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Kidneys In TCM: The Minister of Power & Root Of Life

The following may sound like a late-night TV infomercial. But this message, according to TCM philosophy, is no marketing hype…

If you’re middle-aged or older and want to enjoy a healthy lifespan, not focusing on how many more years you will live but rather how many more healthy years you will enjoy, support your Kidney system starting today!

Virtually every disease pattern and sign of premature aging is rooted in Kidney Qi Deficiency. Even if the signs and symptoms, from a Western perspective, seemingly have nothing to do with the kidneys, such as hair loss, hearing loss, and vision loss, it’s all related to Kidney Qi Deficiency. 

Just as a decrepit power source affects the functioning of various appliances in your house, a weakened Kidney system can have far-reaching effects…    

In TCM, the Kidneys are referred to as the Minister of Power because the system functions as the body’s power supply. Just as a decrepit power source affects the functioning of various appliances in your house, a weakened Kidney system can have far-reaching effects throughout your body. Despite the Kidney’s profound role in sustaining vitality, Western medicine overlooks the importance of nurturing the Kidneys until symptoms become severe.

Kidneys In TCM: The Root of Life

Let’s interrupt our regularly scheduled programming and take you back in time to the immediate months leading to your birth….

When you were in utero, blissfully floating in amniotic fluid, having no concept of the only two certainties in life—death and taxes—, your Kidney organ system was the first to develop in utero. This is why the Kidneys in TCM are also called “The Root of Life.” While you were still a developing fetus, your Kidneys were already hard at work, storing your Jing (life essence and vitality), inherited from your parents, predetermining your constitutional type, and predicting your growth, development, and overall health throughout your life.

As you developed as a fetus, your Kidneys laid the foundation for your body’s Yin and Yang energies. The primordial essence you inherited is the basis for all physiological processes and is directly connected to reproductive health, aging, and longevity. 

Kidneys in TCM Shape Health From Conception To Old Age 

From the day you were born, you have dipped into your Jing savings account (inherited Qi). You can replenish some of your Jing by eating a healthy diet, getting moderate exercise, practicing mindfulness, and engaging in other lifespan-increasing pursuits. 

But the stress of adulting (job, children, bills) stresses the Kidneys. And if your Jing is depleted faster than it can be replenished, signs of premature aging, illness, or disease will manifest. 

Of course, having balance in every organ system is critical for good health, and in TCM, all organ systems are interconnected. But only the Kidney organ system is said to play a vital role in embryonic growth and in shaping an individual’s health trajectory from conception to old age. This foundational understanding of TCM underscores the importance of nurturing and supporting the Kidneys throughout life to promote overall well-being and longevity.

The Role of the Kidneys In TCM: Foundation of Vitality

According to TCM theory, every disease finds its roots in an imbalance within the Kidney system. This is why no matter what disease pattern a patient presents with, the acupuncturist, Chinese medicine doctor, or herbalist should start by addressing the Kidney organ system. 

This belief stems from the concept that the Kidneys are not only responsible for water metabolism and filtration but also act as the storehouse of Yin and Yang energies. When the Kidneys are underperforming, it creates a domino effect, impacting other organ systems and glandular functions. For instance, a deficiency in Kidney Qi can manifest in symptoms seemingly unrelated to renal health, such as graying hair, vision and hearing problems, osteoporosis, low libido, menstrual irregularities, cognitive decline, and persistent low back pain.

As in Western medicine, the TCM “kidneys” are a pair of organs located in the lumbar region. However, the kidneys’ functions in TCM go well beyond those in modern medicine. In TCM, the kidneys’ functions include storage of essence, governance of water, bone protection, auditory regulation, reproduction promotion, and brain communication. From an emotional and spiritual perspective, the Kidneys govern willpower, confidence, and spiritual harmony. 

Don’t Fear The KGB: Kidney Governing Bones

Centuries ago, a theory was developed that explained how the kidneys in TCM control bone function and health. Enter the KGB, or “Kidney Governing Bones” theory. 

The KGB theory goes like this: You need to have a sufficient supply of Kidney essence for healthy bone growth and function. According to the ancient Chinese medical book Huangdi Neijing (“The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Medicine”), the Kidney system stores essence, essence generates marrow, marrow produces bone, and therefore, bone is governed by the Kidney. With the normal aging process—and mostly because of unhealthy diets, lack of exercise, and environmental pollution— Kidney essence can plummet, leaving one susceptible to bone diseases.

A team of Chinese researchers led by Hanmin Zhu of Hubei University, writing in Evidence-Based Complimentary and Alternative Medicine, says the KGB theory has been used to treat bone diseases in China for thousands of years, and “kidney-reinforcing prescriptions have been confirmed with admirable effect by TCM practices in China.” 

Sex Hormone Deficiency, Kidney Deficiency & Bone Health

Exactly how the KGB theory works on a modern biological level wasn’t explored 

until just a couple of years ago. In 2022, Zhu and his colleagues unlocked the answer. First, however, they listed the ways in which the Kidney in TCM is thought to regulate processes of bone growth and metabolism. This includes the absorption of vitamin D; the metabolic regulation of trace elements such as calcium and phosphorus; the secretion regulation of growth hormones; its influence on specific signaling pathways; and the regulation of the neuroendocrine-immune axis. 

Zhu and his team speculated that the link between Kidney Qi, “Tian Gui,” which is  the body’s original essence, and reproductive health mirrors the physiological link of the hypothalamus, pituitary, and gonadal [HPG] pathway in Western medicine. 

(Interestingly, in functional medicine, the concept of a stressed hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal [HPA] axis is the root cause of premature aging.)

In Western medicine, Zhu and colleagues write that sex hormones are the executors of HPG axis function and play a critical role in bone maintenance. “Kidney deficiency or sex-hormone deficiency results in a high risk of bone diseases. The protective effects of kidney tonifying prescriptions in TCM were mediated by the sex hormone-like actions.”

Supporting the Kidneys: Foundation for Holistic Health

Whether you want to address specific health concerns or enhance overall vitality, the first step is tonifying (fortifying) the Kidneys. Even if you’re at an advanced age and bolstering your reproductive health is the furthest thing on your mind, you need sufficient Kidney Qi for bone density, cognitive function, and other quality-of-life markers. By replenishing your body’s reservoir of energy stored within the Kidneys, you can enhance their capacity to meet the demands of daily life with vigor and resilience. 

When your Kidneys have sufficient Qi, they can lend a helping hand to any other organ systems that need support.

TCM Formulas for Kidney Support

ActiveHerb offers five Kidney support formulas, including Liu Wei Di Huang Pian, one of the most famous traditional Chinese medicines. Known in English as “Six Flavor Rehmannia Pills” after the namesake herb, rehammina root (Shu Di Huang), this classic TCM formula is renowned for nourishing Yin, tonifying the Kidneys, and addressing symptoms associated with Kidney Yin deficiency. This is why ActiveHerb’s Guang Ci Tang offers this formula under the brand name, YinVive.
If you’re unsure which ActiveHerb kidney formula is right for you, consult your local acupuncturist or herbalist.