Demystifying Chinese Medicine: What Have the Kidneys Got to Do with Fertility?
Many people seeking help to enhance their fertility are turning to Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), but may be surprised to hear that part of the treatment, at least, is targeted at the Kidneys. After all, from a western medical point of view, the kidneys have little to do with fertility (although, for example, the importance of the adrenal glands, that sit at the top of the kidneys, in regulating a number of vital physiological processes will have knock-on effects on reproductive health.)
So what have the Kidneys to do with fertility? To understand this, begin by noticing the upper case ‘K’ in the previous sentence – this is not a typo! We are following a convention to capitalise the first letter of an organ when we are referring to that organ as understood by TCM, for indeed TCM sees these organs rather differently to western medicine. In particular the organs in TCM are thought of more in terms of their functions and less in terms of their structure. Indeed we could go so far as to say that in TCM the organs are a set of functions.
So when we talk about the Kidneys in the context of reproduction, you may need to temporarily forget what you may know about the kidneys as understood by western medicine, and think in terms of some of the functions that are denoted by the word Chinese ‘Shen’, which translates as ‘Kidneys’. When we say that we need to treat the Kidneys what we mean is that we need to regulate or enhance some of the functions of the Kidneys.
One of the main functions of the Kidneys in TCM is to store ‘Jing’ (sometimes translated as ‘Essence’) If you are familiar with the concept of Qi in TCM (and in Chinese culture generally) you can perhaps think of Jing as a condensed form of Qi which is the root and foundation of human life – for this reason the Kidneys are called ‘the Root of Life’. Jing governs growth and reproduction – someone with abundant Jing will be well developed, have a strong constitution and be very fertile; good Jing means strong sperm, strong eggs, and strong, healthy children.
Jing has two sources. The first is called pre-natal Jing, and comes from our parents, as a union of their Jing at conception; sperm and eggs being manifestations of Jing. So our Jing depends to a large extent on their Jing, and in particular their health at the time of our conception, and in this way it constitutes our link with our ancestral lineage, our inheritance. More prosaically, it is the hand of cards we are dealt at birth. Some of us inherit strong Jing, whilst others of us have more of a challenge! However, it is not just a question of the cards you are dealt, but how you play them. Abundant pre-natal Jing can be squandered by an unwise and unbalanced lifestyle, whilst someone with weaker pre-natal Jing can , through prudent husbandry of their resources, live a long, healthy, productive (and reproductive) life.
The second source of Jing is eating and breathing; this is post-natal Jing. The weaker our constitution, the more care we need to eat and breathe well. (You might think that breathing just happens automatically, but that is not entirely true – our breath can be full and natural or constricted and shallow, and of course there is also the question of what it is we are inhaling; pure air, smog or smoke!)
So whilst our Jing is partly dependent on factors out of our control, how we live still has a significant effect. Jing can be depleted in the following ways:
i) Chronic (i.e. long term) disease will eventually deplete the Kidneys, because it drains our deeper resources. But of course this can be mitigated, at least to a degree, by how well we manage such a disease.
ii) A lifestyle which involves us repeatedly ‘running on empty’ depletes Jing. When we ‘run on empty’, what we actually run on is Jing, our deepest resources of energy stored in the Kidneys. This is OK from time to time, but if it becomes an ongoing or regular thing, as is often the case with modern lifestyles, our reserves will dwindle, and signs of Kidney deficiency will start to emerge.
iii) For a woman, the Kidneys may be depleted by too many pregnancies too close together, or by a failure to nourish herself and conserve energy after pregnancy. In TCM a woman who has given birth needs to rest and replenish their Kidney energies (as does a woman during her period and a woman entering the menopause – these three times are referred to as the three opportunities, in that they are times when a woman can actually enhance her health by appropriate nourishment and rest – or else damage it by the opposite.) From this point of view a modern tendency to rush back to work straight after childbirth (see our other blog entitled “Woman and Superwoman…“) is seen as somewhat foolhardy.
iv) As for men, their Jing can be depleted by excessive sex, although what counts as excessive may vary from one individual to another, and is also, obviously, dependant on the age of the man in question. The ‘bedroom arts’ of the Taoist tradition in China include sexual techniques to enable men to have sex without losing Jing.
v) Jing also declines with age, which is why women (at least) become less fertile as they get older. Of course ageing is natural, but once again it is a process which can be managed well or not so well.
Life being what it is, it is therefore not surprising that many people suffer from some degree of Kidney deficiency. This may present itself either as a deficiency of the Kidney Yang, or of the Kidney Yin, and is often responsible for fertility problems.
Fortunately there is a lot that can be done to support and strengthen the Kidneys, and thus to boost fertility.
i) Acupuncture and moxibustion: Chinese medicine has been used for millennia to help people nourish their deepest energies, their Jing. We can avail ourselves of this accumulated practical wisdom by having regular acupuncture treatment with someone trained in TCM.
ii) Diet – as we have seen, food is a key source of post-natal Jing. To nourish the Kidneys, we need to ensure we are eating a wide base of essential nutrients.
iii) Chi Kung – the Chinese have developed forms of exercise to help us conserve Kidney energy: some Chi Kung and martial arts traditions include practices to help to preserve pre-natal and build post-natal Jing.
iv) Sleep and rest – sleeping well and sufficiently is vital if we are not to run down our deeper resources. If we have trouble with insomnia, it is important to get some help so that we sleep well for this reason link.
v) Avoid over-working – easier said than done. If we do have to work long hours, we would do well to avoid making ourselves busy in our leisure time, in a common but misguided attempt to cram in as much satisfaction as we can. Try doing nothing from time to time!
In an age of instant gratification, we may also need to realise that the deep energies of the Kidneys, if they have been run down, can only be restored gradually. Conversely, a life which values those energies and does not fritter them away and which takes care to nourish and support them is a healthy and fruitful life.
Written by Vimalaprabha