We don’t usually pay much attention to the kidneys unless we develop problems with them. In Eastern medicine, however, the kidneys are considered to be the foundation of your health and vitality, also known as “Jing.” And when we focus on kidney health, we can also look at the related organs of detoxification and elimination like the bladder, adrenal glands, reproductive/sex organs and their holistic functions. Finally, kidneys are considered to be the “winter organ,” most active and in need extra care in the colder season.
Kidneys play multiple, and VERY important functions to sustain our health. Primarily, the kidneys act as the filtration system for our whole body. Kidneys filter all the blood after it receives waste from bodily cells, eliminate unnecessary and/or toxic waste from the body in the form of urine, all the while reabsorbing some necessary substances to the blood stream. However, if the kidneys’ filtering function is compromised, the waste and toxins can’t be filtered and go back into the blood stream.
Imagine your local sewage plant is not functioning, and all the garbage and toxic chemicals go directly into the river or ocean in your area, which comes back to your drinking water! In the same way, unfiltered waste products will accumulate inside your body over time, allowing the blood to become toxic, which will cause various health problems, including uremina, a life threatening condition.
The main functions of kidneys:
- Controlling the volume of water in the body: We can’t have too much water or too little inside our body. A perfect volume of water is meticulously controlled by kidneys so our body can function properly. When this goes out of balance we can suffer from water retention in the form of swelling, puffiness or edema.
- Maintain acid-alkaline balance: Our body tries to maintain a pH level 7.4 (slightly alkaline) all the time. When pH is out of 7.35-7.45 range, various health problems will result. The kidneys regulate pH balance by controlling the excretion of hydrogen ions and biocarbonate ions. Learn here why it’s so important to maintain proper pH balance and tips to do so!
- Control electrolytes in the body: The amount of vital electrolytes for muscle and neuron function are regulated by the kidneys, such as sodium, potassium, chloride, calcium and magnesium.
- Produce hormones: Kidneys also produce some important hormones including calcitriol, an active form of vitamin D, which helps increase the absorption of calcium from the food in the intestine.
- Maintain blood pressure: Since kidneys control the volume of water in the body, this organ is crucial to maintain blood pressure. When the volume of water in the body increased, the blood volume also goes up. Increased blood volume means that the heart has to pump harder to push the blood into vessels, which leads to increased blood pressure. When the body is dehydrated, the volume of blood and blood pressure decrease, too. Kidneys also produce the enzyme renin, which prevents the blood pressure from becoming too low.
Are your Kidneys Healthy?
Kidneys are called “Silent organs” because they keep working without showing any negative signs in blood tests until they lose almost 90% of the function.
There are two main types of kidney problems. Tight, contracted kidneys: This condition restricts free flow of blood; caused used by excess sodium, animal foods, salty foods (cheese, canned tuna etc), baked food and can be exacerbated by a stressful busy lifestyle. Symptoms include insomnia, grinding teeth, night urination, coldness, sleep walking, excess sex drive at night. Swollen, loose kidneys: Caused by excess liquid, fruits, juice, alcohol, stimulants (caffeine etc.), inactive lifestyle. Symptoms include chronic back pain, snoring, coldness, insomnia, fear (emotion).
The symptoms that indicate that your kidneys may be exhausted or in trouble include the following
- Excessive urination (3 to 5 times per day is normal), frequent urination after going to bed (leads to excess elimination of minerals from the body.
- Cold hands and feet
- Chronic low back pain (that’s where kidneys are located)
- Swollen feet, puffiness in the body or edema (symptoms of water retention)
- Frequent infections (athlete foot, candida, yeast infection, colds/ flu,ear infection, etc) (these are all signs of acidic bodily conditions)
- Skin problems (Dry skin, itchy skin etc.; also signs of acidic conditions)
- Ear, hearing problems (in Traditional Chinese Medicine [TCM] kidneys are related to ear and its function)
- Fatigue, low energy, lack of vitality, and overall weakness (indicating your jing is weak).
- Negative emotional state (especially fear, the emotion related to kidneys)
Causes of Kidney Problems
There are several factors that weaken kidneys. For example, kidneys are especially susceptible to cold. But the main cause of kidney dysfunction is food that produce excess waste, which turns into uric acid, ammonia, and other toxic acids. As these all have to be filtered by the kidneys it can put too much stress on the organs. Some of the reasons the kidneys become depleted:
- Excessive proteins: Even Western medicine practitioners agree that people with kidney problems have to watch protein intake. Animal foods are most protein dense food, and excess consumption can produce too much waste (acids) for the kidneys to deal with. Especially dairy, which clogs nephrons in kidneys, and put stress on the organs. Although we need to include protein in our diets everyday, our modern diet includes excessive amount of protein, especially from animal sources, which is overwhelming to the entire body system. For the same reason, high protein diet can be very harmful to the kidneys, which leads to various health problems in the long run.
- Simple sugars: Simple sugars (including honey, syrups and other sweeteners), refined flour products (white bread, pastries, etc.) also overtax kidneys. Those foods are all acid forming and deplete minerals. In order to maintain slightly alkaline balance in the body fluid (pH 7.4), kidneys have to work even harder to maintain the mineral balance in the body.
- Excess liquids (especially caffeine and alcohol): These stimulants all have to be filtered through the kidneys, that’s aside from 50 gallon of body liquid that the organs are processing daily! Clearly too much liquid is exhausting to the organ.
Especially cold, or carbonated (acid forming) drinks weaken kidneys, but even pure water in excess can be overwhelming. Stimulants overtax kidneys, especially adrenal gland. Read more here about some reasons to quit caffeine!
- Excessive sodium: Especially from refined (table) salt, creates imbalances of electrolytes in the body.
How to Nourish your Kidneys and Avoid Kidney Failure Symptoms
Foods to avoid or minimize
- Animal foods (excessive protein)
- Refined sugar and other sweeteners
- Cold food and drinks
- Stimulants (coffee, tea, spices, alcohol, drug, chemicals)
- Table salt and other processed foods (concentrated/isolated sodium)
Foods to eat
- Whole grains —barley, brown rice, millet, buckwheat
- Sea vegetables (mineral rich, strong alkaline)
- Root vegetables (mineral rich, strengthening effect, enhances vitality)
- Beans (especially adzuki bean, kidney bean, black soy beans — these have a healthy diuretic effect on the body). Aduki beans especially has been used as a medicine for kidney problems for centuries in Asia. Drink the liquid from cooked beans or include it as a liquid in your recipes.
- Good quality of sea salt, miso, soy sauce, umeboshi (rich in variety of minerals)
- In other words, more balanced, plant based, whole food diet is the key to the health of kidneys.
Create a healthier Lifestyle:
- Walking: It stimulates circulation of blood, lymph, and vital energy (qi, ki, prana), strengthening lower parts of body, including kidneys, helps discharge toxins through feet
- Avoid exposing low back (kidneys) to coldness. Warming the kidney area is helpful to bring heat, blood and oxygen to the organs. Apply hot towel or hot ginger compress on middle/low back. Wear haramaki to keep the kidneys warm during cold weather.
- Salt baths: It helps maintain mineral balance in the body, which nourishes the kidneys and improve overall immune function.
- Stay away from scary movies! Emotionally, kidneys are associated with fear, so horror movies are not good for healthy kidneys. Try to avoid anything that generates emotions such as fear, horror or anxiety. Excess sex also depletes the energy from kidneys and weaken them.
- Easy self care: Massage your back, touch the toe bending with deep breathing (stretches and brings oxygen to the kidneys)
Percussion (tap tap tap) on low back to stimulate kidneys. Foot massage is helpful too!
- Give gratitude to these hard working “silent organs,” meditate on your healthy kidneys and smile at them!
Kidney image from PixaBay; anatomy drawing from here.
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