The second in a series demystifying Chinese Medicine Theory for Patients and the General Public
Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) provides us with unique and illustrative ways of looking at our health and relationships between ourselves, others, and our environment. This series of articles is part of my ongoing goal of demystifying the world of acupuncture. In the first article of the series, “My Liver Is What“, we discussed the liver system from a Chinese Medicine perspective. This, the second article in the series, will discuss the “kidney” system.
As is the case with other organ systems, people are often confused when their acupuncturist or herbalist tells them they have a “kidney” problem. While perhaps more comforting than when my first Korean acupuncturist screamed out “brain problem!”, it raises an eye nonetheless.
As discussed in our first article, Chinese Medicine uses organ patterns to help describe processes and relationships within the body. As we now know, a “kidney” issue indicates a problem with the “kidney system” which rarely indicates a problem with the physical organ. The kidney system involves the physical kidneys, the adrenals, and the bladder which is the paired organ to the kidney system. The system also includes the kidney and bladder acupuncture meridians along with a host of imbalances from a Chinese Medicine perspective and western conditions such as nephritis.
About The Kidneys:
From a western perspective the kidneys perform very important processing and filtration functions in the body. Each day the kidneys process approximately 200 quarts of blood, taking out nearly 2 quarts of waste products and water. These waste products come from the normal breakdown of tissue in the body as well as from our food. The kidneys also release some very important hormones; Erythropoletin which stimulates the bone marrow to make red blood cells, Renin which regulates blood pressure, and Calcitrol (the active form of Vitamin D), which helps maintain calcium levels in the body.
We can live without one kidney, but without two we need to be on dialysis for the rest of our life or get a transplant. From a western perspective the kidneys are damaged by diabetes, high blood pressure, smoking, and a host of auto-immune and infection related conditions. Trauma and genetic conditions also play a role in kidney failure. General signs of kidney disease can be vague and include changes in urination (more or less often), fatigue, loss of appetite, swelling in the extremities, darkened skin, and/or muscle cramps.
From a Chinese Medicine perspective the kidney system has a very broad range of functions and is one of the most important systems in our body. Some of these functions are related to the physical functions of the kidneys, but others are related to connections made by the kidney meridian and other relationships from a TCM perspective.
- “Stores” the “Jing” and controls development and reproduction:
Jing, also called Essence, is a deep form of energy in our body. Some of it we are born with and other aspects we get from food and other activities. Jing is largely responsible for our mental and physical development and forms the basis of our ability to reproduce. Imbalances in this function can include infertility, sexual issues, and physical and/or mental developmental issues. (For more about Qi and Jing – see “What Is Qi?“)
- “Controls” Water Metabolism:
This is related to the western function of the kidneys. Imbalances in this function can lead to edema (body swelling) which can be very significant. Within this function there is also a relationship with the lungs that does not exist in western medicine. The control of water metabolism plays a role in moistening the lungs and aiding in their function – chronic dry cough can be signs of a kidney system imbalance.
- “Receives” Energy or “Qi”:
In TCM Theory the lungs and the kidneys work together to aid our ability to breath and circulate energy within our body. Weaknesses in the kidney aspect of this function can lead to issues such as shortness of breath, asthma, and/or fatigue.
- “Controls” the bones, manufactures marrow to “fill the brain”, and “manifests” in the hair:
This function relates to the kidney’s role in stimulating the production of bone marrow. From a Chinese Medicine perspective this involves both the bone marrow and the spinal marrow. Bone marrow is a crucial part of immunity, strong bones and teeth and spinal marrow is a crucial part of mental development, brain function, and hair growth. Dental problems are a sign of weak bone marrow function and hair loss is a sign of weak spinal marrow function. Imbalances in this role can lead to anything from loss of hair and minor dental issues to serious developmental disabilities.
- “Opens” into the ear and “controls” the anterior and posterior orifices:
The Kidneys are said to “open in the ear.” Our ability to hear involves proper nourishment of the ears from the kidney system. Weak kidney energy can show up as poor hearing or other conditions such as tinnitus (ringing in the ears). The anterior orifices refer to the urethra and genitalia and imbalances here can result in urinary and/or reproductive issues. The posterior orifices refers to the anus and the role of elimination by the colon. Weakness in this role can lead to issues such as chronic diarrhea or constipation.
From a Chinese Medicine perspective the following list of signs and symptoms can arise from a kidney system imbalance:
Asthma, cold limbs, weak back and/or knees, incontinence, bedwetting, tinnitus, constipation, night sweats, insomnia, diarrhea, poor physical and/or mental development, weak bones, teeth, poor memory, poor libido and reproductive issues.
As you can see the role of the kidney system in Chinese Medicine goes far beyond the role of the physical kidneys as defined by western medicine. The kidney system provides the root of our overall energy and has a large influence over our development. This begins while we are still in the womb and continues to influence how well we age throughout our life.
Kidney System Patterns and Their Meanings:
As discussed previously, Chinese Medicine treats “patterns” not “conditions.” By examining the patient, their entire range of signs and symptoms, palpating points, looking at their tongue and their pulse, practitioners of Chinese Medicine will arrive at a pattern diagnosis. By choosing the appropriate pattern you can treat western conditions as well as offset any variety of more vague symptoms before they turn into full pledged “conditions.”
In the case of the kidney system, patterns generally fall into two categories: Yang deficiency (our heat, our movement, and our energy) and Yin deficiency (our ability to cool, our relaxation, and our fluids). A common pattern, particularly in modern western cultures, is known as Kidney Yin Deficiency.
Kidney Yin Deficiency contains the following signs – dizziness, tinnitus, vertigo, sore back, constipation, “empty heat” signs such as flushed face, nightsweats, hot palms, hot feet and/or hot chest, hot flashes, insomnia and/or chronic dry throat. Related conditions are insomnia, menopausal syndrome, and various anxiety disorders.
Kidney Yang Deficiency contains the following signs – sore and/or weak back/knees, sensation of cold, aversion to cold, weak lower limbs, fatigue, clear copious urine, poor appetite, loose stools, sexual issues, fertility problems and/or edema. Related conditions are chronic fatigue syndrome, chronic back pain, and infertility.
For a full list of all of the kidney related patterns and their symptoms, you can see the “Kidney Related Disharmonies” page.
How Does My Lifestyle and Diet Effect These Patterns?
As the effect of the kidney system is broad, our ability to foster these imbalances is also quite broad. Generally if a chronic issue is anxiety and/or insomnia and you have that “go, go, go” mentality you are likely to be more yin deficient. If a chronic issue is fatigue and you are missing your “get up and go”, you are more than likely on the yang deficient side.
In modern western culture we see a tremendous amount of yin deficiency. The “work hard, play hard” mentality is a page from the “how to create yin deficiency” playbook. Our culture rewards hard work and we have a non-stop go, go, go culture – increasingly so. There is certainly nothing wrong with hard work, however, the kidney system above all other systems stresses to us the need for moderation and balance. Some people are at, or past, the point where relaxation becomes difficult and for some even stressful – this is yin deficiency. Yin deficiency is the equivalent of your body being locked in the “on” position. It stays on until you burn yourself out and crash which can be experienced in conditions such as hypothyroidism, cancer, auto-immune conditions, and depression to name a few.
For women this is a particularly acute issue as the yin of the body is an aspect of the blood. As we age we lose yin naturally – women lose more from menstruation. So this normal process coupled with a hard working lifestyle can lead to significant psychological and menstrual issues, fertility issues, and later problems at menopause. Issues at menopause are something many feel every women has to go through, yet in some cultures they may not even have a word for menopause. The menstrual cycle simply stops – no hot flashes, night sweats, mood changes, hormone replacement therapy – it just stops naturally and they experience no issues whatsoever. The concepts behind yin deficiency give us some clues as to why we see increasing problems in these areas.
The Yang deficient side is more straightforward – you run out of steam. This can come from working too hard, yin deficiency turning into yang deficiency, as a result of a significant illness, or perhaps starting life with a constitutional weakness (part of why some people seem to age faster than others even when lifestyle factors are taken into consideration).
So, what to do?
Moderation in all things appears to be very, very important. Respecting our energy levels and our normal fluctuations instead of always “pushing” through. When we need rest, rest – don’t just talk about resting, do it. All of the relaxation exercises such as qi gong, tai chi, meditation and yoga foster yin and help us to recharge and rebuild. As does a simple walk, reading a book, and relaxing with friends. We need our time and our space to regenerate and we will find that when we take this, not only do we feel better, but we are more productive. Part of allowing this to happen is the acknowledgement that the world will continue to revolve without us…
Foods Which Aid Kidney Yang Deficiency:
For Yang deficiency increasing your intake of warming wholesome foods such as stews, roasts and hearty soups is beneficial. Focusing your diet on cooked/steamed vegetables and avoiding cooling foods like salads and raw foods, adding ginger and garlic to your diet, and herbs such as ginseng can be helpful. Other foods such as shrimp, mussels, walnuts, lamb, onions, radish, turnips, cinnamon, peppermint, and royal jelly should be given precedence.
Food Which Aid Kidney Yin Deficiency:
For yin deficiency you need foods which calm the nervous system and your mind and help build the fluids of the body. As yin deficiency often presents with signs of heat (nightsweats, hot palms, etc.), many feel they need cooling foods. But as it is ultimately a deficiency pattern, too much cold/raw foods can aggravate the condition. Foods that are helpful are sweet potatoes, squash, potatoes, string beans, lemons, black beans, kidney beans, fish, oysters, clams, duck, and chicken eggs. As yin deficiency is further aggravated by caffeine, alcohol, sugar and strong spices, these should be avoided or used in moderation.
Well, now it’s time to relax. Winter is the season of the kidneys which means it is time to calm our minds, rest, and build our energy. Winter is a great time to honor our energy and take more time to regenerate ourselves, spend time with family and friends, and hibernate as best as we can. If we give our body this time, we can literally spring up with the trees and flowers as we all come out of our slumber – rested, strong, and more at peace.