As we’re nearing the end of winter, are you finding it more and more difficult to keep pushing for the things you want in life? Maybe you’re just tired of working so hard for so long, or maybe some symptoms and thoughts are trying to get the best of you. You’re not alone - many people struggle to operate during the dark, short days of winter. This is largely due to a societal pressure to do things which tax the Kidney organ system, without taking time to rejuvenate the energies of this winter-time official upon which we depend so heavily.
In Chinese medicine theory, Kidney (腎) plays many roles on the levels of body, mind, and spirit. Like with some of the other organs we’ve discussed, it’s important to remember that the channel and organ we call “Kidney” in Chinese medicine is not limited to the functions and locations associated with it in the Western/Allopathic model of medicine. Though the same name is used when we translate to English, the etymology for the Chinese character 腎 refers to the reproductive glands! Regardless of what we call it, the theory the ancient practitioners of acupuncture developed still holds utility in practice.
The Kidney is associated with fear, genetic material, the bones, the marrow (of the bones, yes, and this Chinese-medicine substance also refers to the material that makes up the brain and spinal fluid - fun fact, the brain is called the “sea of marrow” in Chinese medicine!), head hair, and the ears. One role of the Kidney is to grasp the energy the Lung takes in through breath and to root it into the body - so, when people with asthma struggle to breathe in, the Kidney may actually be implicated even more than the Lung.
Through its association with the gonads, the Kidney is also responsible for much of reproductive health, and many concerns such as menstrual irregularity, impotence, and infertility are addressed through points found on the Kidney channel. The Kidney stores and (together with the Bladder) rations out an important substance known as Jing. There are three types of Jing - pre-heavenly Jing which we obtain from our parents (it cannot be replenished), post-heavenly Jing which we replenish when our expenditure of Qi is less than our intake of food and rest (this is key: post-heavenly Jing is used up when our expenditure of Qi is greater than our intake of food and rest. This is a common cause of illness), and Kidney-Jing, which is a combination of mostly post-heavenly and a little bit of pre-heavenly Jing that is actually usable. Pre-heavenly Jing, determines much about our health and our life-span. When we squander this type of Jing, we damage every system the Kidney is responsible for, and hinder every system that interacts with the Kidney (including bones, emotions, head-hair, fertility, urination, metabolism, breathing, and more). So, rest and healthful diet are key aspects of Kidney and Jing health that allow us to live healthier, longer lives, and to propagate our genes should we choose to do so.
Housed within the Kidney is the facet of the spirit called Zhi, that aspect of our being which desires existence and possess the will to persist in the face of struggle. This is what the ancients connected so deeply with during the winter time - in order to survive a harsh winter in times before indoor heating and plumbing (and microwave dinners and fast food…) it took a great deal of persistence to survive a winter. A person had to prepare months in advance to ensure they had enough resources to make it through the winter, and they needed to possess a strength of determination that would allow them to persist even when the going got tough. During the winter, the outside world would have been difficult to navigate, and the farmers would not have been able to do any work in the frozen ground. They would be required to stay inside, tend to their stores, and tend to themselves if they were to make it through the winter.
Contrast this to how we behave in winter today. We continue to work hard, work out harder (especially if you’ve got a new years resolution), and generally exhaust ourselves during this time of low energy and cold weather. I personally find that by February, I’m struggling to get up in the morning and my outlook is bleak. To nourish your Kidney, slow down a little, leave a little breathing room in your schedule, try eating bone broth, seaweed, shellfish, and sesame seeds. Be forgiving with yourself if you don’t have as much energy as usual. Don’t take on any more than you must do.
An interesting topic associated with the Will of the Kidney is the role of the Kidney in mental health concerns, especially suicidal ideation. When we experience a lack of joy for a prolonged period of time, this could be stemming from or impairing the functioning of the Kidney - the Kidney is responsible for raising the necessary warmth for the Heart to experience the full range of emotion. When the Kidney gets “burned out,” we struggle to keep the flame lit, as we are lacking the necessary fuel. Nourishing the connection between the Heart and the Kidney is essential in most cases with mental health concerns. In my personal experience, this can be quite effective in conjunction with allopathic and psychological care.