It is a stated function of the Kidneys, and a statement of fact in Chinese medicine (fundamental physiological correlations that just “are”), that “The Kidneys control the bones.” If one understand that the Chinese concept of the Kidneys includes the biomedical functions of the adrenal glands (as well as of the thyroid and parathyroid glands), than this is not difficult to understand. The hormones of the adrenal cortex (in conjunction with those of the thyroid and parathyroid gland) regulate bone metabolism. Another way to say this is that the Yang function of the Kidneys is akin to the metabolic functions of the body. To fully understand the issue of bone health according to Chinese medicine, it is necessary to discuss the dietary, lifestyle, and emotional factors which influence the Kidneys.
In current times, osteoporosis is a major concern for people. The solution for most follows the equation: bones equal calcium equals dairy. Chinese medicine has something different to offer about this perspective. It is true, according to Chinese dietary science, that milk and milk products nourish the Kidneys, and thus support bone growth. However, it is also true that the vast majority of Americans have compromised digestive function which prohibits the complete digestion and absorption of these products. The resultant byproduct is Dampness – turbid, undigested matter. Dampness is the result of any food which is not fully broken down. The more concentrated and supernutritious the food, the more likely it is to produce Dampness. As Dampness further obstructs the digestive process, the long-term effect is lack of nutrient absorption, including calcium and other minerals. It is true that osteoporosis is very common in our culture right now. But it is also true that Americans consume large amounts of dairy, and that this is not solving the problem. In addition to the digestion issues related to dairy foods, regular ingestion of hormones that are present in these foods may also interfere with the body’s own hormonal and bone regulating functions.
It is also important to understand that calcium is not the only nutrient necessary for creating healthy bone structure. Most minerals and vitamins play some role in bone metabolism, and the attempt to reduce such a complex process to one nutrient is poor science. Furthermore, before anyone considers what to do to add more calcium to their diet, they should consider what they are doing to deplete it from their bones. The following are foods and factors which have been proven to reduce calcium and other minerals from the bones, thus weakening them: refined sugars, refined flours, refined salt, artificial sweeteners, excess animal protein, carbonated beverages, alcohol, caffeine, smoking, lack of exposure to the sun, and lack of weight bearing exercise. No amount of dairy or calcium makes up for these.
In terms of lifestyle, our general lack of movement is perhaps the largest issue. The physical stimulation that arises from an active life cannot be equaled through weight training or jumping up and down on a trampoline. Walking is also a significant factor. In modern times we walk in unnatural shoes, on hard, paved, even surfaces. These hold the feet in a static position and discourage a flexible bent knee posture, which increases stress on the large joints while impairing the natural movement of the body. This ultimately leads to skeletal dysfunction.
The typical modern lifestyle is depleting to the Kidneys. Constant stress, overwork and over-stimulation place strain on the Kidneys, depleting our deep reserves of energy. In the West, we use phrases such as “burning the candle at both ends” and “running on adrenaline” to describe this idea (see also The Kidneys Store the Jing). Simply put, when Kidney energy is depleted, the bones become weak. Physical overwork may also take the form of over-exercising. Although this is not even a concept in the West, many people expend energy they simply do not have to spare. The result is that Kidney energy is depleted.
Fear is the emotion of the Kidneys. The Chinese would say that “too much fear injures the Kidneys.” Fear itself weakens the Kidneys, but it is also the emotion which drives the behaviors that cause Kidney weakness. Fear causes us to either overwork or to become paralyzed, both of which affect the Kidneys. For a full discussion on this topic, see Wisdom – The Virtue of the Kidneys.
A balanced diet will provide all of the nutrients necessary to maintain bone integrity. From a Chinese perspective, this means eating grains, vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds, fruits, and small amounts of animal foods if one chooses. Although calcium is once again, not the only issue related to bone structure, it is good to know that this mineral can be obtained thorough a variety of vegetable sources. Tofu, spinach, broccoli, kale, collard greens, oatmeal, navy beans, sesame seeds, almonds, raisins, figs, and a host of other items are all good sources of calcium. In fact, many non-dairy items contain more calcium per gram than milk. Two good reference tables, along with additional information regarding bone health, are available in the article Calcium and Strong Bones: Protecting Your Bones from the website of the Physician’s Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM).
Proper rest, both mental and physical, is necessary to avoid depleting the Kidneys. If at the end of the day you have taken in more energy in the form of food, air, water, and rest than you have used, you will store some energy away. This accumulation is called post- natal, or acquired Jing. If you routinely use more than you have earned, post-natal Jing will be used up and you will have to use your pre-natal, or inherited Jing, the energy of the Kidneys. This weakens the bones. Chinese style exercises such as Tai Chi and Qi Gong build Qi and Jing, and thus have a net benefit over time. In addition, they both include specific exercises for strengthening the bones. As part of this, standing or walking barefoot on the ground when it is warm will allow the body to absorb Kidney nourishing energy through the Bubbling Well acupuncture point on the bottom of the foot. For a good introduction to this topic, I recommend Ken Cohen’s book QiGong, The Art and Science of Chinese Energy Healing. Information about this book and other aspects of QiGong are available on Mr. Cohen’s website, QiGongHealing.com.
Lastly, working on one’s fears and stresses is vital to maintaining the normal function of the Kidneys. Tai Chi, Qi Gong, meditation, yoga, and counseling are just a few of the tools available to aid this process.
Keeping one’s bones strong is not about dairy. It is about taking care of oneself with regards to diet, lifestyle, and emotion. This is always the Chinese approach to health.