The Many Dimensions of the Kidney in Chinese Medicine

When speaking to a practitioner of Traditional Chinese Medicine or acupuncturist, you may hear terms like “your kidney is deficient,” or “you need to be nourished.”  To the average person, these phrases make absolutely no sense. However, to an acupuncturist, it gives us detailed information into the complexity of your body, and how to balance your system.  When we refer to an organ in Chinese Medicine, we are not referring to the physiological organ system that you know from Western Medicine.  We are referring to the complex energy systems and meridians of which the organ is a part. The energetic system is much bigger than just the physical organ, and governs certain functions in the body on many different levels. The Kidney in Chinese Medicine is one of the most important organs.

Understanding the Kidney in Chinese Medicine

The Kidney system is one of the most important systems of the body.  In Traditional Chinese Medicine, the Kidneys are the root of yin and yang. They are considered to be the deepest, most fundamental levels of energy in the human body.  Some refer to it as the fire that keeps everything going, your savings account, or your “root.” The Kidneys also store a substance called “essence,” our life force and reproductive ability. The Kidney system is related to maturation as well and is said to govern bone.

According to Chinese Medicine, the Kidneys are related to the water element, which is the element of Winter.   Like Winter, the Kidneys are related to rest, relaxation, and rejuvenation.  They are the energy of holding, turning inward (self-reflection), of protecting that which is most important.

Like in Western Medicine, the Kidneys govern the water passageways within the body – water element remember? In Five Elements theory of Chinese Medicine, the Kidneys are the end of a life cycle, before rebirth occurs again.  Just like how winter makes way for spring.  This means the Kidneys play a vital role in the end of life transitions.

Every organ system in Chinese Medicine has an affect (spirit) aspect.  For the Kidneys, it is called Zhi, or willpower.  Since the Kidneys are our root, if this system is weakened a person will commonly feel a lack of drive or motivation. Their understanding of who they are and what they can do has diminished.

The emotion associated with the Kidneys is fear.  People with a weak Kidney system may be easily startled or frightened or may experience fear in disproportionate ways.  Severe shock, trauma, and fearful situations can weaken the Kidney energy.

The Kidney energy, being the deepest level of energy in the body, takes time to replenish and strengthen, which means patience is key. Also, the Kidney energy naturally declines over the life cycle, which is the normal aging process. So as we age, protecting the kidneys becomes all the more important!

Nourish the Kidneys through food

Since the Kidneys are associated with the water element, it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise to hear that foods like seaweeds and shellfish are nourishing to this system.

Every organ system in Chinese Medicine is related to a specific taste; for the Kidneys it is salty.  Foods like miso and millet are good choices. Avoid foods like sugar, caffeine, alcohol, greasy foods and highly processed foods as they will cause further damage to this system.

As stated above the Kidneys also govern the bone.  So, for those that are highly deficient, consuming homemade bone broth can be extremely beneficial. Check out this bone broth recipe – it is traditional Chinese medicine.

Nourish the Kidneys through your habits

The Kidneys are believed to be your “savings account.”   Everything that your Kidney “savings account” contains is given to you at the moment of conception.  If mom and dad didn’t have a whole lot to work with, then you probably didn’t get a whole lot.  So the question becomes, “How do we prevent ourselves from making withdrawals from our savings account?”

Luckily, we have other organ systems to help with this.  The Kidneys are easily damaged by overwork, too much responsibility, lack of sleep and a frenetic schedule. It is incredibly important to carve out time and space to take part in Kidney-nourishing habits such as eating healthfully, meditation, and exercise (like yoga or tai chi).   Make sure that you are also paying attention to your sleep.  Take a nap during the day if you need to do so.

Since the Kidney in Chinese medicine is the source of our reproductive strength, it is also important to not tax them with excessive sexual activity.  Think quality over quantity.

Teri Calandra, Dipl.Acu, MSTOM, L.Ac., LMT, RMT

Teri began her studies in energy medicine as part of her own personal development journey, and continues to to learn and integrate that knowledge into her practice. Teri is the founding practitioner of Calandra Center for Health & Wellness in Schaumburg, Illinois. She is licensed by the State of Illinois in acupuncture (L.Ac.), and board certified through the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (NCCAOM).