods in the most whole forms. Bone broths, organ meats and pure butter are examples. For Vegans, use mushroom broths with Chinese herbal tonics added, and lots of coconut oil and olive oil.
- Eat salt to taste, especially in the form of dried seaweeds and tamari.
- Avoid overworking and think long term when it comes to your energy. Do not burn the candle at both ends! From a Western standpoint, the Kidneys are related to the adrenal glands.
- Practice belly breaths. The Kidneys help hold the Qi from the Lungs to help from rebelling in the form of asthma or constricted breathing. It also helps put the body into a parasympathetic tone.
- Massage the ears with oil and a drop of your favorite essential oil (Lavender perhaps?).
- Give yourself a scalp massage with oil and salt – of this feels so good. The stimulation of the nails on the scalp, along with the gritty salt, directs the energy to the head, nourishing this part with fresh Qi and Blood.
- Use a hot water bottle on your knees, low back and feet on a regular basis in the winter, or whenever you are cold. Do not use a heating pad! They are damaging to the nervous system, or so I’ve heard from a neurologist. Which is fine with me, I prefer hot water bottles, anyway.
The 5 taxations of Chinese medicine
This goes with every organ system, but mind the 5 taxations: sitting, standing, laying, walking and staring.
Basically, anything done for too long will tax the body and lead to Qi and Blood stagnation and drain the energy of the Organs.
With that, I am going to stop staring and sitting and go outside.
Have fun taking care of your Kidneys! Your body will thank you later.
- Tierra, Lesley. Healing With the Herbs of Life.
- Purves, et. al. Life: The Science of Biology.
- Maciocia, Giovanni. The Foundations of Chinese Medicine.