What is the Role of the Kidney in TCM?
What is an Organ System (Zang Fu)?
We promise it’s not too far of a stretch! In TCM there are several organs that join together to create organ systems, or zang fu in Chinese. These systems represent the primary and most critical functions and substances involved in human beings. In total, there are five organ systems made up of two sides, zang and fu. One organ represents zang and is said to possess yin energy, while the second organ partner represents fu and has yang energy. Each set is also connected to one of the five elements of earth, metal, fire, water, and wood.
In TCM, the five organ systems consist of the following:
- Spleen and Stomach (earth)
- Lung and Large Intestine (metal)
- Kidney and Bladder (water)
- Liver and Gall Bladder (wood)
- Heart and Small Intestine (fire)
A healthy body means that the five organ systems are working harmoniously and that yin and yang are balanced. If an imbalance occurs within one of the organ systems, illnesses can occur and symptoms may continue to progress as the imbalance affects other organs in the system. The links between the five zang fu systems, yin and yang, and the elements are used by TCM practitioners when determining diagnoses in patients.
The Role of the Kidney System in TCM
While the Kidney system is acknowledged to perform all the important functions listed by Western medical doctors, it holds a much more valuable place in TCM. In fact, the Kidney is such a big deal in Chinese medicine that many call it “the root of life”. In the zang fu system, the Kidney viewed as a yin organ and is partnered with the bladder, a yang organ. Elementally, the Kidney system is water and is also linked to winter, cold, black, saltiness, and fear.
The Kidney’s true importance is that it’s the home of a key substance that controls human maturation and progression through each stage of life, from birth to death. This substance is known as Kidney jing, or essence and plays a major role in the triggering of growing up, puberty, fertility, and the lack thereof. The Kidney is the sole organ through which jing is generated and stored, meaning that the Kidney’s well being directly impacts the quality of the Kidney jing.
What is Kidney Jing?
In TCM, jing is a substance considered the “essence,” or the source of a person’s life, and subsequent changes over time. It is different from qi as it is believed that we obtain our jing prior to birth, from our mother’s Kidney jing. When we are born, we have a stored amount on jing in our own Kidney. While we do glean additional jing after birth, it isn’t as renewable or recyclable as qi or blood. Unlike qi or blood that cycles through over time, Kidney jing is seen as a more limited resource, and one that should be protected.
Kidney jing is the influence that triggers the main phases of human maturation and development. The first transition is that from birth through childhood, as we grow taller, gain skills of walking and talking, grow teeth, and so on. The second is the experience of puberty and sexual maturation. The Kidney essence is also viewed as the source from which new life and birth stems and is directly linked to conception and pregnancy. Finally, we the Kidney jing is depleted over the years, we begin to see signs of aging like hair, teeth, and memory loss.
Though it is stored in the Kidney, the Kidney jing can flow through the rest of the body, particularly the other zang-fu organ systems. Kidney jing is said to be a fluid and because of that, it’s connected specifically to Kidney yin energy. When the Kidney yin is warmed up by the Kidney yang, qi is created. Because jing was present in the yin, it’s deemed a necessary and foundational part of the Kidney qi formula. Much like the issues that can arise from a qi deficiency, Kidney jing deficiency can spark several issues such as deafness, loose teeth, urinary incontinence, tinnitus, and weakness of the lower back and knees.
What is Kidney Qi?
In TCM, as one of the major organ systems, or zang fu, the Kidney has its own qi (pronounced ‘chee’). Qi is considered the innate energy or life force that moves within the human body, as well as all things in the world. An inanimate object, food, animals, plants, and pretty much anything else you can think of has qi. The planets and astrological beings even have qi!
Qi is very important to the practice of TCM because it can often be the difference between a healthy and unhealthy person. According to TCM, qi typically moves throughout the entire body every 15 minutes. If all is well, it will run its course without issue. However, if the body is experiencing imbalances, blockages, or deficiencies, it could cause trouble. Certain organs might not get enough qi, others may get too much, or the flow of qi might be irregular. As the organ system that generates the foundation of qi, the Kidney’s health is vital to steady qi production and flow.
Kidney Yin and Yang
As you might already know, yin and yang are fundamental elements of the TCM practice. Both equal in strength and importance for proper functioning, yin and yang are energetic forces within the body (and out in the world, too!). They are the two halves of the whole and display opposite qualities that together keep the body’s systems in balance.
While each organ in the zang-fu system has its own yin and yang, the Kidney yin and yang are viewed as especially important. As mentioned above, the Kidney jing, or essence is responsible for the creation of qi. That qi then becomes Kidney yin and yang which is sent to support the rest of the body.
Without Kidney yin and yang, the other organs would struggle to complete their intended functions. This is because Kidney yin is viewed as the foundation of all yin in the body and carries nourishment for the rest of the organs and tissue. The Kidney yang is the base of the body’s qi and acts as the warming trigger for the other organs. In this way the yin and yang supports one another while doing their separate, yet complementary jobs.
Because of their central importance, deficiencies in Kidney yin and yang can cause some seriously unpleasant symptoms that have the potential to ripple effect other organ systems. Deficiencies in Kidney yin might cause a person to feel dizzy, flushed, have hearing problems, a dry mouth, or sweaty extremities. When someone is experiencing Kidney yang deficiency they’re likely to feel pain in the knees or back, want to avoid the cold, or experience incontinence or diarrhea, especially in the early morning.
Kidney Qi Deficiency
When there’s an imbalance and the Kidney qi is injured or deficient, a variety of negative symptoms can occur. Minor symptoms like fatigue, lackluster hair, fear, anxiety, forgetfulness, and decreased sexual energy might hint at the beginning stages of Kidney qi deficiency. If the problem progresses without treatment, and the Kidney is further imbalanced, more serious problems like hair loss, infertility, bone disease, Kidney disease, and hearing and vision trouble can occur.
Symptoms of Kidney qi deficiency can include:
- Fatigue and weakness
- Lack of willpower
- Poor concentration
- Memory trouble or forgetfulness
- Memory loss
- Back pain
- Knee pain
- General feeling of coldness
- Grey hair
- Hair loss
- Decrease of sexual energy
- Frequent urination
- Loose teeth
- Bone disease
- Kidney disease
- Poor hearing and eyesight
Other Important Functions of the Kidney System
The Kidney is quite the important organ system and it, along with the Kidney jing it houses, are directly related to the proper functioning of several systems in the human body. A few of these include the reproductive system, immune system, production of bone marrow and hair growth, and mental functioning.
Reproduction and the Kidney
In TCM, it is believed that the Kidney is the root of the entire reproductive functioning in human beings. Kidney qi is the spark and source of all changes regarding reproductive health, from the onset of puberty to the menopausal phase. Having correctly functioning Kidney jing and qi is said to play a part in a woman’s fertility. When TCM practitioners treat infertility issues, acupuncture and herbal treatments are often curated with direct attention towards the Kidney. While your Western medical doctor may be concerned about low levels of progesterone or other hormones, your TCM practitioner will likely be curious about your balance of Kidney qi and jing.
Ever wonder why it’s less common for women to have babies in their 40’s? This is the age range that the supply of Kidney jing begins to diminish. Without the robust flow of the Kidney essence present, the likelihood of a new life forming is much slimmer. On the flip side, this can also explain why some women are able to have “miracle babies” later in life. According to TCM practitioners, many of these women are able to conceive outside the expected years thanks to having an abundance of Kidney jing.
Immunity and the Kidney
The Kidney system is seen as the home base of the innate immune system. Essentially what this means is that certain cells and lymphocytes that are designed to keep the immune system functioning are created via the power and nourishment of the Kidney. In TCM, the Kidney is viewed as the source of anti-inflammation and internal repair when there’s a threat of pathogens invading.
This link has been recognized in Western medicine as well, noting the Kidneys as contributors to immune homeostasis. When the Kidneys are damaged, and the homeostasis thrown out of balance, possibilities of severe kidney diseases arise. Some of these are said to occur with an overactive immune system. In these scenarios, the body becomes confused as to what the true enemy is, and can begin to attack the kidney instead of the pathogen.
Bone and Hair Health and the Kidney
If you’re having issues with your hair; from greying, to hair loss, or even just general lack of strength and luster, your TCM practitioner will probably look to the Kidney for answers. Because the Kidney essence is the source of vitality and spirit, it can make a difference in the appearance of hair. The nutrients and nourishment transported in the blood is another key component to healthy hair.
Think about the difference between how hair looks on young children versus the elderly. Youthful hair tends to be soft, shiny, plentiful, lush and holds its color well. Hair sprouting from the heads of older people is more likely to be sparse, brittle, fine, and lacking its original color. While the contrast likely won’t be a Benjamin Button situation, think of those two visuals as each end of the spectrum of hair health. When the Kidney essence and blood are flowing as they should, the hair tends to be shiny, thick, and strong. When there’s a disruption in the essence or blood, you may start seeing issues with the color, strength, or quality of your hair.
The idea of the Kidney essence and blood teaming up to keep the body vivacious and thriving also carries over into bone health. Kidney essence is said to be able to transform into bone marrow. The marrow is what keeps the bones properly nourished so they can continue to grow, repair themselves, and maintain general health. When the Kidney essence is deficient, there is said to be a higher chance of developing brittle bones and slowed growth, as well as osteoporosis down the line.
Foundation of Mental Determination and the Kidney
The life force and strength of youth that comes with the Kidney jing, finds its way up to the brain and cognitive functioning as well. The sense of spirit stored in the jing is part of where the sense of grit and determination comes from. Ever hear the elderly talk about how they used to have more fire and energy than they do now? According to TCM, the reason for that is directly related to the minimal Kidney jing available to older people.
The essence keeps the mind fresh and active, which also explains why some people have issues with their memory as their Kidney jing dwindles. Memory issues and lack of willpower aren’t just for those later on in years. Anyone who has overworked their Kidney with extreme stress or other issues can experience temporary periods of these symptoms.
How to Keep Your Spleen Healthy
The best way to ensure your Kidney system is running well? An overall healthy lifestyle built around a nutritious diet, regular exercise, and mental and emotional health management. However, if you think your Kidney could use a little extra love and care, there are a few specific ways to make sure you’re getting what you need.
Flush Out the Toxins
In TCM, it’s said that dark-colored foods are especially beneficial for the Kidneys. Black walnuts, black rice and black beans are believed to help support Kidney qi and result in improved memory, reduced inflammation, and regulated metabolism. Other foods noted as potential Kidney-strengtheners include:
A healthy Kidney system is one with minimal toxins. An excess of toxins can result in a buildup, creating blockages of qi that might cause more serious problems. It’s believed that many of the foods listed above can help nip these problems in the bud so you can preserve that precious Kidney jing.
Drink Herbal Teas
There are two herbs commonly used to strengthen the Kidney; he shou wu and du zhong (or cortex eucommiae). Tea made from he shou wu is a very well-known remedy in China, and is slowly becoming more readily recognized in the Western world, though the dosage should be prescribed by a practitioner. He shou wu is meant to strengthen the Kidney by providing nourishment. It’s also a very popular solution for those suffering from hair loss and greying. This tea has a combined bitter and sweet flavor and is known to be very strong. It’s recommended to take one cup per day to start, unless otherwise directed by a TCM practitioner. Consider adding cinnamon or ginger to your cup for added warmth,
The du zhong herb is known for its positive effects for many different areas of the body, but connects specially to the balancing of Kidney jing. Du zhong has been praised for its antiviral, anti-inflammatory, neuroprotective, antibacterial, and antioxidant qualities. These qualities are all based in issues revolving around a person’s essence. Drinking a cup of du zhong tea daily can help strengthen the Kidney jing, particularly for those seeking to boost the immune system or regain lost energy. The over the counter formula, Jin gui shen qi wan is commonly used to boost Kidney jing and yang.
Doing what you can to minimize extreme stress in your daily life is another way to help protect your kidney health. Stress, especially when it’s consistent over a long period of time, can significantly drain your kidney’s storage of jing. If you remember from sections above, we only have a limited amount of jing. A rapid reduction of kidney jing due to stress can bring on some unpleasant symptoms affecting your energy, constitution, and even introduce a few more grey hairs!
Figure out the stress relief process that works best for you. Stress minimizers can look different for everyone. A few ideas include; adding in an extra workout, calling a friend, meditating, practicing yoga or tai chi, taking time to journal each day, or simply turning off your cell phone during certain periods. You might also want to limit your intake of caffeine and alcohol, both of which have been said to increase the likelihood of anxiety.