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TCM Dietary Recommendations for Kidney Deficiency

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When speaking to your acupuncturist or practitioner of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), you may hear terms like "your kidney is deficient," or "your Kidney needs to be nourished."  To the average person, these phrases make absolutely no sense. However, to your acupuncturist, it gives detailed information about the complex functioning of your body, and how to balance your system.

The many dimensions of the Kidney in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM)

When we refer to an organ system in TCM, 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 is one of the most important organ systems in TCM

The Kidneys are important in TCM because they are considered to be the root of all yin and yang – 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.” To learn more about the complex characteristics and relationships of the Kidney system in TCM, see “The Bladder and Kidney according to Traditional Chinese Medicine.”

The Kidney and Five Elements theory

According to TCM, the Kidneys are related to the water element, which is the element of Winter.  The Kidneys, like Winter, are related to rest, relaxation, and rejuvenation.  They are the energy of holding, turning inward (self-reflection), and 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 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 is 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.

The Kidneys also govern the bone. So, for those that are highly deficient- (weak/feeble/debilitated), 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 many pregnancies (as dictated by your body), 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 healthy eating, meditation, and exercise (like yoga or tai chi).  Sleep is very important. 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.

Dietary recommendations for Kidney deficiency

THESE RECOMMENDATIONS ARE NOT A SUBSTITUTE FOR YOUR DOCTOR’S RECOMMENDATIONS OR PRESCRIBED MEDICATIONS. Always consult your doctor and herbalist prior to starting any new diet or herbal supplementation. 

Kidney Yin Deficiency

Symptoms: Dizziness, ringing in the ears, dry mouth/ throat, fever, low back ache, weak legs, involuntary seminal emissions, spontaneous sweating, agitations, insecurities, and fear.

  • Millet
  • Barley
  • Tofu
  • String bean
  • Black bean
  • Black soy bean
  • Mung bean and its sprouts
  • Kidney beans and other beans
  • Kuzu root
  • Water chestnut 
  • Wheat germ
  • Potato
  • Seaweeds
  • Spirulina
  • Kuzu root
  • Water chestnut 
  • Wheat germ
  • Potato
  • Seaweeds
  • Spirulina
  • Chlorella
  • Black sesame seed
  • Sardine
  • Crab
  • Clam
  • Eggs
  • Pork
  • Cheese

Recommended herbs for Kidney yin deficiency

  • Marshmallow root (Althea officinalis)
  • Prepared rehmannia root (Rhemania glutinosa) – Shu Di Huang
  • Asparagus root (Asparagus cochinchinensis) – Tian men dong
  • Aloe vera gel
  • Silver colloid

Avoid: coffee, alcohol, tobacco, lamb, cinnamon, cloves, ginger, and other hot spices. Avoid overeating.

Kidney Yang Deficiency

Kidney qi deficiency [see below] is related to Kidney yang deficiency (yang contains qi), but is not as deep of an imbalance.

Symptoms: Aversion to cold, cold extremities, pale complexion, weak knees and low back, mental lethargy and poor spirit, lack of sexual desire, irregular menses, clear vaginal discharge, sterility, frequent urination, clear urine, edema, asthma, lack of will power and direction, and tendency to be inactive, indecisive and unproductive.

Recommended spices and foods for Kidney yang deficiency

  • Cloves
  • Fenugreek seeds
  • Fennel seeds
  • Anise seeds
  • Black peppercorn
  • Ginger (dried)
  • Cinnamon bark 
  • Walnuts
  • Black beans
  • Onion (garlic, onions, chives, scallions, leeks)
  • Quinoa
  • Chicken
  • Lamb
  • Trout
  • Salmon


  • Walnuts tonify the Kidney yang allowing for it to grasp the Lung qi and help with chronic cough, wheezing and other asthma symptoms caused by cold and deficiency. Recommended dosage is ⅓ to 1 ounce daily. They are delicious on top of oatmeal or in combination with blueberries.

Cautions: Too many walnuts may cause canker sores. Use seaweed sparingly and with caution.

Avoid: Cooling foods and fruits, raw foods, excessive salt.

Kidney Qi Deficiency

Can occur as a result of a congenital defect, sexual overindulgence, or sexual activity at a young age. 

Symptoms: Low back pain, weak knees, frequent urination, incontinence, inability to urinate, post void dribbling, involuntary seminal emissions, other issues with urination / seminal control

Recommended foods for Kidney qi deficiency

  • Parsley
  • Wheat berry
  • Sweet rice

Recommended herbs for Kidney qi deficiency

  • Rose hips
  • Oyster Shell (Ostrea gigas, Mu Li)
  • Clam shell (Meritricix meritrix, Hai ge ke)
  • Schisandra fruit (Schisandra sinesis, Wu wei zi)
  • Raspberry and blackberry leaves (Rubus ideas and Rubus villosus)
  • Gravel root (Eupatorium purpureum)

Kidney Jing Deficiency

By improving Kidney yin, yang and qi, the Kidney Jing will be affected.

Kidney jing is a deeper essence. The body’s stores of jing determine its resistance to disease, vitality, and longevity. Think of Kidney jing as the body’s savings account that is given to us at the moment of conception. You can draw from the savings account. However, it is irreplaceable and you are unable to replenish it. It is better to operate from your checking account (how your body utilizes the nutrients received from daily food). Once Kidney jing is used up – life ceases.

What depletes jing?

  • Stress, fear, insecurities, and overwork
  • To much seminal loss, or for women, more many children than what their constitution can support.
  • Toxins such as alcohol, marijuana, cocaine, coffee, tobacco, heavy metals (mercury lead, and aluminum)

Replenishing Jing takes an extremely long time and requires changes to diet, lifestyle, and spirituality.

Some recommended foods for Kidney jing deficiency

  • Micro-algae (chlorella, spirulina, wild blue-green)
  • Fish – low mercury
  • Organically Raised Organ meats: Liver, kidney, brain
  • Bone marrow
  • Cereal grass
  • Foods high in Vit B12 and Vit A
  • Foods high in Omega 3
  • Almonds
  • Milk – goat preferred
  • Ghee
  • Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum officinale) – Yu Zhu
  • Nettles 
  • Royal Jelly and bee pollen
  • Dodder seeds (semen cuscutae) – Tu si zi
  • Prepared rehmannia root (Rhemania glutinosa) – Shu Di Huang
  • Deer antler (Cornu cervi) – Lu Rong
  • Tortoise shell (Plastrum testudinis) – Gui ban
  • Chicken
  • Mussels
Herbal supplements are mentioned in this article for reference only. Always consult your doctor and herbalist prior to starting any new diet or herbal supplementation. 

Additional information


  • Kastner, J. (2004). Chinese Nutritional Therapy. Georg Thieme Verlag.
  • Pitchford, P (2002). Healing with Whole Foods 3rd edition. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books
  • Hyunbae,K. (2007). Handbook of Oriental Medicine 3rd edition. Harmony & Balance Press.
  • Deadman, P., Al-Khafaji, M., Baker. K. (2005). A Manual of Acupuncture. East Sussex: Journal of Chinese Medicine Publications
  • Maciocia, G. Xin Ming, S. (2005). The Foundations of Chinese Medicine: A Comprehensive Text for Acupuncturists and Herbalists. London: Churchill Livingstone.
  • Wiseman, N. [editor, translator], Ellis, A. [translator] (1996). Fundamentals of Chinese Medicine. [Rev. ed] Brookline, MA: Paradigm Publications

About the author

Teri Calandra

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).

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