The kidneys are considered the source of all the vital energy or “Qi” within the body.
This is the time of year to reflect on health, replenish energy, and conserve strength. The cold and darkness of winter urges us to slow down (even in Hawaii). It is the perfect time to recharge our batteries and generate vital energy, Qi. 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.
Tao is an East Asian concept that relates to the true nature of the world. It is the universal force that generates and propels everything in it, yin, yang, blood, and qi. All things can be described according to their yin and yang natures, and different aspects of your body and health are in relative yin or yang states at different times of the day or different times in your life. Your internal universal harmony is maintained by an appropriate balance of yin and yang. The meridians operate in yin organ and yang organ pairs, each of which is associated with a particular element. It is the connection between qi flow, yin and yang balance, and interaction between the 5 elements which allows the Traditional Chinese Medicine practitioner to determine which meridians are in need of treatment.
According to Traditional Chinese Medicine, foods are considered one of the following: cold, cooling, neutral, warming or hot. All of these foods fall under either yin or yang. Qi, also called chi is the underlying energy in all life, our life force. Yin is the passive, negative, slow-moving, cool, relaxed representation. Yang on the other hand is active, fiery, hot, expanding and fast-moving representation. The moon is yin and the sun is yang.
Traditional Chinese Medicine Nutrition
Eat to minimize “Dampness.” Dampness is fluid where it's not supposed to be (phlegm, mucus, edema, cysts, tumors, yeasts). Dampness leads to feeling heavy, sluggish, foggy (physically and mentally); it impairs your digestive 'fire' and overall warmth and energy; and it contributes to allergies, low immunity, and chronic illnesses. Damp-causing foods include: dairy (especially cow), almost all sugars (including most fruit), wheat (sprouting helps), overly-salty food, meats and eggs, most fats and oils, yeasted breads, alcohol, food that is hard to digest (raw, cold, inadequately chewed, etc.), and refined, processed, stale or rancid food (including most commercially shelled nuts and seeds, especially peanuts). Eating excessive amounts, overly complex meals, and late at night also contribute to dampness.
In Traditional Chinese Medicine, there are not ‘good’ foods or ‘bad’ foods; there are appropriate foods for each individual and inappropriate food for a specific individual, just as there are appropriate herbs for each individual depending on what their health needs are. Like herbs, foods have different energetic qualities: warming or cooling. No one dietary guideline is going to be correct for all individuals. Raw foods tend to be cold and can damage the spleens energetic organ system. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, nutrition and food therapy is simply part of the larger system of medicine which includes acupuncture and herbal medicine. As Hippocrates says, “let food be your medicine, and medicine be your food.”
External Causes of Low Back Pain
According to Traditional Chinese Medicine, our qi and blood flow can be affected by invasion of energies from the external environment. These energies are wind, cold, dampness, heat, dryness, and summer-heat. One of the five functions of qi is to protect the body from invasion by these environmental energies. If the defensive qi is weak, environmental energy can invade the body, settling into the channels, and block the flow of qi and blood in those channels. According to some Chinese doctors, such invasion by external energies can only occur if the defensive qi is deficient. Invasion by these kinds of external energy usually involves at least two kinds of environmental energy. In other words, they do not usually invade the body singly but rather in pairs.
For instance, wind often combines with heat, cold, and/or dampness. When these energies invade the upper body, we typically come down with a cold or flu. But when they invade the low back, we may get acute low back pain.
Keep the feet warm through winter to preserve the kidney qi and yang. The body’s qi is conserved by keeping warm. Try to avoid excessive sweating from hot showers or baths because of open pores and the loss of yang qi. Hot water foot baths are recommended. Add freshly brewed ginger root tea and or turmeric root tea to the hot water foot bath. Epsom salts are also a nice addition for sore, achy joints and podiatry complaints. Keep your feet off of cold floors and avoid wearing wet shoes or flip-flops.
Avoid Excessive Lifestyles
When the kidneys are depleted due to being overworked, it can cause fatigue. However, very few people associate fatigue with depleted kidney energy and usually force their way through it. Regular and excessive coffee and alcohol consumption depletes the adrenal glands and kidneys, heat the liver, and cause over-acidity in the body.
In Qi Kung and Tai Chi practices, focus is placed on breathing and exercises that improve circulation, blood flow and keep the kidneys exercised and balanced. Preserve your kidney yin, yang, qi, and jing. Eat dark foods and soup. Avoid toxins in food and water, as well as intoxicants and heavy metals. Keep your lower back, legs, and feet warm.
Eat warmer and protect your digestive fire. In winter, it is best to cook foods longer, at lower temperatures, and using less water. These factors increase the meal's warming qualities. Making your food “warmer” and easier to digest will preserve your “digestive fire” and help you absorb more nutrients. Food is easier to digest when it is at least slightly cooked or broken down. Eat moderate amounts (until 70% full), in simple combinations (unless all cooked in the same pot like a stew or soup). Eat foods warm in temperature, and chew your food well. If you have cold signs, eat warming foods such as oats, parsnips, mustard greens, winter squash, butter, quinoa, walnuts, onion, chicken, trout and salmon. Warming spices include dried ginger, cinnamon, cloves, fenugreek seeds, fennel.
When eating for fertility according to Traditional Chinese Medicine you will want to nourish your body with foods that are warming or yang. Kidney yang deficiency happens when there is lack of exercise, poor diet (high in fat, sodium, sugar, dairy and low in fiber) and excessive consumption of cold food and drinks. For people experiencing fertility issues, there is considered to be kidney yang deficiency. Fertility imbalances are commonly a sign of kidney qi deficiency (inadequate kidney function). Yang is important for fertility because it is considered a time when the energy is rising, blossoming and fertile.
For kidney yang deficiency diets and spleen yang deficiency diets, it is best to consume fresh foods that are cooked. Food that is lightly prepared helps to ensures that nutrients are preserved and are more readily digested and absorbed. Also eating smaller meals more frequently and enjoying meals by sitting down to relax while you eat and chewing thoroughly to savor flavors is recommended. Kidney yang is responsible for the power to fuel every other function in the body. Yang makes things move. Yang warms the limbs. Yang warms the lower back, knees, and feet.
For those who are recovering from serious chronic illness, congees (rice soup) are a way to rebuild the health with a cereal of rice or grain combined with appropriate foods and tonic herbs. This type of therapeutic porridge is easy on the digestive system and is well assimilated for those who are weakened from chronic disease or healing from injuries or surgeries. It is very healthy to eat congee regularly for breakfast to strengthen your digestion and immunity. Cook as you would rice or grain. Buy organically grown rice and grains. Avoid aluminum and lead crock pots.
Foods To Build Kidney Yin
The kidneys are associated with the water element. Drink ample water at room temperature throughout the day. Coconut water and omega 3 rich foods build Yin and moisturize internally. Yin is the cooling, moisturizing component in the body that lubricates our eyes, nose, skin, hair, mucous membranes, digestive tract, and joints.
Treat old and new back injuries with acupuncture. If you have an old or a new back injury, be sure to get this treated and resolved as soon as possible. Long term back injuries can cause poor circulation and stagnation which affects kidney function and weakens the kidneys. Dampness leading downward from the spleen can damage both the liver and the kidneys, and we have seen above how important the liver and kidneys are to the health of the lower back.
Have a taste of each of the 5 flavors daily, but slightly more salty and bitter flavors in the winter. The 5 flavors are: sweet, salty, sour, pungent (a.k.a. acrid/ spicy), and bitter. The “sweet” flavor means the “full sweet” tastes of grains, vegetables, etc. (not empty sweets of sugars, desserts, processed sweets).
A slight increase in the salty and bitter flavors can benefit the kidney, adrenals, and the heart. Some foods with bitter tastes include: kale, turnip, celery, asparagus, burdock root, carrot top, lettuce, watercress, parsley, endive, rye, oats, quinoa, chicory root, dandelion and dandelion greens. Salty foods include seaweeds, salt, millet, barley, miso, etc. Himalayan Pink Crystal salt is good to consume moderately because of the trace mineral content.
Cold Foods and Cold Drinks Can Cause Health Problems
Over-eating raw fruits and vegetables, chilled, iced, and frozen foods and drinks, and drinking too many cold juices, are all contemporary Western causes for blood vacuity. This can cause blood stasis in the uterus due to cold congealation and be harmful to healthy menstruation if they are eaten just before or at the onset of menstruation (when they are often craved). According to Chinese medicine, the spleen is the organ in charge of digestion. It is the spleen qi which transforms and transports the food and drink ingested.
Hot water and warm water, because of its temperature, aids blood flow. As your blood circulation increases, it helps detoxify your body and reduce painful contractions of muscles. Cold water slows down organ function and causes muscles to contract. Drinking warm water helps preserve and protect the internal organs, and promotes smooth flow of blood circulation. Drinking plenty of warm water is the number one easiest and healthiest solution for children with stomach aches or constipation. Organs cannot immediately metabolize fluids that are below core body temperature. The body is forced to work harder and wastes energy in order to make cold drinks warm enough for the body to use. This energy could have been better utilized healing illness, increasing immunity, and improving digestion. In hot, tropical climates, the body’s qi flows more superficially than in those living in colder, damper climates, so it is often enough to drink body core temperature or warm water as opposed to hot water.
The Chinese have long understood the thermal nature of foods. Food as medicine is used to heal imbalances. To cool down, it is better to consume foods that have a cooling nature like watermelon or mint tea versus frozen, chilled, or iced drinks. Cold beverages are neither healthy nor cooling; in fact, they cause the stomach to create more heat in order to break the foods down, which ultimately damages the entire digestive system. Even in Western nutritional theory, cold beverages are not as cooling as room-temperature ones, because cold causes vessels to contract so that they don’t absorb the liquid.
Some people also believe that during meals, it isn’t desirable to mix hot food with cold water, as this creates an imbalance of temperature. The suggested benefits of consuming hot water do not solely originate from Traditional Chinese Medicine. Many people boil their water because they consider it a way to kill off microbes and bacteria. Hot water increases blood circulation and helps decrease complications associated with cramps and indigestion.
When we eat or drink, our stomach produces enzymes needed for digestion that can only survive in a limited temperature range in the body. When cold food or drink is ingested, our bodies have to counteract the temperature difference in order to preserve a suitable environment for these enzymes in the stomach for our digestion to function well. Everyone’s constitution is different (whether from genetics or an acquired condition), so there will be different reactions to ingesting cold substances. “Cold constitution” people have a lower body temperature and are unable to raise their stomach temperature sufficiently to counteract the cold food and drinks. For our digestion to function properly, it needs sufficient energy and heat to contract and push food through the digestive tract. Cold food and drinks will lower the stomach’s temperature which in turn slows down the digestion process and cause indigestion. If cold substances are too frequently ingested, the person will often have a poor appetite and experience weight loss. Cold affects the digestive tract by retaining food for longer periods of time to allow bacteria additional time to complete the digestion process. This can generate more gas that can cause bloating in the stomach or abdomen. Your bowels move better with warm water and lemon in the morning.
Prevent weakened kidney and spleen function by not drinking cold beverages. Room temperature or heated is better, with sipping preferred. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, excess cold fluids deplete our digestive heat. This slows digestion creating sluggish bowel movements characterized by bloating and constipation. For those with excess moisture in their system, weight loss is even more challenging. The stomach-spleen supplies the kidney with the warmth to function optimally. Cold fluids weaken our kidneys and their ability to provide warmth.
It is often heard “kidneys don’t like cold.” The kidneys, in Chinese medicine, go way beyond that of Western physiology functioning. Cold weakens the bladder causing frequent urination. Kidney imbalances affect all bone problems especially, knees, low back and teeth. Arthritis and joint pain are worsened in cold weather. Kidneys also control hearing, the entire endocrine system (including adrenal glands), and even sexual function. On emotional levels, those with kidney imbalances may experience excessive fears, insecurity, and lack of will power. Weak kidney conditions contribute to a tendency to be inactive and unproductive. Enjoy drinks at room temperature to do your body good.
Mindful eating (paying attention to tastes, textures, smells, etc. while eating) is the single best “dietary’”change we can make. Take time to enjoy your meal. Chew your food slowly and chew your food well. It is ideal to not eat standing up, driving, or stressed. Sit down to eat and have peaceful meals. Don't rush while eating, and perhaps put your fork or spoon down in between bites to practice chewing your food more thoroughly. These practices strengthen the spleen and stomach from a Chinese medicine perspective. Eating breakfast daily with cooked food to stimulate your digestive fire is very important. This helps build strong qi & blood. Raw foods like salads, raw produce, and chilled smoothies are more easily digested during the most yang time of the day which is 12 p.m. noon. It is important to eat cooked vegetables at breakfast and dinner. Cooked vegetables build digestive strength and fire from their warm nature. Eat cooked vegetables at breakfast to strengthen digestion and eat cooked vegetables at dinner time to help keep kidney yang strong. The kidney time is 5-7 p.m. on the Traditional Chinese Medicine meridian clock.
Chinese medicine places great importance on diet, especially on cooked as opposed to raw food. Cooking makes the nutrients in foods more easily assimilated, resulting in a greater net gain. Our diet should consist of warm foods. Drinking too much liquid and especially cold liquids with meals can cause stagnant qi. There are also certain foods which should be eaten in great moderation. Sugar weakens the spleen and therefore the healthy creation of qi and blood. Honey, molasses and maple syrup create dampness and hinder spleen function. People with liver depression and qi stagnation tend to crave the sweet flavor. Other foods that can create dampness are nuts, oils, and fats, chocolate, beef and pork, dairy products, fruits, eggs, and citrus fruits, pineapples, pears. Alcohol is also dampening.
The Relationship Between Meridians, Elements, and Yin Yang Organ Pairs
Lung, Large Intestine (Metal Element)
Stomach, Spleen (Earth Element)
Heart, Small Intestine, Pericardium, Triple Warmer (Fire Element)
Kidney, Urinary Bladder (Water Element)
Liver, Gall Bladder (Wood Element)
Lower Back Health and the Kidney Relationship in Traditional Chinese Medicine
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