(What The Cowardly Lion Needed To Do)

Winter is the season of the kidneys and bladder, said the Chinese sages of old.  And indeed, the water season – weather it’s snow in the north or rain in the south – is the time of the year when more life force, or Qi, is flowing to the kidneys.  The winter months can bring healing to the kidneys, especially if we treat them right, or they can bring symptoms and illness, especially if we have abused them. 

Here’s a look at what the kidneys do and some of the ways we can heal these essential organs. 

Cleansing The Blood And A Whole Lot More

The urinary tract is composed of two kidneys, a bladder, two ureters, and a urethra.  Each of the two ureters connects a kidney to the bladder.  The urethra allows urine to pass out of the body.  In the case of men, the urethra serves as a conduit for semen, as well.

We tend to think of the kidneys as the body’s filter system and indeed, that is among their important tasks.  But the kidneys also identify everything that is in the blood, and then decide what to do with it.  They recognize and separate waste materials from the essential elements in the blood; determine how much of a specific substance the body needs to retain; holds on to that amount; and then let the rest go.  And that’s just the beginning. 

The primary waste products that the kidneys filter are those resulting from protein metabolism, such as such as nitrogen, urea, and ammonia. The kidneys also eliminate excess hormones, vitamins, minerals, and foreign substances, such as food additives and drugs.

The kidneys regulate electrolyte balance, retaining more or less of the blood’s supply of sodium, potassium, hydrogen, magnesium, calcium, bicarbonate, phosphate, and chloride.  The quantities of these elements that are retained by the kidneys depend on what the body needs. 

They also convert vitamin D into a usable state, a hormone. They maintain the body acid-alkaline balance, too, by altering the acidity or alkalinity of the urine.

Blood pressure is controlled by the kidneys, as well.  Depending upon the body’s current blood pressure, the organs will secrete varying amounts of the enzyme rennin, which converts in the blood to angiotensin. 

Angiotensin causes blood vessels to constrict, which causes blood pressure to increase.  Angiotensi increases sodium retention and promotes potassium loss.  The more sodium in the system, the more water is retained, including in the blood.  The increased water in the blood can increase blood pressure, as well.          

Each kidney is oval-shaped, about five inches long, and weighs approximately six ounces.  They are found in the mid-back region, on either side of the spine.  The right kidney is just below the liver, the left just below the spleen.  Each kidney is embedded in a mass of fat that serves as a shock absorber, and is held in place by connective tissue. 

The filtering organ within the kidney is called a nephron, which itself is composed of a bulblike structure, called a glomerulus, and a tubule.  The tubule surrounds the glomerulus and extends beyond it.  Together they look like an octopus with a single tentacle.  Capillaries form a complex network that intersects at various places within the tubule, allowing blood to flow into the filtering unit and then back out into the capillary again after the blood has been cleansed. 

During youth, there are more than 1 million nephrons in each kidney.  By the time you reach the age of, say, 70, you’ve got about 250,000 nephrons, if you haven’t done even more extensive damage to these essential organs.  We need about 30 percent kidney function to cleanse the blood fully.  People who fall below 20 percent kidney function require dialysis, or filtering of the blood by mechanical means. 

Urine is composed mostly of water (about 95 percent) and about 5 percent solids, including urea (a by-product of protein metabolism, which makes up about 20 percent of solids); a variety of minerals, including chloride, sodium, potassium, phosphate, and sulfate; creatine, a naturally occurring chemical; and uric acid. 

The presence of glucose (or blood sugar) or protein in the urine indicates some form of disease.

The kidneys can suffer from a variety of disorders, including cysts, stones, impairment of the blood supply, infection, autoimmune disorders, and cancer.   Among the illnesses that most commonly affect the kidneys are diabetes, both type 1 and 2, and atherosclerosis, or plaques forming in tubules. 

Protein: The Key To Kidney Health

The kidneys maintain acid-alkaline balance by regulating protein and mineral levels in the blood.  Protein is used by the body to create the lattice work for building tissue.  (Minerals are the metals and rocks and mortar of the body.) 

The body uses protein for cell replacement and repair.  Once you reach adulthood, you are no longer growing your body, which means that your protein needs are relatively small.  Studies have shown that only about 5 percent of your total calorie intake must come from protein in order to meet all your protein needs.  (More on protein in a future newsletter.) 

The average person living in the U.S., Europe, and Australia gets about 30 percent his or her calories from protein, which means that most people are consuming way too much protein to maintain kidney health. 

Once in the body, protein is converted to uric acid, which acts as a corrosive acid on the tissues of the kidneys and other organs.  The kidneys attempt to remove the uric acid from the blood stream.  But as more and more protein is consumed, the uric acid levels rise, sometimes over-running the kidneys’ capacity to cleanse the poison from the blood. 

On a diet of 25 to 30 percent protein, those excess levels are reached and exceeded pretty quickly, which is why the standard Western diet is destroying most people’s kidneys. 

Thanks to these high-protein diets, there is now an epidemic of kidney disorders, especially in the United States.  The Journal of the American Medical Association reported in October 2008 that 26 million Americans suffer from chronic kidney disease.   Just ten years ago, 20 million Americans suffered from chronic kidney disease.   The numbers are increasing rapidly.  Meanwhile, more and more people require dialysis, or the removal of toxins from the blood by machine. 

Once your kidneys begin to weaken, however, a plethora of disorders can arise, including anemia, hypertension, bone disorders and osteoporosis, heart disease, diabetes, and the inability to convert Vitamin D to the useable hormone.  People with weakened kidneys also suffer chronic fatigue, 

Although all forms of protein can become toxic to the kidneys – at least when eaten in excess – numerous studies have shown that animal protein is far more harsh and demanding on the kidneys than vegetable protein.  Which means that if you suffer from any kind of kidney disorder, one of the best things you can do for yourself is to reduce your consumption of animal food sharply, or eliminate it altogether, at least for an extended period of time. 

Medical research has consistently shown that people with kidney disease who adopt low protein diets experience an improvement in their kidney health.  In order to restore kidneys, two steps should be considered essential.  The first is to increase minerals, especially from green and leafy vegetables, and sea vegetables, the latter being among the most mineral-rich foods available to us.  Minerals alkalize the blood and neutralize uric acid, thus supporting kidney health.  The second is to eat plant based sources of protein, specifically beans and whole grains. 

Those who are highly dependent upon animal food should consider making fish their primary source of animal protein.  Fish is easier to digest and contains omega-3 fatty acids, which can support kidney function.  Reduce fish intake to once a day, and then gradually reduce it further to twice a week.  Meanwhile, eat beans, cooked whole grain, and as many green and leafy vegetables as possible.   (See below for more foods and behaviors to heal the kidneys.)

In Chinese medicine, beans and sea vegetables are considered the two most essential foods for healing the kidneys.  

Chinese Medicine And The Kidneys

According to practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine, the kidneys and bladder make up the Water Element and govern the body’s fluid content.

The kidneys are associated with the winter months, from December 21 through March 21.  

The kidneys distribute the life force, or Qi, throughout the body, say Chinese medical healers.  They also awaken us to our talents, releasing them according to our development and needs.  In essence, your unique nature — and all your inherent abilities — are held within your kidneys, the Chinese sages said.  Treat your kidneys well, take on the challenges of your life directly and honestly, and your kidneys will awaken your special abilities, which in turn will give you direction and success. 

The kidneys house the will, and thus provide much of our power and determination.  People with strong kidneys have strong will and personal power.  They tend to focus on a goal and see it through to completion.  On the other hand, those with weak kidneys tend to lose focus, are often self-protective, and introverted. 

The kidneys govern the emotion of fear and its opposite, courage.  Fear and stress injure the kidneys.  Chronic stress, as pioneer researcher Hans Selye showed, can destroy the kidneys. 

Though they receive optimal amounts of life force during the winter season, they can be injured by too much cold.  Keeping warm, especially in winter, is essential to healing the kidneys.   Many healers recommend wearing special clothing that provides extra cover for the kidneys and abdomen, thus keeping this part of the body warm during the winter months.

“Those who disobey the laws of winter will suffer an injury to the kidneys,” states the Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine, the fundamental text of Chinese medicine.  “For them, spring will bring impotence, and they will produce little.” 

In the same way, Chinese healers maintain that cold drinks shock the body and injure the kidneys. 

The Chinese sages believed that the kidneys provided the life force to the reproductive organs, and thus were responsible for sexual function, libido, and fertility.   Too much cold and protein injure the kidneys, thus weakening sexual vitality and function.  Deficient kidneys, the Chinese maintain, is responsible for sexual dysfunction, including impotence and premature ejaculation.  Excessive kidney energy, on the other hand, can result in excessive sex drive and obsession with sex.

The kidneys draw in the deep breath and are considered the root of the breath.  Interestingly, studies have shown that people who are shallow breathers are more prone to nervous tension, anxiety, and fear.  Those who breathe deeply tend to be more relaxed.

A Chinese healer would concur, pointing out that weak kidneys would make a person more fearful and thus unable to draw a deep breath.  Conversely, those who wish to strengthen their kidneys are advised to make a habit of deep breathing, which effectively draws Qi into the kidneys, bladder, and sex organs.

Asian healers maintain that many respiratory problems, including asthma, begin with kidney imbalance.  When the kidneys are unable to draw the breath deeply into the lungs, and force a deep exhalation, the lungs become congested, stagnant, and prone to illness.

The kidneys also rule and nourish the bones, keeping them vital, flexible, and resilient. Weak, brittle, or broken bones are, at their root; a kidney imbalance, usually resulting from deficient kidney energy or Qi. 

The taste associated with the kidneys and bladder is salty flavor, and the kidneys crave it.  Light to moderate amounts of salt can moisten, stimulate, and strengthen the kidneys and bladder.  Too much salt, however, can dry out the kidneys, make them inflexible, and too contracted, leading to high blood pressure, among other disorders. 

The Yellow Emperor also warns that too much salt will cause despondency.  The Chinese maintain that too much salt intake can cause an excessively contracted life condition and can lead to chronic depression.

Kidney energy opens into the ears, said the Yellow Emperor, meaning that kidney Qi nourishes hearing and the inner ear.   All hearing problems, including ear infections, hearing loss, and tinnitus originate from kidney imbalances, especially kidney deficiency. 

The kidneys rule the body hair.  Strong, luxurious hair is a sign of strong kidneys. Conversely, split ends, broken hair, and premature baldness are signs of weak and (usually) deficient kidney energy.  Since the kidneys rule the sex organs, unhealthy hair, especially split ends, is a sign of weak or degenerating sex organs.

Healing The Kidneys

Foods that Heal the Kidneys

The following foods and behaviors will promote healing in the kidneys and bladder: 

The grain for healing the kidneys is buckwheat.

Beans are the high-protein food that heal the kidneys, especially aduki beans, black beans, lentils, and chickpeas.    

All sea vegetables promote healing of the kidneys, especially alaria, arame, kombu, nori, and wakame. 

Fermented foods alkalize the blood and support the kidneys, especially  recommended are miso, tamari, shoyu, natto, tempeh, pickles, sauerkraut,

The following vegetables are especially healing for the kidneys.

Burdock Root  

A hardy, medicinal food, revered by Chinese, European, and American healers for many centuries.  Considered one of the strongest blood purifiers in the entire herb kingdom, burdock is used for a wide variety of disorders, but is generally recognized as one of the best herbs for breaking down and eliminating waste products, thus supporting kidney function. 

In Chinese medicine, burdock is regarded as a strengthening herb for the entire urinary tract and sex organs. 

Cut into inch-long chunks and then half, or slice into matchstick size pieces and boil with a variety of roots and sweet vegetables, such as carrots, onions, squash, and sweet potatoes. 

Burdock tea detoxifies the blood and strengthens and tonifies the kidneys and bladder.   To make burdock tea, boil one to two tablespoons of stems, twigs, and leaves from the burdock plant in one or two cups of water.  Steep for ten minutes and drink two to three times per day. 

Daikon Radish 

This long, white radish is reputed to dissolve deposits and stones and help to eliminate stagnation from tissues throughout the body, especially the kidneys.  Eat steamed or boiled daikon two or three times per week.  In addition, you can eat it grated raw, with grated carrot.  Grate a tablespoon of fresh daikon; grate a tablespoon of fresh carrot.  Mix together and add a few grains of sea salt.  Eat as a condiment.  The daikon carrot mixture can break up stagnation and help to dissolve stones in the kidneys. 

To encourage urination and elimination, grate two to three tablespoons of fresh daikon into a cheesecloth sack; squeeze the sack so that daikon juice falls into a cup.  Pour boiled water into the cup; add one to two drops of shoyu or tamari.  Drink twice a day.

Black Sesame Seeds

Long regarded as a healing food for the kidneys, black sesame seeds strengthen and stimulate kidney function. 


Basil is considered a strengthening herb for the kidneys and bladder.  The herb can be used in cooking or boiled to make a tea.    

Sea Salt

Rich in minerals and highly alkaline, sea salt is specifically recommended by Chinese healers to moisten, strengthen, and tonify the kidneys.  Use only a pinch of salt in cooking — usually the tip of a teaspoon (less than one-eighth teaspoon) is necessary to cook two to three cups of grain. Also, avoid adding salt at the table. Salt is essential in cooking grain because it opens the grain and makes it digestible.


For excessively contracted kidneys, eat watermelon in season.   Watermelon relaxes the kidneys and promotes urination and elimination of waste. 

Watermelon tea can be made by grinding a teaspoon of dried watermelon seeds, boiling them in water for fifteen minutes, and steeping another ten minutes.   Drink hot. 

Other fruits that support the kidneys are grapes (they promote urination), blackberries, blueberries, and cranberries.

Foods That Harm The Kidneys

  • All red meat because of its high protein content.
  • All dairy products because of its high protein content and tendency to promote autoimmune responses.
  • Foods rich in fat, especially saturated fat, such as beef, pork, lamb, and chicken.
  • Excessively cold foods.
  • Insufficient amounts of liquid intake, especially pure water.
  • Excessive intake of foods rich in oxalic acid, particularly spinach, rhubarb, Swiss chard, beet tops, chocolate, and coffee.
  • Refined flour and sugar, which promotes acidity of blood and weakens the kidneys. 
  • Chronic stress.
  • Chronic overwork, which can cause kidney fatigue and exhaustion, preventing adequate elimination of toxins. 

Winter can be a season in which the kidneys, bladder, and sex organs can be strengthened and healed – especially if we rest, eat well, and deal effectively with stress.  If we support our kidneys over the next three months, the springtime can be a season of great vitality and flowering rewards.