‘Tis the Season for the Kidney
Start your holiday balancing now
by Wendy C. Smith
Winter, which officially begins this year on Dec. 21 and ends on March 20, is the time of the kidney. In the five-element theory of Eastern medicine, the organ systems and seasons are related, and the different seasons boost different organ systems. Each season, being related to an element, has that element’s senses associated with it, including taste, color and sound. The five elements are wood, fire, earth, metal, and water. The seasons are spring (wood: liver and gallbladder), summer (fire: heart and small intestines), autumn (metal: lungs and large intestines) and winter (water: kidneys and bladder). The fifth season in Eastern medicine is late summer, which corresponds to earth and the stomach and spleen.
It’s easy to associate winter with black. The days are short, and the nights long. It might even be easy to associate kidneys and the bladder with water. It’s a longer stretch to connect the kidneys with winter without exploring all the functions of the system.
The kidneys, two fist-sized, bean shaped organs, process approximately 200 quarts of blood a day to create two quarts of waste products and extra water to make up urine. Ureter tubes transport the urine to the bladder where it is held until a bathroom break. Although the wastes come from the normal metabolism of tissue and food, without the cleansing abilities of the kidneys, the waste would build up and damage or poison the body. In Chinese medicine, the kidney and bladder are recognized for this function, but are also seen as the root and foundation of the body. The concept of kidneys in Chinese physiology goes beyond the actual organ and recognizes the kidneys as part of a whole system that includes the reproductive organs and the adrenals and governs energy, warmth, sexuality and other attributes of the body.
Spiritually, the kidney Qi, or life force, is the deepest of all the Qi and holds the reserves and the will. It is the root from which all the other systems stem as it supports and affects all the yin (female) and yang (male) energies in the entire body. The kidneys also store Jing, the deepest essence of the body and determines one’s vitality, healthiness and longevity, and shen, or spirit, which is the spark of life that allows us to live our lives fully. If the kidney health is unbalanced through illness or poor diet, for example, a person can become flat and lifeless or depressed. Physical manifestations of kidney imbalance are urinary, sexual or reproductive problems; bone ailments (the tissue of water is bone); hearing loss or ear infections (the sense of water is hearing); poor growth and development of mind and body; excessive fear, insecurity and premature aging.
In light of this, it seems like a good idea during the wintertime to support the organ and revive and renew the Qi. Kidney health is benefited through lifestyle and diet. The flavor of water is salt, so salty foods are appropriate for winter. However, the American diet is rarely lacking in salt, which can also weaken the kidneys. Reduce added salt and use naturally salty food such as miso, soy sauce, seaweeds, millet or barley for flavor. A complimentary flavor of water is bitter. This flavor provides protection for the kidneys (and the heart as well), and a few strong doses of bitter foods along the way deepen the inner experience of reflection and are said to preserve joy in the heart. A few bitter foods are chicory, cabbage, watercress, turnip, asparagus and rye. Hearing is the sense associated with water and kidneys, and the ability to listen, both to one’s inner voice and the external world, is increased in the dark, cold and silent season. Warm food enjoyed slowly with other people is healthy in winter and fortifies the kidney Qi. Cook foods longer, at lower temperatures and with less water to gain the most from them during this time.
In the Chinese cycle of creation, the kidney system is before the liver system (spring), meaning that the kidneys directly affect the liver. Since the liver is responsible for self-assertion, the power to make plans and put them into action and helping the individual make choices, the energy of the kidneys (will, life spark, inner resolve) is crucial to supporting the liver energy. Winter is dreamtime, spent reflecting and directing energy inward. Spring is the time for new life, new ideas and a path cleared by introspection.
Begin your descent to the underground now. Go inward and reflect. Prepare for the activity of spring and new purpose by re-grounding your entire body in the silence and darkness of winter. With the help of your kidneys, you can do it.