The first snow came to Amherst, Massachusetts this month, and with it the first signs of kidney season. Winter is the Water phase of the year, the Chinese sages tell us. The energies that drive the season now dive deeply into the body, spiraling and taking root in the kidneys and bladder. With the increase in Qi, or life force, the winter months offer the opportunity to heal these organs, should the conditions be right. Winter can also bring forth symptoms of kidney and bladder imbalances, especially when these organs have been too long under stress. Traditional healers of Asia asserted that the kidneys hold and distribute the gifts of ancestors in the form of individual talents, life’s opportunities, and even one’s purpose for living. Care for the kidneys is, in essence, caring for your soul.
A Genius Beyond Rational Comprehension
Each kidney is about five inches long and weighs approximately six ounces. They stand parallel with the spine, in the mid-back, just behind the 12th rib. They are oval shaped, with a slight indentation on their spinal side.
The kidneys are part of the urinary tract, which is composed of two kidneys, a bladder, two ureters, and a urethra. Each of the two ureters connects a kidney to the bladder. The urethera allows urine to pass from the bladder and out of the body. In the case of men, the urethra serves as a conduit for semen, as well.
The kidneys are no ordinary filtering system – they don’t work like the filter in a coffee maker. Rather, they identity everything that is in the blood. They then decide which elements should excreted as urine, which should stay, and how much of any worthwhile substance should remain in the blood.
The filtering unit of the kidneys is called a nephron. During youth, there are more than 1 million nephrons in each kidney, but that number decreases with age. By the time you are, say, seventy, each kidney contains fewer than 250,000 nephrons, or about a quartet of its original filtering capacity. Aging, dietary poisons, and stress—with its consequent wear and tear—destroy nephrons.
The primary waste products that the kidneys remove from the blood include the byproducts of protein metabolism, such as nitrogen, urea, and ammonia. The kidneys also eliminate excess hormones, vitamins, minerals, and foreign substances, such as food additives and drugs. The presence glucose (brood sugar) or protein in the urine indicates some form of disease.
The kidneys regulate electrolyte balance, retaining more or less of the blood’s supply sodium, potassium, hydrogen, magnesium, calcium, bicarbonate, phosphate, and chloride. The quantities of these elements that are retained by they kidneys depend on the body’s overall needs.
They also convert vitamin D into a hormone, its usable state. They maintain the body acid-alkaline balance, or its pH, by regulating the acidity or alkalinity in the blood and urine.
Blood pressure is controlled by the kidneys, as well. The kidneys do this by secreting precise amounts of an enzyme called rennin, which converts in the blood into another substance called, angiotensin. Angiotensin causes blood vessels to constrict, and thereby increases blood pressure. It also alerts the kidneys to retain more sodium and excrete more potassium. Sodium increases the volume of water in the body and blood, which will increase blood pressure, as well.
When excess water is consumed, tile kidneys release it. When the body needs more water, the kidneys retain it. In short, the kidneys are constantly monitoring the body’s overall needs, and adjusting fluid and mineral balances to meet the body’s needs.
The kidneys perform their tasks with miraculous efficiency. About two and a half pints of blood pass through the kidneys every minute, or about 450 pints per day. Although we possess two kidneys, only one is necessary for life.
Courage, Potency, Talents, And Tolerance
According to practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine, the kidneys and bladder are paired organs that make up the Water Element and govern the body’s fluid content.
Cold weather can injure the kidneys, if the body – especially one’s back – is exposed to the cold for too long. Cold drinks, especially those that contain sugar, injure the kidneys, as well.
Cold drinks and excess consumption of sugar are not recommended at any time of the year, but are especially injurious during the winter.
Health and Vitality of the Sex Organs and Libido
According to the Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine, the 3000 year old bible of Chinese medicine, “Those who disobey the laws of winter will suffer an injury to the kidneys. Then the spring will bring impotence, and they will produce little.” In short, they will not be able to expand and flower with the Spring’s rising and opening energies, and thus will not be creative or particularly productive.
The Yellow Emperor used the word “impotence” both literally and figuratively, for the kidneys govern the sex organs and the body’s overall sexual energy. Thus, all types of sexual dysfunction are related to some form of kidney imbalance, said the Yellow Emperor, including impotence, infertility, excess sexual hunger, low libido, and premature ejaculation.
In addition to cold drinks and sugar, milk products are especially harmful to both kidneys and reproductive organs. Milk sugar, called lactose, is converted to galactose in the body. Galactose attacks ovaries, testes, and prostate, causing inflammation and even more serious disorders. Men who drink milk or eat cheese, for example, have more than twice the rates of prostate cancer than those who do not eat dairy products.
In order to improve sexual health and vitality, avoid milk products, sugar, and fatty foods, and follow the recommendations provided below.
Fear and Courage
The emotion associated with the kidneys is fear. Conversely, people with strong kidneys not only experience less fear, but also experience more courage in the face of fear. The kidneys also provide us with the ability to endure and tolerate stressful situations. People with strong kidneys don’t complain, and instead tend to adapt to demanding situations.
Excess fear and stress injure the kidneys, said the Chinese sages, and this was confirmed in modern times by pioneer stress researcher Hans Selye, who discovered that chronic stress can destroy the kidneys.
The kidneys also control the deep breath, meaning that the depth of our breath is determined by the strength of the kidneys. Strong kidneys pull energy and breath deep into the body, thus filling up the lungs, even the lower lobes of the lungs.
Breathing regulates nervous system function. Thus, when our breathing is more regular, relaxed, and deeper, we experience less fear and anxiety.
Bones and the Kidneys
Kidney Qi regulates bone health and acupuncturists often treat bone issues by strengthening the kidneys. Several kidney-strengthening foods also strengthen bones. Among them are burdock, sea vegetables, and beans. Burdock is a tough root vegetable that makes kidneys and bones stronger. Seaweed is rich in minerals, especially calcium and phosphorus, both essential for bones. Beans contain plant hormones and proteins that strengthen both kidneys and bones.
Kidneys and Lungs
According to acupuncture theory, the source of much of the energy that flows to the kidneys originates in the lungs. Thus, practitioners of Chinese medicine treat the kidneys, as well as the lungs, when they want to reverse such conditions as asthma, bronchitis, pneumonia, and other respiratory disorders.
Interestingly, traditional medicine has long regarded milk products and sugar as especially harmful to both lungs and kindness. Both of these foods play important roles in the creation of pneumonia, bronchitis, and asthma. If you or someone you love suffers from one or another of these conditions, it would be wise to avoid dairy and sugary foods.
Ears and Hearing
The Yellow Emperor states that the Qi originating in the kidneys opens up into the ears, and that all disorders affecting the ears – including ear infections, ringing in the ears, and hearing loss – have their origins in kidney imbalances. Thus, treatment of these conditions includes care for the kidneys.
Again, dairy and sugar are usually at the source of ear infections and hearing loss. Studies done on people living in Wisconsin, the dairy producing and consuming capital of the U.S. (they refer to themselves as “cheese heads”) have shown that people who eat cheese and other milk products suffering higher degrees of hearing loss, including at relatively young age.
The kidneys rule the body hair and strong, luxurious hair is a sign of strong kidneys. Conversely, split ends, broken hair, and premature baldness (hair loss before 50) are signs of weak and (usually) deficient kidney energy. Since the kidneys govern the sex organs, unhealthy hair, especially split ends, is a sign of weak or degenerating sex organs.
Baldness occurs when the kidneys are unable to maintain proper water balance within the body. Each hair is rooted in a follicle that contains oil and water. The kidneys control the amount of water present in the tissues throughout the body. When excessive amounts of water infiltrate the scalp, the hair follicles swell, allowing the hair to uproot and fall out – hence, baldness. Hair care begins with treating the kidneys well, say the Chinese.
Kidney Meridian and Restless Leg Syndrome
The kidney meridian runs from the bottom of the foot, along the inside of the legs, to the top of the chest, just below the clavicle bone. The Chinese maintain that heavy legs, or restless legs, arise from lack of Qi flow in the kidneys and kidney meridian. Acupuncture and care of the kidneys relieves these conditions.
The Chinese recognized that there is a distinct circadian rhythm cycle for the year and for the hours of the day. They kidneys receive optimal amounts of Qi between 5 p.m. and 7 p.m., while the bladder receives an increased dose of Qi from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. Weakness or fatigue during these hours can indicate a kidney or bladder imbalance.
Overactive Versus Deficient Kidney Energy
In general, the relative strength of the kidneys can be seen as overactive, or excessive on one side, or underactive or deficient on the other.
Overactive kidney energy is associated with great kidney strength. These are the people who are the risk-takers (they are the bungie jumpers), the thrill seekers, and daredevils. Overactive kidney people are usually highly sexually active. They love adventure, have enormous courage, and tremendous appetites for life. They are nonconformists and go against the grain; they enjoy the thrill of placing their lives on the line.
They can be foolhardy and take silly and even life-threatening risks in order to feel exhilaration and fear. They tend to be very thick-skinned and can be insensitive to others.
In general, people tend to be more overactive (or excessive kidney energy) in youth, and gradually become increasingly underactive (or deficient) as we age. The Chinese maintain that the Jing (a special form of condensed and powerful Qi found in the kidneys) rises in adolescence. With it comes great courageous and feelings of invulnerability. This is the reason young men are sent off to war: the rising Jing permits them to think that they won’t be the one to be killed. Middle-aged men, on the other hand, experience the diminution of the Jing, and consequently experience their vulnerability and believe wholeheartedly in their mortality.
Eventually, overactive kidney people deplete their kidneys and become underactive. But until they do, they live life in a blaze of glory, or go down in flames.
John Wayne, test pilots, astronauts, extreme sports enthusiasts, and professional athletes are among those with overactive (or excessive) kidney energy.
People with excessive kidneys should reduce their consumption of animal foods, especially red meat, dairy, and other high protein foods. They should substitute plant sources of protein, including beans, tempeh, tofu, and grain products.
Most people in Western culture are underactive water. They experience a good deal of anxiety, nervous tension, stress, and outright fear. Survival seems to be a constant issue for underactive Water. So, too, is the need to identify themselves, to maintain a hold on who they are in the face of new conditions or experiences. Underactive Water people have little or no faith. Consequently, they feel the need to control their environments excessively, even to the point of phobia. People who suffer from acute phobias suffer from extremely underactive Water.
When the Water Element is deficient, all the organs suffer fatigue because of the inadequacy of the Jing. The body is saying, in essence, that more rest and more gathering of energy is needed.
While most people in Western cultures are to some extent underactive Water, the characters played by Woody Allen are particularly good examples of underactive Water. Chicken Little was underactive-Water.
People with underactive kidneys should eat regular amounts of fish and experiment with occasional consumption of eggs, especially an occasional soft boiled or poached egg. They should also eat warming grains, such as buckwheat – an especially healing food for the kidneys (see below) – brown rice, and millet. Warming vegetables, especially burdock, squash, onions, rutabaga, and turnips, also support both lungs and kidneys.
Healing The Kidneys Begins With Balance
Healing the kidneys and bladder begins by understanding of the nature of winter, and our essential need to balance energy expenditure with energy recovery.
Winter is a resting time in nature. The earth does not expend its energy in leaf and food production. Many animals hibernate. The nights are longer; there is less time to expend energy working. The earth and animal kingdoms rest, gather their life forces, and prepare for the great expenditure of energy that will accompany the rising energies of spring and summer.
Throughout human history, the same can be said for people. Farmers rested with the land and planned the spring planting. People spent more time indoors and tended to sleep many more hours than in spring and summer.
All of this helps to heal the kidneys. Rest relieves stress, which takes an enormous burden off the kidneys. But it also causes the body to gather energy, which strengthens kidney Qi.
Think of your kidneys as a couple of CEOs who are responsible for determining how much money is spent on any individual endeavor. If you are reckless and overspend, you are soon broke and sick. If you under-spend, nothing gets done, there is no growth, and none of your abilities are expressed and manifested in your life.
The wisdom in the kidneys expend and recover energy according to a wave pattern. On the rising arc of the wave, energy is expended. With it, stress and oxidation occur. On the downward slope, rest occurs, energy is recovered, antioxidation functions take over, and healing takes place. This is one of the reasons why sleep is so healing. It is part of the downward, energy-recovery part of the wave pattern.
Both sides of the wave pattern are essential, but in order for balance to exist, both must be roughly equal to the other.
In the West, we promote and respect energy expenditure, while denying and even disrespecting the importance of energy recovery. What we don’t realize is that this imbalance trains the body to perform one function over the other, which means that only one part of the wave – energy expenditure – is truly developed. In the process, energy surpluses are lost. Antioxidant functions are never performed adequately. We get burned out and weak. And when times of struggle arise, it is easy to become overwhelmed and sick.
The kidneys demand that we practice energy recovery, which means conscious rest. Deliberately take breaks. Do gentle forms of exercise, such as yoga, Chi Gong, and strolling. This stretches the body, gathers energy and Qi, and allows tension and bound-up toxins to be released.
This winter, rest more. Sleep at least eight hours. Consciously rest during the day. Take breaks and feel your body relax. Take naps when you can and the spirit moves you. Don’t be afraid to disengage from excess work. The more you gather energy, the more you heal your kidneys.
Salty Flavor Heals
The taste associated with the kidneys and bladder is salty, and the kidneys crave small amounts of it. Balanced amounts of salt intake stimulate, moisten, tonify, and strengthen the kidneys and bladder. Too much salt, however, can injure the kidneys. Excess salt can make the kidneys contracted. At the same time, salt increases fluid retention, including in the blood, thus increasing the chances of high blood pressure.
In addition the Yellow Emperor warns that too much salt will cause despondency, low mood, negative thinking, and depression.
Salt is made up of about 40 percent sodium. Only about a pinch of sea salt is recommended when cooking grains, pasta, and hearty vegetables, such as squash and roots. No salt is needed to cook greens, such as collard, kale, mustard, bok choy, and broccoli. As for miso, which contains sodium, anywhere from a half a teaspoon, to a rounded teaspoon, per cup of soup is recommended. Low sodium tamari and shoyu are also available and should be used moderately, as well.
Most health authorities recommend that healthy people limit their salt intake to one teaspoon per day. If you use sea salt moderately (a pinch in cooking) and small amounts of miso, tamari, and shoyu, you can easily fall within those limits.
Salt, or sodium intake, is not the primary cause of high blood pressure in most people who have this condition. Only about 30 percent of those with high blood pressure are sodium sensitive. The rest of high blood pressure is caused primarily by atherosclerosis, or cholesterol plaques that block and narrow arteries.
Salt, miso, tamari, and other kidney-strengthening foods are important for people with deficient kidneys. Eat miso soup four to six times per week and use tamari in noodles-and-broth, sauces, and other dishes. (Recipes for these foods are provide in this newsletter.)
The kidneys are constantly regulating the acid-alkaline balance of the blood by processing protein and minerals. Animal foods are rich protein. Excess consumption of protein elevates acidity and can injure the kidneys. On the other hand, plant proteins, which are easily digested, strengthen, stimulate, and tonify the kidneys. Beans derive about 28 percent of their total calories from protein, which means that they gentle stimulate the kidneys to work, yet support them in their function.
Beans, which are shaped like kidneys – a fact that drew traditional healers to the relationship between the kidneys and beans — have long been seen as one of the most powerful healing foods for the kidneys. All the beans support kidney health, but aduki beans, black beans, lentils, kidney beans, and chickpeas are all highly recommended for healing these organs.
Eat a small amount (less than a cup of beans four to seven times per week) for optimal kidney health.
Seaweed is perhaps the most-mineral rich family of vegetables on earth. They are loaded with calcium, iron, magnesium, vitamin A, and other essential minerals and vitamins. These foods alkalize the blood, thus supporting the kidneys in their work.
Traditional healers have long seen sea vegetables are essentially the kidneys of the ocean. They cleanse the waters of waste products, absorbing them into their leaves, sending them into their root systems, and discharging these waste products into the ocean floor.
Many studies have been done on the sea vegetables that are cultivated for human consumption and the research has consistently shown that sea weeds are clean, free of toxins, and incredibly healing foods.
Excellent sea weeds include arame, alaria (also known as Atlantic wakame and used in soups), dulse, hijiki, irish moss, kelp, kombu (usually used in cooking beans), nori, and wakame (often used in soup, such as miso soup).
Eat small amounts of sea vegetables daily. All you need is a tablespoon or two of sea vegetables to help you heal your kidneys.
Buckwheat and Soba Heal
The grain that strengthens and heals the kidneys is buckwheat, which can be eaten as groats, kasha, or soba noodles. Buckwheat causes small blood vessels to contract, which in turn increases heat throughout the body. This is one of the reasons why the grain (which is really a grass) is so revered in cold climates, such as Russia and Eastern Europe.
Buckwheat is warming and drying. It is highly recommended for people with conditions that are excessively cold, moist, and deficient (or underactive). It is harder on those who are overactive kidney, or excessively hot and dry. Because buckwheat is highly contracting, people with coronary artery disease or prostate issues should limit their consumption of buckwheat and soba noodles. (One or two servings per month is usually fine for people with such conditions.)
Foods That Strengthen And Heal The Kidneys
In addition to the foods and behaviors mentioned above, the following are especially recommended to strengthen and heal the kidneys.
Animal foods. Fish, especially white fish, trout, and salmon. Occasionally, an egg, preferably organic, range fed, and soft boiled or poached.
Beans. Especially aduki and black beans.
Black sesame seeds, including as gomasio.
Burdock, especially when sliced into match sticks and cooked with carrots and kombu seaweed. (See recipe below.)
Chestnuts. Chestnuts and rice cooked together are strengthening to both kidneys and lungs.
Cucumber, especially cucumber juice, which soothes and heals kidneys, including when inflamed.
Fruit. Watermelon, grapes, blackberries, blueberries, and cranberries.
Grains, especially buckwheat, brown rice, millet, quinoa, wild rice, corn, and mochi, or pounded sweet rice.
Pickles and fermented foods, including sauerkraut, cucumber pickles, daikon pickles, and ginger pickle (without sugar).
Sea vegetables. All of them.
Spices. Warming spices are especially recommended for deficient kidney conditions. Cinnamon, cloves, fennel, anise seeds, black pepper, and ginger.
Vegetables. Parsley, radish, daikon radish, scallions.
Watermelon and watermelon seed. Watermelon tea from the seeds. (See recipe below.)
Water. Drink pure water throughout the day. When you drink, reflect on how the water affects your body. Many people are out of touch with their thirst. Therefore, offer your body water throughout the day. If your body needs the water, it will react with a profound thirst once the water enters your mouth. If it doesn’t, the body will resist further drinking. Follow the body’s guidance, but offer your body water throughout the day.