The Kidneys-Body and Diagnosis 
These Delicate Organs Are Vital to Our Overall Drive

It’s wintertime again, and like other macrobiotic counselors I expect many people will be coming to see me with kidney and urinary problems as they have for the past five years. Recently, I read that some 67 percent of all heart attacks in the U.S. occur during the summer months and that some 47 percent of all gallbladder attacks take place during April and May. These statistics may sound a bit strange to anyone unfamiliar with the traditional diagnostic techniques of Oriental medicine; however, its practitioners commonly use the season or time of day in which a particular symptom or illness recurs to help them determine which of the internal organs is troubled.

Unlike modern medicine, traditional healing considered human beings inseparable from their external environment. It recognized that whatever happens in the natural world, such as the change of seasons or the rising and setting of the sun and moon, also occurs in microcosm within the human body. Just as the sap rises and falls in a tree and the tides flow in and out, so too electromagnetic energy (ki) rhythmically increases and decreases along the body’s acupuncture meridians, nourishing and draining each organ. At any particular time of the day or year, certain internal organs become more active (such as the heart in summer and the gallbladder in the spring) and more often than not any weakness or problem in that organ function will express itself at that time.

The kidneys, for instance, were known to be most active during the nighttime as well as during the winter months. While cool weather stimulates these organs, extreme cold is detrimental. Thus in winter or at night it is important to keep them warm and to avoid the intake of iced beverages.

The primary functions of the kidneys are two-fold: 1) to govern resistance against mental stress through control of hormone secretions, particularly from the adrenal glands, which are attached anatomically to the upper part of the kidneys, and 2) to purify the blood and discharge toxic waste in the form of urine.

In general, problems with the kidneys can be divided into two groups: they are either too contracted and tight (yang), causing restriction in the flow of blood and the discharge of waste, or too swollen and loose (yin). Either of these two general conditions can also be complicated by stagnation from excessive fatty acids, mucus, and other toxic wastes.

We can now combine our understanding of the daily and seasonal cycles of energy as they relate to the kidneys to see how these two major kidney conditions might express themselves as symptoms in our daily life.

For instance, tossing, turning, or walking during sleep, grinding the teeth during sleep, excessive sex drive at night, insomnia, nightmares, bed wetting, getting up at night to urinate, feeling cold in the extremities, sleeping very little, retiring and arising unusually early in the evening and morning all can be signs of an overly contracted kidney condition. This is often caused by too much salt or salty animal foods, too much dry baked food, an overly busy and pressurized daily schedule, or sexual abstinence. Sitting too much can also cause these symptoms, particularly sitting in a car, truck, or on a motorcycle (taxicab and truck drivers almost always have this condition).

On the other hand, snoring, groaning, moaning, or crying during sleep, low sex drive, low back pain, fear of the dark, a feeling of cold with shivering, insomnia, bed wetting, getting up at night to urinate, requiring lots of sleep, and retiring late and rising late all can be signs of an overly expanded condition of the kidneys. This condition is most often caused by excessive intake of fluid, fruits, fruit juices, and stimulants as well as by an inactive lifestyle.

As you may have noticed, the same symptoms may come from either an overly expanded or contracted kidney condition at which time you will need to use some other form of diagnosis to confirm which condition is present.

Either condition will often be accompanied by a darkness or even blackness of the skin, in particular around the eyes, indicating stagnation in the kidney function and a high level of toxicity in the blood due to inadequate detoxification by the kidneys. Observing the area underneath the eyes is the most commonly used visual diagnostic technique in determining the kidney condition. In addition to darkness, the area under the eyes may be tight and drawn indicating an overly contracted kidney condition, or it may be swollen and puffy indicating an expanded condition. In addition, you may see whiteness under the eyes or small, fatty nodules in this area indicating the accumulation of fatty deposits and progressive development toward kidney stones. The right eye corresponds to the right kidney, the left, the left kidney.

The condition of the hair and scalp also shows the condition of the kidneys (as well as the sex organs). For instance, hair loss shows a weakening of the kidneys. Loss in the front indicates more swollen kidneys, while loss in the back shows more contracted kidneys. Dandruff shows overworked kidneys because of excessive saturated fats and/or animal protein in the diet.

Also, we can check the ears to see both the constitution as a whole as well as the present condition of the kidneys. As for constitutional traits, the larger the ears, the thicker, the lower set on the head, and the flatter against the head, the stronger the overall constitution of the individual and in particular the stronger the kidneys (the size of the ear approximately equals the size of the kidneys). It may be interesting for you to look at the ears in paintings and statues of traditional peoples and notice the tremendous size of their ears. Also, look at the ears of your grandparents, your parents, your ears, and your children’s ears to see whether the biological strength of your family is becoming generally stronger or weaker.

As for conditional signs which appear in the ears, first look to see if the ears are red, a common sign indicating excessive contraction of the kidneys, usually caused by salt or animal foods. If the kidneys are overworked due to excessive oil or fat intake the ears will feel oily. You may also notice moles or warts on the ears indicative of animal protein mucus deposits in the kidneys or pimples or bumps showing accumulations of fat and perhaps stones in the kidneys. You will notice the ears are shaped like the kidneys, and wherever these blemishes appear on the ears will show where on the kidneys these accumulations are located (right ear shows right kidney and left ear shows left kidney). Many cases of deafness are associated with fatty congestion in the kidneys, and discharges of wax often suggest fatty accumulation in the ureter, the tube which leads to the bladder. Ringing in the ears indicates a discharge through the kidneys of some strongly expansive type of food or drink. Obvious body signs indicating too much fluid intake and overworked kidneys and heart are wet hands and feet, athlete’s foot, excessive tearing and saliva as well as a guttural or watery quality to the voice.

You may want to confirm your diagnosis up to this point by using the traditional techniques of pulse reading and palpation of the kidney acupuncture meridian. This is an energetic pathway connecting the kidneys to external and peripheral parts of the body and accounting for the ability of the traditional healer to diagnose and treat the internal organs at seemingly unrelated parts of the body. The kidney pulse is a deep pulse; it is located on the man’s left wrist and the woman’s right. An overly tight kidney condition will result in a strong and/or rapid pulse as well as hardness along the acupuncture meridian, while an overly expanded kidney condition will be felt as a weak or irregular pulse, lack of tone along the meridian, or superficial tension in the meridian. Fatty congestion or stones in the kidneys will often show up as pain and hardness or callouses on the first point of the kidney meridian on the bottom of the foot.

Kidney conditions will also commonly show themselves in our postures and types of movement. For instance, overly tight kidneys will often result in aggressive body language such as leaning forward while walking, sitting, or standing, while an overly expanded kidney condition can result in passive body language e such as leaning backward or slouching when walking, sitting, or standing.

These postural and body signs can be used to understand the role that the kidneys play in our general way of moving, acting, thinking, and reacting to our surroundings.

Anatomically, the kidneys are located on our backs and are responsible for much of what we might call our drive or ‘will’ in life, including our degree of aggression, sex drive, courage, and follow-through. They are like two hands on our backs which push us to do what we do. If the kidneys are strong, vital, and flexible, then we experience courage, will-power, a healthy sex drive, endurance, and right timing in our lives. If they become too tight, then we will become overly aggressive, even violent, stubborn, always pressing ahead of time, and insensitive to the space and rhythm of others, often having a strong attachment to things of the past. If, on the other hand, the kidneys become tired and swollen, then we have the tendency to become overly passive, lazy, and increasingly fearful; we lose our concern for time, often procrastinating into the future or arriving late for appointments, lack courage and ambition, and lose our appetite for sex and life in general.

The kidneys symbolize our overall inherent constitutional strength. They were traditionally considered to hold all the strengths passed on to us from our ancestors, the treasurehouse of our deepest inherited vitality, capable of withstanding years of repeated abuse. However, once this deep well of strength has been weakened, particularly if drugs or medications have been taken over any length of time, the kidneys will usually require more time than any of the other internal organs to repair and revitalize themselves. In our present way of life the direct abuses on the kidneys are many. The most harmful of these include animal protein, saturated fats, cold foods and beverages, refined sugar, stimulants, and drugs.

In addition to reducing these harmful dietary factors, the macrobiotic dietary approach recommends:

  1. The regular consumption of whole cereal grains, especially brown rice and barley which are very effective in assisting the kidneys to purify the blood.
  2. The regular use of small volumes of sea vegetables which strengthen the kidney and bladder functions and help to soften stones in the kidneys; sea vegetables also bond with heavy toxic and radioactive molecules-often accumulated in the kidneys-and assist in their discharge.
  3. The regular consumption of beans as a vegetable quality protein source, including aduki and kidney beans, which especially strengthen the kidneys.
  4. The moderate use of sea salt, soy sauce, and miso to season foods while they are cooking and the avoidance of commercial salt, table salt, and especially salty snacks, such as chips and pretzels.
  5. Flat shoes, straight-backed furniture, and a firm sleeping surface.
  6. Walk as much as possible.
  7. Keep your kidneys protected from the extreme cold of winter.

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