In Chinese Medicine, the Kidneys has an interesting and rather beautiful meaning. The organs are not seen just as physical tissues; they have their own intelligence. The Kidneys encompass the aspects of Jing (essence), Yin, Yang, Qi, and Will. As the Kidneys oversee development, maturation, and aging, nourishing the kidneys is essential for longevity.
What is Aging?
The view on aging is different in western science and Chinese medicine. We generally think of aging as cellular death exceeding cellular regeneration. Cells get old, telomeres are “too short”, and new cells are either not replacing the old ones fast enough or are somewhat suboptimal in their functions.
In Chinese Medicine, aging is due to the deterioration of the Kidney energy. Premature aging then may reflect an imbalance in this energy. Known as the Root of Life, the Kidneys are more than physical organs. Their primary role is the regulation of the aging process. This includes development and maturation, reproductive capacity, the integrity of our mind, our bones, and much more.
Kidneys, According to Chinese Medicine
The Kidneys, along with the Bladder, are of the Water Element. The correspondences include Winter, Fear, the ear, the colour black, and the taste of salty. Most active from 5pm to 7pm, Kidneys are also most vulnerable at this time and most receptive to supporting and healing influences. Each organ energy is also most susceptible to one of what is called the six evils or pernicious influences. For the Kidneys, it is cold.
These six influences – wind, cold, fire/heat, dampness, dryness, and summer heat – are an interesting and sometimes difficult to grasp concept. For Kidneys, it’s externally- or internally-generated cold.
Externally refers to exposure to the elements. Similar to how we don’t get a cold or a flu just because the virus is around, Kidneys do not succumb to cold weather because it is simply winter or the air conditioning is strong. When an individual is imbalanced and the Protective Qi weak, then the cold or another pernicious influence can take hold within.
A person can then feel cold, feel cold to the touch, take on a pale colouring, or experience a sharp pain that lessens with a warm compress. This pernicious influence can also manifest in behaviour, including difficulty in connecting with others.
Internally suggests deficient Kidney Yang energy. Kidneys, being the Life Gate Fire, is also the source of a person’s Yang energy. A deficiency can mean a disconnection between inner will and inner fire. A person can thus become much more easily manipulated and bent to other people’s will as well as feeling passive, fearful, and guilty.
Cold and dampness often coexist. The Spleen is most susceptible to dampness, which may manifest due to a lack of Kidney fire. Imbalanced Spleen energy can show up as overthinking, deepening certain shadow emotions.
The Kidneys store our essence, or jing and our ancestral memories. Ted J. Kaptchuk writes in The Web That Has No Weaver that essence is “potential, guidance, and actuality that shapes birth, development, decline, and death” and it “in one form or another, is the primordial seed of the life process, the life process itself, and life’s final fruit.”
We acquire our prenatal essence, like our genes, from our parents at conception. This is our basic constitution. From food and stimulation on all levels such as emotional, we receive postnatal essence. Through this, we can modify our original Qi and makeup, though never truly changing it.
Yin and Yang
The concept of Yin and Yang is fundamental to Chinese medicine and cosmology. You’ve probably seen the Tai Chi symbol. In the sea of the unmanifest is a circle representing existence, within which is the constant flow of Yin and Yang. Life is a union of these seeming dualities. Within Yin lies the seed of Yang. Within Yang, lies the seed of Yin. Even though the Tai Chi symbol is black and white, life is hardly black and white. This transformation of energy is continual, reflecting the “no energy is ever lost” concept we learned in school.
We can understand Yang as the sun, active, hot, dry, bright … and Yin as the moon, receptive, cold, wet, dark. Yin and Yang are relative – what is hot if we do not know what is cold? Neither is better nor undesired.
While the other organs are Yin or Yang, Kidneys have both aspects, both Water and Fire. The other organs rely on the Yang and the fire of the Kidneys to properly fulfill their functions. Healthy Kidneys allow Qi and Blood to circulate in the body.
The Kidneys also store Will – the will to live, the will to persevere. Both Yang and Yin Will. Yang Will is dynamic and decisive. These are decisions that shape decades in life. Yin Will, on the other hand, is more intangible. Requiring no effort, Yin Will is stillness. It is about the inevitable that some may call fate and destiny. It is more like the direction a person walks toward as the result of all the decisions made before. We notice when we pause, and look back.
When we recognize this aspect of our Will, we can better cultivate the virtue of wisdom. Wisdom is more than knowledge. Wisdom is understanding that life is filled with known and unknown. We can strengthen our Yin Will, and hence gain deeper wisdom, by facing our fear of the unknown and embracing with trust. Ted J Kaptchuk (2000) reminds us that a weak Will is due to an uncontrollable dread of death and the inability to accept “the gracefulness of becoming older.”
Ways to Nourish the Kidneys for Longevity
The emotion or attitude connected with the Kidney system is Fear. While fear can keep us from running into traffic or burning our hands on the stove, sustained fear is destabilizing. We’ve all felt the cold grip of fear – we contract. Physically, emotionally, mentally. It dulls the fire of our spirit.
Cold triggers different responses, from raging anger, deep grief, rumination and worry, and pushing ourselves in an unhealthy way. Fear is the root. A lack of love, or rather, being disconnected from knowing love.
Fear can damage the kidney system, bringing systemic effects. Our Water and Fire become imbalanced.
What is fear? For some people, the default, through programming, may be Forget Everything And Run. If we see it as False Evidence Appearing Real or as False Expectations Appearing Real And we Face Everything And Rise. Fear is an illusion and how we live depends on our perspective. It takes courage, it takes practice.
Self-care suggestions: Jin Shin Jyutsu Self-Help (hold your index fingers), tapping, Bach Flowers. Fear makes energy descend, which can mean dizziness and weak knees. Pablo Noriega (2016) suggests Mimulus which addresses known and everyday fear and regulates this downward movement, so that the energy is not drained. Other Bach Flower essences for fear include : Rock Rose, Cherry Plum, Aspen, and Red Chestnut.
Having a Healthy Stress Response
Building resilience and understanding our own cycles of activity and rest make a tremendous difference to our health. The adrenals are considered part of the kidney system. Some see the adrenals as the yang and the kidneys as the yin.
One reason many people are stressed is this idea of pushing, pushing to meet expectations, pushing ourselves to achieve dreams and standards not our own. We ignore, misinterpret, or miss the body’s signal to slow down and rest. This push – this will – is the yang will. This is “the will to exist and to push your existence into creation.”1 Yang will has a place.
We also have a deeper will. The life force is stored in the tan tien, which is related to the kidneys. Our Jing, our essence. Through the kidney energy, we are tethered to the unknown and void.
Be mindful of feelings of mental fatigue, stress becoming chronic, feeling under the weather for prolonged periods, puffiness.
Self-care practice suggestions: TRE, HeartMath, movement, hot baths, meditation, stillness, forest bathing, energy medicine such as the Audio Rejuvenation.
I love Subtle Energy products. My first one was the now-retired Digital Acupuncture which I also recommend for harmonizing energy through the different organ systems and meridians, including the Kidneys. The Audio Rejuvenation is fantastic for the adrenals, replenishing our energy.
Energy Medicine transmits energetic signatures. In this case, jing-boosting substances such as cordyceps and astragalus root, without depleting the actual physical living being. There are a host of ways to work with Subtle Energy products, including listening to the audio or using the mandalas in meditation. Click on the links to learn more and to sample the audio.
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- Kidneys are both Yin and Yang. We can support them through diet. You can find in Chinese cuisine dishes such as fish (Yin) and garlic (Yang). Sometimes we require more Yang (fatigue, water retention) or more Yin (dryness and brittleness). We want to reduce stimulants such as coffee when we are already tired. Many people reach for another cup of espresso for an energy boost. This further taxes our kidneys and starts or reinforces that cycle of “tired but wired”. We can also eat more dark-coloured foods in winter. This includes black beans, blackberries, black olives, blueberries, and black sesame seeds. Other kidney-nourishing foods are dates, figs, and shiitake mushrooms. Kidneys being of the Water element, you can also choose fish, seaweed, sea salt, and kelp.In her book Your Best Face Now cosmetic acupuncturist Shellie Goldstein suggests lemon asparagus, fennel salad, and baked acorn squash, along with recipes for more healing foods.Because Kidneys are most susceptible to cold, it’s better to reduce cold foods and drinks in the winter. If you love your smoothies, consider warming them up with ginger.
Go for a Walk
Each organ system has a meridian system. For Kidney, it starts at the bottom of the foot. Every time we walk or massage the bottom of our feet, we are stimulating the Kidney energy. When you are outside in the winter, cover up your ears, knees, and lower back, which are part of the Kidney system. Keeping these areas warm and dry helps conserve Kidney energy and support our immunity. So wrap up on your daily walks.
Sit in Stillness
Winter is a quiet time. When the Kidney system is healthy, we naturally embody a sense of serenity and equanimity. Do you have a meditation practice? Try the Microcosmic Orbit.
Be sure to rest
As the seasons change, Yang and Yin energy ebbs and flows. In the winter, Yang energy is at a low. This is the time to rest – retire early and sleep in a bit later than in the summer months. We can easily overtax the Kidney system with activity and support it with rest.
Fatigue, premature greying hair, fertility struggles, lower back pain, ruled by fear – these may be signs of Kidney imbalance. In our world of 24/7 connection, we are also faced with tremendous stress and activity. These expectations can easily take us out of our natural rhythms. Without rest and rejuvenation, we can easily tax our body, including our Kidney organ and meridian system. This affects all our systems and our maturation process.
Thankfully we can also nourish the kidneys for longevity. A great time to do this is in the Winter, the Kidney season, and whenever we feel the onset of chronic fatigue or mounting stress. By making lifestyle choices such as changing our diet with the season, ensuring sufficient rest, and dealing with our fears can support us in aging gracefully and to share our crone gifts.
1 Handbook of Chinese Medicine and Ayurveda by Bridgette Shea. Healing Arts Press, 2018, p132.
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