In Western medicine, the main functions of the kidneys are to remove waste products and excess fluid, regulate blood pH and maintain mineral balance. They also play an important role in producing red blood cells, regulating blood pressure and converting vitamin D to its active form, calcitriol. In Chinese medicine, however, the Kidney is viewed as the source of the body's constitutional or inherited energy. Read more to learn more about Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) theory on the Kidneys.
What are the roles and responsibilities of the Kidneys?
The Kidneys have a major role beyond fluid metabolism and waste excretion, such as growth and maturity. Here are the more extensive functions that the Kidneys oversee in the body:
Governing of the structural integrity and function of various organs including the adrenal glands, ovaries, testes, brain, spinal cord, skeletal structure (especially the lumbar region), hair, teeth, anus, urethra and inner ear.
Monitoring of body fluids, bone marrow, hormones, adrenals and sex glands, as well as reproduction, growth and the faculty of willpower.
Overseeing a person’s growth, maturation (including ageing) and reproduction.
Storing Essence, or Jing: the Essence stored in the Kidneys are given to each individual from their parents at conception. This is the main reason why TCM regards the Kidneys as the “congenital constitution” and origin of life. The Kidneys are also viewed as an essential organ for the production of fundamental substances required for life activities.
Production of Yin and Yang.
What is Kidney Essence?
The Kidney Essence is critical for both growth and development. This includes the normal ageing process and also forms the basis of reproduction in humans. The abundance in Kidney Essence kick starts puberty where girls experience their first menstrual bleed (menarche) and boys undergo an increase in the size of their genitals and experience their first ejaculation. It is important to note that the Kidney Essence levels do not remain constant throughout a person's life, but instead increases as the body develops and decreases naturally as we age:
During childhood, we undergo physical changes marked by permanent teeth, hair and growth.
During adolescence, Kidney Essence peaks to drive the maturation of sex organs and form the basis of our ability to reproduce. Energy levels are at its highest and bones are strongest during middle age.
As we continue throughout adulthood, Kidney Essence depletes and the functions of the organs decline with advancement in age, showing signs of senescence such as deafness, osteoporosis, hair and teeth loss.
What are the causes and signs of symptoms of weak Kidneys?
Weakness in Kidney Essence, Qi, Yin or Yang can affect the growth and development of individuals, resulting in developmental disorders, congenital mental retardation, brittle bones in children and premature ageing in adults.
There are three main mechanisms that deplete Kidney Qi and Essence:
Congenital constitutional weakness
This is where Kidney Qi and Essence is naturally weak from the time we are born. TCM theory explains that our constitution, whether weak or strong, is inherited by our parents. A weak congenital constitution occurs if one or both parents have had ongoing health issues prior to conceiving, and/or if one or both parents were experiencing significant health issues during the time of conception.
For this reason, I strongly advise couples who want to fall pregnant, to improve their health and wellbeing for three months before they try to conceive. (Why three months? Sperm cells take 90 days to mature and the quality of sperm cells can be improved by adjusting lifestyle factors, such as quitting drinking and smoking. For women, it can take up to three menstrual cycles to improve, which is roughly 90 days).
Acquired constitutional weakness (as a result of lifestyle factors)
Once we are born, acquired constitution is crucial in supporting our physiological activities, growth and development. Weakness to acquired constitution occurs as a result of overworking, living a hard-driven lifestyle (i.e. A-type personalities), insufficient fluid intake, multiple pregnancies and chronic illness or stress.
Kidney Qi and Essence progressively decline with maturing age. For most people reaching 40 years of age, the decreasing Kidney Essence begins to impact their health. If left unchecked, signs and symptoms can manifest as infertility, sexual dysfunction, early menopause, prostate problems, impaired immunity, chronic inflammation, high blood pressure, heart irregularities, anxiety, loss of physical drive, impaired brain function, osteoporosis, hearing loss, reduced willpower/motivation and poor concentration.
Kidneys and its impact on fertility in women
From the TCM perspective, fertility issues are commonly linked to the imbalances in the Kidney system. When Western medicine diagnoses a woman in having low progesterone levels, a TCM diagnosis may refer to this as a deficiency in Kidney Yang. This is a different way of saying similar things, just from different perspectives. Another example of this is the inability to conceive due to poor egg quality is generally diagnosed as Kidney Yin deficiency. One mechanism to identify Kidney Yin or Yang deficiency is via charting Body Basal Temperatures.
Importance of Kidney Yin and Yang
The Kidneys are the only organs in the body that produce Yin and Yang: Kidney Essence generates Kidney Qi, which in turn transforms into both Kidney Yin and Yang to serve different functions within the body. In general, Yin is responsible for nourishing organs and tissues while Yang warms the body and promotes optimal functioning of organs and tissues. They are interconnected and interdependent, where they restrain each other to support a balance of Yin and Yang in the body, which drives health and wellbeing. The theory of Yin-Yang is fundamental to TCM practice and it is believed that illness occurs when Yin and Yang are imbalanced. Here are some common examples of Kidney Yin and Yang deficiency and their associated signs and symptoms:
Kidney Yang deficiency
Recurrent miscarriages, as well as soreness in the knee and back regions exacerbated by cold weather, dislike of cold temperatures/climates, urinary incontinence, and oedema.
Kidney Yin deficiency
Poor egg quality, as well as early onset menopause, dizziness, tinnitus (ringing in the ears), hearing problems, dry mouth and throat, hot flushes, and sweating in the palms and feet.
How does acupuncture help with restoring and maintaining healthy levels of Kidney Essence, Qi, Yin and Yang?
The process of treating the Kidneys using acupuncture is determined by the diagnosis. In the consultation, the focus is to first establish the severity of damage to the Kidneys by identifying signs and symptoms of Kidney deficiency (including whether there is Kidney Qi, Essence, Yin or Yang deficiency). The second step is understanding the root cause of Kidney weakness (remember, there are three factors that weaken the Kidneys - lifestyle factors, congenital constitutional weakness, and age). Based on the diagnosis, the acupuncturist will determine which set of acupuncture points to use to strengthen the Kidneys. A majority of the points I tend to use for Kidney deficiency include points from the Kidney meridian, which are mostly located around the inner leg and foot regions.
How to maintain Kidney Essence, Qi, Yin and Yang for longevity and health
Just like with ageing, declining Kidney Essence is inevitable. The good news is that we can contribute to maintaining healthy levels of Kidney Essence, Qi, Yin and Yang by making a conscious effort to take care of our body. This can be achieved through positive lifestyle habits to reflect an overall high quality of life. Here's how you can invest in strong Kidney essence:
Focus on sleep quality, not just quantity, by going to bed before 10:30pm and aim for 7-8 hours of sleep
Establish a regular exercise routine
Think positive thoughts
Eat a balanced diet of protein, vegetables, complex non-refined carbs, and fruit
Avoid or reduce alcohol consumption
* Please be mindful that this article is to be used as an informative guide only and is not intended as medical advice