In Chinese medical theory, the kidneys are considered to be the flame of life and the foundation of health, vitality and longevity. They drive the basal metabolic process of human life and act as the storehouse of our essence. Kidney energy commands the birth-growth-death cycle and drives our sexuality and fertility. Like a seed that holds the potential of an entire plant, our kidneys hold the genetic blueprint of who we are and how healthy and strong we will be. Ultimately, the kidneys are the root of all substances in the body and are responsible for providing the tools we require to fulfill our most primal needs: survival and reproduction.
Importantly, Chinese medicine views the kidneys as a network of functions that spans both the body and mind, and assigns a much broader – and more profound – significance to the organ system than western medicine. To remind us of this difference, the “Chinese kidney” we refer to here is singular and capitalized: the Kidney.
In addition to governing our birth, growth and development, the Kidney stores our essence (think DNA) and is home to our “ancestral Qi.” It is also the root of all Yin and Yang, balancing the forces of water and fire within the body. The Kidney supports strong sexual function, maintains healthy bones and marrow, and allows for brain functions such as memory, concentration, and intelligence. It also supports keen hearing, healthy hair and water metabolism (urine). Emotionally, it supplies us with strong willpower, determination, and the motivation to keep moving forward.
According to Traditional Chinese Medicine, there are three different types of energy in the human body, known as the “three treasures." These are Jing, Qi and Shen – loosely translated as our essence, vital life force or energy, and spirit. As the great Chinese Taoist sage Lu Zi wrote: “The human body is only Jing, Qi and Shen. These are the three treasures. These three treasures are complete as a human being. In order to attain true health and happiness, you must value the three treasures. Without the three treasures you cannot live long, and deep attainment cannot be reached in a lifetime. The three treasures must not be wasted. They must be nourished and protected as one’s life.”
Jing – or essence – is the first treasure and is the energy that our parents pass onto us at the moment of conception. It represents our deepest energy reserve – the root of our vitality – and is stored in the Kidney. Kidney essence can be thought of as our genetic inheritance or potential. If our parents were old or ill when we were conceived, we may inherit less Jing essence. In addition to the Jing essence that we receive from our parents, we also have the potential to create new Jing daily from the air we breathe and the food we eat.
Kidney essence determines how well we age. If we indulge in too much sex, drugs, or rock and roll – either literally or euphemistically – we will quickly burn through our Jing essence. Excessive work or exercise, alcohol, caffeine and stress all deplete Kidney essence before its time. Premature gray hair, weak bones, loss of hearing, dark circles under the eyes and dental issues all signal declining Kidney essence. Alternately, maintaining a balanced lifestyle with healthy whole food, sufficient sleep, and low stress helps preserve Kidney energy and essence. Once we have used up all our Jing, life ceases.
The Kidney is also the source of all Yin and Yang within the body. Kidney Yin (also called true water) moistens and nourishes our organs and tissues. Kidney Yang (also called true fire) is the foundation of metabolism within the body. Together, these two mutually dependent forces provide energy and warmth (Yang qualities) as well as grounding and endurance (Yin qualities). It is the dynamic interaction between the two that maintains the activities of our life. When the fire of Yang burns low, or Yin is not nourishing the body, the Kidney must always be addressed. When the balance between Kidney Yin and Yang is disrupted, pathological changes take place and illness occurs.
The Kidney dominates the bones, marrow and brain. When Kidney essence is plentiful, both the bone (supporting the body) and the brain (supporting the mind) will be at a level of ideal strength. Deficient Kidney essence, on the other hand, can lead to brittle bones or a diminished mind – especially in our later years when bones are easily injured or broken and the memory starts to fade. Diseases such as arthritis, osteoporosis and Alzheimer’s are all related to declining Kidney energy. Because of the Kidney’s physical location, low back pain is a common symptom of a weak of imbalanced Kidney energy. Indeed, this is why the Kidney is referred to as “the lumbar mansion” in Chinese medical theory.
As the organ that governs survival through reproduction, the Kidney system is also responsible for male and female sexual function, including fertility, libido and impotence. The quality of the sperm and egg, for instance, are a function of Kidney Yin and Yang. Tonifying both of these aspects of Kidney essence often increases the success of pregnancy, as well as most other sexual issues.
Fear and fright are the emotions associated with the Kidney according to Chinese medicine. Fear has the ability to shake us to our core, and chronic fright translates into something very much like unrelenting stress – both are extremely damaging to the Kidney. When these emotions set the dominant tone of one’s life, the Kidney can’t help but be damaged.
The Kidney is said to “open in the ear” and our ability to hear involves proper nourishment of the ears from the Kidney system. When there is an imbalance or weakness in the Kidney system, a common symptom is tinnitus, or ringing in your ears. Interestingly, care givers and loved ones are still encouraged to talk to patients who are comatose or appear unconscious and unaware (unable to talk, communicate or see you) because they can often still hear. From a Chinese medical point of view, this reflects the powerful relationship between the Kidney and our ears, and the belief that hearing endures until all our vital essence is exhausted and we die.
Finally, our will power and determination are commanded by the Kidney. When there is abundant Kidney energy and essence, there is a strong physical constitution as well as a strong sense of purpose and will. Such strength of will is often associated with the necessary self discipline to be able to succeed in the face of life’s challenges.
The element in nature associated with the Kidney is water, which is appropriate since water is the source of all life. The organ paired with the Kidney is the Urinary Bladder, and together both organs govern water metabolism in the body. Urinary incontinence (leakage), chronic bladder infections, interstitial cystitis and edema are all signs that Kidney energy may be imbalanced.
As we age, the Kidney begins to decline as the fire of life consumes the body’s essential living water. Under the surface of our fast-paced lives, many of us are so caught up in the drama of Kidney Yang – with its need for constant stimulation and activity – that we fail to refresh our Kidney Yin with rest and stillness. As a result, Kidney Yin, which represents the deepest nourishment within us (and corresponds to the parasympathetic nervous system, responsible for restoration and revitalization), may begin to burn up.
Poor memory, insomnia, a weak or painful low back, and lack of clarity or motivation can all indicate low or declining Kidney energy. For women in particular, these symptoms often appear at menopause, when Kidney energy has begun its natural decline. The end of the menstrual period is a reflection of waning Kidney essence.
Since the Kidney is the storehouse of both Yin essence and Yang energy, imbalance is almost always dual in nature, with both water and fire becoming deficient over time. The nature and degree of this insufficiency will vary from person to person, depending on their genetic inheritance and lifestyle. The art of Kidney rejuvenation lies in addressing the details of this dual deficiency correctly.
Kidney Yin is the material basis for reproduction, growth and development, the formation of bone marrow, and nourishment of the brain. Our stressful, modern lifestyle, with its “work hard, play hard” mentality, drains our Yin reserve. Although our culture rewards hard work and non-stop action, the Kidney system does not. When a person reaches the point where relaxation becomes difficult or even stressful – this is a sure sign of Yin deficiency. Signs of Kidney Yin deficiency include: dizziness, tinnitus, vertigo, sore low back/knees, constipation, insomnia, anxiety and “empty heat” signs such as a flushed face, night sweats, hot flashes, and hot palms and soles. In women, it can manifest as scanty menstrual flow and amenorrhea. The nature of these symptoms reflects a type of chronic “wasting” and the tendency in our society to feel “burnt out.”
Over time, Kidney fire – and the energy it provides us – also wanes. Signs of Kidney Yang deficiency include: chronic low back or knee pain, low libido, impotence, infertility, frequent urination, nocturnal urination, edema, sensations of cold, fatigue and depression. The weight gain that often accompanies middle-age can also be attributed to waning Kidney fire or Yang, especially if it has been undermined by a lifetime of hard living, bad food, and stress. This corresponds closely to the slowing metabolism many of us face as we age.
The wide scope of influence of the Kidney encompasses the entire range of psychological, as well sympathetic and parasympathetic, reactions. From a biomedical point of view, Kidney Yin and Yang relate to the two aspects of our autonomic nervous system. Kidney Yang represents the reactive, sympathetic nervous system (“fight or flight”) that commands the secretion of epinephrine and norepinephrine from the adrenal medulla as well as other hormones from the pituitary, thyroid and other endocrine glands. In contrast, Kidney Yin can be seen in the parasympathetic nervous system (“rest and digest”) which governs the secretion of corticosteroids from the adrenal cortex as well as other hormones secreted by the anterior pituitary and other endocrine glands.
Ancient doctors of Oriental Medicine developed powerful natural elixirs to directly rejuvenate the Kidney. Some focus on refreshing the living water (Kidney Yin) while others nurture the fire of life (Kidney Yang). When the balance is correctly suited to the specifics of the Kidney insufficiency or imbalance, the results can be powerfully regenerating. This approach has come to be known as the Two Immortals application.
Kidney essence naturally declines as we age, so in order to keep our kidney energy strong we need adequate rest (especially in winter, Kidney season), proper nutrition, (a whole food diet without processed foods and refined sugars) stress management and adequate exercise. Meditation, contemplation, deep relaxation and high quality deep sleep all take us to the incubator of living fire and water.
The Kidneys do not like to be overworked. Exercises such as qi gong, tai chi, meditation and yoga foster Yin and help us to recharge and rebuild. So does a leisurely walk, reading a book, or relaxing with friends. We need time and space to regenerate so that we not only feel better, but are more productive. Allowing or this “Yin time” acknowledges that the world will continue to revolve without us. Adrenal fatigue – the western biomedical equivalent of Kidney deficiency – is growing rapidly in our culture as people tend to put too much on their plate and not enough rest.
In traditional Chinese culture, guarding and cultivating one’s Kidney essence has been elevated to an art, reflected in innumerable martial arts exercises, herbal recipes, and prescriptions for healthy living. Your acupuncturist has a number of tools to help you strengthen your Kidney, including acupuncture, moxibustion and an herbal formula specifically designed to nourish your Kidneys. In addition, they can help you develop a lifestyle and meal plan that will not only protect your Kidney system, but help to boost your overall health. Strengthening your Kidney energy is one of the most important things you can do to help you face the many challenges of modern living and age with strength and vitality.