In Traditional Chinese Medicine TCM, the organ that corresponds to the season of winter is the kidneys. The paired kidneys are part of the urinary tract. The urinary tract also consists of ureters, the bladder & the urethra, connecting the bladder to the outside.
From both a Chinese Medicine and naturopathic perspective there are dietary, lifestyle, supplement & herbal medicine advice that will address the causes of urinary tract disease & alleviate the symptoms. Winter is the time to focus some attention on an often underrated organ, or actually two organs, the kidneys.
Functions of the kidney
The major function of the kidneys and urinary tract are to transport waste products for disposal, kind of like the toilet and bath draining into the sewer or septic. The kidneys eliminate excess water, ammonia and urea, bilirubin, uric acid, some bacterial toxins, hydrogen and other ions, some heat and carbon dioxide are also lost through the kidney.
The kidneys eliminate ammonia and urea, both toxic nitrogen containing compounds derived from the breakdown of protein, bilyrubin from the breakdown of red blood cells, uric acid from the breakdown of nucleic acids i.e RNA and DNA and waste carbon dioxide from breathing. Besides waste management, the kidneys also;
- Regulate the amount of blood
- Regulate the blood pH ie Acid to alkaline balance. Normal range is 7.35 – 7.45
- Regulate blood pressure (BP) by secreting a hormone called renin that, with the help of the liver, lungs and arterial walls normalises blood pressure.
- Contributes to metabolism. The kidney converts the vitamin D we get from the sun to its active form calcitriol, which helps calcium absorption from the small intestine. The kidney also secretes another hormone, erythropoietin, which stimulates the production of red blood cells and even makes glucose (gluconeogenesis) when we need it. So as you can see, the kidneys are much more than just about wee.
When things go wrong
Common disorders of the urinary tract are urinary tract infection including urethritis, inflammation of the urethra, cystitis, inflammation of the bladder or pyelonephritis, inflammation of the kidney itself. Other diseases affecting the kidney are glomerulonephritis (Bright’s disease), nephrotic syndrome, kidney failure, polycystic kidney disease and diabetes insipidus. The last is a type of diabetes is due to a defect in production of anti-diuretic hormone, leading to increased thirst and urine.
Kidney weakness can also manifest as bed-wetting and weak bladder. Apparently 1/3 women suffer from urinary incontinence after childbirth. Incontinence is a symptom of weak pelvic floor and a weak bladder. Strengthening the kidneys can treat bed-wetting and incontinence.
Healthy bladder habits should be no more that once every 2-3 hours during the day and not at night. Urine should be very light yellow. It is normal to have darker urine in the morning.
Symptoms to cause concern
Burning or painful urination, increased frequency and urgency to urinate, lower back pain or kidney pain accompanied with fever requires immediate attention. The kidneys sit just above where you place your hands on your waist in your back. There can also be a discolouration of urine due to the presence of blood and pus. The urine can also have a strong odour. Get to a doctor or naturopath and have your urine tested ASAP.
Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and the kidney
Winter is the season belonging to the kidney in Chinese medicine. Our energy is not set in stone. Just as the moon affects the ebb and flow of the tide, our energy is also affected by nature. We are but a microcosm in the macrocosm of the universe. In winter, just as the energy of the tree goes into the roots, so to does the energy of our bodies. The kidneys are the roots of the body. If we use this time to strengthen the kidneys, then our leaves and fruit will be strong also.
Jing is the Thing
The kidneys in Chinese medicine have a very important function in that they are the source of your constitutional strength. Some people are born with a better constitution. That is, they are much more able to bounce back after illness. This strength is called kidney Jing. The Jing is the thing, and the kidneys store it.
Kidney Jing is both pre-natal and post-natal. Pre-natal kidney Jing governs growth and development and sex and reproduction. Congenital abnormalities, retardation and speech difficulties are because of kidney Jing deficiency. Sexual dysfunction and infertility are can also be viewed as kidney Jing deficiency. The testicles are called the palace of semen and sperm is pure Jing.
Post-natal Jing in TCM governs the life cycle itself. Jing naturally declines with age. It can be likened to our metabolism. Our metabolism also slows with age. Ageing, grey hair and tooth loss are due to Jing deficiency. Kidney Jing nourishes the brain and spinal cord, bones and bone marrow. Deficient Jing can lead to senile dementia or poor memory and concentration. Thinning of the bones is also because of kidney weakness.
The kidneys govern water in the body
Water is yin in nature and cools the body. Not enough of it can cause an excess in fire or yang causing symptoms such as sweaty palms, feet and chest, red face, red skin conditions, hypertension, headaches, migraines, stroke and epilepsy. Excess or deficient water can lead to either too much urine or not enough. Night-time urination is a sign of kidney weakness. Bed wetting in children is easily treated with herbs, diet and moxa.
Kidney Yang makes everything possible
Kidney Yang is responsible for the power to fuel every other function in the body. Yang makes things move. Yang warms the limbs. The Chinese love snake wine as a tonic to improve their love life, this is because snake tonifies kidney yang and the kidney yang is responsible for the erection.
The Kidneys grasp Qi
The Kidneys grasp Qi as it comes into the body. Weak Kidney Qi can be one cause of asthma. They are also responsible for the health of the lower back, knees, hair and ears. Thick hair is a sign of strong Kidneys and hair loss and baldness is from Kidney Jing deficiency.
In TCM the Kidney has a lot more functions that waste water. Basically, in TCM strong Kidneys mean strong vitality, abundant fertility, a great sex life, optimum brain power, strong lower back and knees, strong will power, strong bladder and bowel control, healthy hair and good hearing. Sound good?
TCM Approach Chinese herbs can tonify Kidney Jing, Kidney Yin or Kidney Yang deficiency. Moxibustion is best for warming the kidney yang and herbs will strengthen the stomach so the body may produce more yin.
Jing tonics include the following;
Black is the colour of the kidney. Black circles under the eyes or as us naturopaths call them, “allergic shiners” are an indication of kidney involvement and the allergy stressing the adrenal glands. Eat black-eyed beans, black beans, black soybeans and black sesame seeds, dark seaweeds.
Walnut, shaped like brains and kidneys are good for both. Grind a paste of walnuts and black sesame seeds. Keep this in the fridge and have a tsp, three times a day. Kidney beans of course are good for your kidneys. Eating kidney is good for your kidneys. Make a home made steak and kidney pie (I mean pastry and all) Cold foods and liquids weaken the kidneys. The kidneys hate cold.
Herbal Medicine to Tonify the Kidneys
Rheummania / Sheng di huang 生地黄 Rehmannia glutinosa, Polygonum / He Shou Wu 何首烏Polygonium multiflorum, Shisandra /Wu Wei Zi 五味子 Schisandra chinensis, Zizyphus / Suan zao ren 酸枣仁汤 Zizyphus spinosa, Dong Quai / Dang gui 當歸Angelica chinensis, Astragalus / Huang Qi黃耆Astragalus membranaceus
- Prevent premature ageing
- Tinnitus/ ear disease
- Sore lower back & knees
- Weak bladder
- Memory loss
- Adrenal exhaustion
Carahealth Anti-ageing tonic contains herbs that have anti-oxidant, anti-aging, anti-fatigue and anti-inflammatory effects. These herbs tonify the nervous system, endocrine system and cardiovascular system by lowering cholesterol, widening coronary arteries and boosting blood flow to the heart. The herbs protect the liver, tone up the main internal organs, settle nerves, improve eyesight and reduce blood sugar levels to prevent diabetes. Rich in antioxidants, the herbs improve the immune system, slow down the process of cell ageing and are anticancer. The tonic nourishes vitality, reduces excess heat, detoxifies the body, calms the mind and improves mental agility. This tincture is indicated for either Kidney Yin or Yang or Jing deficiency, just as walnuts are said to tonify kidney yin and yang simultaneously.
- Drink 6-8 glasses of filtered water a day. Cold water weakens the kidneys. Cold drinks will cause a child to bed wet. Bacteria can be washed off the shiny bladder walls. This is a natural defence mechanism. Please do not use plastic to filter your water or buy water in plastic bottles. Plastic contains endocrine disrupting and cancer promoting BPA. Try a Carahealth Eco Gravity Water Filter
- Next time you have corn, throw the corn silk in a teapot and have tea. Alternatively use them in a stock. Corn silk is healing and anti-inflammatory to the urinary tract
- Barley broths. Barley is a urinary tract demulcent and soothes the urinary tract.
- Caffeine is a bladder irritant. Keep away.
- Remember your grandmother told you. Wear appropriate clothing to avoid getting a chill in the kidneys.
- Running around with no shoes on in cold weather weakens the kidneys. There is a acupuncture point on the bottom of the foot called kidney 1 and cold can transmit directly to your kidneys. Acupuncturists transmit heat into the body wiith moxa to warm kidney yang.
- Personal hygiene is important as bacteria can rise up the urinary system. Wipe from front to back.
- Treat you sexual partner. If you have thrush or chronic cystitis your partner also needs treating. Interestingly, nuns have 1/10 the incidence of cystitis.
- Avoid getting “p****d off’ and stop saying that things p**s you off
- Avoid jealousy. In Chinese terms, cystitis develops after a large dose of the green eyed monster. Stop keeping up with the Jones and be yourself.