The Kidneys: A Traditional Chinese Medicine Perspective

by Steven K.H. Aung, MD, OMD, PhD, FAAFP, CM
Source: Health Action, Summer 2012

Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) considers the energetic organs of the body rather differently than in western medicine. Our two kidneys, for example, are considered in TCM to be one single organ system, out of the 12 energetic organ systems in the body (which include the lung, heart, stomach and spleen). The kidney organ system has its own meridian system, and is associated with the healing colour blue, the element of water, the negative emotion of fear and the positive emotion of willpower.

The kidney is also associated with the ears, the sense of hearing, and the control of the bones, teeth, nervous system, hair on the head, hair on the reproductive ­organs, neurological tissue and the brain.

It is very important to strengthen the kidney, as its main functions are to regulate reproduction, to mediate the ­genetic expression of a person's essence (the ­energy that unifies "nature" and "nurture") and to store the congenital (present at birth) and acquired vital energy of the body known as qi. Spiritually, the kidney controls important aspects of both the ­inner and outer consciousness of a person.

The zang and fu pairing

In TCM, all the organ systems are paired according to their zang (solid) or fu (hollow) characteristics. The kidney, which is a zang organ, is paired with the bladder, which is a fu organ. These two organ systems network as yin and yang with one another.
The bladder not only stores and excretes urine, but it also complements the kidney, by regulating the exchange of energy between the inside and outside, and the outside and inside of the body to the organ systems. In this way, the kidney and bladder can balance the body's inner and outer spirits and promote the mental health and stability of a person, such as willpower.

When a person becomes unwell, the functions of the kidney and the bladder become disordered and quality of life ­diminishes. The disorder usually affects the kidney in acute conditions, whereas it affects the bladder in chronic ones. Therefore, by observing which organ systems are involved, you can assess the status of the condition.

The kidney's meridian system

Each of the 12 organ systems has its own meridian system that is made up of one left and one right meridian. Along the meridians, many acupoints can be employed to various functions, such as tonification, sedation, or altering the flow of qi throughout the body.

The kidney meridian has 27 acupoints, starting at the bottom of the foot, running up the medial (middle) side of the ankle to the knee, up the medial thigh, then to the anterior (front) pubic bone, and then up to the front of the chest to terminate beneath the inner side of the clavicle (collarbone).

All these acupoints have their specific actions. For instance acupoint KI.1, on the bottom of the foot, absorbs the earth energy into the body. KI.6, located on the inside of the ankle, controls human essence and is used to treat infertility or stabilize the person's genetic factors. KI.10, on the knee, is essential for improving and building up kidney energy. KI.27, at the bottom of the clavicle, can be used to treat the lymphatic system throughout the whole body.

Are you a kidney personality?

The kidney reflects the colour blue and so blue colours energize and revitalize kidney qi. Furthermore, the kidney is associated with the element of water, according to the Five Elements Theory.

It is possible to ascertain whether individuals have a water personality by examining their hands, face or nature. According to hand diagnosis, if their fingers are shorter than their palm, thenar muscles (found at the base of the thumb) are not well developed, and the palm is ­concave with many lines inscribed upon its surface, they are said to have a water personality, or a water-kidney personality. This indicates a person who is sensitive, flexible, fond of water and a great thinker.

Signs of kidney problems

If the kidney is out of balance, we will feel pain and burning sensations in the soles of the feet. In western terms, this is known as plantar fasciitis or calcaneal spurs.

Emotionally, the kidney is positively associated with willpower when you are healthy and negatively associated with fear when you are disordered. Thus, when the kidney is weak, we feel fearful, but when the kidney is healthy, we have willpower.

In addition, the kidney plays very important roles in a person's anatomical development and intellectual consciousness. In children, fear can hinder physical and psychological development, which is manifest in physiological problems such as stunted growth patterns, diseases of the teeth, and slow physical and mental ­development.

There are several pathological outcomes to kidney disorders. When a person has kidney problems, they will often complain about pain in the kidney, bone and the urinary tract. Symptoms include changes in the frequency, urgency and dysuria (pain or difficulty) of urination, as well as feeling emotionally fearful.

When the kidney is weak, it is difficult to deposit calcium in the bone, and may cause osteopenia (reduced bone mass), and even osteoporosis, in serious cases.

Menopausal hot flashes can be also associated with kidney qi deficiency. Since the kidney is a water organ, it functions to cool the heat of the body, and when the kidney is deficient, the liver organ system, which is associated with wood, dries up. The excess heat in the body ignites the wood of the liver and thus can cause hot flashes.

Since the kidney controls the bones, any disorder involving the bones, such as broken bones or trauma to the bone, can make the kidney disordered. In TCM, it is insufficient to treat osteoporosis solely with vitamin D and calcium. It is vitally important to treat the kidney to make the bones stronger.


To diagnose kidney disorders, it is important to do examinations on the scalp, the ears, the chin and the kidney meridians.
Greying hair and hair loss are associated with a yang deficiency of the kidney. Therefore, implantation of hair is only a superficial treatment for balding, and it is not enough. It is important to strengthen the kidney energy so that the hair will grow again.

On the face, it is possible to observe the health of the kidney by observing the chin; when the chin is small, the kidney is weak, and vice versa. Dimples on the chin are associated with kidney essence deficiency, and can be seen in youngest siblings and persons of low birth weight or with congenital defects. Redness of the chin indicates increased heat in the kidney; unhealthy teeth, middle ear infection and deformities of the outer ears all indicate kidney disorder.

Other kidney symptoms include ringing of the ears (tinnitus) and hearing loss. These symptoms are all associated with kidney; for example, in babies, teething is frequently accompanied by ear problems, which is associated with kidney energy disturbance.

Therapeutic approaches

From a nutritional point of view, in order to strengthen the kidney, all ages should eat dark-coloured foods such as blueberries, blackberries and black fungus. As for herbal medicine, a specific herb called GeJe Kidney Nourishing is appropriate for kidney yin conditions such as tinnitus, urinary infection and warm limbs. For kidney yang conditions such as fatigue, urinary incontinence and cold, sweating limbs, the herb Lau Wei Di Huang balances the flow of kidney ­energy.

Acupuncture can help to readjust physiological imbalances in the internal organs and the meridian systems. Manipulative therapy on the kidney meridians and acupoints is also very helpful.

Exercise plays an important role in strengthening the kidney, since its meridian begins on the bottom of the foot. Every time you walk, climb or jump, the kidney is stimulated. Kidney stimulation is particularly important for growth, and healthy gene expression in infants and children. Touching or pressing the bottom of babies' feet strengthens their kidney energy to grow healthy and strong. For adults, walking on the beach, on uneven stones or in shallow water always stimulates the kidney and has beneficial effects.

Tai Chi Chu-an and stretching exercises like yoga and Qi Gong are useful to strengthen the kidney and energize its corresponding bladder meridians. Lie on the beach with your back on the sand, so that the bladder meridian is in contact with the earth, look up at the blue sky, listen to the waves, flex your knees and put the soles of your feet at a 90-degree angle. Holding this position will strengthen the kidney.

Finally, phonation sounds such as Woooo directly stimulate the kidney, while sounds such as wOOOO support the kidney by stimulating the bladder. The greatest benefit to the kidney can be obtained through phonation by sounding Woooo for 5 or 10 minutes, followed by sounding wOOOO for 5 or 10 minutes. The kidney in TCM is not only an organ system, it also makes an energetic and spiritual contribution to the body.

Dr. Steven K. H. Aung is a geriatric and family physician and a TCM practitioner and teacher. He seeks to blend eastern, western and natural medicine in his medical clinic in Edmonton, Alberta. At the University of Alberta, Dr. Aung is a clinical professor in the departments of medicine and family medicine and adjunct professor in the faculty of extension and the faculty of rehabilitation medicine. Dr. Aung is also a founding member and current president of the World Natural Medicine Foundation, the Canadian Medical Acupuncture Society and the International Buddhist Friends Association.

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