by Salvador Cefalu, M.S., L.Ac.
What Western medicine calls a state of depression, Chinese Medicine often describes as a lack of Willpower, called Zhi, which is a virtue of the Water Element and its primary organ system, the Kidneys.
In Chinese Medicine, the Kidneys are associated with the adrenal glands and the reproductive organs, and considered the fundamental source of energy for metabolic function of all other organ systems as well as the primary system for regeneration.
For these reasons, the Kidney’s energy is called the Life Gate Fire—the body’s core Yang Qi that protects your life.
Your Kidney Yang Qi also gives you the Willpower to follow your dreams and take action in your life, so if you’re lacking drive and motivation, your Kidney Qi may need a kickstart.
Your essence, known as Jing, is stored in the Kidneys and functions like oil in your lamp of life-force. Since we’re all born with a finite amount of this fuel, Daoist longevity cultivation practices work to preserve Essence through meditation, lifestyle and Qi Gong practice.
As you live life, your Essence transforms into Kidney Yang Qi to fuel your every thought and action. So if you feel your lacking physical power or mental stamina, your Kidney Yang Qi needs to be warmed up and stimulated.
In Western medical terms, this is similar to restoring your adrenal and thyroid functions. Adequate rest for recuperation is also in order to recover your energy. With states of depression, however, excessive resting due to lethargy is often the problem and not the solution. Overcoming depression needs a nice blend of rest and stimulation.
The Relationship Between the Lungs & the Kidneys
In Five Element theory, Lung Qi, or energy, is the spark that ignites the fire of the Kidney Yang Qi.
In Chinese Medicine, the Lungs are said to ‘govern Qi’, drawing this Qi energy into the body via the breath and descending it for the Kidneys to grasp. In this way, the Kidneys as the child receive energy from their mother, the Lungs.
In other words, oxygen received through inhalation (Lungs) helps provide an external energy source for the Kidney’s energy.
This is why deep, slow breathing is an important aspect of Qi Gong practices.
If Lung Qi becomes weakened from prolonged emotional states of sadness, grief, depression or from other factors such as a lack of exercise or a diet that is too damp or cold (e.g. daily smoothies), over time the Kidneys can become weakened as well.
Lack of internal core energy within the Kidneys leads to coldness within the body and the nature of cold is to slow things down, so circulation and metabolism slows down as well.
Kidney Yang Qi Energy & the Wei (Defensive) Qi
The Kidney energy center is located in the lower abdomen between the navel and pubic bone. This is why the elderly in many Asian cultures keep their bellies wrapped to keep this region of the body warm to help preserve their life energy.
Cold by nature settles downward, unlike heat which rises. Cold therefore inhibits circulation upward into the brain so symptoms of mental sluggishness tend to develop from a decline in brain function and one’s mental faculties.
Internal cold slows and depresses adrenal function, leading to fatigue and lethargy. And since the energy of the Kidneys resides in the lower aspect of the torso, lumbar stiffness and lower back pain are associated with coldness in the Kidneys as well.
Your Kidney Yang Qi supports your body’s defensive Qi, called Wei Qi, which relates to the thyroid functions. As cold impairs Yang Qi transformation into Wei Qi, a whole chain of metabolic disruption develops including lowered immunity, weight gain, and even possible food sensitivities and bowel irregularities such as diarrhea or constipation.
This may also lead to greater sensitivity to cold environments or feeling cold inside, especially in the feet and lower legs. This is also why Kidney Yang Qi weakness is associated with knee joint weakness, stiffness and pain.
The use of a warming treatment called moxibustion is an integral form of treatment in Chinese Medicine when cold has developed internally. Moxibustion is the performed by burning the dried herb of the Artemisia plant (Mugwort) over special points to stimulate warmth inside the body.
You can learn more about warming the Kidney’s Yang Qi in the section “The Yin Water Type Person” of this article.
Other Factors that Weaken Kidney Yang Qi
The Kidney system relates to your constitutional Jing, or Essence, and everyone is born with a different constitutional Kidney status. Also, the way you treat your body over time can weaken the Kidney Yang Qi.
Conditions including Down Syndrome involve severe Kidney weakness causing underdevelopment of the brain. Patients with Down Syndrome can benefit greatly from Chinese Medicine through warming the Kidney Yang Qi to arouse the energy to more efficiently move upward through the spinal cord and into the brain.
Overuse of stimulants including caffeine can cause exhaustion of the adrenal glands as it strongly disperses Yang Qi and leads to coldness within the body. This is why young people who consume a lot of caffeine are prone to cold signs and symptoms.
Women are particular susceptible to accumulating internal cold because the Lower Chamber of a woman is hollow and open to the environment so cold can enter directly into the uterus causing the Kidneys to weaken. This is why Chinese Medicine discourages swimming during the time of menstruation.
In clinic, I’ve seen young women in their 20s suffering from severe coldness because they work and go to college at the same time or college athletes who endure long days training and studying.
How Stimulating Yang Qi Can Bring You Back to Life
Some years ago I was providing care for a close relative who had surgery and radiation on his brain due to an aggressive cancerous tumor called Glioblastoma. At one point he slipped into a coma which was later found to be due to an insufficiency of sodium, likely from a very low sodium diet and weakness in maintaining electrolyte balance in his brain.
I visited him in ICU on the second day of his comatose state. Knowing there are acupuncture points on the tips of the fingers and toes which stimulate Yang Qi into the brain, I began to squeeze each finger and toe tip with my fingernails.
I squeezed relatively hard to agitate the area with pressure from my fingernails. As I began to make a second pass and was stimulating his right hand, he suddenly awoke out of the coma and was cussing a blue streak. He was agitated that I was hurting his fingers. Not too concerned about his discomfort, I was more astonished how he suddenly became conscious with this simple technique.
After coming out of the coma, we noticed his right arm was paralyzed. I went back to my clinic and made up a strong essential oil formula using very spicy and warming oils to stimulate the brain and therefore his Yang Qi. It was a formula created to ‘open the portals,’ which means to activate the brain’s sensory organs.
Upon returning to the hospital that morning I applied the oil blend to each of his fingers and toes. By that afternoon he was fully using his right arm to feed himself. I was once again amazed at the power of Chinese Medicine and will never forget how truly unbelievable this experience was to behold.
I share this story to illustrate that if stimulating Yang Qi can take a person out of coma so quickly, it can help you recover from your depression, too.
Cold is the internal pathogenic factor that can suppress the light of your Spirit and the warmth of your heart. It is therefore essential to support and stimulate your body’s Yang Qi by warming the internal energy in order to overcome depression.
If you’ve been depressed for a prolonged period, as the Kidney gets colder and colder, you can become frozen with helplessness and hopelessness. In these cases, it is essential to keep in mind that each individual is different and the longer a problem has been around, the longer it may take to return yourself back to a more normal state. So be patient and get professional support to begin this recovery of your Kidney Yang Qi.
Considering there is nothing more valuable than your health, stay confident that with perseverance you can regain that feeling of warmth in your life again and achieve the state of well-being that your heart longs for and desires.