Welcome to Chinese Medicine Bristol's official blog! Here, Acupuncture and TCM pracitioner Sandra Arbelaez will share information about Acupuncture and Chinese Herbal Medicine, how they work, and the latest research and developments related to TCM. You will also find knowledge and ideas on how to enjoy a full, healthy life that she has picked up over the course of 15 years of exploring the world of natural health

Friday 20 April 2012

The organs in Traditional Chinese Medicine: The Kidneys

This post is part of a series dedicated to TCM concepts of the organs. I am covering each organ’s functions, possible symptoms arising from its lack of balance, and how to look after it. I have already written about the  Liver in the first post of this series, this week I am talking about the Kidney which in TCM is the deepest and most essential organ.

The Kidneys (Shen) according to TCM

TCM shares some of the conventional concepts associated with the Kidneys such as their role in the metabolism of water and close link with the Bladder, and their role in the homeostatic balance of several substances, and in the formation of red blood cells. However, TCM regards the Kidneys as much more than their physical functions, they are actually regarded the “root of life” with functions closely related to every aspect of our development from birth to death.

Water- source of life and the element of the Kidneys
1. Store the Essence (Jing): The Essence stored in the Kidneys contains two types of Essence: Pre-natal and Post-natal. 

Post-natal Essence is the deep nourishment that we get from what we eat and drink, and from a supportive life-style. It is our daily supply of Qi for optimum functioning of the body. 

Pre-natal Essence is what we get from our parents - our constitution and genetic make-up. This type of Essence is what enabled us to be born in the first place and the catalyst of all physical and mental development throughout our lives. Pre-natal Essence is limited an irreplaceable and is naturally used by the simple act of living. We could think of it as our life-savings which need to be spent carefully and wisely so that they last us long enough to live a comfortable old age. When we behave recklessly and use much more energy than we have on a daily basis – post-natal Essence- for long periods of time, we end up resorting to our Pre-natal Essence which may result in damage to our health.

Through the Kidneys, Essence is put into action to perform its functions, which are by extension regarded as Kidney functions:
  • Governing growth, development, and reproduction: All our mental and physical development   from birth to puberty, the proper functioning of our reproductive system as adults, and all natural processes occurring as a result of growing up and aging are all dependent of the Kidney Essence.  
  • Producing the Marrow:  Marrow is understood as the collection of substances and tissues that fill the bones, spinal cord, and the brain and it is closely related to the health and development the skeletal and nervous systems.
  • Providing the foundation of Yin and Yang: Yin and Yang are the Water and Fire of the body, the contrasting qualities that both create and oppose each other. They permeate every organ and tissue in the body and represent the substance and activity without either of which our life ceases to be. 

2. Govern Water: The Kidneys – paired with the Bladder- are the organs of the Water element and provide the basis to the entire process of assimilation, transformation, absorption, and excretion of fluids throughout the body. All other Yin organs (Zang) participate in this but without the Kidneys’ support the whole system would either dry out or flood completely. This function is closely linked with the balance of Yin and Yang also provided by the Kidneys. 

3. Control the reception of Qi: Oxygen is another form of nourishment for our post-natal Essence. The Kidneys possess an ability to hold down the energy (Qi) of the Lung so that nourishment can be extracted from the air that we breathe, thus ensuring that post-natal Essence does not suffer.  

4. Open into the ears and manifest in the hair: The Kidneys have a close relationship with the ears which can be directly affected by any Kidney imbalance. In addition, the ears receive nourishment from the Essence, which also influences the abundance and strength of the hair. 

5. House the Will (Zhi):  The Will is the spiritual manifestation of the Kidneys, and one of the five aspects of the larger Spirit (Shen) which represent the variety of our human tendencies. The Will manifests both as the personal strength and confidence that are reflected in our assertiveness, survival instinct and desire to live; as well as in the deep security and conviction that make us feel safe within.

Symptoms of Kidney imbalance 

Because of their function of storing the Essence, the Kidneys are closely related to our constitution, our physical and mental strength, our immunity, and our reproductive health.

The Kidneys also rule the lower part of the body so their lack of balance can affect the lower back, lower abdomen, legs and feet.

The table below shows the possible symptoms that can occur from Kidney imbalance:

Kidney Function
Possible symptoms of imbalance
Store the Essence
Under-development in children
Late or little development of sexual traits at puberty
Premature aging
Infertility/Impotence (there are other factors that may influence this)
Structural defects of bones, joints, or spine Certain disturbances in mental activity/acuity
Excessive heat and dryness and over-activity of any function/organ of the body
Excessive cold and under-functioning of any organ
Govern Water
Urinary problems including incontinence and urinary retention
Water retention (oedema) especially in the lower abdomen, legs and feet
Control the reception of Qi
Breathlessness, chronic asthma
Open into the ears and manifest in the hair
Hearing loss and tinnitus
Premature greying of the hair and hair loss
Houses the Will power (Zhi)
Deep existential anxiety
Chronic feeling of fear and dread

How to look after your Kidney energy

Healthy Kidneys allow aging with grace and wisdom
Both the Essence and Kidney energy naturally diminish as we grow older, so it is a normal part of the process of living to experience a decline in our physical abilities. This does not necessarily mean that we have to expect chronic and severe illness to develop. That we have grown used to seeing the ageing process as a source of severe illness is a reflection of the fact that our life-style does not account for our physical decline. This is rooted in a societal lack of regard for all things “old” and our own deep fear of growing old and dying. Accepting the facts of life and working towards aging gracefully while allowing our inner wisdom to flourish in our later years could be more realistic and satisfying than spending precious time fearing or denying the loss of our youth. Deep conviction is needed to look after our Kidney health as this implies not only accepting our reality but also living within our energetic means –a difficult task for spree-loving Westerners.

Here are some recommendations to support our Kidneys which in turn could point us towards a healthier, longer life:  

·         Balance your rest and activity: Too much or too little activity can deeply affect the Kidneys as the root of Yin and Yang. Too much activity uses up the Yin leaving us wired, restless and unable to relax, potentially contributing to a host of problems from insomnia and anxiety to infertility and severe menopausal symptoms. On the other hand, doing too little may weaken the Yang making us sluggish and potentially resulting in depression, digestive problems, weight gain, impotence, infertility, and under-functioning of mind and body.

-          Exercise: Although regular exercise can help strengthen our Yang energy and is necessary for health, doing excessive amounts of it or choosing a type that is too demanding on our individual energy will be detrimental to our health. Learning to live in a way that suits our constitution rather than trying to push ourselves to keep up with the rest can help us maintain optimum health and fulfil our potential.  

Moderate exercise – such as walking, swimming, and gentle cycling- is best as it promotes movement within the body and contributes to proper functioning of all organs and circulation. Gentle Yoga, Qi Gong and Tai Chi can also contribute to move the energy and can potentially provide tools to help us relax and control our restless energy. These practices are more suitable to those who feel less energetic or who want to complement their active exercise.

-          Relaxation: Proper rest and relaxation are needed to nourish the Yin. This can be achieved through meditation, contemplation, or any of the practices mentioned above. Sitting in front of the TV may seem like a relaxing activity but in reality does not allow proper relaxation as we are getting bombarded by information and quickly changing images to which we are constantly responding through our senses, emotions and physical reactions.

·         Keep warm: The Kidneys are greatly affected by exposure to cold because they are the seat of the Yang, our inner fire which fuels all the activities of the body. The lower part of our body is very closely related to Kidney energy and often symptoms develop in the lower back and abdomen as well as the lower limbs as a result of Kidney imbalance. Exposing the legs, lower abdomen and lower back to cold and wind may affect the Kidney energy and result in weakening of the Yang which can affect the efficacy of all bodily functions.

Avoiding the intake of icy cold foods and drinks as well as excessive amounts of cold/raw food also contributes to maintaining a healthy amount of warmth – and therefore Yang - within the body. You can read more about this in my previous post about diet and nutrition.

·         Nourish your post-natal Essence: There is not much we can do to change the constitution we have been born with – our Pre-natal Essence. However, we can have a diet and life-style that support our individual constitution so that we have enough energy on a day to day basis – which is to say we can nourish our Post-natal Essence.

-          Feeding ourselves properly can have a profound effect in our energy, our health, and our ability to enjoy life to the full. I have already covered the TCM views on diet and nutrition on a previous post. Go to Part 1 for an explanation of what a healthy diet is, and to Part 2 to find tips for a healthy diet.

-          Post-natal Essence also benefits from fresh air as nourishment extracted from it in the form of oxygen is used to make energy for the whole body. Spending enough time in green spaces is therefore necessary for good health.

-          Enough rest and deep relaxation create the inner environment to restore the energy we spend and to replenish our resources at a deeper level. This is comparatively speaking a way of saving for future difficulties rather than just living to make ends meet.

·         Trust: Excessive fear can create an imbalance in the Kidney energy, and vice-versa. Fear can occur as a sudden shock or fright which leaves us shaken long after its cause has gone. Treatment is always necessary to address the energetic and emotional consequences of fright, shock or trauma, and supporting the energy of the Kidneys is essential.

Fear can also manifest as an emotion that lies deep within us preventing us from ever feeling safe. However much we try, we will never be able to control every aspect of our lives so we need to build and harbour an inner sense of security. Trust and faith are two qualities that go well beyond our rational mind to help us accept the unknown and the unexplainable - such as death- as natural parts of life rather than constant threats to our safety. This is the deepest level of the Will, the sense of acceptance and strength that gives us a desire to live and fulfil our purpose despite the odds.

Chinese Medicine treatment of Kidney imbalances

Kidney imbalances are commonly seen in the Acupuncture clinic and are often related to fertility, thyroid and other hormone-related problems, as well as the more obvious urinary symptoms. The most common imbalances are Kidney Yin and Kidney Yang deficiency. These patterns of disease imply a depletion of the energy of the Kidneys often resulting from long-term inadequate life-style.

Kidney Yang deficiency may manifest with symptoms such as feeling cold and exhausted all the time, aching and coldness of lower back and knees, frequent and copious urination, low libido, water retention (oedema), infertility, and impotence. Here the deepest fire within our body has been exhausted and treatment consists of energising this fire by the use of Moxibustion - the burning of the herb mugwort on specific points to warm the organs and channels of the body- combined with Acupuncture. Chinese Herbal remedies are needed if symptoms are more severe of long-standing. A warming diet, plus appropriate clothing and life-style are recommended to enhance the effects of treatment.

Kidney Yin deficiency may also manifest with tiredness and lower back ache but other symptoms will evidence the presence of heat rather than cold. The most typical symptoms of Kidney Yin deficiency are restlessness and inability to relax, sensations of heat particularly in the afternoon and evening, hot flushes, night sweating, insomnia, increased thirst and dryness throughout the body. This is called Deficient Heat as it is a result of an inefficient cooling mechanism rather than of a build-up of heat per se. Treatment of Kidney Yin deficiency usually involves Chinese herbal remedies to clear Heat, to moisten the whole body and to specifically nourish Kidney Yin. Acupuncture is also used to induce relaxation (a state in which Yin can replenish itself), calm the mind, and clear Heat. There are also some very effective Acupuncture point combinations for night sweating and insomnia with dream-disturbed sleep that can be used.

Kidney Yin deficiency is a common cause of infertility in the West particularly when trying to conceive between the ages of 36 and 45, and is often the cause of uncomfortable menopausal symptoms. To ensure the success of treatment, excessive activity and the use of stimulants need to be avoided. Adequate rest and relaxation, and a cooling and nourishing diet rich in proteins, grains and vegetables are also necessary to harbour Yin and create a cooling and more balanced environment within the body. You can read more about this in my previous posts on nourishing Yin energy and on TCM views of the menopause.

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