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Kidney Qi and the Water Element

Posted by Ryan Wade on Nov 25, 2015

medicine forest

Understanding the Fundamentals

Kidney deficiency might be best described in our common language as premature aging—but it’s much more than that. Here, I hope to illuminate this often mentioned Chinese Medicine diagnosis. To do so, we are going to take it from the basic to the complex, using a building block approach.

When talking about the different organs in Chinese medicine, first we have to explain the Five Elements, since certain organs have their respective element. The Five Elements in Chinese Medicine are: Fire, Earth, Metal, Water, and Wood. These five elements correspond with the five seasons: Fire and Summer, Earth and Harvest, Metal and Fall, Water and Winter, and Wood and Spring. Then, there are the corresponding organs:

The Five Elements: Seasons and Organs

The Five Elements

Fire – Summer – Heart & Small Intestine

Earth – Harvest – Spleen & Stomach

Metal – Fall – Lung & Large Intestine

Water – Winter – Kidney & Bladder

Wood – Spring – Liver & Gall Bladder

Here, when thinking about Kidney Disease, we are referencing the Water Element and the Winter Season. The Water Element manifests itself within the body in the following major ways:

  • Metabolism
  • Reproductive Health
  • Adrenal Health and Proper Regulation
  • Emotional Health and Maturity
  • Physical Development
  • Sexual Organ Health and Function
  • Longevity
  • Bone Strength

Of course, a person can have a balanced Water Element or a weak Water Element, which is another way of saying sufficient Kidney Qi and Kidney Deficiency. Good Kidney Qi, a strong Water Element, will show itself as:

  • A strong sense of self, calmness in oneself
  • A courageous outlook on life
  • Setting goals and accomplishing them
  • Strong immune system, strong health
  • Balanced, healthy sexual drive and reproductive functioning

Similarly, but in contrast to the above, weak Water Element, or Kidney Qi insufficiency/deficiency, might provide the following:

  • Anxiety and abnormally high fear and insecurity
  • Lack of will power
  • Poor immune health, prone to illness
  • General weakness, chronic fatigue
  • Sexual and reproductive dysfunction

As we talk about Kidney Qi, and Kidney sufficiency and Kidney deficiency, it is important to describe the physical nature, the characteristics of the Water Element—that element that is tied to the Kidney and to Winter. The Water Element is the most Yin of all the elements and has the following characteristics: it is storing (think about how the Kidney stores Qi and Jing), it is ascending and descending, it is rooting and/or anchoring, it is dense and consolidating, and it is concentrated. The Kidney is the root of life, it is our most important reservoir of energy (Qi).

The Micro and the Macro: As Above so Below

A fundamental tenet of Chinese Medicine is the concept of the microcosm and the macrocosm. In this way, the outside world (nature) is also the inside world (body, mind, spirit). They are one of the same. To this, qualities of the inside world are reflected in the outside world, and vice versa. With the Water Element, those elements that interact in the outside world are reflected within ourselves—our own bodies, minds, and spirit. Because all of our elements, all of our organs, are in constant flux, the other elements have a direct impact on our Water Element, ie, our Kidney Qi. Let’s take a quite look how how this might play out:

The Earth Element, which is associated with dampness, can create a stickiness which negatively affects the quality of our water. These fluids can mix, causing a sluggishness within the body.

The Metal Element, which is associated with dryness, can deplete water in the body.

The Fire Element, which is associated with heat, can burn off and thicken water.

The Wood Element, which is associated with wind, can invade organs that hold water (Kidney and Bladder), disrupting and inhibiting the smooth flow of Water throughout the body.

It is important here to note that in itself, no one element is “bad,” no one element is “pathological.” Chinese Medicine does not build a foundation on good and bad, on a polarized distinction like Western medicine and Western alternative medicine and thinking does. The goal is not to have an excess of the “good” elements and a deficiency of the “bad,” the goal is to have equilibrium of them—within them—all.So it is possible to say that too much heat can become pathological, but the answer is not to eliminate heat all together, the answer is, again, to find an equilibrium.

Symptoms and Signs of Kidney Qi Deficiency or a Weak Water Element

With Kidney Deficiency, mostly the signs and symptoms will focus on: urinary, sexual functioning, generalized weakness, and poor development. These can manifest as:

  • Low sex drive;
  • Low back pain and/or weakness, chronic lower back achiness;
  • Depression and melancholy;
  • Fear and lack of willpower;
  • Fatigue;
  • Premature ejaculation;
  • Urinary incontinence;
  • Spontaneous sweating;
  • Bed-wetting;
  • Insomnia;
  • Mental and physical developmental delays in children;
  • Poor memory and difficulty in thinking;
  • Dizziness;
  • Hearing loss, ear ringing (tinnitus).

As Kidney Deficiency intensifies, other symptoms might emerge, such as coldness, feelings of heat, and digestive issues.

In short, Kidney Deficiency is the result of excess—that is, burning the candle at both ends. In short, Kidney Deficiency is the result of living a life conditioned by the values of the West—that is, the American Dream. This is a life lived on credit.

Our normal daily activities require a certain amount on energy, which comes from storage (the Kidney). The storage is replenished through lifestyle, food, and air. But if we place too high of an energy demand on the storage (think coffee), then we begin to deplete those reserves. We move from using our checking account to using our savings. To use the candle analogy, every day our energy use should be enough to burn the wick and a little of the wax, but through replenishment we should be able to (mostly) regenerate that wick and wax, enough so to live a long life of relatively good health. However, should we burn that wick at too high of an intensity, we burn down the wax past the point of regeneration.

A Modern Life as the Opposition of Balance

Living a life of modernity is set up to deplete Kidney Qi and weaken Water. The stresses and demands we face, our interactions with technology, our relationship with the natural world, and our dietary and lifestyle changes all place an unusual, pathological load on our reserves. Here, we find that our deepest reserves are being diminished just to meet our daily demands, which are compounded by poor food and lifestyle choices. As the demands of life continue, we find ourselves in a downward cyclical spiral of reliance on stimulants and sleep deprivation in a grasping attempt to keep up, but which—of course—only worsens our situation.However, by simply readjusting ourselves we can begin to take back control and begin to replenish our reserves: we can turn our Kidney Deficiency into abundance and form a strong—not weak—Water element.

Doing this, however, may seem counterintuitive and damn near impossible, as our lives are arranged in such a way to demand a daily overuse of our reserves just to make ends meet. But just as we can create a monetary budget to manage our money to create safety and savings, so can we create a Qi budget to manage our Qi and create health and abundance.

This can be seen as three parted: Limiting energy demands, limiting reliance on stimulation, and replenishing our reserves. To keep Kidney Qi high and our Water Element strong, we need to focus on lifestyle choices, self care, and dietary habits.

  • Limiting energy demands. This one, in my opinion, may be the hardest to overcome, since so much of our lives are built on the notion that more is not just better, it is a fundamental requirement. Here, we need to move more towards a life of simplicity and gratitude for what we already have, and to move our wants and desires away from the shiny and new and more towards those things that money cant buy: love, community, family, and the like.
  • Limiting reliance on stimulation. We have three major sources of stimulation in our lives: food and drink (coffee, alcohol, high sugar drinks, highly refined foods), technology (smart phones, internet, much of what can be watched on a screen), constant want and desire (always thinking about what can be bought, what can be had), and sexual excess (which can be/is part of constant want and desire).
  • Replenishing our reserves. This, for me, is the fun stuff. Here we have relaxation, the internal arts (Qi Gong, meditation, Tai Qi), nutrient dense food, a reconnection with family, friends, and community, and sleep.We can include judicious use of Chinese Medicine as part of replenishment.

Let’s look at how this might play out in the day to day:

If you find yourself in a constant state of overexertion (this could be at work, with social requirements, through exercise), begin by conserving the most energy you can within these demands, then find ways to maximize that conservation. Remember, a little goes a long way, and too much of a good thing can become a bad thing. For example, exercise should be energy enhancing, if you’re finding that it is leaving you worn-out and depleted, this is a sign of excess past the point of benefit.

Self care needs to be a part of every-single-day. If you feel pressured to limit taking care of yourself because of the demands of taking care of others, it is important to remember (and practice) that taking care of yourself will only make you more valuable to others.

Many of us are caught in a negative cycle of Kidney and Water depletion, which began generations before we were born. This is illustrated through public health, where the generation of people being born today in the US actually have a lower life expectancy than their parents. This is the first time in several generations this has happened. We inherent half of our Yuan Qi and Jing from our parents, our deepest, most reserved and concentrated source of Qi. Should our parents have been deficient, that deficiency is passed onto the offspring (you and me). Today, this is called epigenetics, but it has been known and practiced for about 3000 years in Chinese Medicine.

Today, our lives only seem to be increasingly governed by a simultaneous demand for and demand on stimulation. The day just seems to get shorter while our demands just seem to grow. In this way, our modern life sounds a lot like cancer taking root in the body. By limiting growth and can actually become healthier and happier—though every commercial on TV and every billboard on the side of the road might tell you otherwise.