Kidney – Water

From Li Zhongzi, A Primer of Medical Objectives (Yizong Bidu), 1637:

The Classic states: ‘Whenever we treat a disease, we must approach it at the base.’ Base here means root or source. Every stream on earth has a source, and every plant has a root. If all murky sediments settle at the source, the downstream waters will naturally be clear and fresh, and if we water a root, it will grow and branches will sprout; these are the laws of nature. The experienced physician, therefore, will always consider the source.

However, the body’s source is differentiated into a prenatal and a postnatal aspect. The prenatal source is the kidney; the kidney is associated with the direction north and the phase element water-water being the first offspring, in Taoism, of heavenly Oneness. The postnatal source of the body is the spleen; the spleen is known as the Central Palace and associated with the phase element earth-earth being the mother of every living thing.

From Zhuang Yuanchen, Shujuzi: Inner Chapters (Shujuzi Neipian), Ming Dynasty:

The kidney is the ocean of the human body. Since oceans are situated on a lower level than the earth’s streams and rivers, they draw every one of them to form one large body of water. Oceans may appear vast and inexhaustible, yet they still drain off some of their seemingly unlimited supply. One way of drainage is called ‘going to ruins,’ meaning the water drains down into the earth from where it will not return. The other way of drainage is called ‘dwelling with the stars,’ meaning the water steams toward the sky and later rains down to earth again, where it dissipates into rivers and streams and eventually returns to the ocean. This is the water that circulates between heaven and earth, always striving to keep an equilibrium between the extreme states of drought and flooding.

In the context of the human body only the kidney can be compared to the workings of this natural cycle. All the essences and fluids of the body’s various pathways pour into the kidney. After the kidney has assembled the essential fluids of the body’s vessels, it also experiences two ways of drainage: one way is through the sexual urge which draws the essence downward to the sexual centers; once it exits from here it cannot come back into the system, so this is just like the ocean “going to ruins.” The other way is the upward dispersal by way of the suctioning affect of true qi, which draws the body’s combined essences all the way up to the flower pond (mouth); from here it moves down through the throat into the stomach, lubricating the five organ networks, nourishing all of the body’s pathways, and finally returning to the kidney. This is the microcosmic process of ascending and descending that can be compared to the ocean ‘dwelling with the stars.’

Those who are knowledgeable in the art of nourishing life take care to shut off the lower exit [of jing via ejaculation] while striving to keep the upper pathway [of jing, nourishing the organs and brain] open and unobstructed. In this fashion, there will be a nourishing cycle that is free of leaks. Physical vitality (jing) and mental clarity (shen) will be abundant, nutritive qi (ying) and protective qi (wei) will be strong, inside (water essence) will be sufficient to control fire, and outside (qi) will be sufficient to ward off noxious influences. This is what the art of expelling disease and the art of longevity is all about.

From Zhang Huang, A Compendium of Illustrated Texts (Tushu Bian), Ming Dynasty:

In relation to the other organ networks, the kidney is situated in the lowest position. It is associated with the phase element water, and it is in charge of storing essence (jing). Just like water was the first substance to emerge from heavenly oneness, the kidney is the source of the human body, the initial sprout of physical life.

Everything between heaven and earth that is made from qi and blood has the urge to mate. Once fire and water separate and desire finds a match, the essence leaves the source, and what creates the body will turn into what kills the body. If you are a student of the Book of Change (Yijing) and align your desires by fooling around with the lofty hexagram 41 [Sacrifice, Decrease], then this is like being worried about floods at one moment and about water leakage the next-you ‘sacrifice’ again and again, thus using yourself up until there is nothing left to spare. Therefore, if you want to protect your source of longevity, there is no better way than to guard yourself against sexual desires.

From Sun Yikuei, Contemplations On Unexplored Medical Topics (Yizhi Xuyu), 1584:

In the Simple Questions (Suwen) section of the Neijing it is stated: ‘The kidney stores the qi of the bones and the marrow.’ At another place it says: ‘The black color associated with the direction north corresponds directly with the kidney; its corresponding orifices in the body are the two yin (the genitals and the anus), and its essence is stored in the kidney.’ The Nanjing (Classic of Difficulties) further explains: ‘This is where males store their essence.’ This line does not mean that all of the essence is stored right there; the brain is also called the sea of marrow, and the kidney connects with the brain via the spine.

Master Shengsheng once said: ‘Chapter 36 of the Nanjing states that there are really two kidneys, namely the left one being the actual kidney, while the right one is mingmen, the gate of life. It is this mingmen that is the seat of all physical (jing) and mental (shen) essences, and it is here that essence is stored in males, and from where the uterus branches off in females. Thus, we speak of two kidneys. Just as is said in chapter 39 of the Nanjing: ‘The fact that six fu organs are paired with five zang organs means that the kidney really represents two organ systems, namely the left one being the kidney, and the right one being mingmen. And mingmen, that is the abode of jing and shen. This is where male essence is stored and where the female uterus is attached; its qi is on the same wavelength with the kidney.”

A detailed examination of both sections of the Neijing does not yield any references to a differentiation of the kidney network into two distinct parts. It was the author of the Nanjing who first made this distinction. Does this mean that the entity which the Nanjing author calls mingmen-the abode of jing and shen, the seat of the original qi, the place where males store essence and females have their uterus-is nothing but idle talk? I say we have to take this theory seriously, since it appropriately places extra weight on the kidney network by emphasizing that the original qi which lodges in the kidney is the source of our life force.

The Central Junction Classic (Huangting Jing) states: ‘The kidney qi regulates the upper burner, nourishes the middle burner, and protects the lower burner.’ The Collection of Central Harmony (Zhonghe Ji) states: ‘Breathing through the process of opening and closing-that is what happens at the gorge of mystery (mingmen), the root of heaven and earth.’ Opening and closing here does not refer to the regular action of inhaling and exhaling through the nose or mouth, but to what is called the true breath. The author of the Nanjing also said: ‘The igniting spark between the kidneys (shenjian dongqi) is the origin of the various processes of human life, the base of the body’s five zang and six fu organs, the root of the twelve channel pathways, the door of breath, and the source of the triple burner.’

Precisely this is what the concept of mingmen is all about. It is what the Confucians refer to with their Taiji image, and what the Taoists call the gorge of mysterious origination. If we take a close look at a bronze acupuncture statue we can easily find out that the point mingmen is not located on top of the right kidney, but right between both kidneys. This certainly proves my point.

From Chen Shiduo, A Secret Manual from the Stone Chamber (Shishi Milu), ca. 1690:

As has already laid out in detail in the Nanjingmingmen is the master of the twelve channel networks. But even though many texts have since been written about this subject, the quintessence of mingmen still remains in the dark. Therefore I chose to bring up this topic one more time.

It is always said that mingmen is the master of the twelve channel networks. Now, what kind of master is it exactly and what does it master? Let me put it this way: if there is no fire inside us, we cannot exist. This fire must be there first so that the twelve channel networks can be imbued with the igniting spark of transformation. mingmen, therefore, is a type of prenatal fire. This fire is immaterial and dwells in water. On earth, material fire is being quenched by water. Immaterial water, on the contrary, has the ability to generate fire. Therefore, when we say that “fire is being quenched by water” we refer to material water; when we say that “fire is being fueled by water” we refer to immaterial water. And it so happens that immaterial fire can generate immaterial water, meaning that fire is not contained within fire, but within water.

Mingmen fire, is yang fire-a yang that is embedded within two yin. In the microcosmic context of the human body, mingmen is generated first, and only then the heart. Does this fact not illuminate the importance of mingmen? When the heart procures the power of mingmen, consciousness is in command, and we can relate to the outside world. When the liver procures the power of mingmen, it can plan. When the gallbladder procures the power of mingmen, it can make decisions. When the stomach procures the power of mingmen, it can absorb food. When the spleen procures the power of mingmen, it can transport. When the lung procures the power of mingmen, it can fulfill its administrating and regulating functions. When the large intestine procures the power of mingmen, it can pass on the waste. When the small intestine procures the power of mingmen, it can disseminate. When the kidney procures the power of mingmen, it can bring about physical vigor. When the triple burner procures the power of mingmen, it can keep the body’s water pathways unobstructed. When the bladder procures the power of mingmen, it can store. In other words, there is not a single one among the organ networks that does not rely on the mingmen fire for warmth and nourishment.

This type of fire should be tonified rather than purged. This is done by tonifying fire within water, and especially by tonifying water within fire. In this fashion, fire can be fueled by water and at the same time be stored within water. If we just use cold or cool herbs to attack the mingmen fire, it will become weak, and how could it then nourish the twelve channel networks? This is what is really meant by the Neijing statement ‘when the master is dim, the twelve officials are all in a state of crisis.’ Doesn’t that strongly emphasize the importance of mingmen?

Mingmen and Triple Burner: Selected Readings

From Tang Zonghai, A Refined Interpretation of the Medical Classics (Yijing Jingyi), Qing Dynasty:

The root of the triple burner is in the kidney, more precisely right between the two anatomical kidneys. Right there is a greasy membrane that is connected with the spine. It is called mingmen, and constitutes the source of the three burners.

From Zhang Shanlei, A Revised Edition of Master Zhang’s Treatise on the Organ Networks (Zhang Shi Zangfu Yaoshi Buzheng), ca. 1918:

The triple burner is really a name for the function of the body’s ministerial fire. It is the process of disseminating original qi from mingmen, which is in charge of ascending and descending, and absorbing and excreting. It roams in between the heaven and earth of the body’s landscape, and commands all bodily qi-the qi of the five zang and the six fu organs, the protective qi (wei) and the nutritive qi (ying), the qi in the channels and collaterals, and the qi on the top, the bottom, the left, and the right. Its unofficial name is therefore the central store house of clear qi. The upper part is in charge of absorbing, the middle part is in charge of transforming, and the lower part is in charge of excreting.

From Sun Yikui, Mysterious Pearls of Wisdom (Chi Shui Xuan Zhu), 1584:

The so called triple burner is embedded in the greasy membrane of the diaphragm, that is the hollow space between the five zang/six fu organs and the connective pathway through which food and grain must pass. The qi of the triple burner is contained and active within this space, steaming the diaphragm, reaching out to the skin, differentiating the flesh, and setting everything around it in motion. The regions that it reaches are labeled according to their location, that is why we speak of the upper burner, the middle burner, and the lower burner. Although the triple burner does not have any structural reality to it, it has a distinct location that is determined by the structural entities surrounding it.

From Shen Jin’ao, Illuminating Lantern on the Origins of Complex Diseases (Zabing Yuanliu Xizhu), 18th century:

What we call the triple burner is actually the corridor above and below the stomach. The triple burner and its associated regions thus entirely belong to the stomach, and what it oversees is primarily the functioning of the stomach. The triple burner qi is utilized to ferment and cook the food. Together with the stomach, the triple burner is located in front of the taiyin spleen network-a place that the roaming ministerial fire calls home. The term “burner,” therefore, refers to the triple burner’s function of cooking everything.

From Li Dongyuan, Illuminating the Science of Medicine (Yixue Faming), 13th century:

The triple burner is an entity that has a name but no structural form. It is in charge of all bodily qi, and it is a functional manifestation of the three treasures [jing, qi, shen]. All of the body’s physiological movements, its unobstructed ins and outs and ups and downs, therefore, rely on the triple burner-the process of breathing in and breathing out, the ascending and descending motion of qi, and the absorption and excretion of food and water. The upper burner is located underneath the heart; it is in charge of storing without draining. The middle burner is in the center of the epigastric region; it is in charge of fermenting and cooking food and water. The lower burner is beneath the umbilicus; it is in charge of differentiating the clear from the turbid, and it drains without storing. The driving source behind all three of these functions, however, is the middle burner.

From Chen Nianzu, The Three Character Classic of Medicine (Yixue Sanzi Jing), Qing Dynasty:

The term triple burner refers to the qi that circulates in the upper, middle, and lower burners. Burner means heat. Only when the entire body cavity is permeated with hot qi can the body’s water ways be open and regulated. The triple burner is the fu organ that forms a zang/fu pair with the pericardium, and thus belongs to the phase element fire. In other words, if the heating qualities of the upper burner are out of control, water will assault the upper plains of the body. If the middle burner is out of control, water will stagnate in the epigastric region. If the lower burner is out of control, water will disturb bowel movements and urination. On the other hand, if the triple burner qi is healthy and in control, the body’s channels and collaterals will be open and its water ways will be disinhibited. It is for this reason that the triple burner is called the official in charge of uninhibited water flow.

The Kidney Network: Properties and Functions

1.  The Kidney stores the jing (Essence)

Jing is the Chinese designation for the essential fluid of our physical body. The archaic Chinese character for jing denoted the most refined essence obtained from rice (which is the main staple of the Oriental diet, so this means the refined essence from food). The basic yin (matter) from which all yang (physical action) springs is jing. In classical Chinese medical texts, jing is sometimes referred to as the body’s “original water” with water representing the ultimate yin (“original fire” being the ultimate yang).

Water has a tendency to drain downward. The kidney, the lowest of the organ networks, is where the body’s water assembles and goes into storage until needed elsewhere. If the kidney function is weak, its storage capability will become inhibited and jing will leak from the body. Due to the Daoist belief that the jing is lost when a man excretes semen (of particular concern, when an elderly man, who already had deficiency of jing through aging, excretes semen), virtually all of the ancient medical texts mention spermatorrhea (a code for release during the disallowed practice of masturbation, wet dreams, and ejaculation during intercourse when the attempt is being made to prevent it) as a condition to be treated, since it indicates a breach of the kidney’s function of safeguarding and storing jing. According to the Daoist ideal, except during early adulthood, men should refrain from releasing semen, or, at the very least, experience this infrequently.

Therefore, excessive sexual indulgence by males is considered to be a major health hazard in all genres of traditional Chinese writing. Since most men cannot control their urge to ejaculate, every intercourse means an irrevocable giving away of jing. Although Chinese medical texts consent that this may be affordable for young men (who have a rich supply of jing and who can easily replenish jing through post-natal sources), they generally warn that the health of elderly males will suffer serious consequences from frequent ejaculations. “What gives life will take life” is therefore a common admonition that spans two thousand years of Chinese medical literature.

While most Daoist and medical writings take up both the general topic and the detailed techniques of safeguarding jing, it is the realm of literature which best reflects the Chinese fear of continuous jing loss by way of sexual indulgence. The epic Ming Dynasty novel, Flower In the Golden Vase (Jin Ping Mei), narrates the story of the erotomaniac Ximen Qing who peddles his money and political influence to assemble a harem of six women, then resorts to tonic drugs to bolster his flagging virility, and finally comes to a horrid end after a final ejaculation of “mercury-like fluid, followed by blood and a gust of cold air.” A Daoist physician who is called to the deathbed comments: “The candle flickers once the oil is used up.” Both mercury and lamp oil are often used metaphors for the kidney jing. To avoid such a gruesome death, the handsome protagonist of the second moralist novel of the Ming dynasty, Prayer Mat of Flesh (Rou Putuan), decided to become a Buddhist hermit, cut off his surgically amplified penis, and utilize his jing for spiritual cultivation.

Although the word jing is synonymous with the Chinese word semen, the seminal fluid represents only one form of jing. Other dense fluid essences such as saliva (particularly the kind that gets spontaneously excreted during meditation), vaginal fluids, breast milk, or blood are all regarded to be different transformations of one and the same jing; these are refined essences. Female “leakage” problems, such as metrorrhagia or leukorrhea occurring in older women, are therefore taken seriously for the same reasons as loss of semen in men. Daoist body science even features a special category called female alchemy (nu dan), wherein adepts are instructed in the conservation of (menstrual) blood and its transformation into physical and spiritual energy.

The jing stored in the kidney can be differentiated into prenatal jing and postnatal jing. Prenatal jing contains the information that is given to us before birth (we would today describe it as genetic information) that is intimately linked to the growth and maturation of an individual, which differs for men and women. The defining passage in the Neijing for women reads: “At the age of seven, the kidney qi [the physical action generated by the material basis of kidney jing] in females is strong, and the teeth come in. At the age of two times seven, the tiangui (stage of hormonal and reproductive maturity) arrives, the conception vessel opens, the penetrating vessel flourishes, menstruation is regular, and pregnancy becomes possible.” With regard to male physiology: “At the age of eight, the kidney qi solidifies in males and teeth develop. At the age of two times eight, the kidney qi flourishes, the tiangui arrives, ejaculation occurs, and it becomes possible to have intercourse with females and beget children…; at the age of seven times eight, the liver qi is exhausted, the tendons are unable to facilitate smooth movement, the tiangui is dried up, jing is sparse, the kidney system is exhausted, and symptoms of physical aging are plentiful.”

Postnatal jing is the nutritive essence distilled from food by the spleen/stomach, and used to provide a constant flow of nourishing dew to the other organ networks. If all the networks are plentifully supplied, the surplus of the body’s vital fluid transformation is stored in the kidney. The Neijing states: “The kidney is in charge of water, and it receives the essences of the other zang and fu organ networks and stores it.” Before birth, prenatal jing forms the material basis for the development of postnatal jing. Once born, postnatal jing continuously boosts the body’s limited supply of prenatal jing. Both forms of essence compose an indivisible entity.

Kidney jing encompasses both kidney yin and kidney yang, often referred to as the body’s original yin and original yang. Kidney qi is produced by the dynamic interaction between the two, specifically the action of functional/warming kidney yang steaming the material kidney yin. Kidney yin is the source of all material body fluids, in charge of nourishing and moistening all organ networks. Kidney yang, sometimes also called true yang, is the source of all types of yang qi. It is the driving force behind all processes of warming, generation, and transformation. The yin and yang aspects of the kidney both rely on each other and control each other. The proper balance between kidney yin and kidney yang is an important precondition for health.

2.  The Kidney contains the will/determination

Will, determination, and power of memory are attributed to the kidney. The ability to keep a secret is attributed to the kidney’s power of retention and safeguarding against leakage. The Neijing defined that “the kidney stores jing, and jing houses will power.” In turn, if kidney jing becomes exhausted, a weak will and poor memory will result.

3.  The Kidney is in charge of water

Fluids reach the kidney after they have been absorbed by the stomach, raised upwards by the spleen, and sprinkled downwards by the lung. At this point they become differentiated into clear and turbid aspects by virtue of the transformative powers of kidney yang. The clear part of fluid essence returns to the lung, from where it moistens each one of the zang organs. From the lung, it turns into nasal discharge, or sweat, or saliva, or tears; and it differentiates into jing, blood, jin (liquids, that is the thinner fluids moistening the muscles), and ye (the denser fluids lubricating the joints and bone marrow). The turbid part feeds into the bladder, where it is being transformed into urine, and excreted.

4.  The Kidney is in charge of the bones and generates marrow: its external manifestation is in the hair

Bone marrow is considered to be a transformation of kidney jing that has the specific task of nourishing the bones. It is differentiated into bone marrow, spinal marrow, and brain marrow. Spinal marrow feeds into the brain, where the densest concentration of “marrow” can be observed. The brain is therefore also called the sea of marrow.

If kidney jing is plentiful, both the bone (supporting the body) and the brain (supporting the mind) will be at a level of ideal strength. On the other hand, a deficiency of kidney jing will bring about brittle bones and a listless spirit. As the Neijing puts it: “The kidney is the master of physical strength; it produces exquisite movements/actions.”

Since the teeth are considered to be the “surplus of the bones,” they also rely on the nourishment of the kidney. If the jing is plentiful, the teeth are firm; if not, they come loose or fall out.

The hair’s growth process is governed by the waxing and waning of kidney qi. Again the crucial Neijing quote: “At the age of seven, a female’s kidney qi is in high gear, the second teeth come in and the hair grows.” Ancient texts often consider the head’s hair to be a direct outgrowth of the brain, which would relate it to the kidney. The growth pattern and general luster of the hair is an important indication for the condition of prenatal jing.

5.  The Kidney is in charge of grasping (containing) qi

Although the process of breathing is governed by the lung, the containment of incoming qi within the lower burner is governed by kidney qi. Only if kidney qi is plentiful and its grasping power sufficient can the qi passages of the lung be unobstructed and the breathing be harmonious. If the kidney is weak and the breath cannot “root” in the kidney, disease will eventually arise. Shallow breathing, particularly in patients suffering from chronic asthma, is therefore often associated with a kidney qi deficiency. In this situation, the breath gets stuck above the diaphragm and cannot descend into its rightful abode, the lower dantian. This aspect of the kidney is one reason why there is such an intent focus on abdominal breathing in Oriental cultures.

6.  The Kidney is connected with the bladder

The kidney and bladder form a zang-fu pair: “The kidney is connected with the bladder,” states the Neijing; “the bladder is the store house of the liquids and humors.” This statement reminds us that the bladder, similar to the gallbladder and the small intestine, not only excretes unwanted waste materials, but comprises a temporary station along the body’s complex highway of vital fluid transformation. Bladder function, particular its function of “opening and closing,” is largely dependent on the power of kidney qi. If kidney qi is strong, normal water metabolism will take place. The storage and excretion process of water through the bladder is thus intimately related to the general functioning of the kidney.

7.  The Kidney has its opening in the ears and the two private parts (Anus and Genitalia)

The ears, which faintly resemble the kidneys in shape, are thought to reflect the condition of kidney jing. Large ears and sharp hearing indicate an excellent condition of kidney jing. As people grow older, they not only become more forgetful, but their power of hearing decreases (and sometimes their ears shrivel up) as their jing depletes. As the original statement of the Neijing goes: “The kidney qi communicates with the ears; if the kidney functions properly, the ears can distinguish the five essential sounds.”

Kidney qi, due to its mother organ’s close proximity to the openings in the lower burner, governs the opening and closing function of the “two private parts,” including sexual functions like erection, ejaculation, and lubrication of the vaginal tract, and maintenance of fecal continence (as well as urinary continence via the control of the bladder).

8.  The fire of mingmen is stored in between the kidneys

The concept of mingmen, the vital gate of life, is an integral part of the kidney system. The Nanjing (Classic of Difficulties) elaborated on basic Neijing theory by figuratively differentiating these two aspects of the kidney in structural terms, thereby initiating a medical theory that was later referred to as the mingmen school: “There are two kidney parts. Actually, not both of them are kidneys. The left one is the kidney, the right one is mingmen.” The classic then goes on to elaborate that mingmen is the place “where the entirety of bodily jing and shen is at home, and where the original qi is generated.” “It is the root of all zang-fu networks, the foundation of the twelve channels, the gate of breath, and the source of all three burning spaces.” Later medical scholars argued that mingmen is an immaterial force that could not be physically located in the right kidney. Rather, its location is the central point on the spine between the two anatomical kidneys and opposite the umbilicus, thus forming a “posterior dantian.” The Chinese name for the acupuncture point located there is mingmen (GV-4).

The fire lodged within kidney water is often referred to as the body’s ministerial fire (xiang huo), as opposed to the imperial fire (jun huo) of the heart. In its role of the “minister” serving the higher centers, it warms the spleen, ripens food, grasps lung qi, and gives volume to a person’s voice.

9.  THe Kidney cooperates with the triple burner to transform qi and move water

The triple burner, a fu organ that is said to pass through and connect all of the body’s three burning spaces, stimulates qi transformation with a specific focus on water metabolism. It keeps the body’s water ways unobstructed and smoothly operating. These functions of the triple burner are intimately tied to the kidney and bladder. The Neijing says: “The upper burner is like a mist, the middle burner is like a swamp, and the lower burner is like a ditch,” referring to the essence misting activity of the lung on top, the fermenting action of the spleen/stomach at the center, and the canalization of water in the lowest part of the torso.

The Kidney Network:  Pathogenesis

Injury to Kidney (Yin) and Mingmen (Yang) Fire: if the kidney’s ability to store jing becomes disturbed, a person’s growth patterns and reproductive ability will be affected; infertility, hair and tooth loss, slow physical development, or softness and malformation of the bones may result.

If within the kidney jing the crucial controlling/generating balance between kidney yin and kidney yang becomes disturbed, different symptom patterns may arise. Typical manifestations of hyperactivity of yang due to kidney yin deficiency are burning sensation in the palms and soles, tidal heat sensations, night sweats, spermatorrhea, or sexual dreams. When the kidney yang is exhausted and thus unable to execute its ministerial warming function, symptoms of listless spirit may result: sore lower back and knees; cold sensations in the body and its extremities; inhibited urination or frequent and profuse urination; early morning diarrhea; asthmatic panting upon slight physical exertion; difficult breathing; impotence and premature ejaculation; or infertility due to a “cold uterus.” If there is evidence of kidney deficiency without obvious cold or heat symptoms, this symptom complex is usually referred to as kidney qi (or kidney jing) deficiency.

It is important to understand the intimate relationship of kidney yin and kidney yang, and that prolonged kidney yin deficiency will eventually influence kidney yang and vice versa. This phenomenon is usually called a deficiency of kidney yin implicating kidney yang, or a deficiency of kidney yang implicating kidney yin.

Changes in Water Metabolism: since the kidney is said to be in charge of water, all pathological changes involving water are in some way associated with the kidney. If there is a lack of kidney yang, the body’s general process of qi transformation will suffer, and consequently water metabolism will be inhibited. As the Treatise on Blood Diseases (Xuezheng Lun) explains: “If there is not enough yang qi, pathological water accumulations will turn into phlegm and distress the heart or attack the lung, or cause symptoms of edema, abdominal pain accompanied by a sensation of qi rushing upwards, or diarrhea and intense cold.”

Most cases of phlegm or edema occur when the yang fire is unable to transform yin water. Figuratively speaking, the kidney is the general commanding the two water fu organs which are mainly involved in the transportation and transformation of water, namely the triple burner and the bladder. As the Neijing says: “The shaoyang [triple burner] belongs to the kidney; above, the kidney connects with the lung, and thus has two fu organs under its command [triple burner and bladder].”

Therefore, if there is not enough kidney yang, the upper burner cannot properly distribute fluids, the middle burner cannot properly steam and ripen food and separate the clear from the turbid, and the lower burner cannot properly transform qi, thus influencing the opening and closing ability of the bladder (causing excessive or inhibited urination, as in bed wetting, frequent urination, nocturia, etc.).

Moreover, since urine is manufactured from body fluids which are in part produced by the kidney, a deficiency of kidney water will always involve a deficiency of fluids, causing inhibited urination. Along the same lines, too much urination will eventually harm the body’s fluid supply.

Emotional Influences on Proper Kidney Function: the kidney is said to house the force of will power and determination. Will power, therefore, relies on nourishment by kidney jing. If jing is weak, then will power and its sustained expression (memory) will also be weak.

Intense or prolonged fear, the emotion associated with the kidney, will cause injury to the kidney qi, resulting in impotence, spermatorrhea, or the gradual development of cowardly behavior. The other way around, a physical deficiency of kidney jing can cause a disposition for panicky and fearful behavior.

Kidney Disorders Causing Pathological Changes in the Bones, the Marrow, the Hair, and the Ears: if kidney jing is sufficient, the continuous production of high quality marrow is assured, resulting in properly nourished and, thus, firm and strong bones. Otherwise the skeletal structure will be weak, or structural changes such as osteoporosis might occur.

If the kidney is harmed by pernicious qi affecting the kidney jing and consequently the marrow and bones, there will be symptoms of weak and sore waist and legs, or even atrophy of the legs causing severely limited mobility. As the Neijing states: “If kidney qi is pathologically hot, the lumbar spine will be inhibited, the bones will become brittle and the marrow scorched, and atrophy of the bones will result.”

For the same reasons, symptoms of loosening and deteriorating teeth, or the drying, greying, and gradual falling out of hair are related to the state of the kidney’s jing qi. Since the ears and the associated sense of hearing also depend on nourishment by the kidney’s jing qi, ringing in the ears, loss of hearing, or deafness are typical symptoms for various aspects of kidney deficiency.

Representative Substances for the Treatment of Kidney Disorders

Moisten the kidney (tonify kidney yin) (zi yin; bu shen yin): rehmannia (dihuang), tortoise shell (guiban), asparagus root (tianmendong), lycium fruit (gouqizi), morus fruit (sangshenzi), ligustrum (nuzhenzi).

Warm the kidney (strengthen yang; tonify the vital flame of life) (wen shen; zhuang yang; bu ming huo): aconite (fuzi), cinnamon bark (rougui), sulphur (liuhuang), morinda (bajitian), deer antler (lurong), cnidium fruit (shechuangzi), cistanche (roucongrong).

Complement jing and tonify the marrow (tian jing bu sui): animal bone marrow (dongwu jisui), animal brain (naosui), placenta (ziheche), deer antler (lurong), antler gelatin (lujiaojiao), tortoise plaster gelatin (guijiao), cordyceps (dongchong xiacao).

Restore the storing action of the kidney (astringe jing; stop vaginal discharge; curb frequent and profuse urination) (gu shen; se jing; zhi dai; shou se xiao bian): schizandra (wuweizi), cornus (shanzhuyu), alpinia (yizhiren), rubia (fupenzi), mantis egg case (sangpiaoxiao), rose hips (jinyingzi).

Restore the kidney’s function of grasping and retaining qi (na qi gui shen): schizandra (wuweizi), psoralea (buguzhi), gecko (gejie), cornus (shanzhuyu), aquilaria (chenxiang).

Aid the transformation of bladder qi (hua pangguang qi): cinnamon twig (guizhi) and hoelen (fuling), cinnamon bark (rougui), lindera (wuyao), fennel (xiao huixiang), saussurea (muxiang), citrus seed (juhe), litchi seed (lizhihe).

Open and disinhibit the water passages of the bladder and the triple burner (tongli pangguang, sanjiao): alisma (zexie), hoelen (fuling), polyporus (zhuling), talc (huashi), akebia (mutong), tetrapanax (tongcao), tokoro (pixie), polygonum (bianxu), lygodium (haijinsha).

Clear kidney heat (moisten yin and descend deficiency fire) (qing shen rezi yin jiang huo): anemarrhena (zhimu), phellodendron (huangbai), morus bark (digupi), eclipta (hanliancao).

Discharge kidney fire (purge fire with salty and cold materials) (xie shen huo; xian han xie huo): salt (qingyan), halite (qingyan), urine (tongbian), calcitum (hanshuishi).

The Kidney Network:  Basic Guidelines for the Treatment of Kidney Disorders

Since the kidney is the representative lower burner organ, it generally needs to be addressed with high amounts of heavy and sticky substances. The 18th century fever school authority Wu Jutong once described this characteristic in graphic terms: “Lower burner therapy is like a weight-if it is not heavy enough, it does not reach the bottom.”

Kidney disorders are generally of a cold and deficient nature. Kidney therapy, therefore, needs to focus primarily on the tonification of deficiency; purging of excess is a definite taboo. If kidney water is deficient, the kidney needs to be tonified by moistening yin. If kidney jing is deficient, it needs to be replenished by supplementing jing and tonifying the bone marrow. If kidney yang is deficient, the kidney needs to be tonified by using modalities that strengthen yang. In the more advanced scenario of mingmen fire exhaustion, materials that warm and tonify the vital flame of life need to be employed.

Since the kidney has both yin and yang aspects, pathological situations may arise from an imbalance in the ratio of kidney yin and kidney yang. The most typical example is the upflaring of deficiency fire due to a deficiency in kidney water, which calls for a descending action that re-anchors the floating fire in the yin waters of the kidney. This is primarily achieved by the use of yin tonics which will bring the diminished yin level back to full capacity and thus naturally extinguish the deficiency type of pathological heat. If yang deficiency has begun to implicate yin, both jing and marrow should be supplemented and the vital flame of life be warmed and tonified. If both kidney yin and yang are deficient, both the various aspects of the kidney and the vital flame of life should be tonified.

In the common scenario of spleen and kidney deficiency, both spleen and kidney yang need to be tonified. In case of lung and kidney deficiency, both lung and kidney yin need to be moistened. In chronic asthma patients where kidney deficiency results in an inability of the kidney to grasp the descending qi from the lung, the kidney needs to be warmed with substances that specifically assist with the action of grasping and retaining qi, such as gecko (gejie) and schizandra (wuweizi). If lung metal fails to properly generate kidney water, kidney yin needs to be moistened indirectly by nourishing the yin of its mother system, the lung. If kidney water fails to nourish its son, liver wood, the liver needs to be supported by moistening kidney yin and/or kidney jing. In the case that kidney deficiency has caused an exhaustion of the earth network, the lower burner’s vital flame of life needs to be rekindled with warming substances in order to provide the transformative forces of the middle burner above with the activating heat they require.

If the extended water network (including the kidney, the bladder, and the triple burner) is compromised by a damp heat condition, the dampness should be disinhibited with materials of a cooling nature that have a specific affinity to the lower burner, such as alisma (zexie), polyporus (zhuling), and talc (huashi). If the transformative powers of the bladder and the triple burner fail due to an exhaustion of the kidney’s vital flame of life, then this type of pathological water accumulation needs to be transformed by primarily warming kidney qi, and secondarily by adding several herbs that directly move out the pathological water. If phlegm, dampness, or water rheum stagnate internally, phlegm damp needs to be disinhibited, and water rheum driven out.

If the kidney has been damaged due to chronic illness, exaggerated emotions, or excessive sexual activity, a change of the situation or life style that has originally caused the condition is imperative. Simultaneously, the recovery of the kidney system can be supported by prescribing a selection of tonic agents that moisten yin, strengthen yang, or nourish jing and marrow.

As the water network, the kidney has an aversion to dry influences. It would be particularly detrimental to exclusively employ bitter and drying substances in a situation where the kidney yin is deficient. Perhaps unexpectedly, the Neijing recommends pungent flavors to counteract dryness in the kidney; these pungent flavors aid the lung in distributing moisture to the kidney. In clinical reality, herbs like cuscuta (tusizi) and cnidium fruit (shechuangzi) fit this category. The kidney strives for a state of guarded firmness and tight solidity. If the storage fortress of the kidney is properly buttressed, precious essence will not leak out. Many bitter materials, although they should be used cautiously for the reasons just mentioned, have a stabilizing affect on kidney yin. Anemarrhena (zhimu), an herb that is both bitter and moistening, and phellodendron (huangbai) are the prime substances used in situations of continuous jing leakage, particularly lower burner deficiency fire fueling obsessive sexual urges, excessive masturbation, recurrent sexual dreams, spermatorrhea, or certain types of leukorrhea.

Salty flavors have a direct affinity to the kidney network, and are generally beneficial when used in moderation. “Salty flavors generate the kidney,” comments the Neijing. Increased dietary intake of salt, usually obtained from stored foods with salt as the preserving element, taken during the water season (winter) contributes to preserving the kidney against the cold. On the other hand, salt has a percolating and leakage-promoting affect that is overall unsuitable for an organ system that is in charge of storing and metabolizing physiological jing, humors, and fluids. Therefore, excessive consumption of salty foods is discouraged, as it will harm the kidney and its affiliated body layer. “If the disease is in the bone layer,” the Neijing points out elsewhere, “do not eat salty foods.”

If the kidney root is damaged, many of the body’s stem and branch organs have already entered a pathological state first. If kidney yin-that is the base substance from which liver yin, stomach yin, heart yin, lung yin, and the body’s humors and fluids are formed-is deficient, it usually means that the condition is preceded by a yin deficiency in other organs. Similarly, the essential flame of the lower burner only flickers after the light in the upper levels has grown dim. This situation has given rise to a school of medicine that favors kidney tonification in most deficiency situations. Tonifying kidney yin and kidney yang, proponents have argued since the 13th century, means to moisten and strengthen the body’s source yin/yang and thereby the yin/yang of all organ networks. However, the root status of the kidney also implies that kidney deficiency is often accompanied by inadequate spleen/stomach function. This poses a problem in light of the fact that herbal kidney therapy requires heavy amounts of sticky substances that are generally hard to digest. One attempt to remedy this situation was the addition of herbal “digestive aids” to kidney formulas such as Rehmannia Six Formula (Liuwei Dihuang Wan). Pharmacists at the renowned Beijing herb emporium Tongren Tang, for instance, used to automatically add small amounts of the aromatic cardamon (sharen) if the patient’s prescription called for large amounts of the greasy kidney tonic rehmannia (dihuang). Proponents of the spleen/stomach school, on the other hand, have argued that kidney deficiency is often the result of a deficiency of its controlling network, namely spleen earth. Spleen tonification advocates have said for more than half a millennium that this should be the primary modality to regenerate the kidney system. In any case, caution needs to be exercised regarding the prescription of heavy “water” substances to patients who show signs of digestive weakness, such as poor appetite, bloating, and tendency to experience diarrhea or loose stool. A safe method for the direct tonification of lower burner source qi has been developed by the ancestors of Chinese medicine, namely Daoist practitioners of “inner alchemy.” The term inner alchemy refers to Qigong exercises of the quiet, meditative kind that focus on generating warmth and fullness in the lower dantian.

The Kidney Network:  Typical Disease Patterns

KIDNEY YIN DEFICIENCY (shen yin xu): primary symptoms are dizziness; blurry vision; ringing in the ears; sore and weak lower back or knees; burning in palms and soles; tidal heat sensations; night sweats. Secondary symptoms include dry mouth and throat; flushed face; emaciated features; premature graying of hair; low sperm count in males; decreased menstrual flow and infertility in females; forgetfulness; insomnia; spermatorrhea; premature ejaculation; heel pain; yellow urination; dry stool. The tongue typically presents with a red body and little or no coating; the pulse tends to be fine and rapid.

Representative Herbs: rehmannia (dihuang), cornus (shanzhuyu), asparagus root (tianmendong), ho-shou-wu (heshouwu), lycium fruit (gouqizi), ligustrum (nuzhenzi), tortoise shell (guiban), turtle shell (biejia), scrophularia (xuanshen), eclipta (hanliancao), anemarrhena (zhimu).

Representative Formulas: Return the Left Decoction; Achyranthes and Rehmannia Formula (Zuogui Yin); Rehmannia Six Formula (Liuwei Dihuang Wan).

KIDNEY YANG DEFICIENCY (shen yang xu): primary symptoms are pale or dark complexion; listless spirit; obvious aversion to cold; cold extremities; low sex drive; weak or cold and painful lower back and knees; early morning diarrhea; frequent urination or clear and profuse urination. Secondary symptoms include impotence; premature ejaculation; infertility; clear vaginal discharge; inhibited urination and edema; dizziness; ringing in the ears. The tongue typically presents with a pale, tender, and often toothmarked body, and a white and slippery coating; the pulse tends to be deep, slow, and forceless.

Representative Herbs: aconite (fuzi), cinnamon bark (rougui), epimedium (yinyanghuo), morinda (bajitian), psoralea (buguzhi), deer antler (lurong), curculigo (xianmao), fenugreek (huluba), cistanche (roucongrong), cynomorium (suoyang).

Representative Formulas: Return the Right Pill (Yougui Wan).

KIDNEY QI DEFICIENCY (shen qi xu): primary symptoms are dizziness; ringing in the ears; weak or sore lower back and knees; physical and mental fatigue; shortness of breath. Secondary symptoms include pale complexion; spontaneous sweating; decreased mental and physical growth rate in children; frequent urination; nocturia; spermatorrhea; premature ejaculation; asthmatic panting upon exertion. The tongue typically presents with a pale body and a white coating; the pulse tends to be fine and weak.

Representative Herbs: walnut (hutaorou), dioscorea (shanyao), eucommia (duzhong), cuscuta (tusizi), schizandra (wuweizi), cornus (shanzhuyu), morinda (bajitian).

Representative Formula: Rehmannia Eight Formula (Shenqi Wan).

KIDNEY JING DEPLETION (shen jing bu zu): primary symptoms are dizziness; ringing in the ears; weak or sore lower back and knees; low sperm count in males; amenorrhea and infertility in females; delayed mental and physical development in children. Secondary symptoms include decreased memory; slow and clumsy body movements; dull facial expressions; emaciated body structure; hair loss; loose teeth; late closing of fontanella in babies; muscular atrophy.

Representative Herbs: placenta (ziheche), deer antler (lurong), tortoise shell gelatin (guijiaojiao), cordyceps (dongchong xiacao), cooked rehmannia (shu dihuang), lycium fruit (gouqizi), cornus (shanzhuyu), eucommia (duzhong), cistanche (roucongrong).

Representative Formula: Placenta Restorative Pills (Heche Dazao Wan).

BILATERAL DEFICIENCY OF KIDNEY YIN AND YANG (shen yin yang liang xu): primary symptoms are dizziness; ringing in the ears; weak, sore, or painful lower back and knees; cold fingers and toes and/or burning sensations in palms and soles; night sweats or spontaneous sweating. Secondary symptoms include pale complexion and/or flushed face; poor memory; insomnia; vivid dreaming; listless spirit; loose teeth; dry and split hair; unsteady walk; swollen feet; asthmatic panting upon physical exertion. The tongue typically presents with a red body and little or no coating, or with a pale body and white coating; the pulse tends to be fine and rapid, or deep, slow, and weak.

Representative Herbs: cooked rehmannia (shu dihuang), ho-shou-wu (heshouwu), lycium fruit (gouqizi), ligustrum (nuzhenzi), cornus (shanzhuyu), cuscuta (tusizi), schizandra (wuweizi).

Representative Formulas: Rehmannia Eight Formula (Shenqi Wan); Five Seed Fertilize the Ancestral Force Pill (Wuzi Yanzong Wan).

THE KIDNEY QI FAILS TO EXECUTE ITS STORING ACTION (shen qi bu gu): primary symptoms include clear, frequent, and dribbling urination; enuresis; bedwetting; spermatorrhea; premature ejaculation; tendency to miscarry; clear vaginal discharge. Secondary symptoms include pale complexion; mental and physical fatigue; weak or sore back; loss of hearing; spontaneous sweating. The tongue typically presents with a pale body and a white coating; the pulse tends to be fine and weak.

Representative Herbs: schizandra (wuweizi), euryale (qianshi), rose hips (jinyingzi), mantis egg cases (sangpiaoxiao), dioscorea (shanyao), alpinia (yizhiren), dragon bone (longgu), oyster shell (muli), cuscuta (tusizi).

Representative Formulas: Golden Lock Shore Up the Jing Pill (Jinsuo Gujing Wan); Mantis Formula (Sangpiaoxiao San); Retract the Source Pill (Suoquan Wan).

THE KIDNEY FAILS TO GRASP AND RETAIN QI (shen bu na qi): primary symptoms are shortness of breath or asthmatic panting (brief inhale, longer exhale), especially following physical exertion. Secondary symptoms include pale complexion; puffy face; blue lips; emission of small amounts of urine when coughing; spontaneous sweating; general aversion to cold; cold extremities; weak or sore lower back and knees; mental and physical fatigue. The tongue typically presents with a pale body and a white coating; the pulse tends to be fine and weak, or floating and uprooted.

Representative Herbs: walnut (hutaorou), gecko (gejie), psoralea (buguzhi), schizandra (wuweizi), cooked rehmannia (shu dihuang), ginseng (renshen), codonopsis (dangshen), aquilaria (chenxiang), amethystum (zishiying).

Representative Formulas: Ginseng and Walnut Decoction (Renshen Hutao Tang); Ginseng and Gecko Powder (Shen Jie San); All Encompassing Qi Pill (Du Qi Wan).

YIN DEFICIENCY CAUSING FIRE EFFULGENCE (yin xu huo wang): primary symptoms are flushed face and red lips; restlessness; difficulty falling asleep; dry mouth and throat; burning sensation in palms and soles; tidal heat sensations; night sweats. Secondary symptoms include obsessive sexual fantasies; excessive urge to masturbate; frequent sexual dreams; dark urination; constipation. The tongue typically presents with a red body and little or no coating; the pulse tends to be fine and rapid.

Representative Herbs: anemarrhena (zhimu), phellodendron (huangbai), coptis (huanglian), raw rehmannia ( sheng dihuang), peony (baishao), cynanchum (baiwei), eclipta (hanliancao), lycium bark (digupi).

Representative Formulas: Anemarrhena, Phellodendron, and Rehmannia Formula (Zhi Bai Dihuang Wan); Lock in the Marrow Pellet (Fengsui Dan).

KIDNEY YANG DEFICIENCY CAUSING WATER EFFUSION (shen yang xu shui fan): primary symptoms are puffiness and edema (especially prominent in lower extremities). Secondary symptoms include ashen or waxen face color; inhibited urination; obvious aversion to cold; cold extremities; palpitations; stuffy sensation in chest; shortness of breath; cough or asthmatic panting accompanied by expectoration of runny and clear phlegm; heavy and painful waist; abdominal fullness; scrotal edema. The tongue typically presents with a fat, pale, and toothmarked body, and a white and slippery coating; the pulse tends to be deep and wiry; or deep and fine.

Representative Herbs: aconite (fuzi), cinnamon twig (guizhi), hoelen (fuling), curculigo (xianmao), alisma (zexie), plantago seed (cheqianzi), polyporus (zhuling).

Representative Formula: Vitality Combination (Zhenwu Tang).

Credit to Heiner Fruehauf Ph.D


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