The Kidneys and Bladder in Chinese Medicine
In traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), all of the organs have a crucial role to play in maintaining health. However, the Kidneys are especially important, along with their partner the Bladder.
The reason for this is that the Kidneys are the source of all yin and yang, meaning that their health underpins the health of the entire body. Kidney-yin provides cooling nourishment for all of the other organs, while Kidney-yang provides the warmth they need to function properly.
Because of their relationship with yin and yang, the Kidneys are also seen as a source of water and fire in the body. The Kidneys and Bladder are governed by the water element, and their functions have an obvious link with fluids in general.
The Kidneys are also home to what is known as the ming men, or ‘gate of vitality.’ The ming men generates the ‘fire’ or energy needed for all of our physiological processes.
In this article we will explore the TCM functions of the Kidneys and Bladder, how to spot an imbalance, and how to take care of these two incredible organs.
The Functions of the Kidneys
1. Storing Essence and Governing Birth, Growth, Development, and Reproduction
One of the most important functions of the Kidneys is that they store what is known as essence, or jing in Chinese. This is a substance which is partly inherited from our parents, and partly influenced by the dietary and lifestyle choices that we make.
Essence is vital to our health as we go through life. It determines the strength of our constitution and resistance to disease, and plays a role in growth, development, reproduction, and the aging process.
Children with deficient essence may be slow to develop, and adults with this condition may suffer from infertility, sexual dysfunction, or premature aging.
It is normal for essence to decline as you get older, and this is what leads to graying hair, deafness, and falling teeth. If these signs of aging happen too soon, it could be a sign of essence deficiency.2. Producing Marrow and Filling the Brain
In TCM, the Kidneys are seen as being responsible for producing marrow. Although it is not exactly the same as bone marrow, this substance does have a role in keeping the bones and teeth healthy and strong.
However, in TCM, marrow has the additional function of filling the brain and spinal cord, and for this reason the Kidneys are involved in intelligence, memory, and concentration.3. Governing Water
The function of governing water is very similar to the function of the kidneys in western medicine. In this sense, the Kidneys work closely with the Bladder and act as a gate which opens and closes to allow urination to happen.
The Kidneys also work closely with the Small Intestine, Lungs, and Spleen, all of which have a role in the transformation and circulation of fluids in the body.4. Controlling the Receiving of Qi
The Kidneys also work closely with the Lungs to assist them in their function of receiving qi from the air we breathe.
The Lungs are responsible for taking in qi from air and sending it downward to the rest of the body. The Kidneys are responsible for ‘grasping’ the qi and holding it down. If the Kidneys are unable to do this, qi flows back up to the Lungs to cause coughing or breathing problems. Therefore, conditions such as asthma may be due to a weakness of the Kidneys as well as the Lungs.5. Opening into the Ears
In TCM, each organ controls a sense organ, and in the Kidney’s case, this is the ears. For this reason, the ears are easily affected by Kidney imbalances which can cause deafness, tinnitus, and other symptoms such as vertigo.6. Nourishing the Hair
The Kidneys nourish the hair of the head, making it thick and shiny. When the Kidneys are imbalanced, the hair may become dull, dry, brittle, and thin.7. Controlling the Orifices
The Kidneys control the urethra and the anus, meaning that they are responsible for urination and defecation alike. A Kidney imbalance could result in symptoms such as incontinence, loose stools, or diarrhea.8. Housing Willpower
Each organ is responsible for a different aspect of the spirit, and the Kidneys house willpower, known as zhi in Chinese.
The Kidneys are governed by water, and just as a river flows persistently, eroding everything in its path, the Kidneys provide your drive and motivation, allowing you to achieve your goals in life.
If your Kidneys become deficient, you may experience a lack of willpower or find that you are generally lacking in energy or motivation.
Kidney Symptoms in Chinese Medicine
The Kidneys have a wide and varied role in the body. Therefore, the range of symptoms that can accompany a Kidney imbalance is extremely varied too. Some of the most common Kidney symptoms include:
- Lower back pain
- Aching knees
- Poor memory
- Lack of motivation
- Low libido
- Sexual dysfunction
- Loose stools
- Slow development in children
- Premature aging
On an emotional level, the Kidneys are associated with fear, so symptoms such as anxiety or phobias may stem from a Kidney imbalance.
The Functions of the Bladder in Chinese Medicine
The functions of the Bladder are very similar in TCM and western medicine. This organ’s primary role is to store and excrete urine in both of these systems of medicine.
In TCM terms, the Bladder has a close relationship with the Kidneys and Small Intestine, as both of these organs also have a role in preparing excess fluids to be excreted from the body.
Bladder Symptoms in Chinese Medicine
Unsurprisingly, most Bladder symptoms relate to its crucial role in urination. Some of the most common signs of a Bladder imbalance include:
- Frequent urination
- Urgent urination
- Painful urination
- Difficult urination
- Frequent UTIs
- Lower back pain
Caring for Your Kidneys and Bladder
Because of their role in so many different aspects of health, it is essential that you take proper care of your Kidneys and Bladder. This is especially true for your Kidneys as they are responsible for maintaining your health and vitality as you grow older.
Because of their link with yin and yang, one of the most effective ways to take care of your Kidneys is by creating a good balance between rest and activity. Good quality relaxation and sleep are both vital for nourishing your yin, while physical exercise can help to build up your yang. If you are lacking in either one of these, your yin or yang could become deficient, leading to various health issues throughout your body and mind.
Exercises which are thought to be especially beneficial include tai chi and qi gong. These ancient Chinese practices are designed to gently exercise the body, while bringing calming stillness to the mind. Although it is not strictly a TCM practice, yoga could be seen as working in a similar way.
Another area where balance is key is sexual activity. In TCM, excessive sex is seen as depleting the Kidney’s essence and can lead to problems with sexual function or fertility. Equally, a moderate amount of sex could be seen as benefitting Kidney-yang and keeping the fire of the Kidneys burning.
Diet and lifestyle are also important when it comes to maintaining essence. Although it is in part genetic, the quality and quantity of your essence also depends on how well you eat and look after yourself. Eating a balanced diet based on foods which are local and in season is a great way to boost your essence, while smoking, drinking, and recreational drugs all have a negative effect.
Another habit which can damage your Kidneys is not wrapping up warm enough in the winter. The Kidneys are badly affected by cold, and need to be protected carefully. Ensure that you wear enough layers in cold weather, and avoid short sweaters that do not fully cover your lower back. Some people find that wrapping a scarf around their waist helps with Kidney problems, especially back pain or infertility due to cold.
Finally, you can try and improve the health of your Kidneys and Bladder using acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine. There are many different acupuncture points and herbs which benefit these organs directly and help them to perform their many functions optimally. Contact your local provider to learn more.