Traditional Wisdom

Winter and Kidney Health

This is the season to nurture your kidneys for better health throughout the year
BY Emma Suttie TIMEJanuary 19, 2022 PRINT

Each of us is blessed with two kidneys located in the upper abdomen; they sit against the back muscles on either side of the spine and are about the size of a closed fist. Some of their responsibilities include:

  • removing waste products from the body
  • balancing fluid levels
  • releasing hormones
  • controlling the production of red blood cells

However, in Eastern medicine, the kidneys’ responsibilities go far beyond the physical. The kidneys are associated with winter, the emotion of fear, the color black, and they govern birth, growth, reproduction, and development. Considered the “root of life,” the strength of the kidneys comes from the relative strength of each parent at the moment of conception. Pretty cool.

You may be wondering how these two organs could have so much to do with so many seemingly disparate things? That’s the beauty of a holistic system. Eastern medicine differs from Western medicine in some pretty fundamental ways. Western medicine tends to be a reductionist system that likes to break the body into smaller and smaller parts in an attempt to “fix” what it sees as “broken.” If there’s a problem with the kidneys, Western medicine narrows its focus to figure out what’s up. Eastern medicine, however, is a holistic system and takes the opposite approach. Instead of looking at the body in terms of the micro, it zooms out and looks at the macro, taking the big-picture view. This view is not limited to the physical body, but it looks at the human being and the entirety of its experience. This experience includes the physical, emotional, spiritual, environment, culture, beliefs, and the planet we all share. All aspects of human beings and their environment are essential to health and healing.

Winter and the Kidneys in Eastern Medicine

Winter in Eastern medicine is the most yin part of the year. Yin represents cold, slow, dark, and inward energies. Winter is a time to slow down and conserve energy for the long, cold months ahead. Animals hibernate in winter because they’re intrinsically attuned to the planet and its natural rhythms. The kidneys are associated with winter and are the basis of our most fundamental energy. Winter is when kidney energies are at their peak, and it’s therefore the best time to nourish and strengthen them. In Eastern medicine philosophy, harmonizing the diet and behaviors to the seasons enhances the body and fortifies against diseases. The kidneys open into the ears; therefore, our ability to hear directly reflects kidney energy, and our ability to listen is intensified in the cold, silent months.

Winter Activities

Winter is a time to slow down and feed ourselves physically and spiritually. Activities should reflect the season by slowing down and turning our focus inward. Practices like meditation, writing, and yoga nurture our spirits and strengthen our kidney energies. Getting adequate rest, going to bed earlier and rising later, follow the sun’s natural rhythms. Winter is a time to eat rich, nourishing foods to build strength in preparation for spring. Adding warming foods to the diet such as herbs, meats, and healthy fats is beneficial in the winter months. These rich foods are more easily absorbed at this time of year, helping us put on a little extra weight to stay warm and fend off the frigid temperatures.

Winter Foods for Strong Kidneys

Cooking methods should be longer duration, on low heat, and with less water at this time of year. Salt is the flavor associated with the kidneys, so some unrefined salt is beneficial, but as in all things, moderation is key.

Warming soups and bone broths are excellent tonics and fortify kidney essence. The color associated with the kidneys is black, so eating black, blue, and purple foods is particularly valuable to supporting kidney energy. Dark-colored foods are high in antioxidants and protect our bodies from the damaging effects of free radicals, which accelerate aging.

Here are some examples of foods best eaten in winter for their beneficial effect on the kidneys:

  • black beans
  • kidney beans
  • bone broths (the kidneys are also associated with the bones, so bone broths are particularly good for building kidney energy)
  • lamb
  • chicken
  • walnuts
  • black rice
  • chestnuts
  • black garlic
  • black sesame seeds
  • whole grains
  • dark leafy greens
  • blackberries
  • eggplant
  • plums
  • prunes
  • purple grapes

In Eastern medicine, the kidneys are the foundation of all of the yin and yang energies in the body, which are the dualistic forces that, when balanced, equal a healthy body, calm spirit, and harmonious state of mind. As we age, our kidneys energies are in a state of decline, but we can always bolster the kidneys by eating kidney-enriching foods, taking tonic herbs, getting adequate rest, and having a rich, inner life. Because the kidneys are the root of our strength and vitality, keeping them healthy is crucial to living a long life, free of physical ailments.

Kidney Symptoms

If you have problems in any of the following areas, your kidneys might need some attention. Now that you know a little more about what the kidneys are responsible for (and it’s a lot!), use the activities and foods above to help give your kidneys some love. If that’s not enough, seek out a qualified acupuncturist or practitioner of Chinese medicine who can help get them back to their former glory.

Some of the symptoms associated with the kidneys in Eastern medicine are:

  • Bone problems, especially any relating to the knees, lower back, and teeth
  • Head hair—issues like hair loss, premature graying, or balding
  • Ear problems, including hearing loss, ringing in the ears, ear infections
  • Any urinary, sexual, or reproductive issues
  • Poor growth and development, mentally or physically
  • Premature aging
  • Excess fears or insecurities

I suspect some of you are surprised at the sheer scope of the kidneys and their responsibilities for mind and body. The Eastern approach looks at the body, mind, and spirit synergistically, each element being a vital part of the whole. Hopefully this winter you’ll take the time to slow down and ponder the incredible powerhouse sitting on either side of your spine that helps you reach the full potential of the human experience.

Emma Suttie is an acupuncture physician and founder of Chinese Medicine Living—a website dedicated to sharing how to use traditional wisdom to live a healthy lifestyle in the modern world. She has lived and practiced in 4 countries and now works through her practice Thrive Consulting. She is a lover of the natural world, martial arts, and a good cup of tea.

Emma Suttie
D.Ac, AP
Emma Suttie is an acupuncture physician and founder of Chinese Medicine Living—a website dedicated to sharing how to use traditional wisdom to live a healthy lifestyle in the modern world. She is a lover of the natural world, martial arts, and a good cup of tea.
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