The kidney yin, mysteries & panic in the face of the unknown

In previous posts I’ve discussed organs from four of the five elements in Chinese Medicine; The heart (fire), the lung (metal), the liver (wood) and the spleen (earth). In the final articles in this series I want to conclude by the discussing the water organ, the kidney.

Our kidneys in western medicine are vital in filtering out waste products in our bodies, balancing the electrolytes in our systems, producing active vitamin D, and sending hormonal signals throughout our internal ecosystems that regulate blood pressure and blood cell production.

Many of the Chinese Medicine functions of the kidney have clear overlap with the biomedical functions.

Our kidneys are deeply involved in water metabolism (along with the lung), which is the process in which fluid is absorbed into the body, transported to the places where it is needed, and excreted if we don’t need it anymore. They are also involved in the health of our bones and hair, in our urinary health, and in the basic vitality of our bodies throughout the aging process.

As in previous articles, I want to focus on first the yin, and then the yang of the kidney.

Being the water organ, many of its functions connected to moistening and cooling. The water element is paired in a yin/yang relationship with the fire element, and thus the kidney and heart have a special bond. If the embers of fire in the heart are not balanced by the glacial streams of the kidney, fire symptoms can begin to overtake the body.

A person with compromised kidney yin can begin to have burning urination, hot flashes, night sweats, and even dry cough as water metabolism disfunction begins to effect the lungs.

With regards to our emotions, kidney yin is the root of our ability to calm down in times of extreme stress.

Because kidney yin deficiency so quickly effects the heart, it is rarely seen on its own in the wild. This is why some of its symptoms so strongly overlap. When panic overtakes the heart and it begins to burn too brightly, the yin of the kidney cools it. If we are completely healthy, when we feel the the universe is a place that is too fast, too dangerous or too unknowable for us to be in relationship with, the vast and endless waters of the kidney remind us that we are part of a universe, and that the universe it a part of us.

When we step out into the ocean can we feel this deep connection, as the awe of our smallness both frightens and reassures us.

The kidney is about giving ourselves over to that which is mysterious and unknowable in our relationship with the world. Ultimately, that ability to surrender to things bigger and more ancient than us is what allows us to live our lives even with the knowledge that our deaths are inevitable.

A person with truly damaged kidney yin will often have a deep and abiding sense of panic about their eventual death that refuses to be soothed, and frequent and extreme panic attacks are a common feature of this presentation.

Treating kidney yin deficiency is similar to other kinds of yin deficiency; where there is excess fire it must be drained.

Where things are too dry, they must be moistened. Needling techniques and herbal remedies are used to achieve this effect. One excellent herbal formula for this presentation is Huanglian Ejiao Tang (pronounced hwang leeahn uh jeow tahng).

As mentioned above, this almost invariably involves treating the heart as well.

Working with this pattern tends to involve a crisis of faith or meaning in the person’s life that also comes to a resolution through the course of treatment. If you feel that this kind of support could be helpful in resolving the mental and emotional difficulties you’re struggling with – I’m available for appointments and take most insurance. 

Written by Rowan Everard


I discovered Chinese medicine shortly after moving to Portland to complete my undergraduate studies. I began my journey as a patient, but after several years of being an increasingly curious patient I found myself drawn into the formal study of this medicine. In Chinese medicine, I found tools that helped me to transform myself, and which I have seen lead to dramatic positive shifts in patients.