Welcome to this month’s edition of The Meridian Series where we explore the unique properties of each acupuncture channel in East Asian Medicine plus the roles they play in our physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being. If you are new to this series, or have not heard about the meridians before, here is a little background before we dive into our next featured channel: The Kidney Meridian.
What Are the Meridians?
In East Asian Medicine, there are twelve main acupuncture meridians (also known as “channels”) that carry energy aka Qi (pronounced “chee”) and blood to provide nourishment throughout the body. In a healthy person, the flow of these vital substances are freely moving in a state of dynamic equilibrium. However, when the flow of qi or blood becomes blocked in one or more of these channels from emotional stress, an injury, or illness — pain and other symptoms of disharmony manifest in the body.
Each meridian is associated with an organ system as well as a host of other natural phenomena since the foundations of East Asian Medicine were created on the basis of observing the human body as a microcosm of nature—from the elements (Metal, Air, Water, Fire, Earth), climate, shift of seasons and more. After all, we are just as dynamic as these cosmic changes: our internal systems have their own rhythms and are always shifting towards homeostasis.
As we transition from Fall into Winter (ie. Metal to Water season), our body’s inclination is to attune to its own Water element which is embodied by the kidneys.
As a preview, here are the key associations for the Kidney Meridian:
- Yin Organ: Kidneys
- Yang Organ Pair: Urinary Bladder
- Kidney Time: 5:00 – 7:00 PM
- Climate: Cold
- Element: Water
- Color: Black
- Flavor: Salty
- Emotions: Fear
- Tissues: Hair, Bones, Teeth, Brain, Marrow
As you will read, understanding the associations of this organ system can empower you to safeguard it as Winter approaches and reap benefits to your physical, emotional, and energetic well-being year-round.
In nature, Yin embodies all that is cold, dark, hidden, reflective, and directed inward. Knowing this, it makes sense why East Asian Medicine considers Winter the most “Yin” time of the year: the daylight is shorter, the temperature is frigid, and nature’s disposition is dormant, nudging us to go within and conserve our resources. These energetics are echoed in the kidney system too: like the body’s most precious batteries, it’s wise to be mindful of how much Kidney Qi one uses (especially during the Winter) since there’s a limit to how much energy can be expended until weakness and unintended health consequences set in.
In East Asian Medicine, rather than dipping into our reserves of Kidney Qi during the Winter (which can be hard given the holiday rush and cultural preoccupation with productivity to the point of burnout), Winter is a time to protect and cultivate our Qi instead so we have the capacity to allow for sustainable action and growth come the Spring/Summer.
Although the kidneys “rule” the Winter, in East Asian Medicine, this means they are actually the most vulnerable during this time of year. Aside from other lifestyle factors to be discussed, protecting the kidneys from the cold becomes imperative. Both chronic exposure to the cold and ingestion of cold/damp foods/drinks weaken this system, inhibiting the free flow of vital substances along its meridian.
The kidney channel begins under the pinky toe and crosses the ball of the foot where its first point can be located before circling behind the medial ankle. It then rises along the medial aspect of the legs, travels interior to the sacrum and kidneys before emerging over the pubic bone and finally ascending the abdomen to terminate at the clavicle.
The Kidney’s Roles
On a physical level, the kidneys are responsible for our physical growth, intellect, mental maturity, as well as aging which is why their energy manifests in such integral developmental tissues from the bones and brain to the teeth and hair.
Although the adrenal and thyroid glands were not recognized in ancient China by those names, their functions are inherently included in the kidney’s domain which is why they influence one’s stress response, energy levels, metabolism, and temperature regulation.
As the source of life, the strength of the kidneys reveal itself in one’s libido, fertility, and overall reproduction. On a metaphysical level, this is reflected in the kidney’s designation as the Life Gate, the sacral root which houses our inherited Essence called “Jing.”
Jing is passed down from not just parents but one’s ancestors, imbuing a person not just with familial physical traits but the stories, wounds, and behavioral inclinations of those who came before them. Generational memory and trauma is said to be stored in the bones (specifically the bone marrow), the tissues of the kidneys.
The quality and abundance of Jing passed down inevitably shapes one’s constitution from their immune system and genetics to their mental health and resilience to emotional stressors as they age.
To put all of this into perspective, when someone has strong Kidney Qi & Essence, this will reveal itself in a couple of tell-tale ways. They will possess:
- Normal physical and internal physiological development
- Age-appropriate mental maturity and intellect
- Strong, relatively white teeth (cosmetic replacements do not count)
- Adequate hair coverage which retains its color until older-age
- Emotional resilience to stress (ie. a regulated nervous system)
- Robust metabolism and temperature regulation
- Normal libido; fertility and virility evident
- Normal urination and thirst levels
The Kidneys & Fear
The kidneys are responsible for storing and processing fear in the body.
Although not anatomically recognized when Chinese Medicine originated, the adrenal glands are inherently included in the kidney system and share a role in processing fear as well. Together, they connect our brain to our instincts and intuition, dictating our hormonal rhythms and response to stress, threats, shock, and trauma. From an allopathic perspective, they control the release of cortisol and your body’s Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal (HPA) axis: the pathway that regulates your body’s sympathetic “fight or flight” response.
When your Kidney Qi is abundant, you’ll have a healthy sense of self, direction, and optimism to pursue your goals while feeling somewhat undaunted.
You can take on the demands of the day with ease while making deliberate choices in what (and who) you give your energy to.
When the Kidney Qi is weakened, fear can become debilitating and take the forms of procrastination, depression, and apathy.
Willpower: The Spirit of the Kidneys
Just like how every organ is connected to a specific emotion, each of the Six Yin organs in East Asian Medicine contains a Spirit which influences our personality and behavior.
The Spirit of the Kidneys is called the Zhi or “The Will.” It’s your willpower.
The Zhi embodies the spirit of resilience and perseverance. It gives you the grit to overcome obstacles and pursue our highest potential. Given how fear rules the kidneys/adrenals when imbalanced, the Zhi know how to transmute this fear into wisdom. When you look back on your life, can you recall a time where fear of the unknown turned into wisdom from experience? That’s your Will guiding you from behind the scenes.
A healthy Zhi invites us to faithfully wade into the unknown, take the reins of circumstance, and tread diligently to the other side. It offers one the realization of their power to be the conscious co-creator of their life.
A “vexed “ Zhi may look like: restlessness, a desire to run away from life, a vague or debilitating existential fear or a resistance to the cycles of life of a situation ~ like aging, transitions, or death, and depression. When untethered, the Zhi can make a person “act out” from a lack of healthy fear, resulting in reckless behavior with excessive risk-taking.
What Weakens the Kidneys
As you have read, given the kidney’s embodiment of the Water Element, they represent our body’s deepest well: a reservoir we too often take from but forget to replenish. Of course Kidney Qi and Essence naturally decline as we age, however, there are environmental and lifestyle factors that can deplete it sooner than later such as:
- Sleep deprivation & night-shift lifestyles
- Prolonged physical & mental work (without rest)
- Chronic cold exposure
- Unmanaged stress
- Trauma & chronic fear
- Poor diet leading to nutrient deficiencies
- Substance abuse & addiction (stimulants like coffee included)
- Chronic illness
Indications of a Disharmony
As you can imagine, when a kidney deficiency is present, this can manifest in a few distinct ways depending on the vital substance that is lacking. Read on below to see what these distinctions look like:
Kidney Qi Deficiency
Translation: You have a mild depletion in Kidney Qi. This is one of the earlier, less chronic patterns I see where the kidney’s ability to hold, store, and filter is compromised.Here are some of the most common symptoms of this pattern:
- Tinnitus (ear-ringing)
- Decrease in hearing
- Weakness in low back
- Low back pain that is dull/sore in nature
- Back pain worse with exertion
- Chronic fatigue
- Low libido
- Nocturia (bed-wetting in the evening)
- Mild anxiety
- Takes a longer time than normal to recover from illness
- Frequent illness
Kidney Yang Deficiency
Translation: You have lower reserves of “Yang” energy that warms, moves, and promotes the functions of other organs. As a result, you will notice ‘cold signs’ and conditions where poor circulation, slowed metabolic and mental processes, plus a lack of ‘holding’ is apparent:
- Extreme sensitivity to cold
- Feeling cold constantly (despite attempts to layer/warm up)
- Cold feet
- Cold/sharp pain sensations in low back
- Weakness in knees and back
- Feeling withdrawn
- Sluggish metabolism
- Weight gain
- Loose stools
- Urinary incontinence
- Low libido
- Impotence and spontaneous ejaculation in men
- Amenorrhea (loss of menstrual cycle)
- Fertility issues in women
Kidney Yin Deficiency
Translation: You have lower reserves of “Yin” energy that is responsible for cooling, anchoring, and moisturizing the body’s tissues and other organs. This manifests in ‘heat signs’ and conditions where dryness, malnourishment, and a ‘rising’ dynamic is evident:
- Dry mouth or throat (especially at night)
- Always thirsty
- Night sweats
- Restless sleep
- Feelings of heat in chest/palms/feet
- Dark urine
- Tinnitus (ear ringing)
- Declining muscle mass (thin body type)
- Stiffness in joints/muscles
- Chronic low back soreness
- Panic attacks
- Hair falls out easily
- Premature ejaculation (for men)
- Recurrent UTIs, vaginal dryness, infertility; menopause-related hot flashes and mood swings (for women)
Kidney Essence Deficiency
Translation: You have significantly lower reserves of Kidney “Essential Qi” and Jing, possibly from birth, a combination of lifestyle habits that ‘used up’ your reserves, or just because you might be older in age. When a Jing deficiency is apparent, conditions that affect aging, fertility, the bones, teeth, and the brain/mental functioning are apparent:
- Physical disabilities (especially in the bone-level)
- Slow recovery from injuries and illness
- Cognitive/learning disabilities
- Delayed growth/puberty
- Accelerated aging (looking older than you are)
- Premature hair loss
- Hair graying
- Severe forgetfulness/memory loss
- Infertility (with specific regard to low ovarian reserve, poor egg/sperm quality)
Ways to Support the Kidneys
For ideas on how you can support this system holistically, consider these tips below…
1. Keep Your Feet Warm: The kidney channel begins on the sole of the foot, so warm feet will prevent cold from moving up the channel and affecting the kidneys themselves. Anytime I see cold feet in practice, I know the kidneys are involved and can use some strengthening. Warm feet are especially ideal when trying to support fertility when a Kidney Yang deficiency is present.
2. Consume Kidney-Nourishing Foods:
- Black & dark-colored: Blackberries, Cherries, Black & Kidney Beans, Squid Ink Pasta
- Micro-Algae: Spirulina, Seaweed, Nori, Chlorella
- Greens: Escarole, Endive, Bok Choy
- Root Vegetables: Sweet Potato, Turnip, Beets
- Whole Grains: Oats, Barley, Amaranth
- Nuts: Water Chestnut, Walnut
- Broths: Bone Broth or Veggie/Mushroom Broths
3. Assess the Role Fear Plays in Your Life:
Unlike its bad rep, fear is actually a normal and healthy emotion — it protects us. It is when we try to ignore our fears that they tend to fester or keep us from having the willpower to make basic decisions, paralyzing one from moving forward in life. Not all fears can be rationalized though, and I encourage my patients struggling with deep-seated ones to work with a therapist in addition to processing it somatically through acupuncture.
If you know that fear holds too much power over your life, try sitting with it. Allowing yourself to feel your fear gives it less power over you — as uncomfortable as it might be to let your mind wander there, it can feel liberating. When each fear crops up, sort through it: see what your fear is trying to protect you from vs. what is worth stepping outside your comfort zone for.
4. Book Recommendations:
While the above suggestion is available to you, here are two of my favorite reads for navigating fear and attuning to the energetics of the kidneys: Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert and Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times by Katherine May.
5. Acupressure for Grounding:
The kidney channel starts at the base of the foot, in a point called Yongquan — Gushing Spring. This is a great point for strengthening the kidneys (adrenals too) plus as the lowest point on the body, it has a powerful descending and grounding effect.
- Use It For: anxiety, insomnia, vertex headaches, hypertension, nausea, hot flashes, poor memory, and disorders of the throat/tongue (inability to swallow, loss of voice).
- To Find It: feel for a tender depression on the bottom of your foot, between your second and third toe. This point is at the base of the ball of your foot, just before the arch.
- To Activate: press this point for 30-60 seconds as needed during the day, such as if you experience a drop in energy during the early evening hours (like 5-7pm—the kidney’s time), or if you feel like you can’t ‘get out of your own head,’ this is a good point to help you feel settled. Press to your comfort level, but it should feel a little tender. This point is contraindicated during pregnancy.
Dr. Lauren Favreau is the Founder of Rune Acupuncture in New Gloucester, Maine where her approach to care can best be described as a merging of medicine and mysticism. Dr. Favreau addresses her client’s needs with a holistic and integrative approach. Her specialty lies in offering Acupuncture for emotional health and pain management, guiding patients towards a state where the body and mind are re-integrated, allowing one to reclaim the essence of who they are, as well as a more harmonized state of health. Book a session with Dr. Lauren through Rune Acupuncture or follow her on the ’gram for daily inspiration and wisdom.