Winter, Kidneys and TCM
The Many Dimensions of the Kidney
Acupuncturists understand the body as a complex system of energy systems, meridians and organs. However, when an acupuncturist talks about an organ, like the spleen, heart or kidneys, they are not referring to the physical organ that sits inside your body, but rather the energetic side of these organs. The energetic system is much bigger than just the physical organ, and governs certain functions in the body on many levels. The kidney system is one of the most important of these energetic organ systems.
In Traditional Chinese Medicine, the kidneys represent the deepest, most fundamental levels of energy in the human body. They are said to be the root of yin and yang in the body - two fundamental forces at play in our physiology. The kidneys also store a substance called “essence” that is our genetic code, our life force and our reproductive ability.
The kidneys in Chinese Medicine are related to the water element, which is the elemental energy of winter. Whereas many energy systems are all about movement, the kidneys are about rest, relaxation, rejuvenation - they are the energy of holding, of turning inward, of protecting that which is most important. Think of still reflecting pools, or a quiet winter night. These are kidney energy. The kidneys are often referred to in Chinese Medicine as our “root” - they are tasked with caring for the most precious parts of us that make us who we are.
On a physical level, the kidneys govern the water passageways within the body (appropriate being the water element!) as well as controlling growth and reproduction. In a five element understanding of Chinese Medicine, the kidneys are at the end of the life cycle, before rebirth occurs again (such as winter making way for spring.) This means the kidneys in particular have a vital role to play in end of life transitions.
The spirit aspect of the kidneys is called Zhi, or willpower. Again, the kidneys are our root, our fundamental and core energy. When that system is weakened, a person may not feel drive, motivation or have the ability to push themselves. Their understanding of who they are and what they can do has been diminished.
The emotion associated with the kidneys is fear. When the kidneys are weak, a person may be startled or frightened easily, or may experience fear in disproportionate ways. Likewise, shock, trauma and fearful situations weaken the kidney energy, which is why many of the common symptoms of PTSD have a kidney imbalance at their root. The person’s core has been shaken.
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
Being associated with the water element, the kidneys are nourished by foods that come from the water - fish, seaweeds and shellfish are nourishing to this system. The kidneys are associated with the salty taste, so naturally salty foods such as miso or millet also are good choices. Avoid foods that are damaging to your root energy, such as sugar, caffeine, alcohol, greasy foods and highly-processed foods.
Nourish the Kidneys through your habits
The kidneys are damaged by overwork, too much responsibility, lack of sleep and a frenetic schedule. In other words, most of us living in modern society are taxing our kidneys! This means it is all the more important to carve out time and space to take part in kidney-nourishing habits.
As we mentioned, the kidneys are nourished through rest and rejuvenation. Pay attention to your sleep, and be sure you are getting the hours that you need! Take a nap in the day if you need it. Engage in gentle, relaxing forms of exercise, like yoga or tai chi. Try meditation or guided visualizations to calm and center yourself. Find a schedule that works - one that really works - for you.
Bring the water element into your life and your home by getting a small decorative fountain, using essential oils, taking baths or spending time near rivers or oceans or other bodies of water.
The kidneys, being the source of our reproductive strength, are also weakened by excessive sexual activity. So go for quality over quantity.
The kidneys represent what makes you, you. So take the time to give them the support they need!