In the East, Yin and Yang are the foundation of natural philosophy and medical theory – embodying the fundamental character, purpose and properties of all things and beings. They are the opposing, yet complimentary, forces that create balance, sustain life, and support vibrant health. Yang represents activity, heat and expansion. Yin provides a counterbalance via rest, recovery and refueling. Yang is warm and drying, while Yin is cool and moisturizing. Importantly, these two energies are inseparable. They exist simultaneously and within each other – one cannot function without the other. Although our culture praises and encourages (Yang) activity, it is important to recognize that we need to nourish the source of our (Yin) fuel for that activity to promote longevity and prevent burn out. Balance and equanimity – the basis of good health and wellness – can only be achieved when Yin and Yang are in a state of harmony (homeostasis).
Physical trauma, mental overwork, emotional upheaval and other intense Yang lifestyle choices can all deplete our endowment of Yin. This, in turn, creates a condition of imbalance or disharmony that cannot be sustained without leading to exhaustion, illness and a breakdown of the body-mind-spirit. Ultimately, our growth is hampered – be it physical growth in children or mental / spiritual growth in adults.
There is no blood test for Yin deficiency. And symptoms can be difficult to recognize. Often, they begin subtly, increasing in number and severity over time as our Yin declines. Initially, we may experience increased agitation, restlessness and emotional disturbance. Minor inconveniences start to feel overwhelming as we lose our “shock absorbers” that help us keep life in perspective. As these tensions build, we may feel drained, over-sensitive and easily-offended. Because our nervous system is particularly sensitive to imbalances within the body, psychological and emotional symptoms often represent the early stages of Yin deficiency. These will continue to worsen as physical signs begin to manifest.
Physically, the loss of Yin makes it difficult to rest and relax, often leading to anxiety and insomnia. We begin to dry up inside, affecting our skin, hair, eyes, lips, nose, throat and mouth. Bowel movements may also become difficult. Fatigue, low back pain and knee weakness may all begin to appear. Vision and hearing both become less acute. Inevitably, serious Yin depletion accelerates aging, resulting in bone deterioration, poor memory and premature gray hair.
Another common sign of Yin deficiency is body pain – often the kind that creeps up on us slowly until it becomes chronic. Imagine a creaking door with hinges that require oil to move smoothly. Similarly, our body needs to keep “oiling” our internal organs, joints and spinal discs to keep them replenished with new fluid and nutrients. Yin lubricates the connective tissue that holds us together and makes smooth movement possible. Often, people with Yin deficiency have balance issues since the connective tissues of the body (such as our tendons) required for equilibrium are stiff and dried out.
Ultimately, a definitive diagnosis of Yin deficiency rests on pronounced symptoms that involve heat. Uncomfortable hot sensations may appear on the palms of the hands, soles of the feet, and chest area. Flushed cheeks (“malar flush”), excessive perspiration without exertion, and night sweats will start to manifest. Hot flashes – sensations of heat that affect a person with Yin efficiency (but that no one else in the room feels) are also quite common. One may feel warm to the touch at times, without necessarily having a measurable fever. Such low-grade fevers (also called “tidal” fevers) are just enough to make a person feel sluggish and drained. While many types of heat conditions will cause restlessness, as well as difficulty falling and staying asleep, Yin deficient heat wakes people up frequently during the night or early morning.
Importantly, the heat-related signs that are the hallmark of Yin deficiency are not caused by an excess of Yang, but rather an insufficiency of Yin. The decline in Yin’s moistening energy and cooling capacity within the body (relative to Yang) is specifically referred to as “empty heat” in Chinese medicine. Put another way, Yin’s “emptiness” reveals itself in a kind of heat and dryness brought on by the lack of moisture and cooling within the body. This “empty” heat is relatively mild and occurs mainly in the afternoon or evening – “Yin time.” Consequently, balance is re-established not by lowering or dispersing the seeming excess heat of Yang, but by raising and nourishing Yin’s cooling energy.
Yin deficiency can progress for years before giving rise to empty heat. While someone experiencing Yin depletion will likely be aware that something is wrong or “off” with their body, they won’t necessarily feel “sick” in the normal sense. Emotionally, Yin deficient people may experience a vague anxiety without really being able to pinpoint why they feel on-edge. They may also feel overly defensive without good reason. Often, symptoms that can’t be explained by any known pathology, such as an unexplained rash or pain, or a sensitivity to smell, foods or allergies, are all potential signs of Yin deficiency. And despite the signs of heat, they won’t likely have a temperature or be running a fever.
A culture that promotes Yin deficiency
Our non-stop culture that rewards – and seemingly admires – work over relaxation sets the modern-day context Yin deficiency. While there’s nothing wrong with a work-hard mentality, the kidney system (above all others) stresses the need for moderation and balance, and suffers greatly from the loss of Yin’s cooling energy. The liver, our largest internal organ (and second only to the skin, overall) also needs Yin’s moisture to dilute toxins and mitigate their harmful effects – in addition to filtering blood and keeping its viscosity consistent. Finally, the heart – main distributor of moisture and Yin energy via the blood – also suffers, as will the lungs and all areas above the diaphragm. If these organs cannot readily find the moisture they need to function properly, they will draw it from other areas and organs, creating dryness in places the body deems moisture to be less essential. Yin deficiency is the equivalent of our body being locked in the “on” position – to the point where even relaxation itself becomes a source of stress. Worse still, it stays “on” until we burn out and crash.
For women, Yin deficiency is a particularly common issue since Yin is an aspect of the blood, which is lost monthly during menstruation. Moreover, as we age, we lose Yin naturally as estrogen declines – a hormone that is classified as Yin in nature, according to Chinese medicine. Consequently, the normal aging process, paired with a hard-working lifestyle, can lead to significant Yin vacuity that can impact both fertility and menopause. Over time, Yin depletion can lead to more serious conditions such as diabetes, hyperthyroidism, cancer, adrenal fatigue, auto-immune disease, and depression, to name a few.
Causes of Yin deficiency
Yin deficiency is often attributed to several (co-existing) factors that include too much work and stress, along with too little rest. These include:
Poor nutrition: the typical calorie-dense, but nutrient-poor, American diet does not provide enough of the Yin-rich building blocks our body needs to refuel and repair itself
Insufficient rest: night time, quiet rest and stillness are all Yin in nature, and are essential if the body is to recuperate the lost energy of the day
Overwork: pushing ourselves physically or intellectually (particularly at night) drains Yin. People working the graveyard shift are particularly susceptible to Yin deficiency
Abuse of stimulants: overuse of stimulants (or even sheer force of will) to push ourselves beyond our natural limits drains our reserves and burns out Yin
Cleansing: many popular detox programs drain the body of fluids – depleting Yin and weakening our kidneys if we don’t rebuild our Yin supply when the cleanse is over
Chronic stress: the relentless stress that many of us face in our daily lives drains the adrenals and depletes Yin energy over time
Emotional upheaval: chronic feelings of worry, anxiety, resentment and anger all possess a hot, hyperactive Yang nature which damage Yin over time
Cancer treatment: Chemotherapy represents a “hot” invasion of the body that taxes our internal resources and depletes Yin
Chronic disease: serious, long-term illness results in the gradual deterioration and depletion of the vital substances of the Yin organs (kidneys, lung, liver and heart)
Overindulgence in sexual intercourse: excessive sex leads to the depletion of fluids (especially in men), which Yin in nature. This perspective reflects why some spiritual practices and Daoist traditions link celibacy to heightened spiritual awareness and caution adherents to preserve their sexual energy.
Aging and the decline of Yin
As people age, they naturally start to lose their gender-related Yin or Yang energy. For women, this means losing Yin and eventually entering menopause (as mentioned above, hormones such as estrogen are defined as a Yin substance within the body). Many will experience hot flashes, night sweats and frequent waking, all symptoms of Yin deficiency. In addition to these physical signs, many women also notice that their personality also tends to become less Yin. What does this mean exactly? With age, many women grow less meek – going out, doing more, expressing their opinions, and standing up for themselves in ways they did not when they were younger. If they become pathologically Yin deficient, however, they may become agitated, demanding and shrill. (Interestingly, the opposite happens with men as their Yang declines and they becoming more Yin with age – becoming more mellow, easy-going, and seemingly less confrontational and combative). Obviously, this is a generality, and each of us, regardless of gender, has different proportions of Yin and Yang that make us unique. But there is a tendency for men and women to switch polarities as they age, and the balance of Yin and Yang shift over time. Importantly, the loss of Yin as women age also depends on their constitutional health, and how well they have taken care of themselves over their lifetime. Stress, drugs, overwork, environmental issues and poor diet can all contribute to the depletion of Yin, regardless of age. Anyone can become Yin deficient at any time.
Moderation in all things is very important when it comes to Yin conservation. This means respecting our energy levels and their normal fluctuations instead of “pushing” through. Rest is crucial to recharge and rebuild our mind-body-spirit. Energy practices such as Qi gong, meditation and yoga all foster Yin, as does going for a leisurely walk, reading a book, or relaxing with friends.
Rest: Night time is Yin time, and sleep provides the crucial time and space we need to rebuild Yin. That’s why we ultimately end up sabotaging ourselves if we stay up all night preparing for a big test or an important meeting: we deplete our Yin, which affects the brain, and harms our performance just when we need to shine.
Slow Down: Incorporating meditation and other contemplative practices into our daily lives is one of the most effective and long-lasting ways to slow down our lives, preserve Yin, and calm the mind.
Meditation: The power of habitual thoughts and visualization, as well as the daily practice of gratitude, all help to calm the mind, conserve our energy, and balance our body chemistry. Making a habit of thinking and visualizing positive thoughts helps shift our body chemistry to induce healing and preserve Yin.
Nutrition: Healthy food is one of the most powerful ways to restore the body’s reserves. To build Yin, the body needs foods which that calm the nervous system, sedate the mind, and help replenish fluids within the body. Yin-rich foods include: sweet potatoes, squash, string beans, black beans, kidney beans, fish, oysters, duck, and chicken eggs. Grains such as millet, barley and oatmeal also boost Yin. Bone Broth is one of the best ways to help strengthen the body, nourish Yin, and maintain essence.
Because Yin deficiency is aggravated by caffeine, alcohol and sugar, these should be avoided or used in moderation. It is also worth noting that Yin fortifying foods tend to congest the digestive system if consumed in excess. Therefore, it is better to consume smaller quantities more frequently, rather than a large amount all at once, for maximum benefit.
Herbal Medicine: Herbs that nourish Yin are generally moist, oily and heavy. They are basically a concentrated form of nutrition and are often taken long term since building the body back up after chronic depletion cannot be rushed. Yin tonics regenerate flesh and fluids, plump up tissues, and moisten and soothe mucus membranes. They also promote healthy blood production, bone formation and brain health.
While there are many Yin nourishing formulas available in Chinese medicine (each tailored to the individual details of a patient’s specific pattern diagnosis), some of the most well-known and common formulas include Liu Wei Di Huang Wan (or variation Zhi Bai Di Huang Wan with its greater heat-clearing power), Zuo Gui Wan, and Da Bu Yin Wan.
Liu Wei Di Huang Wan contains Shu di Huang, Shan Zhu Yu and Shan Yao to nourish the Yin of the kidney, liver and spleen, respectively (among other herbs). Zhi Bai Di Huang Wan contains all the same herbs as above, with the addition of heat clearing herbs Zhi Mu and Huang Bai.
Acupuncture: Acupuncture helps regulate the autonomic nervous system. Needling points such as KD 1, KD 3, KD 6, LV 3, SP 5, UB 52 and UB 43 all help to nourish liver and kidney Yin. Importantly, Yin deficiency often responds far better to dietary and herbal prescriptions than to acupuncture. While acupuncture will help to relieve the symptoms somewhat, food and herbs represent the best long-term solution.
Yin represents the nest-egg of nourishment that resides deep within each of us. From a western interpretation, it corresponds to the parasympathetic nervous system, responsible for restoration and revitalization. Like many chronic dis-eases, Yin deficiency creeps up gradually over a period of years: first appearing as vague, often unexplained and uncomfortable signs or sensations, before finally becoming obvious with more severe symptoms of illness and dis-ease that undeniably indicate that life is out of balance.
Under the surface of our fast-paced lives – where technology and social media have people plugged-in all day and night – our Yin is draining away. As so many of us become caught up in the drama of Yang, with its relentless, on-the-go stimulation, we fail to replenish our Yin. Yet, by neglecting Yin and ignoring the subtle signs of its decline, we run the risk of depleting our core vitality. Even worse, burning up Yin early-on in life ages us prematurely, leaving us looking and feeling older than our actual years.