Water Element. The water type, five element acupuncture treatment. The water element and acupuncture, the Torbay Acupuncture Centre, Devon.

The Functions of the Kidneys

The Importance of the Kidneys

In Chinese Medicine the Kidneys are extremely important. In fact, the Kidneys and the Heart are generally considered to be the two most important organs, within the Chinese system. This may seem a little strange because obviously, good health requires optimum functioning of all the organs, but in order to explain the importance of the Kidneys we need to look a little more closely at Chinese theory. The two most important facets of Chinese philosophy are both conceptual. We talk about ‘The Five Elements‘ and ‘Yin and Yang’. The Five Elements of Water, Wood, Fire, Earth and Metal, describe the different organs, the season, emotions and colours. The Kidneys and the Bladder are the organs of Water. Water represents winter, fear and lack of fear and the colour blue/black. The Heart on the other hand is a Fire Element and is represented by summer.

kidneys-the-cycle-of-yin-yang-through-the-year-diagramIf we then look at the concept of Yin and Yang the importance of the Kidneys and the Heart become clearer. This is because Yin and Yang seem to be the very foundations of everything. Yin is calm and cool and female whereas Yang is hot, active and male. Water and Winter are ultimate Yin and Fire and Summer are ultimate Yang. The Heart and the Kidneys are the foundations on which all the other elements are built and their health and their relationship to one another are extremely important to a person overall well-being. As you might imagine this means that the areas dominated by the Kidneys tend to be relatively ‘Yin’ in nature. For example the Kidneys control hearing and the ears (listening as opposed to talking). They are also heavily involved in conception, birth, growth and development.

The Role of the Kidneys

As you are probably beginning to see Chinese Medicine is not about black and white. It is not about health and illness, good or bad, and in the same way it can’t even be divided categorically into its own definitions such as Yin and Yang. Rather, Chinese Medicine is about the relationships between different things and the way they relate to one another. The Heart is Yin in relation to the Kidneys just as the Spring is warm in relation to Autumn, but when we change the parameters of what we are discussing things can look very different: It is quite possible that the autumn in Sydney is a lot warmer than the spring in Moscow. In this way, Chinese Medicine uses its terms relatively and tends to layer various understandings on top of one another.

The reason for this caveat is that I am now about to explain that the Kidneys themselves, are actually the root of both Yin and Yang in the body.

This is because in Chinese Medicine the main function of the Kidneys is to store and control the ‘essence of life’ which is known as Jing. There are two types of Jing: Heavenly Jing – which is bestowed upon us at conception by our parents and post heavenly Jing which is produced after birth. Heavenly Jing correlates to our inherited constitution, there is nothing we can do about it and in this way is much like our DNA. Post heavenly Jing however, can be effected by the usual means of healthy living, such as diet and exercise. Usually the combination of heavenly and post heavenly Jing is referred to collectively as Kidney Jing.

Within Chinese theory Kidney Jing is the foundation of all the other matter that makes up the body. As we will see shortly it is used to produce the Qi and The blood and is also the foundation of the marrow that fills the brain and spinal cord and even helps to produce the bones.

The Kidneys themselves are also the foundation of all the Yin and Yang of the entire body. Ancient Chinese texts talk about the space between the two kidneys in the lower back as being the ‘The Fire of the Gate of Vitality’. It is from this fire that Kidney Yang springs The Water nature of the Kidneys themselves, provides the Kidney Yin.

Imagine now that the Kidney Yin and Jing are ‘cooked’ in a pot over the fire of the Kidney Yang. It is this process that fuels the functioning of the whole body.

Therefore, the warm Kidney Yang from the Gate of Vitality transforms the Jing into Qi and Blood, which goes on to motivates and animated all the other organs.*

The ‘steamed’ Kidney Yin is sent up to the Lungs who are in charge of dispersing this moisture and nourishment around the rest of the body. Once the process is in motion the Kidneys also receive fluids from the rest of the body. This they separate in to pure fluids that are again sent to the Lungs and ‘turbid’ fluids that ate sent to the Bladder for disposal.

*In practice Qi production also involves the efforts of the Stomach and Spleen who process the food that we eat and the Lungs who process the Qi from the air. Its is the combination of these elements with the Jing in the Kidneys that produces the Qi of the body but the Kidneys provide the venue and the initial fuel.

The Function of the Kidneys

1. Stores Jing: Dominates conception, birth, growth, reproduction and development
As we have already discussed the Kidneys store Jing, which is used to produce Qi, blood and bones. Qi tends to cycled in the body quite quickly in a number of days, whereas the normal cycle for blood would more likely be measured in weeks. However, the cycle for Jing is much longer: 7 years in females and 8 in males. In this way it plays a controlling role in all the major long-term aspects of growth and development. The first cycle of life is all about growth and development within the child itself. At the end of this cycle children lose their milk teeth (teeth also come under the influence of the kidneys) The second cycle is pre-adolescence which ends with the onset of puberty, the next few cycles are particularly concerned with fertility, childbirth and parenting, followed by the gradual decline of Jing leading eventually to death. Therefore, we can see that the Kidneys and particularly Kidney Jing control the whole cycle of conception, birth, growth, reproduction, development, ageing and death.

2. Produces Marrow: Fills the brain and spinal cord, dominates bones and manufactures blood.
Marrow is produced from Jing and has an important role in the production of blood and bone. This is why the Kidneys are said to dominate the bones. As the marrow also fills the brain, memory and brain function fall under the influence of the Kidneys too.

3. Dominates water
The Kidneys work closely with the lungs to cycle and dispose of water in the body, but it is the Kidney Yang that provides the drive for this process so it is they that are seen to dominate water.

4. Controls the reception of Qi and receives Qi
Continuing the close relationship between the Kidneys and the Lungs the Kidneys are said to co-ordinate the inhalation of breath from which they receive atmospheric Qi.

5. Opens into the ears
The ears are shaped like a kidney and come under the Kidneys control.

6. Manifest in the hair
The health of the Kidneys is expressed through the hair. As we age and Kidney Jing diminishes hair loses its lustre turns grey and eventually fall.

7. Controls the two lower orifices
As part of the Kidneys job of dominating water it also controls the drainage of waste products through the two lower orifices of the anus and the urethra. It is Kidney Qi that opens and closes both of these sphincters. The Kidneys are also involved in the production and excretion of genital secretions such as urine, vaginal discharge and semen.

8. House the will power(Zhi)
On an emotional and spiritual level the Kidneys are said to house the aspect of the spirit that is in charge of determination and will power. This is probably because of the Kidneys critical role in producing and motivating the energies of all the other organs.

Rachel Geary

Rachel Geary BA(Hons), Lic. Ac. MBAcC is a fully qualified acupuncturist, having graduated from the College of Integrated Chinese Medicine in 2002. She has previously practised in Inverness and Barnstaple. "I first became interested in acupuncture whilst I was at university studying History and Philosophy. I was particularly drawn to eastern philosophy, which I found particularly elegant and beautiful. I then went on to complete a three and a half year course of study in acupuncture and discovered it to exemplify these very same qualities. I feel very privileged to have been able to learn so much about the Chinese understanding of health and to be able to use this knowledge to help others." Rachel Geary is a Registered Acupuncturist, she is registered at The British Acupuncture Council (BAcC), and The Association of Community and Multibed Acupuncture Clinic (ACMAC).