Why The Kidneys Play A Vital Role In Health And Longevity

Why The Kidneys Play A Vital Role In Health And Longevity

It’s time to reflect on the past and look forward to the future. It’s also a great time to take stock of your health and set some goals for achieving wellness and balance in life.

To make the most of your energy this year, look to nature as your guide. For example, for a plant to survive long term, it requires strong roots–ones that pull in nutrients and water from its environment and give it the strength to carry on.

In Chinese medicine, the roots of the human body are the kidneys.   

Modern physiology sees the kidneys primarily as a filter that removes waste from the blood and excretes it as urine. Chinese medicine also acknowledges this filtering function, but sees the organs as possessing a much deeper purpose: storing and protecting our life’s essence.

five element theory

According to Brandon LaGreca, an acupuncturist and Oriental medicine practitioner in East Troy, Wisconsin, this concept of the kidney shares several similarities with our modern understanding of the adrenals, the small but mighty glands that sit on top of our kidneys. The adrenal glands produce over 50 hormones that drive our growth, development, reproduction, inflammation, blood pressure, blood sugar, and nearly every other process in the body.

Because they produce hormones, the adrenals are categorized as part of the endocrine system in Western medicine. But the Chinese kidney concept recognizes some of the same disease processes.

“Someone with a lack of energy we diagnose as having kidney qi deficiency. This has close parallels to someone who is adrenal fatigued,” said LaGreca.

The Two Bank Accounts

The earliest texts of Chinese medicine describe our life essence as a substance called “jing.” Ancient doctors believed we could achieve longevity by learning to preserve this precious substance.

There are two kinds of jing: postnatal and prenatal. You can think about them like two bank accounts. Your postnatal jing—the energy you get from eating, drinking, and breathing—is your checking account, which you regularly deposit into and withdraw from to meet the demands of life.

The prenatal jing is your savings account, essentially an inheritance from your parents. This is a deep reserve of energy that you should only touch when you really need it. Unlike your checking account, which you can supplement when funds get too low, any withdrawal you make from savings is gone for good.


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“If you have good habits and you sleep well, then you’re only depositing and withdrawing from your checking account,” said LaGreca. “But if you’re burning the candle at both ends and you have a poor diet, you’re going to have to start dipping into your savings account and taking more out. If you follow this analogy to its conclusion, when your savings account balance goes down to zero, that’s the end of your life.”

We don’t all start life with a big inheritance. Genetically robust individuals come into this world with much more jing, while others must make do with a meager amount. But no matter how much you start with, everyone can learn to preserve and protect the jing they’ve got.

Conserving Energy for Winter

Winter is the season associated with the kidney in Chinese medicine because winter teaches the importance of conserving our energy. Unlike the warmth and abundance of spring and summer, winter is cold and harsh, and resources are scarce.

important for kidneys

If we have enough jing when hard times hit, we can bounce back. However, if our jing is low, and stress starts chipping away at our savings, recovery is harder and the signs of age begin to show. The typical symptoms of old age—fatigue, hair loss, a bad back, and brittle bones—are also signs of depleted jing.

Consider what a rapid loss of jing looks like in the “before” and “after” pictures of people addicted to crystal meth, a drug that triggers the adrenal glands to secrete high levels of stress hormones for extended periods of time. Within just a few months, you can see youth and vitality deteriorate as meth users burn their essence away.

This is an extreme example, but there are other, more common behaviors that, over time, can sap our precious jing.

“The biggest one, by a long shot, is overwork,” said LaGreca. “Mental overwork is thought of as harming the spleen in Chinese medicine, but I’ve seen it in modern times hurt the kidney too; mostly just because of how much we do it.”

Sleep is another important aspect of jing preservation. Rest recharges your battery. It’s also an activity associated with winter–think hibernation, or how the energy of a tree descends to its roots after the leaves fall.

Cultivating Life 

Reproductive function is a key part of the Chinese kidney concept. Fertility is a sign of good jing, but ancient doctors gave stern warnings about wasting our reproductive resources. Chinese medical texts, and even ancient erotica, strongly cautioned against overindulgence in sexual activity—particularly for men.

harmful to kidneys

While some cultures discourage such behavior from a moral standpoint, Chinese medicine addresses it for very practical reasons.

“If you think about it, the production of sperm takes a lot out of your body,” LaGreca said. “You’re drawing on your nutrient reserves in order to produce the best quality and the best possible chance for the strongest offspring. Ejaculating more times than your kidney can keep up with starts to draw on your reserves.”

Chinese medicine believes that by minimizing ejaculation, men can preserve their jing. This is why Ming Dynasty doctor Zhang Huang wrote, “If you want to protect your source of longevity, there is no better way than to guard yourself against sexual desires.”

Nutritious food, clean water, and good air are critical for treating kidney weakness.
— Mary Rogel, acupuncturist and editor, Oriental Medical Journal

We have to sacrifice some of our jing to create the next generation, and mothers give up much of theirs during pregnancy. Modern medicine acknowledges that women need extra rest and nutrition as they carry a baby to term, but Chinese medicine advocates that moms get several more months of rest and nutritionally dense meals after they give birth, to help build back their personal reserves.

associated with kidneys

Feed Your Bones

We eat to replenish our energy, but according to Mary Rogel, a Chicago-based acupuncturist and editor of the Oriental Medical Journal, the quality of our jing is only as good as the quality of our fuel.

“Nutritious food, clean water, and good air are critical for treating kidney weakness,” said Rogel.

In Chinese medicine, the health of the internal body is reflected in details at the surface. The classic barometers for assessing kidney strength can be seen in the quality of the bones, teeth, and hair. Straight and sturdy posture, a bright smile, and a thick mane are all signs of good jing.

This is why when it comes to strengthening the kidneys, Rogel looks to feeding the bones. One of her top choices is bone broth.

“Bone soup provides the building blocks for bone, cartilage, and synovial fluid in our joints,” she said, adding that dark leafy vegetables also provide key vitamins and minerals for good bone health. “These two things are much better for building back your kidney health than any supplement I can think of.”

kidney functions

Salt gets a lot of flack today … but our body needs a lot of other minerals that salt can provide.

Salt is another important component of kidney nutrition in Chinese medicine. Salt gets a lot of flack today because of sodium’s effects on blood pressure, but our body needs a lot of other minerals that salt can provide, says Rogel. She recommends mineral-rich salt from sea sources, such as seaweed and sea salt.

There are herbs in Chinese medicine known as kidney tonics that are prized for their jing-building ability. Today, these herbs are categorized as adaptogens, because they help the body adapt to stress. Herbs such as ginseng, licorice, and rehmannia are used by modern herbalists specifically to support adrenal health.

Rogel’s favorite jing-building herbs are medicinal mushrooms. She recommends Asian classics such as reishi, shiitake, and maitake, and a Native American variety called Agaricus blazei.

“I suggest mushrooms for people who are complaining of low energy. These are very good sources of kidney energy,” Rogel said.

A mushroom omelet is a good start, but if you’re trying to build back depleted jing, a more concentrated dose of mushrooms is necessary. Mushroom teas, extracts, or powders are good options to get high enough quantities into the body.

Exercising With the Universe

Another tool to maintain good jing in Chinese medicine is special exercises called qi gong. The most well-known style is tai chi. These slow, meditative movements have been practiced for ages to promote longevity and strengthen our roots. According to ancient medical texts, these exercises allow us to harmonize ourselves with the natural flow of the universe.

kidney foods

“We have these great studies that show how tai chi affects balance and can even affect bone density,” LaGreca said. “It could be that it just makes people more fit and strong. Or there could be this very notion of drawing in this energy from the universe around you.”

Rogel also recommends qigong for kidney weakness, but says movement of any kind can help.

“In order to keep your bones strong, you have to move,” she said.

Fear Is the Enemy

Emotion is a significant driver of disease in Chinese medicine, and fear is the emotion that the kidney is most sensitive to. When jing is low, anxiety tends to run high. When jing is strong, will and determination are strong too.

if we live in constant fear and perpetual worry, adrenaline levels never come down.

This idea can also be viewed in modern medical terms. One of the hormones produced by the adrenal glands is adrenaline. This chemical kicks in when we sense danger, triggering our fight-or-flight response.

This mechanism works great when it’s only activated for life or death situations, but if we live in constant fear and perpetual worry, adrenaline levels never come down. If we’re always on edge, it can quickly wear us out.

Kidney Yin and Yang

In addition to storing jing, the kidneys are also the root of your body’s yin and yang—a pair of opposing forces that dance (preferably in balance) throughout the universe.

winter kidney foods

To get an idea of how these forces come into play, Rogel suggests thinking about the kidney as the body’s steam furnace: yin is the water, yang is the fire. This is the energy that drives growth, development, and reproduction.

“Fire is the force that propels us through life and allows us to consume the food we take into our bodies. The water balances out the fire. Balance between these elements is what keeps us healthy through life,” she said.

Not enough fire (kidney yang deficiency) results in symptoms such as a weak lower back, cold hands and feet, asthma, and chronic bronchitis.

“Think of an old man who is bent over and needs a cane,” said LaGreca. “He no longer has any of that yang uprightness to keep him up. Especially if he’s had a lot of hard labor in his lifetime, this takes some of that fire out of him.”

As we head into the new year, in a world full of seemingly endless challenges, we can look to ancient wisdom that has guided humanity for centuries.

Not enough water (kidney yin deficiency) results in symptoms such as dryness, wrinkles, hair loss, lack of sexual fluids, and brittle bones.

“We see more yin deficiency in women as they age. It plays out in menopausal symptoms such as hot flashes and night sweats,” LaGreca said.

Ancient Wisdom for Modern Life

As we head into the new year, in a world full of seemingly endless challenges, we can look to ancient wisdom that has guided humanity for centuries.

When our jing is plentiful and yin and yang are in balance, we will be better equipped to meet any curveball that life throws at us. This is the secret of the so-called “immortals” of ancient Chinese mythology. Those who protect their kidney health say the root of this wisdom still holds true.

This article originally appeared on The Epoch Times

About The Author

Conan Milner writes about health for the Epoch Times.

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